'The Use of 'Cultural Appropriation' Saddens Me'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As a coda to our series on black expats reflecting on their time abroad, this reader builds to an essential point:

Just for the sake of perspective, I wanted to weigh on my experience as someone of Asian appearance traveling to Africa. I visited friends working at a school for AIDS orphans and locals stopped and stared at me too, sometimes laughing while pointing and calling out “China! China!”

My brother travelled off the beaten path in Switzerland and kids would gather in groups around him and touch his skin too. They were fascinated.

There is much racism in this world, but also much genuine interest and curiosity. The use of “cultural appropriation” saddens me, as I see the world as so much richer as the result of cross-cultural pollination.

Speaking of such pollination, in the video above, a young Barack Obama at a book reading talks about the “hybrid culture” that sets the United States apart in so many ways, adding: “The truth of the matter is, American culture at this point—what is truly American—is Black culture to a large degree.” (Cue the pathos from Trump supporters:

But the best moment of the Obama video, and the one most relevant to this expat series, is when he recalls traveling to his family’s Kenyan village for the first time with his wife. “She’s a very beautiful, regal-looking, African-looking, brown-skinned sister,” he says of Michelle. “So we get up there [to my grandmother’s village] and my little cousins, they all start pointing at her and saying, “Look, the wazungu—which means, ‘the white lady’! Now, for a girl from the South Side of Chicago … ” Heh. His broader point: “What she realized was that she was an American—very profoundly she realizes.”

Back to our readers: Brenda, also of East Asian appearance, shares an anecdote similar to the previous reader’s:

Some years ago my husband and I went to Crete, to see the Minoan ruins. Knossos is near the coast, and well frequented. But then we decided to drive into the interior of the island and see the Cave of Psychro, where Zeus was allegedly born. (There are actually two sites on Crete where he was born—we went to the closer one.) It is all the way up in the mountains. This was before the days of cell phone and internet, so it was pretty remote. I am of Chinese descent, and when the Cretans gathered to stare at me I realized that they probably do not see very many Asians in central Crete.

Kyle broadens the discussion a bit more:

I am a white man who has worked around Africa for the past ten years and lived in Haiti as a child. I think that most expats, especially ones in areas that are not cosmopolitan in nature, have a similar experience, regardless of race.

Much of what is described in the letters you’ve posted so far are people going through their cultural adjustment phase for the individual. Where it can be annoying that people do not understand us right away, one of the purposes of people being in other cultures is to help educate who we are.

When I travel as a gay man, I have to explain many things to my friends about gay culture in the United States. American media is pervasive, and many people feel that what is shown on Queer as Folk is how all gay people behave. It is frustrating and daunting to individually go up against stereotypes that have been reinforced through the media. But as an American expat, even if we do not like it, we need to understand that we may be the only direct link to people to understand the complexity of America.

Indeed, one benefit of being in the USA is that there are people from all over the world and we can be exposed to many races, religions, and cultural backgrounds if we so choose. Most places in the world are much more homogeneous, as in Kaylee’s example of being in rural South Korea. I have been in many places where children are scared of me because they think that I am a ghost, because they have never seen a white person before. Like Kaylee, I have been in circumstances where people touch your skin or pull your hair, or random people want to take pictures with me, because they have never experienced anything like what they are sensing in the present.

One more story, from Jim:

This is almost the mirror image of your other correspondents’ experience, but some readers might find it interesting. Nearly 30 years ago, I was a white Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. I had a posting that might be considered the stereotypical PC post, but is in fact very rare, even for that era. I lived in a tiny village that was very difficult to get to (especially in the rainy season), with no electricity or running water, and my 100cc dirt bike was the only “resident” motor vehicle. I was fairly isolated from any town or city, so I found out quickly that I was often the only white person that people had ever seen up close, and for the children I was usually the only one they had seen at any distance. And that was pretty complete, because there were no TVs and very, very few color magazines or illustrated books.

Now, in many many ways my experience is very different from the black Americans in an Asian country, but in one respect I can really relate: the idea that the minute you walk out your door you are 100 percent on display, 100 percent of the time.

One story from early on sticks in my head. I needed to journey out from the village and it was before I got my motor bike. Off I walked over the hills to the next village, and an hour or so later, I sat down on the stoop of an old building and pulled out the book I was reading. School was in session and the adults were all at their farms, so I was pretty much on my own. I became so engrossed in that book that I didn’t realize an hour or more had passed and school had let out until I looked up and there, starting about 10 yards away, was just about every elementary and middle school kid in the whole village, probably a couple of hundred from 6 - 16 years old.  They all were staring at me in somber silence.  And the littlest ones were quite nervous, since no doubt their older siblings had told them wild stories about we “obruni cocos” (red strangers).

Before I gathered my thoughts and called a couple of kids over and started trying out my few words on them, one overwhelming thought rang as clear and loud in my head as a bell: “I never want to be famous.” I realized at the deepest level that I really never want my face to be so well know that I couldn’t wait for a bus or go out for a coffee without everyone staring. To this day I don’t envy famous people in the least, and when one of them is in the news for something embarrassing my immediate reaction is one of sympathy.

When I read the posts from the black expats I of course understand that their experience is not my experience. But when they talk about that always-on awareness that accompanies them everywhere, my heart immediately goes out and I want to invite them for a cup of coffee somewhere that we can talk and laugh and no-one, absolutely no-one, will even notice us.