In my last column, I spoke of Asian culture possibly appropriating Western culture. In this article, I aim to discuss the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural diffusion. And so, I’ll continue with my nasi kandar story to supplement your Mamak visits.
Cultural diffusion, as we know it, differs from cultural appropriation, as it is the spread of a culture from one group to another. The very idea of a spread instead of a “borrowing” suggests the difference between the two: one being organic and the other not so much.
Did the West lend their culture of ladies’ clothing to our baju kurung? And, did we culturally appropriate the long dresses and make them “modern” baju kurung? Look to the stores (online, especially) and you’ll probably notice the variety of baju kurung — not just the ones with a teluk belanga neckline, one that identifies a Malay woman back in the 1960s.
Walk into a local designer’s store and very rarely do you see the traditional baju kurung on the shelves.
I admit it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly is cultural diffusion. Malaysia is a multicultural country, in a multicultural region where there is bound to be cultural diffusion between every Asean country.
We share at least some similarities with our neighbouring countries. Our wayang kulit has its brothers and sisters in Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
The food that whets our appetites and reminds us of home when we set off to foreign lands, share similarities with those of our neighbours.
And, the name nasi kandar itself comes from the Indian community who would sell lunch as they “kandar” the Indian food on their shoulders. The nasi kandar craze in itself, one enjoyed by Malaysians of every race, is evidence of a cultural diffusion.
Char koay teow and even the participation of different races in open houses every time a festival comes along is evidence of cultural diffusion. But then again, Malaysia’s own culture is based on an understanding of cultural diffusion.
As history tells us, we were once under the British. Look around you and you can see that today’s Malaysia is built largely on foundations laid by the colonialists. When the British packed their bags in the 50s, they could not take everything with them because they came and left us with something: their culture.
Today, people of different religions celebrate Christmas — it’s no longer just the Christians who do so. Christmas has grown to be a symbol of gatherings and celebration for different races.
A scroll through Instagram revealed evidence of this: My Buddhist friend organised Christmas parties for her Hindu, Christian, atheist and Buddhist friends. They dined together with their Christmas hats on, right after having their fair share of fun with their Christmas crackers.
Be it from the direct influence of the British culture, or the acceptance of a general Western culture of celebrating Christmas, the presence of Christianity itself in our culture too, signifies cultural diffusion.
Malaysia, as everyone knows, is a melting pot of cultures. Its geographical location between strong economies, even in history, has indeed contributed to the formation of what we call Malaysian culture.
As much as we attempt to strive for a singular identity, we must realise that the Malaysian identity is a conglomeration. The differences and influences from various cultures, and even our openness and warmth towards foreign cultures is what defines Malaysian culture.
Our fusion food, our channelled innovation towards the one thing we love the most: food. The passing food trends that come and go (currently it’s salted egg pastries, especially salted egg croissants, and cronuts) is evidence of this.
Simply said, when it comes to culture (in this case, I mean food, as an example of a very strong Malaysian culture), Malaysians are always open to something new, tasty and innovative. Especially if we can appropriate it, diffuse it with our own local taste, give it a little twist of our culture, the Malaysian way, while still allowing every party to appreciate it.
Compared to the culture of allowing for appropriation to offend, and diffusing to forget, Malaysians will do so. But probably only to make it tastier!
Tengku Nur Qistina Petri, a granddaughter of former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, 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