Cultural appropriation is normally seen through the lens of the Western world. A quick Google search would lead to only the Western take on the topic, and criticisms of Western culture appropriating South American, or even Asian cultures.
Even the definition of cultural appropriation shines a negative light: “Adopting aspects of a culture that is not one’s own.”
For example, the practise of yoga (Note: yoga was deemed an insensitive instance of cultural appropriation by Canada’s Ottawa University). Are “fine dining” foods cultural appropriation? What about the use of local sources to create food that has been inspired by Western influences?
Looking at Malaysia, products of cultural appropriation surround me. I think that sometimes, they disguise themselves as remnants of our colonial past.
The presence of a colonial building, in itself, might actually be an example of cultural appropriation; not one of a Western appropriation of an Asian culture, but rather, the other way around: Asian appropriation of a Western culture.
The Asian appropriation of Western culture comes served to us on a plate. I, for one, have grown accustomed to, and grew up eating, fusion food. Maybe it is in Malaysia’s tradition and history that we consume fusion food.
After all, we are a melting pot of different races, different histories and different traditions. Many Malaysian favourites, such as roti canai, murtabak and roti John, are examples of our take on cultural appropriation, or rather, cultural diffusion.
Cultural appropriation, defined by the Western world, normally connotes a negative impact. However, since we are viewing things from a localised, and Asian, perspective, we should also view things from a different and more positive view.
Roaming the streets of Bangsar, Pudu, or even the “old city” of Kuala Lumpur, I feel a strong sense of familiarity with the three years I spent abroad.
The concept of revitalising the old ruins and historical past of colonial buildings and turning them into cafes, echoes my days roaming around Manchester’s Northern Quarter, famous for its “hip” and “cultural” scene. The comparison between the two is enough to encourage a thought of cultural appropriation in me.
How much cultural appropriation do we, as Malaysians, participate in? Would we be able to say that we have culturally appropriated ourselves to the Western world since the colonial period? Or is it cultural diffusion?
We adopt their political system, we have adopted their clothes. We have also adopted their food, and their celebrations: Christmas and New Year play an important role in Malaysian communities: many of my non-Christian friends celebrate it with much joy, and even more so than Chinese New Year.
Is that our example of cultural appropriation? Or is it cultural diffusion? Or is it just because we were once a colonised nation?
When visiting restaurants, being the foodie that I am, I have found new restaurants being innovative with their cooking.
Too often, the food they make is called “fusion food”, but, there is a sense of cultural appropriation in them.
Having a Quinoa Lemak (a modern, healthy and possibly Western take on our traditional nasi lemak) is definitely fusion, and culturally appropriated from a healthy Western favourite for the Malaysian palate.
Similarly, when I visited a famous Malaysian restaurant in Manchester, famed for its “authentic” Malaysian dishes, I found neither the curries nor the char kuey teow as spicy or as flavourful as at our local ‘Uncle’s’ at the hawker stall; so much so that some would say it is not how kuey teow as it is meant to be, but a Western take on our local favourite.
The emergence of fusion food obviously comes from the availability of resources; but right now, we are importing Western resources into our local culture and food. Would food, then, be an example of cultural appropriation, or cultural diffusion?
In trying to figure out, and expand on ideas surrounding a Malaysian take on cultural appropriation, I will try to draw the lines between cultural appropriation, cultural diffusion and simply being a country with a colonial past.
In the next few articles, I will attempt this, in hopes that, as we Malaysians walk past buildings, or have lunch, we are more aware of the origins of our food, and our past.
And maybe then, our nasi kandar will taste a lot better with that little bit of historical spice that comes with it.
The writer is the granddaughter of former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj and is a fresh law graduate trying hard to find her place after spending some time in Northern England during her university years at the University of Manchester. Always probing into discussions, she most often regrets not doing Politics, Philosophy and Economics