She Said, She Said: Advice About Cultural Appropriation and Identity -The Toast

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Previous installments of The Toast’s advice column from two disparate and imperfect persons can be found here. Last time: Death.

I am marrying my absolute favorite person in the world next year. It’s wonderful, glorious, I’m brimming with happiness, blah blah blah wedding planning is hard, blah blah blah, but there is a specific point of etiquette I’d like to ask about, and I don’t have any real-life people to ask who won’t think I’m ridiculous. The wedding is going to be a fairly chill, barbecue-in-the-backyard-of-our-home, low-key sort of event. I’m trying to figure out favors, and think it might be nice to have little bags of wildflower seeds, and I would like to attach little paper cranes to the bags with our names and the date written on the wings. I learned some basic origami years ago in the girl scouts, and it would be a relaxing diy-sort of project for me, and I think the symbolism behind them is beautiful (I read the Sadako book in grade school, obviously cried inconsolably, became a raging librul pacifist, etc., but I really like the idea of folding a thousand of them and bringing myself and my family a thousand years of good luck) but my fiance and I are both just your average white, USA-ian type folks and I am having trouble figuring out whether paper folding is a pretty craft project that can easily cross cultural borders, or if bringing them into my wedding is going to evoke imperialism and orientalism and atomic bombs, or seem really appropriative and icky and like I’m adopting a symbol from a culture that’s not my own because I don’t *like* the symbols from my own culture as much. I don’t think I have any Japanese friends that I can ask (I mean, I haven’t reviewed everybody’s citizenship forms, or their grandparents’ forms, but it hasn’t come up) and I would feel weird about asking random friends of other east-Asian ethnicities, because damn, white girl, no. And I’m pretty sure if I ask the generality of facebook people will tell me I’m overthinking things, but I’d really rather not be a presumptuous jerk if I can help it, and I know the commentariat at the Toast is varied and culturally aware and kind, and I’d like to hear opinions that might be more well-thought-out and sensitive than “shrug, do what you want, it’s just a decoration.” Or, if it is just a decoration, maybe just the opinion of someone who probably at least briefly considered that it might be more than that.

TL/DR: Paper cranes: pretty decoration that a white girl can use in her wedding, or significant cultural artifact that white girls should probably avoid?

Nicole/Mallory: We’re also white ladies, and while we both lean toward the “better not to do it” camp, we thought it might be wise to broaden the circle beyond “a handful of white ladies.” Official polls demonstrated a moderate “yeah, just don’t do it” consensus; but we also sought the specific counsel of friend-of-the-Toast Sarah Jeong. Take it away, Sarah! Can you stay and help us answer the other questions too? Yes? Awesome!

Sarah: You’re wondering whether using paper cranes in your wedding would be a culturally appropriative use, but in your defense, it’s because you read a book about a Japanese child dying of leukemia caused by American bombs. You, an American, are now really into paper cranes and their deep and beautiful symbolism. Should I throw “restrained beauty,” “elegant simplicity,” and “quiet endurance” in here as well.

So now you’re concerned over the possibility that your paper cranes are going to somehow be offensive, but as you point out, you have no Japanese friends. Maybe. You’re not sure. Something about citizenship forms. You’re not going to be able to shop around for a Bona Fide Japanese Person to sell you an indulgence.

If you’re worried something you want to do is racist or even just insensitive, then don’t do it, especially if that something involves folding tons of tiny paper birds while simultaneously planning a wedding.

I recently became interested in building a professional online presence as opposed to what I have now. I’m just a lowly assistant in the entertainment industry and I’d like to start blogging on the side. My problem is that my unique first name combined with my last name lands you on the first page of Google with results leading to only me. I don’t have the pleasure of sharing a name with thousands of other people. I’ve had a problem with IRL people stalking and harassing me online. Do I suck it up and accept the risks of having my name out there or do I use a pseudonym?

Nicole: Use a pseudonym. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

Mallory: Wait a bit, if this “online presence/sideline blogging” is for your professional life, how will it do you any good if it’s not under your professional name? If this were something you were just doing on the side to scratch a creative itch or to make a bit of money, I could see how a pseudonym could be helpful, but if this is something you’re doing to develop your career, I’m not sure what good it would do you if no one knew that it was you.

I mean, only you can decide what you do and don’t feel comfortable doing; if these folks who have harassed you are deeply persistent and they might be actively looking for ways to find you, or if you honestly believe that writing under your real name online could put you in danger, do not do that. With that caveat, here is my incredibly flawed advice that stems from my deeply limited career experience.

I don’t have a terribly common name myself, the good Lord having seen fit to sprinkle out Ortbergs with a restrained rather than a liberal hand. When I graduated in 2009, I had a degree in English literature from a second-tier evangelical Christian college, no job, and a girlfriend who had just lost hers after coming out. (Lost one of her jobs, anyhow. She was very enterprising, that girlfriend. You’d like her enormously. Everyone likes her. I used to pick her up after her shift at Guitar Center ended and I’d always have to stare down the various bassists and guitarists and keyboardists who wanted her to do the crossword puzzle in the mornings with them instead of me.)

At any rate, I took to commenting on a handful of websites (I never thought my “how I got my current job” story was going to start with “I took to commenting on a handful of websites,” but the world is full of many things) and eventually to pestering the editors of said websites with occasional emails and eventually started writing articles — usually for free, often things that weren’t very good at all for websites that no one had heard of. Somewhere on the Internet there exists a website, the name of which I will never tell you, that features a series of recaps I did very sporadically for the first season of The Vampire Diaries. (I also commented a great deal on the TWoP forums under a handle that I will take to my grave.) Anyhow, these periodic snippets of garbage I cast out upon the filth-ridden waters of the World Wide Web slowly coalesced into a big enough garbage raft that I was able to haul my starving carcass onto it and harness the wind well enough to sail away from the steaming wreckage of my early life. (I quit my job to start writing, is what I’m saying; I think that analogy got away from me.)

It took several years for this to happen, and I never would have guessed any of this might exist at the outset, and I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t written under my own name. It came slowly. I’d write about something that would catch a particular writer or editor’s eye, and they’d start to talk to me, and then I’d write something for them, and somehow at the end of it I had a professional reputation. All of which is to say, I suppose, is that there is a great deal to be said for having a body of work that people in your field can associate with your name. You may or may not decide that that is right for you, of course, but there it is. Just start commenting on blogs a lot, and then quit your job a few years later; that’s my advice.

I don’t care for myself. I don’t hate myself per se, but I’m not enamored with myself either. It’s like a meh feeling. What I want is to be someone else, someone specific. She is great. And by great, I mean: nice, funny, talented, interesting, laid back, whip-smart, hardworking, attractive, friendly, outdoorsy yet cultured and has a sexy voice. She also may have a boyfriend who I may or may not be in love with.

Unfortunately, it is logistically impossible for me to become her (curse you non-magical universe). And wanting to be her is getting in the way of doing my work. How can I stop wanting to be this amazing woman? Or are there books (fiction or non-) that deal with this subject?

Nicole: I’m very sorry, this sounds very difficult for you. I’m going to make an assumption here, which is that you are probably on the young side? I am only saying this because I think this is a feeling which dissipates somewhat with age. Not everyone becomes more comfortable with themselves over time, but that is definitely what this feels like to me. There are three ways to go with this:

1) Pick and pursue small reasonable variants of what you wish you were more like. If you don’t like being outdoorsy, who gives a shit? Skip it, it’s not a positive character trait, it’s a preference. If you’d like to work harder…maybe work harder? It’s not impossible, maybe you’ll get into it.

2) Work on your self-esteem. Maybe with a therapist, maybe by figuring out what you do like about yourself and starting there. Are you happy generally? Is this a niggling annoyance in your otherwise happy life? Or is it a big deal? It sounds like it’s the latter, and for that, I would seek professional help.

3) If you have actually constructed a version of this better-person-than-you in your mind, and she seems real, it may be Jolene. Then you’re out of luck.

Sarah: I feel like this is the plot to a movie. One that ends poorly.

You have left me oscillating wildly between sympathy and mild terror. It’s a hard thing to want something impossible (and I’m sure you’re aware, literally turning into this one girl you know is not a feasible goal). But on the other hand, I really wish you hadn’t asked for book recommendations. My first thought was Silence of the Lambs. My second thought was The Body Thief.

Assuming you are a perfectly nice person who just happened to write a letter that pushed all my fear buttons, let me offer you some vague and dubious advice. You shouldn’t think of your Self in terms of the sum of your superficial characteristics. And yes, being funny, talented, and “whip-smart” are all superficial characteristics. Personhood is better conceived of as the values, beliefs, relationships, and visions we direct our gifts towards. So what are those for you? And is the sum of those things — for you — really all that “meh”?

Mallory: So much of this — comparing your inner life to her outer life, wanting so badly to escape out of yourself that you’d like to wear someone else’s skin — is deeply normal and deeply relatable. Except for this part: “wanting to be her is getting in the way of doing my work.” This is still relatable but less normal, and is in fact Bad For You. This takes you beyond the realm where a person can still be helped by a pair of friendly but generally clueless bloggists.

If you’re so fixated on a person that it’s affecting your ability to function — and I’d argue that feeling consistently “meh” about yourself is not a state of feeling that you have to settle for — then the time has come to have a series of long and involved and preferably regular conversations with a therapist or a religious…guy. Pastor? Rabbi? Imam? Anyone at an Episcopal service who’s wearing robes and has a short haircut and a friendly expression, regardless of gender? Someone whose job it is to talk to you about how to live with your feelings, is what I’m getting at. Religious professionals will often counsel you for free, which is a handy trick if your insurance doesn’t cover therapy.

Also, it is entirely possible that you are not in love with this woman’s boyfriend at all, but are in fact in love with said woman. This may also prove significant. I hate to call everything deep-seated lesbianism, but this sounds a lot — a lot — like how I thought about the first woman I fell in love with before I was even willing to consider the possibility that I could be in love with a woman. This is a woman you think about so much you can’t do your job, who’s also “nice, funny, talented, interesting, laid back, whip-smart, hardworking, attractive, friendly, outdoorsy yet cultured and has a sexy voice.” My not-at-all-meh-friend (you read The Toast, how on earth could you be meh?), you don’t sound very in love with her boyfriend at all.

Sarah Jeong is a third-year law student prone to indignant outbursts. She tweets at @sarahjeong.  

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