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October 8, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Fine Line of Cultural Appropriation

I grew up worshipping a Hindu God called Lord Ganesha. He’s commonly known as “the one with the elephant head”. When I was four, I watched my father and others from our community build a temple to him from scratch, and spent many hours praying there throughout my childhood years. I learned his significance in our religion, invoked his name to give me courage during tough times, and felt safe in the presence of his shrine. His name was holy to me, uttered with reverence — anything less felt like the equivalent of taking “the good Lord’s name in vain”, as I was taught not to do in my Anglican school. As I worshipped my god, I learned to show respect for the religions of others, and for the most part, they showed respect for mine.
Which is why I was utterly bamboozled when I heard that my white flatmate, not knowing or caring about Lord Ganesha’s significance to Hindus, was considering getting a tattoo of him on her arm.

“But, just, why?” I asked, completely stunned.

“He looks cool,” she replied.
But he’s so much more than that, I wanted to scream, and he’s not yours to use.

But I didn’t. Because even though it was completely frivolous and a blatant disregard of my culture, heritage, and to a certain extent, my life… at least she knew who Lord Ganesha was.
In a Western country like New Zealand, where minorities sometimes feel ignored and invisible, to be thrown a crumb in the form of acknowledgement of any kind feels like validation. But at the same time, it also feels like a kick in the gut — you can tattoo my god on your skin, and you’ll appear cool and hip, but you’ll never appear as an outsider like I do. At the time, I didn’t want to throw a spanner in the works of our relationship, so I kept my anger silent, and watched my culture, my religion, used as stamp of hipsterness.
An argument could be made that this is simply the price minorities have to pay to live in this country. Be grateful for breadcrumbs and turn the other cheek, like Jesus, when our own faith is maligned. But surely we can all do better than that? If you want to partake in my culture I’m more than happy to be your chaperone, but to adopt it without acknowledging the historical struggle, or even the current struggle of everyday diasporic kids like me — that feels a little tone-deaf.

Growing up in between various cultures, there were things I learned to be proud of, and things I learned to hide. My mother’s cooking was something to be proud of, to share with all my white mates. But my name was shortened — from Preyanka, to Preya. Easier to digest, harder to butcher. I wore saris and paavadas with pride, but desperately tried to get rid of all my body hair and lighten the colour of my skin. There was a way to fit in, I knew, and my “Indian” side sometimes made me stand out in a way that was painful. At 10, kids laughed at my underarm hair. At 11, they laughed when I explained that Indians eat with their right hand because their left hand is reserved for washing our private areas — as if somehow that didn’t make logical sense. At 13, I was informed that I “would be quite pretty, if not for the dark skin”. At 14, I was asked if my parents owned a dairy (they don’t — they own a distribution franchise, a property business, and earn more than I could ever hope to in my lifetime). At 16, I was asked if my accent was real.
All this, I could handle and brush off, although it gave me a fair idea of my place in this country, and how I should navigate it. But let’s fast forward to 2016, where I was cussed out on the street for “taking the jobs of real New Zealanders”, despite the fact that that was exactly what I was. And 2017, when my white partner was called a race traitor for being with me. And 2018, where I was told that prospective employers could read my name on my CV and assume that I don’t speak English — any chance I could anglicise it? It was a terrible thing that people were still racist in this country, but maybe I could avoid it if I didn’t sound Indian?
But actually, that’s a whole other problem — I’m not Indian. If you sent me back to India, I would be viewed as a foreigner. My family moved from India to Malaysia three generations ago with the British (isn’t it always the British?) to work on rubber plantations. My parents then left Malaysia, and met in England, where I was born. When I open my mouth, I’m a strange mixture of British and Kiwi, and a whole other amalgamation of the bits and pieces that make up my parents. When you tell me to go back to where I came from, where exactly do you expect me to go?
I’m very grateful for the understanding and enthusiasm people have shown me and my culture my entire life. The friends who came over to my house and ate my mother’s curry with their hands, and then consequently downed two litres of milk to try and soothe the fire in their mouths. The girlfriends who spent half our sleepovers in a “curry puff production line”, stealing bits of raw dough and filling to eat in between batches. The teacher who asked my family to organise a class trip to the temple, so my class could learn more about our religion respectfully. In this environment, it felt like the two parts of me could come together and be whole — no excuses for weird practices, no feeling out of place; I could just be. Living in a space between two different cultures isn’t something I’d wish on anyone. Which is why, for the life of me, I don’t get Hindu religious groups that encompass Western worshippers. And this is where the conversation about appreciation vs appropriation gets muddy.

Hinduism is fantastic, for more reasons than I can state right here. But unlike other religions, it isn’t something you can convert to, it is something you are born into. As my father told me one day when I was threatening to “quit”, you can’t move in or out, you just are. So “conversion” is a very weird concept to begin with. However, there is one major group of Hindus across the world who aim to do just that: the Hare Krishna society.

ISKCON, or “International Society for Krishna Consciousness”, was founded in America by an Indian devotee in the 1960s. It belongs to a sect of Hinduism which believes that Lord Krishna is the one true god, and is unique in being somewhat monotheistic, while most of Hinduism is very much not. Although originally founded by just one man, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the movement quickly grew in popularity and spread all over the world — today, there is a small community that worships here in Wellington. They sell affordable food on campus, and the food certainly is very good, but I find their presence quite frustrating.
To see Westerners adopt aspects of the culture I am shamed for belonging to is hard sight to swallow. To experience the proselytizing of what feels like an offshoot of my own religion is even worse — it was all I could do to stop myself from yelling, “I already know! I know I know I know I know!”
But my main issue isn’t in the practice of the religion itself, but rather the way Hare Krishnas blur religious devotion with culture. Devotees are given new, Indian names to further their connection with their god, and dressed in cultural clothing. Sometimes, I see them dance down the streets of Wellington barefoot, playing traditional instruments and chanting religious mantras — but as someone who has grown up in the culture that they have adopted, this feels disingenuous and frustrating.
They can take the cultural garments off, but I can’t. They can use their anglican birth names when applying for jobs, but I can’t. They can eventually decide that the Indian life is not for them, but I can’t. They have adopted the diaspora I was born into, and I can’t help but wonder why.
Religion is a wonderful thing. Hinduism, in my very biased opinion, is one of the best religions to belong to. To separate it from its founding culture would be a difficult thing, but I do believe that there should be boundaries. Devotion to Lord Krishna is admirable, but is it really necessary to adopt a new name? To parade in the streets singing devotional songs, when even Hindus in Wellington don’t do that? I understand that devotees may have been introduced by an Indian into the more cultural aspects of the religion, but that in itself becomes another convoluted question — are there rules around what makes cultural borrowing okay?
I don’t pretend to be an authority, or have the ability to answer these questions, simply because of my cultural background. All I know is how I feel. I don’t conflate the Hare Krishna society with my clueless flatmate and others of her ilk, and I appreciate the respect that Hare Krishnas have for their religion, but I do want to ask about the boundaries between culture and religion, between respect and fad.
I know of Hare Krishna devotees who have left the “lifestyle” as they grew older, and ones who have remained faithful all their lives. I know of Hare Krishnas who have completely adopted Indian culture and proselytize the benefits, but have never been to India. I know of devotees who are quiet and grounded in their faith, but still remain part of the Western traditions they grew up with. I really appreciate the latter, simply because we’re not at a stage yet where stereotypes and prejudices are no longer harmful. We don’t live in a world where everyone is accepted yet, and it is painful to see the things I was censured for being adopted by people who don’t have to take on any of my burden. To me, that is the height of privilege — being able to take the best of both cultures, but not having to deal with any of the hardship.
That, to me, is cultural appropriation.


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