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A Dubious Fascination: Culture as Commodity

Recently, on a writer’s forum that I moderate, someone asked the very salient question, “how can you tell the difference between having an interest or enthusiasm for another culture, and fetishizing that culture?” I myself have had some experience with straddling the lines that exist between consumption, appreciation, and experience, and have enough to say on the topic to fill multiple articles, but first, some context.

I moved to China when I was twenty-three years old after spending four years in university learning first Japanese and then Mandarin Chinese. I took my first Japanese class in high school, and at that point I certainly had no deep understanding of Japanese culture. My desire to learn Asian languages was driven mostly by a desire to do something different. Plus, I’d run out of Spanish classes to take by my senior year in high school but foreign language had always been my best subject. Doing a year without studying a language seemed inconceivable, so I chose Japanese. If they’d offered Vietnamese or Arabic or Igbo, I’d certainly just as soon have taken those. I wanted to learn something that wasn’t the usual Spanish French and occasionally German that my peers were all learning.

As a teenager and young college student I certainly engaged in some degree of fetishization. I was consuming foreign cultures as if they were the cure to that mid-90s suburban boredom that I felt so keenly as a teenager. Heck, eager for a break in the monotony, I even heckled my parents until they agreed to let us host a Japanese exchange student for a year. I took a trip to Japan after winning an essay contest, and I took first prize in the Japanese speech competition, and learned to like Japanese food, music, and dramas (I never did get into anime, however).  And when the Japanese language lost its luster for me, I turned to Chinese. It wasn’t until much much later, after living in China for close to two decades, that I was able to see my past behaviors as problematic. By that time I’d long since ceased being “fascinated” by my host culture. China was simply the place where I lived, and Chinese culture was the culture that I was living in — beloved, complex, often infuriating,  just like my own.

Realize that unless you immerse yourself in a culture (and sometimes you can do that, but other times, you can’t), your perceptions of that culture are usually largely based upon a commodified version of that culture, and in turn you treat that culture as product to be consumed. We must examine why we are “fascinated” by a culture, or the products of that culture. Is the fascination rooted in othering? Certainly, for teenage me, my desire for an escape from the monotony of American suburban culture, and my impulse to find that escape in Asian cultures was rooted in othering.  Usually when we speak of being fascinated by a foreign culture we mean we are fascinated because the culture is different in a way that we can enjoy from afar, and then set aside when we are through. It is treated as an expendable commodity, and the culture is made to serve us, rather than existing on its own, separate from our own perceptions and expectations of it.

Understand too that when you “other” a different culture, your implicit statement is that the culture is lesser than your own. It is something to enjoy, a pastime, but something that you ultimately set aside at the end of the day in favor of your own “superior” culture and its values. Think about the adjectives you might use to describe the other culture, and contrast them to the adjectives you would use to describe your own. Oftentimes this will reveal those implicit biases about those cultures. Do you call it exotic? Quaint? Fascinating? Colorful? Are the people humble? Generous? Kind?  How about the food? Is it an adventure? Crazy? While seemingly innocuous, those statements carry with them a distinct undertone of superiority. The message is “this is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.” They tell us that this place is different from our own homeland, good for a diversion, but not suitable for those with more gentle tastes. This language of othering is extremely harmful, as are the attitudes which prop up the language. T

Of course, enjoying other cultures as commodities doesn’t make you an evil bad person. Many of us enjoy traveling, learning new languages, and experiencing new cultures. However, the impulse is not something that should go unexamined. Consider what you mean when you say that you appreciate a culture. Have you lived in that culture? Interacted meaningfully with people from that culture? Do all of your interactions involve consuming, and does that consumption benefit the culture itself? When possible, rather than seeking out surface level ways to interact with a culture, you should interact in a meaningful way that actually benefits the culture, or at the very least, does little harm. “Appreciating” Japanese culture by eating sushi or watching anime is not, on the surface, harmful, but nor are they really meaningful ways of engaging with Japan. If you like the commercial products produced by this culture then consider that perhaps you just like anime, or sushi, instead of claiming to appreciate Japanese culture.

I critiqued the work of a young man who was writing a Chinese-based fantasy and yet the entirety of his engagement with Chinese culture came from C-dramas. Still, he claimed to appreciate Chinese culture. It goes without saying that while he created a world that looked, on the outside, somewhat Chinese, it was at best a surface level replica. I found his world to be a pale imitation, something that shared at best some shallow similarities with ancient China. As it turned out, he enjoyed C-Dramas and particularly the aesthetic of long haired men in flowy robes, but knew little about actual Chinese culture. His China was a pre-packaged imitation China, not the real deal.

For us writers, this is a particularly important lesson to learn. Interacting with a culture in a non-harmful way goes beyond simply avoiding appropriating from said culture — writers must be mindful of how we engage with a culture on the page. Here is the kicker — you can do all of your research, treat the culture respectfully, engage with sensitivity readers and still have your work be based upon a version of the culture that does not exist except in the mind of the author as consumer. Writers in particular must be wary of borrowing from cultures they have merely consumed, rather than engaged with and experienced in a meaningful way.

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