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When Travel and Appropriation Meet: 5 Controversial Actions

Last Updated on January 17, 2021 by Nina Ahmedow

One of the most important aspects of travel is learning more about other cultures, for example through food, clothing, or music. But in recent years, cultural appropriation has been a hotly debated topic. While it’s very often spoken about in the context of Western cultures (most prominently in the USA), travel and appropriation often meet, too. And while it’s easy to view cultural appropriation with the same lens all over the world, this doesn’t always make sense. Because context ist key.

I’m aware that this post might rub people on different sides of the conversation the wrong way, but I’m not saying everyone has to agree with me. I simply believe that the conversation about travel and appropriation should go deeper than it often does. So instead of this being a piece about what’s right and wrong in terms of travel and appropriation, I hope this can be a starting point for a conversation.

US Dominance in the Conversation About Cultural Appropriation

Most non-US citizens or residents are probably tired of the US making everything about the US. Whether it’s people on the conservative side who believe it’s the best country in the world or people on the so-called liberal spectrum who often believe in the same myth of American exceptionalism expressing it through the belief that “America is better than [x outrageous act]”. At the end of the day, it seems that many US citizens believe their country to be the center of the world, the place that should either “bring democracy” to other countries, or the country that “is so much better than Trump.”

The designated president of the USA recently tweeted that “America is back” making one wonder what exactly he’s talking about. The genocide of the Indigenous populations? Slavery? Segregation? When was the US ever really “great” (Trump) or why would it be so good for it to be “back” (Biden)? Both sides believe in some sort of superiority of the USA over the rest of the world.

The same thing happens when social justice issues are discussed. The default is always the situation in the USA. What’s considered racist in the US is racist. What’s considered cultural appropriation in the US is cultural appropriation. Who is seen as “brown” in the US is a POC. But this is not the reality of a globalized world.

This extends to the conversation about travel and appropriation. Certain practices are dubbed cultural appropriation simply because that’s what they would be in the US. Others get a pass. Allow me to give some examples.

Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Here are some examples that may or may not usually be cited when travel and appropriation are discussed. My take on them may differ from yours, but I think on a travel blog it’s important to have an open and honest discussion about travel and appropriation. (I also like to discuss political issues on this blog although people sometimes think this isn’t the right space for that.)

Clothes and Cultural Appropriation

The fashion industry is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to cultural appropriation in the West. This has led to some people thinking that it’s cultural appropriation to wear anything from a culture they don’t belong to. But is that really the case?

Wearing Kimonos in Japan

Most Japanese people, especially in big cities, don’t regularly wear this Japanese national dress. It still plays an important role in the country’s culture, and people often wear it on special occasions. But wearing a kimono has become a common activity for many tourists who visit Japan. And many well-meaning people start to scream cultural appropriation.

But if cultural appropriation is defined as somebody from a dominant culture taking things from a marginalized culture then that isn’t necessarily the case outside of the US. The Japanese minority in the USA has suffered inhumane treatment and discrimination and was interned in camps during World War II. Clearly, white Americans have marginalized Japanese Americans and would do best to stay away from wearing a kimono, especially if they view it as a costume.

But Japan’s role in the global scheme is not one of marginalization. The vast majority of countries (Western or not) have not oppressed Japanese people, so a Polish woman wearing a kimono really has nothing to do with cultural appropriation. In fact, Japan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and has an extremely problematic history in relation to other Asian countries, particularly China (Nanjing Massacre) or Korea and other countries that were occupied by Japan’s colonial empire.

It seems that many people who criticize Western tourists for wearing a kimono judge photos based on their idea that any European-looking person must be American.

On top of that, Japanese tourism organizations promote wearing a kimono as a particularly immersive experience. Still, it’s a good idea to read about the different types of kimono and the occasions to wear them as well as which groups of people they are acceptable for. (Read more about the history of kimono wearing by Westerners.) Similarly, Koreans seem to be extremely open to tourists wearing the hanbok as a way to learn more about Korean culture. By the way, kimonos and hanboks are usually not vegan as they contain silk.

A Strange Accusation of Travel And Appropriation

I once saw an Instagram post of a Bosnian woman wearing a Ukrainian outfit on which someone commented that she was culturally appropriating. It somehow felt like the dominance of US culture made the accuser want to be relevant in the discourse about cultural appropriation.

Here’s the thing: Not only have Bosnians never had any form of power over Ukrainians, but they also have almost no dominance over anyone and have even experienced genocide only a few decades ago.

Where Bosnians are really guilty of appropriation is when it comes to Roma culture. Roma people face severe discrimination all over the Balkans (and in many parts of the world), but while they deal with all kinds of racism, other Balkan peoples are eager to appropriate Roma music.

So accusing a Bosnian person of appropriating Ukrainian culture cheapens the horrible experiences of Roma people and of other marginalized groups in the world.

Travel and Appropriation in Muslim-Majority Countries

Funny enough, the understanding of clothes being appropriative does not seem to extend to hijab. This is an interesting phenomenon: Wearing traditional clothing of some cultures is seen as appropriation, but in other cases, it’s almost enforced even by so-called conscious travelers. I keep seeing travel guides that advise women traveling to some Muslim countries to dress according to local norms in order to be “respectful”. (I’ve actually written about how superficial this is in my post on Orientalism in travel writing.)

Famous women from Angelina Jolie to international politicians have been applauded for showing respect by wearing different forms of hijab in Muslim-majority countries. The question is: respect for whom? The male elites who enforce hijab? Activist Masih Alinejad explains why this is actually more problematic than helpful:

Why the Focus on Clothes?

In general, most of the criticism of cultural appropriation seems to concern clothing and/or hairstyles. And that makes perfect sense in the US where the term comes from, especially with regard to Indigenous and Black styles that have not only been taken over by the white majority but have been profited off of by big corporations while at the same Black and Brown people face discrimination for the very same things.

But when you travel things are different. Wearing shalwar kameez in the US after making fun of South Asians, their aesthetics, their looks, their food, etc. is highly problematic. But wearing it while traveling through Pakistan or India where it’s a common style might simply help you blend in more.

Tattoos

Tattoos are one of the trickiest subjects. While motifs may have a certain significance not suitable for sharing with a foreign tourist, tourists spending money on traditional tattoos provide additional income. And this could lead to young people taking up the art of tattooing which they might otherwise have abandoned for more profitable work.

But in an ideal world without the constraints of capitalism, traditional tattoo works would survive without the need for tourists seeing tattoos as the ultimate souvenir.

Spiritual Experiences

It’s perhaps telling that some countries such as Morocco don’t allow non-Muslims to enter mosques although Islam is a religion that is very open to conversion from non-Muslims and has spread enormously. On the other hand, religions that are much more local and don’t actively seek conversion have become much more commodified.

And it seems that participating in spiritual experiences (particularly relating to Buddhism and sometimes Hinduism) is almost seen as a rite of passage among some travelers. They argue that the very fact that they are seeking more knowledge about a region’s religious and spiritual practices means they are not participating in cultural appropriation. These people get religious tattoos in Thailand, have spiritual cleansings in Peru, and get blessings from priests in Bali.

But to me, these seem even more harmful. Because it’s no longer a piece of clothing you are taking from a culture, but turning their entire belief system into a product from which a foreign tourist can simply pick and choose what they like. Getting a Buddhist tattoo? – Amazing! Following the rules that are traditionally associated with getting such a tattoo? – No, thanks!

So in looking at cultural appropriation from the North American perspective are we perhaps overlooking some much more serious problems? If commodifying faith systems is seen as less problematic than wearing a pair of earrings where does that lead?

It seems overly simplistic to say that as long as the person has educated themselves about the culture it’s okay for them to use aspects of that culture. What might be more important is how educated they are on their own culture. Because it is through knowing ourselves that our behavior towards others is shaped.

Yoga

Yoga is one of the things most often addressed when people talk about cultural appropriation. This ancient spiritual practice has been deconstructed in the West to mainly be a form of physical exercise. Out of that it has developed into a new lifestyle: cute yoga outfits, incense, a cozy yoga studio, and, of course, skinny blonde girls who head to yoga class with their friends and mispronounce most poses.

There are numerous articles about the extent of cultural appropriation with regards to yoga. But what about yoga when traveling? Surely, there can’t be anything wrong with attending yoga classes while traveling? Well, yes and no. First of all, I believe anyone who wants to teach yoga should definitely get the proper education. In India. Where yoga is from. (Disclaimer: I started practicing yoga about 15 years ago, and the yoga school I attended is owned by a yoga teacher who has been to ashrams in India numerous times.)

But what seems more like appropriation are “yoga retreats” in trendy locations. If you’re going to travel to do yoga why choose Costa Rica or Spain instead of India? It makes about as much sense as going to Saudi-Arabia to increase your knowledge of Jewish traditions. The only reason there are yoga retreats all over the world is that yoga has been commodified, and instead of people practicing yoga as a spiritual discipline, it’s a workout that Westerners want to combine with a nice vacation to an “exotic” location. At first sight, it might look harmless, but is it perhaps the epitome of travel and appropriation?

Being Invited to Share the Local Culture

With all the instances where travel and appropriation meet, ethical travelers claim there is a way to participate in local cultures that is more helpful than harmful, and that is by participating in activities that locals invite you to. According to these people, as long as someone asks you to wear certain clothes or participate in a ritual, then it’s fine. But the question is if people in regions that are highly dependent on tourism always have a choice. These people are obviously aware that there are experiences in their culture foreigners are willing to pay for. Who is really free to say no in such a setting?

Is such an invitation enough? This reminds me of tourists who say they ask people for permission before taking their photos. Does a person with minimal internet access in a rural setting really know what they are consenting to? Likewise, if a group of locals invites you to participate in one of their traditions do they really have a choice if there’s a prospect of making a small amount of money?

Without analyzing the power dynamics between tourists and locals we cannot accurately understand travel and appropriation. That’s why there’s a difference between businesses in a wealthy country like South Korea that invite tourists to wear a hanbok and a country like Thailand that is highly dependent on tourism where you can participate in Buddhist rituals.

What About Your Own Culture?

One of my main questions would be why all these people are not searching for spiritual or cultural experiences in their home cultures. In my opinion, that’s the true key to avoiding cultural appropriation. We are focusing a lot on the cultures that people take from. But perhaps we need to look at the perpetrators of cultural appropriation to fully understand it. If someone is confident in their own cultural background but also appreciates aspects of other cultures their behavior tends to be less problematic.

This is not to say everyone should stick to their own food, clothes, music, etc. But the exotification of other cultures shows a bizarre disconnect many Westerners have: Your home country’s religion is old-fashioned, but head to Bali and everyone wants to be blessed by a priest. Perhaps it’s an innocent case of the grass being greener on the other side. But I suspect it goes deeper than that.

Are We Sometimes Overly Sensitive?

And on the other side of the conversation are those of us with global roots. At home neither here nor there, and we get upset when somebody else cooks our food. One important point to consider is the one editor and lecturer Ash Sarkar makes:

When you’re a second- or third-generation migrant, your ties to your heritage can feel a little precarious. You’re a foreigner here, you’re a tourist back in your ancestral land, and home is the magpie nest you construct of the bits of culture you’re able to hold close. The appropriation debate peddles a comforting lie that there’s such thing as a stable and authentic connection to culture that can remain intact after the seismic interruptions of colonialism and migration.

Ash Sarkar, The Guardian

Is it perhaps the case that the same way Westerners have forgotten their roots and try to fill the void we children of migrants, refugees, and other minorities feel lost as well? Does the sense of ownership over a culture that isn’t truly ours anymore because we only grew up with parts of it not resemble other forms of appropriation?

This becomes particularly problematic when we try to decide for communities “back home” which actions from Western tourists they should and shouldn’t allow. Because we, the Western-educated protectors know what’s best for them. Are we unknowingly participating in new forms of colonialism?

I can’t claim to have the answers, I don’t even know if my analysis is remotely accurate. But I think the way we talk about travel and appropriation has to be different than the way we discuss cultural appropriation in the West. Because in the former setting we are talking about foreigners coming to a country that may or may not need that money, whereas in the latter scenario we are dealing with a powerful majority using items of diasporic communities who try to hold on to their identities.

travel and appropriation pin lemons and luggage

What are your thoughts on travel and appropriation? Do you think travel and appropriation meet in more subtle ways than we think? Or do you think that as long as a community gets to make money we shouldn’t be concerned with what those who purchase the “product” do with it?

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Lily Fang
    December 14, 2020 at 12:58 am

    I really appreciate this analysis, Nina! The Bosnian/Ukrainian example is really interesting – I agree with you, as I believe appropriation has to involve some sort of power imbalance. I’d also actually never thought about the issue of non-Muslim women wearing a hijab to Muslim-majority countries (you also make a really good point about how our idea of Muslim-majority countries is extremely limited – for instance, I was silly and didn’t even know Bosnia & Herzegovina was Muslim-majority until I traveled there). This is a great reminder that what we think is “respectful” may actually not be!

    I also appreciate that you point out the nuances of religious ceremonies and appropriation. As you said, there is a big difference when countries rely on tourism!

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      December 14, 2020 at 11:55 am

      Glad the post resonated with you, Lily! I appreciate your comment.

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