05 June 2015

Taking on another culture could result in the obliteration of our own

WHEN I was in university in Britain, I was always very irritated with one particular fellow student. She was English, pale as a lily, with reddish hair but she had a habit of always dressing in a sari complete with a pottu on her forehead.

What particularly annoyed me was whenever we had a student disco, she would be on the dance floor doing her version of Indian classical dance. Imagine doing the Bharata Natyam to Carl Douglas’ Kungfu Fighting!

It took me a while to understand why I was so incensed by her. To me, her wearing a sari and dancing in a disco the way she did was insulting to an ancient culture. I had grown up watching Indian classical dance and I knew what a refined and sophisticated art form it is. Therefore, I found this bastardisation of such an art form, which dancers take years to perfect, a real insult not just to India but to all of Asia.

I now know that what incensed me is something called “cultural appropriation”. This means the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture. This would include wearing certain ethnic clothes in totally inappropriate settings or using cultural items for the wrong occasion.

Of course, in our globalised world where we know a lot more about different cultures and very often appreciate them for their beauty, we incorporate all sorts of things from all over the globe into our everyday lives. Some people now live in homes described as “Balinese-style” for example, although few realise that the modern version of the Balinese home is already a form of cultural appropriation by Westerners who moved to the island.

We might wear Indian jewellery with western gowns or quilted jackets with frog buttons in places other than China.

In Asia, we are used to borrowing from each other in so many ways – in our clothes, our language, our food, even some of our customs.

Let us not forget that we also appropriate much of Western culture into our daily lives. We wear Western dress such as jeans, we dance to hip-hop music, eat burgers and pizzas and even celebrate some holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

Admittedly, most cultural appropriation is very shallow; we rarely know the origins or history of anything we take on. Mostly we simply join in the fun and there’s little harm in them.

Westerners too are often ignorant of the origins of our cultural elements but then they often profit more from them than we do, which should be a source of concern.

But what if some of the cultural appropriations we do are actually harmful to us? What if we appropriate another culture so completely that we obliterate our own?

By the strict definition of cultural appropriation, a dominant culture appropriates elements of a weaker one. But in Malaysia we find a weak culture appropriating elements of stronger ones. Mostly we have been taking on the easiest elements of Western culture such as the dress, music and food. But we have not taken on other elements such as being on time, general cleanliness or driving safely.

Some of us on the other hand, in not wanting to take on Western cultural elements, have instead taken on that of the Middle East. Mostly this has taken the form of dress but also sometimes in language and even music.

For instance, clothing meant for dry desert climates is now used in our hot and humid one. Arab words have replaced accurately descriptive Malay ones.

As cultural appropriations rely on stereotypes of the foreign cultures being taken on, the understanding of these is often shallow. Some see everything about Western culture as dangerous and bad, while at the same time seeing all that is Middle Eastern as good.

This is partly because of the perceived religious flavour of Middle Eastern influences. Some even think that the language spoken in paradise is Arabic.

Whichever way one sees it, our own culture is undoubtedly being eroded. How many people know much about Malay history, language or the arts? So many of our authentic performing arts are no longer allowed to be performed.

The craftspeople that carve, weave and sculpt are getting harder to find. All the elements that make up our culture, including our dress, architecture, customs, are disappearing through neglect.

Yet are our champions of racial superiority fighting for these? While they constantly blame others for the inferiority they feel, what are they doing to keep the true elements of their once-proud culture alive and well?