By Mia Nguyen
White girls in áo dài (pronounced ow-yai)
Ask me what the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen is, and that’s the answer you’d get. And no, it’s not because it was visually disturbing, or gross, or weird in any of those common meanings, but it was weird in the sense that it was unexpected, and made me feel an edge of protectiveness over my culture I had never felt before.
Áo dài directly translates to “long gown”, and is commonly worn by Vietnamese women for all kinds of occasions--from casual days strolling around the marketplace to your very own wedding day. Having been around for thousands of years, it’s a fundamental piece of Vietnamese history and culture.
So here they were, two common white girls, walking around the shopping centers of Saigon, adopting—no, “appropriating”—one of the biggest traditions of my culture! I mean, they didn’t know the language, they probably didn’t understand the traditions behind the gowns, heck—they probably didn’t even know how to pronounce the elegant gowns they were wearing!
I’ve always heard of and read the Twitter rants on cultural appropriation, but I had never experienced it firsthand.
So yes--for a while, I was reeling in discomfort and anger and frustration and annoyance.
But somehow, that changed. Somewhere during the midst of my daily mind trips to La La Land, I came to realize that these girls had done nothing wrong, and that I had no right to be offended.
I mean, here they were, enjoying the peak of their summer vacation to one of the most beautiful countries in the world where they felt the inclination to imitate and blend in with the culture. Was that something to really fault them for?
As humans, we’re naturally inclined to follow and imitate trends we find “pretty” or “cool”--and yes, that includes adopting elements from cultures that align with our interests.
In a survey on how people defined cultural appropriation, most agreed that cultural appropriation was the adoption of a cultural element without knowing the history behind said element.
Take for instance, a trend you’ve probably seen flooding your social media feed and printed across every available surface at Coachella--the henna tattoo.
Scientifically known as lawsonia inermis, the henna is a flower commonly found in Northern Africa and Western and Southern Asia.
The dye of the flower has been used to create intricate designs, traditionally in South Asian and West African ceremonies and marriages, symbolizing joy, spirituality, and beauty.
So when people of more dominant cultures adorn themselves with henna tattoos, is it cultural appropriation?
According to social media users’ outcries regarding the tattoos at Coachella, this is cultural appropriation-and disrespect.
But what separates cultural appropriation from cultural inspiration?
They’re so closely related that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the two without being hypocritical.
As mentioned before, people are naturally inclined to imitate and adopt things they like. So can you really fault someone who just so happened to stumble across a henna design, appreciated it’s intricacy, and got it inked onto their hand without knowing the thousands of years worth of history behind the design?
Because if you can fault them, then I can fault you for listening to trap when you didn’t grow up in “the hood”.
And you know that cute floral kimono you bought from Forever 21? Yeah, that’s one culture stripping an element of another culture and devaluing its significance for the purpose of profit.
And what about that yoga class you attend on a weekly basis? Are you an expert on the roots of the 10,000 year old craft? Do you understand every significance, every development, and every origin of the hundreds of asanas practiced in yoga?
If you really want to get technical, yoga in itself is a culprit of appropriation. Some of the most common yoga practices (like jumping to transition in and out of poses) have roots tracing back to ancient Danish, Scandinavian, and British gymnastics; and yet, all credit goes to South Asia.
The point is that you can’t fault someone for appropriating a culture--the lines are too blurred between cultural appropriation, appreciation, and celebration for there to be a definite barrier separating what’s right and wrong.
While it’s true that majority cultures adopt things from minority cultures that they discriminate against, that addresses a different issue entirely.
It’s fine for you to get a henna. It’s fine for you to listen to trap or wear a kimono or practice yoga.
What’s not fine, however, is when you get a henna, but sneer at an Indian woman who wears a safi. What’s not fine, is when you wear a kimono, but call someone a “chink”. What’s not fine, is when white people listen to trap but ignore the oppression, racism, and hardships that black culture still faces today.
Cultural appropriation in itself, isn’t a bad thing. It’s when it’s mixed with selective discrimination that it becomes offensive and disrespectful.
If you’re going to appropriate a culture, you have to embrace all parts of it. No, this doesn’t mean you have to scour through hundreds of encyclopedias learning about the cultural significance and origins of the henna tattoo before you can get one, but you should acknowledge and embrace all aspects of South Asian culture with respect.
Going back to my trip to Vietnam, I eventually concluded that it was irrational for me to feel offended to see these girls wearing áo dàis. In fact, thinking back on it now, I feel rather proud that I am part of such a beautiful and rich culture that people find pretty enough to “appropriate”.
Cultures around the globe grow, improve, and learn by adopting cultures from one another. It’s how we learn to understand and accept each other in such a big and diverse world. When someone “appropriates” an element of another culture, it doesn’t make them wrong--it makes them human.