The No Good, Very Bad Thing that is Pan-Culturalism

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese_” ― Charles de Gaulle.png

I live in Texas. I was born and raised in Texas. But I was born specifically in North Texas. I now live in South Texas. But there’s a funny trick about a state so large: each part of Texas really is its own region. Remember the 6 States movement out of California? It was an idea that San Francisco and Los Angeles were fundamentally different from Culver City and San Jose and Compton. How could then, one governor, rule a state where each part of it is vastly different from its neighbor. Texas is very similar. Dallas is not Austin is not San Antonio is not Lubbock or El Paso or Del Rio. But yet we are all Texans. Pan-culturalism is a little like bit like. It’s assuming that just because someone is from a particular region: they all must be the same.

In our last post, we talked about how Disney can commodify cultures and pan-culturalism is part of it. It takes broad strokes from a specific culture that is unfortunately not as well-known over here in the West and thus makes it easier to understand (in theory) and then is reductive and out-right offensive to those who are in that representative population.

We’ll touch on an example that is close to my heart. Orientalism or Pan-Asianism (yes, I know the word is offensive and I hate it) is this idea that all of Asia is something that vaguely just resembles China. Let’s take Mulan as an example. Mulan as a film borrows from Korean clothing styles, Japanese iconography and Chinese mythos and iconography as well despite being a Chinese story set in China. And while, sure, I’ll pause for those saying:

But wait, Amanda. China was a major influencer of both Korea and Japan.

Sure, it was: through conquest. But they are not all the same place and as of whenever the hell Mulan is set, Japan and Korea were more stable as countries with their own distinct identities. This also reared its ugly head around Christmas-time for me. My uncle (who is African) LOVES A Christmas Story. Personally, I’m ambivalent about it. He was providing riveting live commentary during the movie and I immediately got stuck on the infamous Chinese restaurant scene. I was floored by this scene. And here’s where I’ll pause again for the:

It was a different time argument.

Yes, the blatant racism was a different time but the conflation of two cultures floored me. The restaurant is Chinese, thus the employees are assumed to be Chinese. So when they stumble of the Fa la la la la of a popular Christmas song, it’s patently false. China does have a concept of the “L” character. Japan is the one that does not. So the idea that Chinese immigrants would stumble over a fa la la is a cheap joke made by casual racists. And it’s frustrating to see a culture that is unique and thousands of years old be reduced to dragons, mysticism and handsome vases.

And it really only seems to be done with countries that are not considered to be The West. Sure, we romanticize and reduce European countries to broad stroke stereotypes but very rarely are they denied what makes them what they are. Sure, for many folks Switzerland, Germany and Austria may run together but we’d never just blanket call them “vague Germany”. But even many western countries have that issue. Each region of France is distinctly different considering which part it touches. England is different based upon region and not everyone sounds like Mr. Darcy and Germany: oh boy, Germany could be 4-5 individual countries depending on, again, who its neighbor is.

And I’ll pause here to talk about romanticization and stereotyping again. I’ve spent time in Austria and before my trip, I likely couldn’t tell you much about Austria despite what I learned from Axis Powers:Hetalia but in my mind I had a feeling it had to be mostly like Germany. It is not. And each part of Austria is special. Innsbruck is the capital of old Tyrol and has a haunted castle of nightmares and a golden roof. Vienna has some of the best yakisoba I’ve had in my entire life and Salzburg is mostly Mozart stuff. But we still paint the broad strokes of mostly German onto them. And those include that Germans are stoic, strict and punctual. None of those things are entirely false but you couldn’t apply that to every German man or woman ever in history. But very few of those actually impact other Western views of that land. But stereotyping is a strange sort of phenomena. They often do come from somewhere and that’s why they are so insidious. Do folks in the U.K. have an accent, ride trains and happen to be surrounded by castles: yes.  That also does not make all of them Harry Potter. We see this a lot with the United States that many stereotypes are rooted in something that was once a cultural artifact but are now just used as insults. For instance the whole concept of African-Americans liking fried chicken comes from years of systemic oppression and not having access to other cuts of meat. Now it’s used almost as a racial slur despite being rooted in something real.

But while we respect and coo over the differences between Dresden and Munich, we ignore the regional differences of let’s say India.

India is a part of Asia but it by no means can be lumped into the dragons and Ming vases of Chinese and Japanese orientalism. Incidentally, each region of India is vastly different from its neighbor. You cannot assume that someone from Kashmir is exactly the same culturally as someone from New Delhi. There are language, culture, religious and many other factors that make each part unique and while they all may be from the Indian subcontinent, they cannot all be broad stroked by one unifying culture.

Africa also distinctly has this issue. Across the African subcontinent there are hundreds of languages, countless unique religions including many Christians and you cannot assume that a person from the Ivory Coast is the same as someone from Tanzania. My uncle is from the Ivory Coast and my use of the French language was learned mostly from him still using the language of his homeland. But yet popular media still represents Africa as being mostly grass huts and hunter-gatherer societies despite the fact that Nigeria has a booming film and music culture

We’ll go back to another Disney example in Moana. While the story is Polynesian, it’s still reductive and goes back to a happy island folks with coconuts and ghost magic trope. While those things are important to some of the people that call Hawai’i, Tahiti and the rest of the islands that make up what we describe as Polynesia: it isn’t true for any one of them. Many of Polynesia were warriors, many were fierce fighters, they are not just strong navigators but also settlers and colonizers who tamed the land and ate all the moa.

So how does one balance all the cultures of the wind? Well, as I always say, to the research! If you’re working on, curious about or just plain wamt to expand your horizons: research the individual country you wish to discuss or discover. There are countless resources available to you to find out more about what makes other places so great. And there are plenty of examples I am leaving out because unfortunately, this topic is vast and large and it makes my head hurt to think about for too long.

Pan-culturalism is casually racist, patronizing and flat out exhausting. The differences that make cultures unique are special, sacred and important. And since the criteria that seems to make a culture its own versus one that is swept up with its neighbors seem to be troublingly colonialist, nationalistic and well, to put it bluntly, a tool used by dominant powers to patronize other nationalities and it’s high time we stop such a practice.