I was eating at a Chinese restaurant with my friends one day when I noticed something strange. As we were sitting down, the waitress came over, gave us the menu, and started handing us our eating utensils. While me and my other Asian American friends had been given sets of chopsticks, my non-Asian friends were given forks. This is a situation that has become all too familiar with me (and possibly even you). I like to call it the chopsticks dilemma.
What bothers me the most about the chopsticks dilemma isn’t that I believe forks are infinitely more convenient, but that its an expected “Asian” thing. Why are Asian Americans expected to know how to use chopsticks? Why are my non-Asian friends not expected to use chopsticks? I thoroughly believe that in America, we have an over representation of Orientalism and an under representation of Asian; and chopsticks are a perfect example of this.
As an Asian American who has grown up in America all her life, I’m constantly battling between being “too Asian” and “not Asian enough”. I’ve been told that I’m “so Asian” for eating with chopsticks during school lunches. But at the same time, I’m “not Asian enough” when I decide to eat with a fork at a Chinese restaurant. I’ve also had non-Asian people approach me during lunch time, boasting about how they are eating their food with chopsticks. I hate to break it to those people, but learning how to use chopsticks does not mean you can now appreciate your panda express orange chicken for its full authentic Chinese flavour. But if chopsticks are an appropriation, how can one fully show their appreciation for Asian culture?
Appreciation is a lot harder to find because it’s just plain easier to get offended by something. A good example of this issue goes back to our class discussion over Avril Lavgine’s Hello Kitty music video. Was she being offensive? Or was she truly trying to express her love for her Japanese fans? So in my own honest opinion, the best example of cultural appreciation I can think of would be the annual Thai New Years Festival held every spring.
Although I say Thai New Years, it’s also Cambodian and Vietnamese New Years. When I was younger, I would visit the Thai temple every year with my family. It was the only time I could get special South East Asian desserts (like sweet rice cooked in bamboo). While in the past, the festival only had primarily South East Asian attendees, today I see plenty of non-South East Asians. I enjoy seeing people new to the festival, coming to experience it because that is the type of environment I want them to be in. The inner South East Asian in me screams that we’re more than Pho and Tara Thais. Because in this festival, South East Asians get to establish how they want to be defined.
Appreciation isn’t just how much effort goes into understanding another culture. It’s understanding how one culture wants to be viewed and being able to enjoy/accept that definition. Appropriation is when someone refuses to accept that personal definition and impose their own stereotypes and expectations from a culture. So to go back to the Hello Kitty debate, I would say that as much as Avril Lavigne is trying to appreciate Japanese culture, she is appropriating it. Harajuku, Hello Kitty, Geishas, and Samurais do not make up modern day Japan. That is the definition Western influences have established. However, memorizing and performing her songs in Japanese is for form of appreciation because she’s trying to respectfully communicate with her audience.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to Appropriation vs. Appreciation. Just like Avril, you can appropriate even though you had the full intentions of appreciating. However, it’s also the responsibility of the Asian American community to work on respectfully correcting appropriation. Can we call Avril’s Hello Kitty music video offensive? Yes, you can call almost anything offensive. Should we consider how she appreciates her Japanese fans outside of this music video? Yes, because that tells us more about how she views Japanese culture. Should we give her a second chance? Of course! Everyone makes mistakes, especially celebrities. However, if she does it again, then she’s just pulling a Katy Perry and should not expect forgiveness.
So going back to my chopsticks dilemma (because I think it makes a great personal life analogy). I don’t think every non-Asian person eating with chopsticks is appropriating Asian culture. I just want everyone to understand that there’s more to Asian culture than a pair of sticks. For example, Chinese chopsticks have flat ends. Japanese chopsticks have pointed ends. And Korean chopsticks are usually silver and flat (and I am unable to function like a proper human being when given them). And unless you can understand those differences and can see them as beyond the definition of “so Asian” then you’re not fully appreciating the chopstick. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the convenience of forks.