Cultural Gentrification and You: Your Story, Your Style

“The point about pop culture is that so much of it is borrowed. There's very little that's brand new. Instead, creativity today is a kind of shopping process—picking up on and sampling things form the world around yo.png

Amber and I were having another one of our famous talks. We were discussing life and history as always but I was then quickly reminded of a recent style trend that dredged up every negative feeling I had about 2017: snowglobe nails. Now, if you are fortunate enough to not know what these are, I’ll take a moment and let you find out a little more about this “style” trend.

Now, this is extra. Really extra. Why do you need to turn your nail into a snowglobe? But it immediately reminded me of a trend when I was younger: back in the day of velociraptors and chunky blonde highlights. In my high school, black girls did extravagant nail designs all the time. But back in those days, the black women that did such elaborate nail art were considered to be ghetto or tacky. Now they’d be the stars of popular Instagram accounts and Youtube tutorials.

This is cultural appropriation and gentrification. It’s when things that were once maligned due to its attachment to minority groups without admitting to any of its history and sanitizing it for the sake of popularity.

We’re going to go over a few examples that particularly earn my ire.


Voguing

If you’ve watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, you have a base concept of what Voguing is. It’s a dance move that was popularized by Madonna in the 80s and is rooted in a the traditions of ballroom drag which was formulated and perfected by drag queens and gay men of color. Voguing is throwing shade with body movements but when Madonna popularized it at first she paid tribute to the LGBT community. She admitted that drag queens and queers of color did it better than her and featured them in her music videos and on her tours.

But as time progressed popular culture associated the act with Madonna more and more and less and less with the queer people of color that inspired and created the dance move. Voguing is an important part of the LGBT community and is a secret language to queer people all over the United States. And with Drag Race now in the popular lexicon, more and more people are aware of Voguing and are not aware of the fact that it is rooted in decades of ballroom drag. It was not something that started in the 1980s and it was not started by white pop stars. My breaking point was watching the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars and one of the guest judges (Vanessa Hudgens) had the audacity to say she was very into voguing now. Like it was a recent phenomena. Like it was something she just discovered. It exhausted me and I still roll my eyes at it every time I hear that comment.


Hair Trends

Now, I’m relaxed. That is an important aspect of black culture, I was told that my natural hair was not pretty and that I was not likely to be hired or desired if I retained my natural hair. But since forever, folks have felt it necessary to try out styles that were created by black people. Dreadlocks come to mind. Dreads are often times maligned when black people wear them for a myriad of culturally insensitive reasons. Dreadlocks are a hairstyle that formed with the Rastafarian culture and religion. They happen because of the kinky nature of black hair. So when a black man or woman has dreads, it’s often times political, spiritual and important. When a white woman or white man does it…well, let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired. Again, the locks in dreadlocks are formed because black hair is naturally a little kinky, that sort of texture just doesn’t really exist for many others but that stereotyping does not exist for a white woman at Coachella in dreads. So while Zendaya wearing dreads gets a racist comment out of an E! News hostess, a white person in dreads is just eccentric and “worldly”.

The same can be said for many of the trends in hair braiding.

I got my hair braided a few times when I was younger and mostly for those times when I would be away from my usual hair stylist. Braids were a way to protect my roots from breakage. But when I had braids I was as far as the world saw any other black girl with box braids. I didn’t feel pretty with braids and I still look at those photos with any positivity. I can still remember the hours in the stylist’s chair and the pain associated with getting your hair done.

But when a Kardashian braids her hair, heaven helps us. Now, it isn’t appropriative because some form of braiding is almost as culturally universal as Bigfoot, but it is disappointing that something is typically seen as a negative for one race while it’s fresh, cool and edgy for another.

The last hair trend I’ll cover is weave, extensions and wigs. I’m a cosplayer and I spend a lot of time in wigs and I’m a very handsome blond.  But there’s a special relationship black women have with their hair and that means that many of my sisters in melanin have hair that they were not born with. And back when I was young in ye olden days, they were dissed for it. My great-grandmother was a snake of a woman but her wig collection was enviable. And as soon as I started collecting wigs, my aunts immediately made comparisons between my love of hair that was not mine and my great-grandmother, Ida. But let a celebrity throw on a neon wig and she’s a trendsetter.  

Long weave is a staple for many ethnic communities in the United States. They became an important way to express style for many black women and for some black men.

And that does not mean that all my brothers and sisters with hair not their own do it right. And many  of the criticisms of my think piece will be on “ratchet” and “ghetto” individuals. And while yes, there are plenty of folks who are not the pinnacles of fashion or design, the double standard is real and exhausting.


Being “Extra”

Now, in hindsight, I realize I’ve been extra my whole life. From the velvet jumpers to the always perfectly done hair, I’ve been extra since between it was a word used to describe people and not food. And back in my day, I realize now, that many of the girls and ladies I went to school with back during the days of raptors were extra as hell. Weaves that were several feet long, nails that sparkled like the hot white sun, velour tracksuits and purses that cost more than my rent payments. Today, that woman is extra. Years ago, that person was ghetto. And the big difference between what made a person “extra” versus “ghetto” was often tragically, race. Being extra is seen as a thing mostly now done by white people but comically, it’s something that many queer people and people of color have been doing easily for decades.


Speaking of queer people and drag queens, let’s take a small sidebar to talk about appropriation of language.

Queer people made up our own language decades ago. Shade, vogue, work, look, trade and more all mean something very different to the average gay man or drag queen. This language was created first and most importantly out of safety. Moons ago, being a gay man was not a fashionable thing to be and these codes and secret languages kept gay men and women safe from a hostile world. This secret language kept gay people alive and safe during the AIDS epidemic, during Stonewall and during the rough and tumble conservative eras in American History that you won’t learn about in history class. And as much as I love RuPaul’s Drag Race there’s been an entire generation and section of the populous that gets to “speak Drag Queen” without any of the background knowledge about it. And what’s even more frustrating is watching a woman at Walmart say “YAS, QUEEN. SLAY!” while also refusing to let LGBT people have the save civil liberties they deserve.

You don’t get to say “Yes, queen! Work!” and also think that gay people are still going to Hell because of religious dogma.  


Cultural gentrification and appropriation are one of the most exhausting aspects of the modern pop culture landscape. It’s right up there with microaggressions as far as things that just wear me down. Gentrification and appropriation suck the life and history out a thing that matters to a minority community, sanitizes it and re-sells it at a higher rate that often locks out the original owners of that media, act or pattern for mass consumption. But through education, careful research and analysis of media trends and a decent level of empathy: we can combat cultural gentrification together.

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.

 

A Whole New Commodified World

 

_Stories are one of the means by which a culture preserves its identity._Edward Zwick.pngI have vivid memories of being in high school and parroting the Cantonese version of Honor to Us All. My anime club officers and I did our best to mimic the language that was foreign to all of us and we made plenty of of mistakes in our pronunciation but we were earnest students and it wasn’t long before we had the whole thing down. But there was one big problem: none of us were Chinese. Most of my anime clubbers were white, a few of us (me included) were black (albeit very culturally abandoned African-American youths) and a few of my anime clubbers were of Asian decent but were Vietnamese or Korean. The long and short of it is: none of us were Chinese and this was a brief moment of cultural appropriation. Come to think of it, I as an African-American human person running Japanese culture clubs for over 10 years is another grand moment of cultural appropriation.

We’ve talked about cultural appropriation a lot but I wanted to talk about a very special kind of cultural appropriation: the Disney variety.

Disney has a long history of picking, choosing and sanitizing the history of many different cultures. Moana features the culture and language of Polynesia. Pocahontas is the very whitewashed version of the story of the real life heroine and Native American. Lilo and Stitch features a mostly native Hawaiian cast and Mulan borrows from many Asian cultures and practices. The main feature of that which makes it appropriative is that Disney is still a mostly white-led company. And even though Moana featured many people of color as voice talent and as researchers, the leads of Disney are still wealthy white men that then get to profit on this somewhat indigenous story.

This is especially troubling for me because as the little culturally abandoned person I am I find myself more drawn to narratives that are not my own. I fell for stories like Mulan and Moana because they were so unlike my own. I did my best to commit the songs to memory and tease apart the language that was so unlike my own. I sold my soul to Japan years ago, so such a desire to flee my own narrative makes it easier to cope with the narrative that was meant to be written for me. But what is the issue with culture and Disney?


Let’s be honest: Disney is a company. They have items to sell. Parks to market and all sorts of other things to put in front of the eyes of children and their parents. This means that Disney has to sanitize parts of history. Pocahontas is a stellar example of: literally none of it happened that way. The Disney way of telling the story puts all the blame on one greedy white man and tries to Devil’s Advocate the whole racism thing. Which is…let’s just pause for a minute to think of how troubling that is. But in their attempt to make this story more palatable for children, they ruined a perfectly good narrative. The real story of the native peoples and their interactions with colonists is far from safe for children but is a harrowing tale of survival and the pain of cultures being forgotten and rewritten due to technological superiority. Princess and the Frog has a very similar problem with race considering its black protagonist and Jazz Age setting. Tiana is so self-actualized she’s hardly a character and Lottie and her family are rather accommodating considering that they still essentially own Tiana’s mother. Because remember kids, the reason she couldn’t own the restaurant was because the bankers were worried about a woman running a business all by herself. No other factors. Nothing else. Nothing at all. What systemic racism? No, eat more French donuts.

Disney tries to fix this issue by ignoring colonialism entirely with Lilo and Stitch and Moana. But the same main issues remain: Disney is not doing anything to benefit the communities it is taking inspiration from and just because there are occasionally people of color behind the screen does not mean it is actual representation. This is particularly interesting with how Disney uses language for music. Some of my favorite Disney songs are not in a language I grew up with. Honor to Us All centers around a very old and distinctly Asian view of marriage and what it means to be a good daughter (though as a Southern debutante, I can admit those feelings aren’t too far off the mark for someone in my position). My favorite parts of Moana feature a language whose words are very unfamiliar but with more familiar sentiments. Heck, my favorite part of Pocahontas is the opening song sung in the native language of the Powhatan tribe.

I want to talk about merchandising for a moment since it is also a key part of this whole cultural appropriation thing. And no, we’re not going to talk about the little brown-face/brown-body Maui costume that Disney decided was a good idea last year. But the buying and selling of cultural artifacts to help bolster support for a movie is dubious at best. I remember being a kid and McDonald’s selling a copy of Pocahontas’ necklace from the movie but the idea behind such a necklace does hold some significance for the Powhatan tribe.

Moana had similar issues with native pieces and accessories suddenly becoming en vogue again. All the shell jewelry and tribal prints.

But wait, Amanda, someone shouts from the edges of the comment section: This isn’t the only time Disney has messed around with other cultures. What about Hunchback of Notre Dame or literally most other Disney movies. Here’s the problem with that: cultural appropriation is a neutral term but it’s mostly a problem with a colonizing culture appropriates a colonized culture. So not a problem for Disney to go French for a while but it is a problem for them to go pan-Arab for Aladdin. (We’ll talk about pan-culturalism soon because I have thoughts!)

And what’s interesting is how wrong this all feels now in hindsight. Cultural appropriation is made painful by the fact that really only the company (Disney, in this case) benefit from taking over or taking aspects of a culture and no one (short of the occasional actor or cultural specialist) really benefit from them making a powerhouse movie like Moana or Coco. And while the cultural impact is huge like with Coco (that cannot and will not be denied) who benefits when someone buys an mp3 of the soundtrack or gets a hoodie or t-shirt from the movie. What about when someone goes running around with a sugar skull t-shirt without knowing the story or meaning behind them? Insidious, isn’t it?

Actually an interesting work around to this came about from a conversation about porgs with Carlos. For those of you who have been living in a cave, porgs are a new and adorable Star Wars. Porgs are adorable and the reasoning behind them is very practical. They are little digital costumes for the local puffins that could not be removed out of every shot in the movie The Last Jedi. Porgs are adorable and the reason is interesting but the fact that Disney now is profiting so much out of a necessity is strange. Carlos mentioned ratherly quickly “It’d be cool if they just gave some of the toy sales to help the real puffins out.” and that was very valid. What if some of the money from Coco or Moana went to cultural centers or to organizations that support these at times at-risk communities or populations. Is this just another form of tokenism: sure, probably. But it’s tokenism that could prove more valuable than letting an entire generation grow up with a sanitized narrative and none of the context behind what is so compelling about the narratives told by other cultures.

Next time, we’ll talk about pan-culturalism!

 

Thoughts from Fredericksburg

I have long been convinced that my artistic ideal stands or falls with Germany. Only the Germany that we love and desire can help us achieve that ideal.- Richard Wagner.png

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of German culture. I spent 6 weeks overseas in Austria and some of my most beloved and most important trips in Europe were of the German persuasion. Seeing King Ludwig II’s castles, seeing and being accosted by German swans. Learning a nearly impossible language. Texas’ history as a diverse state has made it rather easy to find handsome little pockets of Deutschland all across this great state so here are some of my thoughts after a day trip to Fredericksburg with my historian friend, Amber.

  • So the hill country is gorgeous but I hate that I don’t get cell service out there.
  • Giant crosses are a great landmark.
  • Indian Motorcycles apparently still live outside of the city limits.
  • The drive to Fredericksburg is perfect. Just within a few hours of the city limits so it feels like a trip while being close enough to do a day trip with no concern.
  • Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been in cars.
  • Amber only keeps me around because I speak German.
  • Postcards are amazing!
    • Seriously, I love sending out postcards so I may start a mailing list or something.
  • German culture is spectacular and the German history of Texas could be its own blog post.
    • I didn’t think out of all the places in Europe I saw, that I’d miss Austria and Germany the most.
  • Parking in downtown Fredericksburg is like surviving The Hunger Games. At times, sacrifices must be made and at times, you must park nearly a mile away from your destination.
  • Walking on a nice day though, is pretty special.
  • I feel remarkably guilty playing Pokemon Go in front of other people. Like I’m not giving them enough attention.
    • I’m sorry. I just needed my streak bonus…I didn’t ignore Amber. I promise.
  • There’s something to be said about knowing your history so it’s always a little weird as a black person to visit destinations that glorify the men that wanted to keep my ancestors in chains.
  • Also, restored and recreated houses are great but when they feature terrifying narration that is triggered by movement: it’s terrifying.
    • Some of these houses also have mannequins, so you just walk in and see a shape of a person and freak the hell out. Or at least, I did. Twice.
  • Fluffy chickens are the best chickens.
20170121_112752.jpg
LOOK AT THEM!
  • German food makes me so happy. Any place I can get potato pancakes, mustard and applesauce are places I rather just stay forever.
  • There’s nothing like speaking German to someone who doesn’t expect me to know German.
    • It sort of makes me feel like Broomhilda from Django Unchained. A confusing but pleasant oddity that is a black woman who speaks a little German.
  • The Hill Country has a lot of wineries.
    • A lot.
  • Comfort bites are apparently Frankenstein’s monster-esque foods that are probably going to kill you and you don’t mind that so much.
  • Fun fact: you can walk along downtown Fredericksburg with a glass of wine or beer in hand.
  • There’s a lot of places that offer to sell you wine in Fredericksburg. The main street is full of wine tasting rooms and breweries.
    • Lots.
      • Amber and I went on 2 wine tours in the hill country and keeping the glasses so far is the best part of it.
  • The history of wine in Texas could also be its own blog post.
  • Bathroom cats are apparently a thing outside of Welcome to Night Vale.
  • My taste in wine is changing. I can now stomach red wine without getting a headache and a serious case of ennui.
  • Apparently there’s a wine bus tour that lets you tour all of the wineries and not have to worry about driving afterwards.
    • You know, if you’re looking for a gift for me or something.
  • I also love and hate words used to describe wine.
    • Amber and I had a glass of Orange Muscat at a winery and I said the finish was “medicinal” and Amber agreed. But think of how asinine it is to say something has a medicinal finish.

I could go on forever about the how much I love German culture and German food but I’ll end on one note. Germans have a proud culture and the history of that tragically has some not so rosy parts of it. It’s difficult at times to express a love of other cultures when their history is so tarnished. I love Japanese culture but with that means accepting when Japan and my homeland were at war. I love German culture but loving Bayern means knowing that their history is marked with immense darkness. But what I love about Fredericksburg, what I love about Texas and what I love about culture is that just for a moment; a brief fleeting moment filled with excess, wine, beer and potatoes: it’s just good to be German.  

But for Today, I am Prussian

-Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

I’ve never been coy about the part of me that is truly culturally a pluralist.  I in-spirit renounced my American heritage long before I took my first steps across the Atlantic and by the time I emerged onto Germanic soil, I was already at least in a cultural sense a French man, Japanese schoolgirl and English poet.

That was until, of course, I went to Bavaria. I experienced a land and culture so far unlike my own but with the same cultural feelings of strength, hard-work and enjoying what you have. I spent 5 weeks overseas, mostly in Germanic countries and I left with a love of German food and the slight and occasional German phrase.

Once I returned stateside, my desire for the German flavors I came to crave were mostly left to languish. I was from a part of Texas that was no more German than scotch and the even mention of “German food” conjured to them faint images of sauerkraut and bratwurst and men clad in lederhosen (which are an undeniable segment but not the only aspects of German cuisine.).

It wasn’t until I moved back to San Antonio and moreover the part of Texas that was at times intensely German that my love of German food was able to take form again but really only to the occasional trip to New Braunfels to have it in one or two special places once or twice a year. What I was missing was the cornerstone of what made German food so amazing: it’s accessibility. The food I was eating in Austria and in Germany were available anywhere, everywhere and at nearly any time of day. This is where I came to love the concept of a double starch often enjoying two different potato dishes alongside pasta and a slab of whatever-schnitzel (it was often chicken for me, but the cafeteria where most of my meals came from produced schnitzels I didn’t think were possible). The food was unpretentious and humble but delicious and satisfying.

The beauty of it was that it didn’t feel foreign.

So when I come to find out that I can fill my cravings for German food in a downtown, historical eatery I had to check it out. This led me to lunch at Schilo’s.

This place has apparently been around forever and is a place I walk by all the time, but I was always a little afraid to go in there, having been lied to time and time again with the promise of “authentic” German food. My cynicism led me to miss out on so many opportunities to visit this wonderful establishment.

Never have I been so wrong.

I sat down, and immediately enjoyed the prospect of seating myself. I ordered something simple, potato pancakes. Now, this is a dish I came to love overseas and finding it well-made here stateside has been an awful challenge if I can find them at all.

Now, when I see house-made root beer on a menu, regardless of whatever image-based soda detox I’m on, I’m ordering one. Or several. Schilo’s did not make me regret my choice to imbibe in the fizzy elixir.

My lunch arrived and the waitress asked me the very traditional question: “Would you like sour cream?” to which I said “yes.” far too emphatically and quickly. I waited patiently for the curdled milk product and continued to do something non-traditional. I smothered the potato love stack with Schilo’s house-made hot mustard (another German favorite and this one has an ingredient list that you can understand and maybe has 6 total ingredients. As mustard should.) the spice was wonderful. Then came applesauce, far more traditional for a meal like this which was absolutely spectacular. I wish it was socially acceptable to order “vats” of anything.

Each bite I felt like I was in Muchen again. Potato. Mustard. Sour cream. Applesauce! Potato. Mustard. Mustard. Potato. Sour cream. Potato. Potato. Applesauce.

It was fantastic. I ate with gusto. I ate with pleasure.

Schilo’s was a place that I had to stop myself from replying to questions in German.

Danke would be unknown there, as would Bitte. Prost would make no sense and Bier would be unheard of.  But in my heart, I was in Bavaria. I was Prussian. I was in a local biergarten enjoying lunch and doing German things in Germany or at least I was in my heart.

It’s been a few years since my global trek and I never thought I’d miss Germany and Austria more than Italy. I didn’t leave craving pasta, I craved potatoes.While I swooned over pasta frutti de mare, I desired schnapps and wienerschnitzel.

So for an afternoon I was Prussian until my need to return to work snapped me out of my pipe dream and I heartily thank Schilo’s for letting me for a day be back in Bayvern.

Danke.

To Court the Cultural Muse

 

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive

I’m a cosplayer by trade. I often adapt and acquire clothes I wouldn’t normally wear from people that I am clearly not and masquerade in their skin for a brief time before I remove it and return to my own skin. Cosplay is in its purest form theater, pageantry and magic. It’s also in a weird way cultural appropriation. I’ve been on a recent kick about worrying over my status of stealing a culture that isn’t mine and I’ve been working through it and we’ll get to that but for now, humor me.

Cosplay as cultural appropriation? C’mon.

If you see a person with a Native American headdress at Coachella, do you not roll your eyes and groan? Find someone running around dressed like “A Celtic Priestess” at a Ren Faire? You probably don’t have many good things to say about them. Chubby black girl running around in a yukata?

Wait, what?

When I go back over my cosplay history I’ve been a shrine maiden, a Buddhist monk and a priest, I’ve been a schoolgirl from at least 2 or 3 different schools and I have put on plenty of other various cultural costumes and pieces from kimonos to yukatas and had to wrap an obi around my waist so tight I could die. There’s been plenty of talk of cultural costumes as cultural appropriation: it pops up around Halloween when plenty of kids run around dressed as “geisha” in a way too sexy for their age costume in a way not appropriate for various reasons costumes.

By now you probably think I’m rambling: I clearly had no issue wearing these outfits in high school so why the damn fuss? I dislike and resist wearing them now. I won’t put on another shrine maiden costume. I won’t wear another kimono casually. I just think it’s disrespectful and that’s my opinion. I won’t judge anyone else. I just personally think that I am old enough to no longer wear cultural artifacts that are not mine in that way.

Another place this topic on inquiry comes up for me is tartans. Now, I am passionate about plaids: I’m a former Catholic schoolgirl after all. I adore the Royal Stewart the most but I know my fair share of popular tartans and color schemes. Is it right for me to knowingly wear a tartan of a clan I do not belong to? Well, that may be a bit excessive: just because I can place a tartan doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible to me but it does mean I won’t be LARPing as William Wallace any time soon. These are of serious cultural significance and to diminish their honor and cultural importance would be disrespectful. But that basically won’t ever stop me from wearing plaid because I feel like it.  

 

Let’s talk about military uniforms: a beloved favorite and a common cosplay item. Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan and many others feature an alternate universe’s uniform so no harm no foul. What about Axis Powers: Hetalia? If you dress up at Germany or Prussia or even Japan: whose costumes are all based off of national, imperial or historical military uniforms is that appropriation? Probably: hence why I won’t cosplay as any of them and for others reasons you can find out about here and the more important aspect of cosplaying especially Germany, Prussia or Japan is that you’re wearing a uniform based on something worn during the 1930s and 1940s and that is a time period that still echoes painfully through the ages.

I think I’ve already spent way more time talking about something I barely like other people mentioning and this is a good time to point out that my opinions are my own and you are more than welcome to disagree with me: hell, I disagree with me sometimes. I’ll leave you with something my friend said to me: she’s a historian and when I showed her my “cultural appropriation sins” she said something very profound: as long as your work comes from a place of respect, it’s okay. As long as it’s done with respect. That won’t stop me from appreciating great cosplay when it see it. Styling cosplay whenever I can and having a great time in costume: just not dressed as a shrine maiden anytime soon.

 

 

A Culture of Her Own

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”

I’m not Japanese. Despite my efforts and severe cultural abandonment, I am a not a Japanese national. The Nihon my heart sings for would see me as a dirty gaijin. My bowing, my use of suffixes all of them are from a culture that simply isn’t my own. My squealing over manga, the slips of Japanese that dot my English speech: all of those are from a land that would see me as a foreigner.

So why am I doing this? Why bring this up? Haven’t I served my 40 cultural lashes for being an abandoned American? I recently got to attend the Asian New Year Festival here in San Antonio run by the various Asian-American societies and The Institute of Texan Cultures. I had found the event as Japanese Culture Club president and took my group there as a means to show them how various Asian cultures celebrated New Years. I’ve attended this event for years now and I’ve seen a clear distinct change: recently there have been more and more cosplayers there.

Normally I am thrilled to see fellow cosplayers but it struck me as somewhat rude. This is a New Years festival and anime is not the only thing Japan has given us. The steady number of anime and manga vendors has increased at the festival and while a few have always been fine in my opinion to me this event is sacred: it is culture not fandom. It hit me especially hard because the day of this year’s festival I actually changed clothes: I was going to wear a shirt from a beloved anime and I decided to stick to simply red for good luck. I dressed up in the way I would if I were going to church and seeing cosplayers there offended me. This isn’t their culture. This isn’t my culture. Why am I up in arms? No one else seemed so ruffled by the matter. And isn’t it more than offensive that I as a gaijin was more protected of the Japanese flag than any of the Japanese natives who were more than content with the cosplay and anime fans flocking around buying onigiri in their very own otaku poorly spoken Japanese and broken Engrish.

I let the festival go: it was just a festival but thought about it again with the presence of two Asian markets here. We have one that’s a more traditional establishment: while the occasional otaku or lover of Asian culture will saunter in for the most part it’s filled with restaurant professionals or Asian-Americans looking to find the food and flavors of their homeland. The other is Minnano: a Japanese grocery store run by a lovely Japanese-American family and is very authentic. Almost every time I have been there it is usually shopped by some Asian-Americans looking for the flavors of home but it mostly overrun by otakus like me. I shuffle through, the occasional sumimasen leaves my lips and the bowing that has made its way into my life as I try to find the best instant miso ramen and the finest UCC canned coffee.  I felt like an outsider despite my pronunciation being more than fine. The owners have never questioned why as a tiny chocolate Westerner was there and spoke more Japanese than even they did at times. But for whatever reason I was less judgemental of the other otakus there looking for Ramune because to me when you lead with Japanese Grocery Store: you embrace that you are opening the door for otakus like me. While the other Asian market is not marketed to otakus like me and despite our appearance most treat it like any other grocery store but with a way better instant noodles selection and a great amassment of sake.

I bring this up because there’s a new wave of otaku out there very different than my own. I was part of the anime generation that advocated “otaku citizenship.” As the first and second wave of anime fans many of us (I included) used anime and manga to abandon our American culture. I found strength in Japanese morals, power in calligraphy and solidarity in ideals of honor, personal responsibility and care for the family: they were very much like the ideals I was raised with as a Southern woman. Anime became our citizenship test, manga our passport books. Bowing, suffixes and casual Japanese became part of my life and many other anime fans I knew. The newest wave of anime fans…not so much. That’s more than fine and the new wave of fans have their own special quirks and that’s perfectly alright. They see anime as more of a thing of its own and not so much a means to Nihon.

Because I gave up my “Americanness” to be effectively in spirit Japanese I feel even more at odds with the fact that in all actuality: this isn’t my native culture. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic and I think it’s entirely overblown and often misused but there is something to be said about a small black young woman who speaks more Japanese than American slang and knows more about some manga than some Japanese students. But there’s also something to be said about seeing only anime and manga as culture. Anime and manga are just parts of the entire Japanese mythos.

There is history: good and bad and having to take the bad makes sometimes mythologizing Japan very uncomfortable. There were absolutely negative aspects of Japanese culture and there are still huge issues of sexism, racism and inequality. That honor, power and strength applied only to men of a certain type and absolutely wouldn’t apply to me not just as a black woman but as a woman. There was a war: a terrible war, awful things happened. There were war crimes. There is poverty, government issues, a real yakuza that needn’t be romanticized as anti-heroes.

It’s unfair and ridiculous to take and piece Japan together from manga stills and drama CDs. Japan is not just wallpapers taken from paused stills from InuYasha set to a Yoko Kanno soundtrack while Mai Yamane sings in between samisen chords. Japan is a real place, with real concerns, with real history that didn’t just start with Astro Boy.

It’s important to keep this in mind when we look for a culture outside of our own. Thanks for listening to this tiny rant from an equally tiny otaku.

The Day If Becomes When

Corpse Door

“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”-W. Somerset Maugham

When I was 12 I lost my father under sudden circumstances and complications to chronic illness. But even at 12 I was no stranger to death. I had lost my grandfather at 9 and Death’s cruel shade would continue to haunt me well into my adulthood. It’s no surprise, really. It’s the one thing we all have in common. Mortality. But we as a group, collective or society don’t talk about it or deal with this fact well and today I’d like to talk about that a little bit more.

Don’t worry. Things will lighten up soon.

When I was 9, my grandfather passed away as mentioned above. He was a great man but he was sick. It was at 9 that I remember being one of the first times asking about my own mortality.  As children here in the West, our parents quickly changed the topic of conversation when such serious topics arose. The wording was always very careful.

If you die, you go to heaven. 

If, not when.

As if to say because I was a child, I was somehow immune to the nature of entropy. Now, I understand being discrete with children. I’m Southern. And it’s a painful topic to discuss with a child. And not an easy one especially considering that most adults don’t seem to have a solid grasp on mortality. It was also at 9 that my mother told me that I shouldn’t cry at my grandfather’s funeral. I was the oldest of the grandchildren and “had to set an example” for my younger cousins. I was as I said before, 9 years old.

It was this verbiage of if that dotted my childhood. Through natural  disasters, terrorism and disease. If.

When my father died at 12, I received a book on how to “cope” with loss. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guides for Families) [if you have read this book and had great feelings about it, please let me know. I’m almost tempted to give it another read now as a cynical adult to see if angry 12 year old Amanda just didn’t like being given a book to explain the grand mysteries of life and death or it was just a piss-poor book] and I maintain that it’s the most tone-deaf piece of literature ever. It did not help me cope with the loss of my father. It just made me angry. But it was the first time that I remember the tone of loss change. “When we die, this is where we’ll go.” my mother said, standing in front of the open plots. She had purchased two plots: one for me and one for her, shortly after my father’s death. At 12 the fabled if of loss became a when. Life became a ticking clock.

It happens to everyone. It’s just a matter of when. 

The reason to bring this up? Recently I joined The Order of the Good Death. A collection of those that say they are Death Positive. Mortality isn’t a curse, it’s a fact. We’re all headed to a grand greater something. What that something is…yet to be unknown. But we’ll all be there.

Another point to bring this up, many of my favorite web celebrities (John and Hank Green are honorable mentions) have been very concerned about mentioning mortality in popular culture. Hank Green recently posted a song to his very popular Youtube channel titled: We’re All Gonna Die. And it’s a brilliant, if not subtly cheeky way, to deal with the fact that our time is finite. I’ve always admired the Green brothers and their candid discussions on their anxiety with the matter; John especially.  The Ask a Mortician channel on Youtube is incredibly informative and witty while still being human and it quickly has become one of my favorite new sources for videos.

But as a culture, we’re still uncomfortable talking about death. Some outlets have taken a stand against this and has started to take a stand on realizing that life isn’t something that just goes on forever. We’re mortal. Our lives are very finite and it’s about time we start realizing it. When YOLO first became popular it was a catchall phrase to rationalize somewhat reckless acts because we do in fact “only live once”. Being finite doesn’t mean that our lives are meaningless, it means if anything, it means more. We have so many days, minutes, seconds, weeks and so on. Let’s all do something with the time we have. We’re not Wonder Woman, Superman or a sitcom character: and even some superheroes die; they just come back later on. Our universe is even finite: it will eventually end. All of it.

However, being Southern it’s still a taboo topic. We still struggle with the memory, memorial and sanctity of our dead. We value and rush through life with vigor and we mourn the dead as if death never comes. But Death…the handsome gentleman caller that he is, has very little concerns for our Southern ignorance; he just waits.

Enjoy your existence, whether you believe in the cold nihilism of the mostly unforgiving universe or the warm tender embrace of an afterlife as something greater.