Who’s appropriating now?

I’ve been wrangling with my discomfort at a recent Korean American / Korean Adopteee Diaspora / Korean Queer gathering in honor of a Korean holiday (Thanksgiving) NOT in Korea, and I realized that I never want to attend another gathering of people focused on identity exploration and culture embracing from abroad ever again.  I wrangled with that holiday while I was IN Korea as well.

Don’t get me wrong – the event was nice – but after over 4 years of living in my birth country, and then returning to my adopting country, it seems to me as if – there or here – the diasporic, displaced, or dispossessed searching to connect and identify with their severed roots can at best only culturally appropriate what they were severed from.  Even long time repatriates in our birth country fail miserably at true cultural literacy…and those abroad pantomime approximations of what they perceive to be the best of the culture, turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of that culture.  What tied us all together were our ethnic features and displacement.  That just wasn’t reason enough for me to try and pseudo replicate cultural traditions that few there had any authentic understanding of.

From Wikipedia (text in bold by me, parenthetical comments by me):

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. (I would argue adoptees are a different cultural group) It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.[1][2]It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

Appropriation practice involves the ‘appropriation’ of ideas, symbols, artifacts, image, sound, objects, forms or styles from other cultures, from art history, from popular culture or other aspects of man made visual or non visual culture.[3] Anthropologists have studied the process of cultural appropriation, or cultural borrowing (which includes art and urbanism), as part of cultural change and contact between different cultures.[4]

Even within the cultural context of living in one’s birth country, the layers are too deep and the chasm is too wide to close.  So out of sheer necessity, attempts at reclaiming culture can merely scratch the surface.

I feel quite alone in my view that most cultural identity exploration by adoptees is analogous to borrowing from their now foreign birth culture, and is just as appropriated as the cultural appropriation of any western people (our parents provided our earliest examples) who are interested in that culture.  AND, that we are part of that appropriation and perpetuating a twisted form of second generation colonization and self orientalization in pursuit of a culture we can not replicate or integrate into, which is often characterized through a Western lens, no matter how hard we try to consider an Eastern lens.

On the flip side, probably more reflective of what was being attempted that day, was cultural appropriation as a critique of the culture in which we find ourselves and solidarity over being displaced.  Also on the flip side, the diaspora tends to imbue MORE meaning (or more nobility) into cultural acts than are likely actually practiced in the culture of origin. The act of displaying preference for birth culture over one’s adopted culture can also be a statement.  But how valid is it without real comprehension of the birth culture?  Is the glory substantiated?

Just because we are ethnically tied to a culture and our quest for cultural knowledge might be justified, does our ethnicity really give us any passes towards cultural literacy when a culture is ancient, complicated, and problematic?  Does it make our cultural connections (which I’m calling appropriations) any more genuine than any other foreigner?  Can we really reclaim a culture we were severed from and continue to be marginalized in?   Why do my fellow adoptees want to?

Some will say we are blessed to have two cultures from which to draw on.  Others even envy us.  To me, we were screwed and there’s nothing authentic we can do to ever get back what we lost.  We can appropriate, approximate, attempt to get close to, attempt to understand, but never have full membership in our adopted culture or full literacy in our original culture.  I’m a little angry over this.  But I’m not bitter.  I just wish my fellow adoptees would stop killing themselves to be more Korean, and literally killing themselves when they realize all their efforts at inclusion are for naught, and I wish that our community was based on a healthy recognition that, upon becoming adoptees, Korean ways and culture, so inaccessible to us, don’t really serve us.

23 thoughts on “Who’s appropriating now?

  1. I want to disagree with you, but I hesitate. Here’s why I want to disagree:

    Adoptees get told what to do/not to do far too much already. If someone living in the UK or US or Australia gains a great deal of comfort from putting on a hanbok (and tying the ribbon wrong) and making bulgogi (badly), then isn’t “being Korean” what it means to that person? How can anyone from the outside say it’s not good enough or appropriation?

    But at the same time, here’s where I agree:

    Appropriation is about a culture, mindset, and power differential rather than physical bodies. It would be false to say adoptees can’t appropriate simply due to being adoptees. That’s the whole insidious effect of adoption–taking bodies of color and molding them into the imperial white mindset. So can adoptees appropriate as agents of the white adoptive culture? I think you’re right.

    But I also think we have it hard enough already.

  2. I perceive you to be speaking of “appropriation” relative to the concept of “property”. Insofar as I am concerned, attempting to resolve one’s identity, one’s quest to derive meaning from life, has nothing to do with any property that can be subjected to appropriation.

    • Hi Brent, I missed the deeper meaning in this because at first all I heard was a semantics exercise. But upon re-read, I believe that your position is pure wisdom and the path I choose to follow.

  3. Tchaiki,

    Thanks for the well-worded and thoughtful reply – I concur with everything you said.

    My discomfort comes from being of the pre adoptive-parent-buying-hanbok generation, so any attempts at acculturation always were and are extremely difficult for me to deal with – and that’s another reason I went to live in Korea for four years – because I wasn’t sure how the assimilation focus of the first wave of adoptees had biased me and I wanted to learn about Korean culture directly with as little adoptive/adoptee culture bias as possible. So I view these attempts at acculturation from a different perspective, for sure. It is a stark perspective, a spoil-sport perspective, but could it be revealing something to me, as an outsider older adoptee, that those involved don’t see?

    And what I see are tokens. Tokens of cultural appropriation.

    One might ask what is the harm of that, especially if they are adoptee-powered/empowering tokens. I guess I would answer that when we embrace the mechanisms utilized to appease our discontent with involuntary relocation, then we are contributing to our own oppression.

    My point is not to take adoptees to task or make it harder for them, but to point out that we should be more mindful of when our cultural desires are actually replicating/duplicating the appropriation of our Western culture and adopting parents. Even if it is initially enjoyable, It can become an exercise in confusion, frustration and at worst an existential crisis. And there is harm in that, because when adoptees are given the idea that they are still the culture they came from or can get it back or can become culturally literate if only they try hard enough, then that is messing with hope. And to give hope where little or none can really, truly exist is harmful when it ultimately never transpires.

    These cultural events are imbued with meaning and thought of as healing, but I think they are a distraction. I think stripping away the appropriation would expose what we really need to work on to heal and be progressive, individually and as a community.

    • I do need to (respectfully) disagree with one of your premises for your argument: that an adoptee (or anyone, really) can experience “Korean culture” by living in Korea. Instead, an adoptee can experience (depending on lifestyle choices) expatriate culture. Unless that person is fluent in Korean as well as all of the nuances of Korean culture, even living in the country will mean moving within circles that can accommodate a foreigner (which adoptees are). It’s true that Korean culture will set out “cultural experiences” specifically for adoptees, but these vary little (in essence, if perhaps not in every detail) from the “Korean cultural events” set out in adoptive countries for adoptees. It’s also not possible to step outside of adoptee/adoptive bias because that’s part of the ingrained molding according to the white adoptive culture.

      I still agree with much you say, but I wanted to point out this difference. The sad part about adoption is that what is lost can never be regained.

      • I don’t believe I suggested that my living in Korea gave me Korean culture, because I in no way think, or premised my post on that. On the contrary, living there revealed so many ways just how deep culture is and that the bulk of it will forever remain inaccessible.

        My point is exactly that what was lost can never be regained…

  4. I tweeted that Korean adoptees tend to do one or the other, kill themselves to be as Korean as possible or non-Korean as possible. Their should be a healthy balance and I’m starting to see it gradually here in MN (the capitol for KADs if you will). I think we need to start embracing our unique cultural makeup. I find not be being tied down by racial restrictions or cultural bonds normal Koreans have, has its advantages. Many of us have learned how to be white, black, Asian, & Latino. We can blend into any environment with ease while most are bound by racial & cultural chains that do not allow them to cross these barriers. My adoption journey is starting to feel like X-men, and we are all mutants, but should start embracing our uniqueness instead of attempting to hide it. However, I feel I’m being more and more drawn the Magneto of our adoptee world everyday.

  5. Girl4708:

    I didn’t intend it, but I think what I posted from Schiller at least partly addresses the general themes you broach here.

    Also, while I know you do not ignore this, assimilative gestures by disenfranchised people do not have the same meaning as when performed by members of the dominant culture. That might make the “hope” behind such gestures even more dangerous or misleading, but it does not recapitulate dominant norms, even if used to set one as superior to some other group (or the next wave of immigrants, adoptees, newcomers), where it is (in fact) perilously close to the dominant gesture.

    Perhaps the more “radical” thing involves doing all of these acculturating gestures, only to end by saying resolutely, “Therefore, I am an American”–since rather than attempting to reprise “Korean” (or any other culture–the quotation marks are necessary there), the point becomes forcing a visibilization (a making-visible) of a presence of someone “American” that does not look like (1) the dominant norm, or (2) those acculturated “members” of one’s ethnicity as well.

    *PS – only in protest do I use the word “American”. People in this country are USers, but the context of the sentence where I used American would have been upstaged ha I stuck with “USers”.

    • Hmm…yes…I read your post with interest but I get insecure because my analytical skills are so dull and my expression so inadequate!

      To me, the fictions we write can be a coping mechanism (which is an escape from the real problem) or a barrier to truth (which can exacerbate the root problem). While I choose to recognize the harsh truth, I also didn’t suggest we throw out the cultural appreciation baby with the bathwater, though judging by the reaction that’s what it seems people think I’m saying. I’m all about appreciating a culture. Perhaps what I’m saying is that cultural appreciation is surpassed at some point with the collecting of cultural appropriations in the pursuit of a – and I choose these words carefully – a second chance at birth.

      What I find interesting is that I concur with the respectful disagreements here and they turn out to be saying the same thing I am saying – that such a thing is impossible. And it hurts my heart how many Korean adoptees have attempted suicide when this hope/expectation crashes. I am talking about managing expectations…

      It would be different, in my opinion, if we really truly did elevate the fiction to a fantastic or ludicrous or satyrical degree and used that to empower ourselves. It would be different because the problem would be recognized and we would be deliberate and intentional about our motives and actions, and it would serve us. We SHOULD focus on how we are special, of this (insert country here) culture instead of focusing on becoming something we can never be; immitating what we lost.

      It’s easy to discuss when others push culture or assimilation on us – but what about when it’s us doing it to ourselves? I think this is a dialogue that’s been long over-due. It’s one of those elephants in the room that nobody talks about – the constructing WE do – and whether it is good or bad for us, in which ways, and to what degree.

  6. I’d like to respectfully disagree… It’s fully possible to immerse yourself into a culture as a foreigner without being fluent… However you need a circle of people willing to immerse you in to their culture… I’ve seen many females by immerse themselves into foreign culture without language fluency and as foreigners/outsiders both in other countries and within the US. I immersed myself into the Vietnamese culture within US where I was often in places & situations where everyone but a friend spoke about 3 words of English. However the important thing to remember is that as an adoptee you will always be an outsider… If you lose that part of the equation that links you to the “culture”/”community” you will be outcast as fast as you came in. Whether that is a friendship, significant other, or business.

    • I don’t think I suggested anywhere that it was impossible to immerse oneself in a culture. I think I did suggest that we will always be outside, though I didn’t use that term.

      • I was referring to a post from TChaiki… And yeah their is a difference in vocabulary used by those that took college classes to learn about “cultural appropriation” & those that have drawing upon life experience outside the classroom

  7. It basically means, their are ways to break into different cultures & social groups as an outsider or an adoptee; but be aware you will always be an outsider so never get too comfortable. Their will always be somebody who does not appreciate you being their. If you have a valuable skill & it can be replaced… It will be… If you have a valuable business and it can be replaced it will be… If you are a significant other & can be replaced… You will be… If you have beautiful physical features and they wane… You will be replaced… This concept is true for most any aspect of life. You can replace most anything in life but blood. Without blood family you can be replaced at any position or status you hold. Such is the life of an adoptee… Always an outsider

  8. I am thinking a lot about this theme…and may try to put something together down the road.

    Re: outsiders

    Where does culture begin from? Perhaps there are no old cultures that fit, but can’t new cultures begin (not completely disconnected from the past) but grown out of the past?

  9. I think we also discussed acculturating oneself in a culture not one’s own in the Xenopatriotism item.

    What I am about to say may or may not make sense.

    This is after nine years of living in Lebanon, and recognizing the validity in everything stated above.

    At this point I would agree that acculturating oneself as an outsider within one’s original culture and within one’s own lifetime is not likely to happen.

    The main problem I have with much of this discussion is not with what has been stated here.

    This touches on the major inversion here which is, as stated, the taking on of neo-liberal derived “multiculturalism” and “cosmopolitanism”, when it is this economic depravity that resulted in our adoption in the first place.

    Although I think there are levels of complexity that are easily turned into a variety of binaries.

    With a weird “razor’s edge” between them that we claim to dance on which I don’t think is being honest with ourselves.

    What I do see is something that comes from our adoptive acculturation, and it is something that is shared also by adoptive parents.

    This would be the myth that states we have something called “agency”.

    By this I mean to say that we are speaking as if we have an ability to “define” ourselves outside of the culture, society, and system we live in.

    I think it is this myth, coupled with the “definition” we end up with, that ring so false to me.

    Something I wrote last year about “going back”:

    As we strive to find footing within our transitional environment, we face an array of options, in a spectrum of oscillation between lived realms. We might, for example, choose to take leave of this world altogether. We might return immediately to the comfort of our known world, language, and life. We might stay and maintain a wholly removed quotidian in the bubble that our class privilege provides us, the expatriate lifestyle. We might slum it enough to find employ among the hundreds of NGOs and foreign agencies that displace all notions of effective civil society. We might learn just enough to act as the native informer in explaining our new-found foreign place to those “back home”. Or else we might manage to do away with our affected identity markers in an endeavor to re-integrate ourselves with our very source. Our choice here is severely limited by paths of least resistance concerning language, cognition, and culture, as well as by required quantum leaps that make moving forward more difficult the closer we approach our destination.

    It is this last option that remains, for me, the only possible hope of “re-integration”. Giving up all claims of “being” anything, or of describing oneself, or taking on identity markers of any kind. In giving up the claim of “being” this or that, we join, finally, those who also don’t have this luxury or privilege to define themselves in any way.

    This was made clear to me when I went through a sectarian checkpoint here, and it didn’t enter my mind to defend myself along previous markers that define privilege here. I went with the perception of me from the outside, and it was, well, offputting and frightening.

    I don’t express this as any kind of castigation or judgment. I’m still living and learning. The longer I am here, and the more I attempt to “undefine” myself, the more I catch glimpses of who I might have been, like a reflection in our peripheral vision that we can’t quite focus on. I’m not saying this is even a valid goal, or that one should attempt it. I honestly don’t think the pursuit can end well. But the dilemma remains, at least for me, like falling off a cliff, of no longer being able to reverse journey.

    Even if I wanted to.

    • “With a weird “razor’s edge” between them that we claim to dance on which I don’t think is being honest with ourselves.

      What I do see is something that comes from our adoptive acculturation, and it is something that is shared also by adoptive parents.

      This would be the myth that states we have something called “agency”.

      By this I mean to say that we are speaking as if we have an ability to “define” ourselves outside of the culture, society, and system we live in.”

      I love how you say what I feel but didn’t know how to express because I couldn’t put my finger on it…

  10. Great analysis as always… I’d also like to mention when I’m on my smartphone; I will often misspell and put together haphazard sentences that don’t make much sense. Part of that is attributed to some cognitive problems I now have, and still getting used to. I can’t process information as quickly as I used to so when I attempt to hurriedly jot down thoughts they can come out a little rambled.

  11. I’d also like to mention that as part of the young 30s generation and below that I believe cultural boundaries are being bridged simply by the world becoming smaller through the Internet and other technology. I do think that it is inherent human nature to want to belong and fit in. This will often begin and end with ones race and culture. Having this sense of identity and confidence associated with it, enables growth in the confidence to belong to other social circles or groups. At the most basic of levels we often search for belonging by race or culture. The first day of school, the first day in a new professional environment and even in prison. When you are adopted you basically have no clue whom to search out for that basic comfort of belonging. It can cause a domino effect of lost confidence in belonging, self worth, and confidence throughout one’s lifetime. I do think the next generation of adoptees is finding an easier time with acceptance, finding that confidence with who they are, and turning which was once viewed negatively into something that others find unique and can respect. Just a few thoughts…

  12. Here I must respectfully disagree. The world is made smaller by technology only in the sense that it limits “valid existence” to those with 4G, WiFi, and smartphones. I tell my students that this is a “Facebook Existence”, and it leaves out 99% of the planet; a Wired reality that gives us concepts such as “nomads”, “border crossers”, and “hybrids”—those who have a certain luxury and privilege (for us, this comes from our adoption, and our leap-frogging class-wise our predecessors) to “bridge” cultures which have been, in fact, destroyed by the same economic and political forces that “allow” us this luxury in the first place. No one I know who is a refugee, or who crosses borders at the risk of their own life, or who can’t pass on nationality for being in a “hybrid” relationship would ever consider these concepts to be “pluses” for them or their lives. If we are going to be discussing “shopping” for culture, then we need to be clear that that is what we are advocating or speaking about. These buzzy concept words come from that realm, and I have to say I am not comfortable with them at all. It is interesting to me that in the nine years I’ve been teaching here, younger Lebanese are finally starting to realize the destruction of their culture on all levels that has been sold to them as a “double-plus-good”. It is of course a comfortable plateau for adoptees to fit into; I was there, I know. But the pain of actively trying to push past it is an absolute necessity.

    • Yes I agree… I guess border’s can be broken down for those who have that luxury and mixing culture’s may be not be a healthy in long run. I also agree that the breaking down of different cultures is not a good thing. A hundred years from now what percentage of the population will be speaking English? Far too large and it pains me to see Asian cultures desperately trying to become Westernized at all costs.

  13. I wanted to add here that oddly what I (we) go through many young people in our originating cultures also go through; again, via a process of globalization and cosmopolitanization of what was “local culture(s)”. One quarter of topics in my thesis class the other day were on the subject of “lost Lebanese culture”. As the years have gone by, I find myself appreciating the students speaking Arabic with me in class—even though university rules say we must speak in English….In this way, we are in a similar boat, strangely speaking.

  14. Additional random thoughts:

    The idea of “street cred” within the adoptee community; the notion of “safe rebellion”, meaning, acting within imposed constraints of the dominant culture in an attempted “breaking out” of that culture; a hybridization gone terribly wrong….

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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