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Children of various races taking part in a lion dance during the Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur last year. FILE PIC
Children of various races taking part in a lion dance during the Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur last year. FILE PIC

IN Malaysia, after the celebration is before the celebration. No sooner have we packed away the Christmas decorations than the Chinese New Year lanterns come out of the boxes.

They are followed in close succession by Thaipusam, Easter, Ramadan, Wesak Day, Hari Raya and so forth.

Living in Malaysia, we are the envy of our single-culture relatives, if only for the fact that we get far more days off work than anyone back home.

Any reasonably informed resident of Malaysia will agree that, while the roughly 17 national plus a good handful of regional holidays are nice to have, the diversity of cultural celebrations here has an important impact on mutual understanding and respect.

On the other side of the globe however, in its effort to be considerate towards the cultural traditions of others, the Western world struggles with a fairly novel concept that has been coined “cultural appropriation”.

Fashion designers are being castigated for using fabrics and motifs of foreign cultures in their runway shows.

Pop icons are being criticised for propagating dance moves and hairstyles of cultures other than their own.

Tourists are being scolded upon displaying tattoos featuring tribal designs or exotic writing styles.

The cultural, religious or ethnic display of anything outside our own ethnic heritage is viewed as problematic at best, and more often than not, downright offensive.

Hence the expression of “appropriation”.

The British Dictionary’s definition of appropriation reads: “The act of setting apart or taking for one’s own use”, which implies taking something away from somebody else, in other words, stealing.

If that is a fact, then I am guilty of many offences: Two beautiful red paper lanterns have been hanging from my front porch for many years, a stunning painting depicting Buddha adorns our entry hall, and if it wasn’t for my impetuous pets, I’d have a rangoli (kolam) at my house every Deepavali.

I touch my hand to my chest upon greeting someone with a handshake.

Also, I own and have been known to wear a sari, a Punjabi suit, a baju kurung and a cheongsam on various occasions.

It has occurred to me that I really can’t pull off the cheongsam — I like cake and chocolate way too much for that.

It has never occurred to me however, that I shouldn’t be allowed to wear one.

I have had temporary henna tattoos artistically applied on my hands by one of my Indian friends and my left wrist is permanently featuring a gorgeous dragon tattoo.

Does this foraging into foreign heritage make me a cultural appropriator?

An insensitive prick, and a thief? It certainly does not.

Once the topic of cultural appropriation had transited from a sound academic debate to the self-righteous war cry of oversensitive Internet watchdogs less than a decade ago, common sense seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

After all, if nothing of another culture were to be shared, concepts such as democratic discourse, mathematics, or even the modern-day calendar would still be firmly secluded in their originating regions.

Furthermore, let’s briefly touch on the obvious subject of pizza in Beijing, dim sum in New York, and me eating a delicious banana leaf dinner at the local mamak stall.

Respectfully emulating, and therefore celebrating each other’s cultural heritage is a compliment to diversity.

There is a not-so-fine line between this and making fun of our differences. We all know it when we see it.

The fact that different Malaysian ethnicities joyfully partake in each other’s festivities is living proof that cultural appreciation is essential to a harmonious co-habitation.

To put it in the words of Canadian clinical psychologist, author, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson: “The idea of cultural appropriation is nonsense, and that’s that. There’s no difference between cultural appropriation and learning from each other. They’re the same thing.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no theft between people; there is.

“And it doesn’t mean that once you encounter someone else’s ideas, you have an absolute right to those ideas as if they’re your own.

“But the idea that manifesting some element of another culture in your own behaviour is immoral is insane. It’s actually one of the bases of peace.”

The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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