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.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. 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.
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.