The term cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation can seem irrelevant to international students. After all, they are just coming to another country to study for a bit, make some friends, and hopefully experience some fun, interesting things. Worse yet, talking about cultural appropriation can bring to mind people overreacting due to some well-meaning people deciding to put on someone else’s national dress. It can seem a bit ridiculous and irrelevant, and yet it contains an important lesson that we must pay attention to.
International students are often the cultural ambassadors of their country. Therefore, it is in their and their country’s best interests to leave a good impression. Not only that, but cultural appropriation goes both ways, potentially putting the students themselves in uncomfortable situations. It is for this reason that we have decided to write an article discussing this topic. It should hopefully clarify the clash of cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation and make you more sensitive to how you behave around those from foreign places and societies.
Firstly, let us talk about cultural appropriation and outline the kinds of behaviour that you should avoid. For many people, the distinction between appropriation and appreciation when it comes to culture is difficult to understand. However, there are some general principles to keep in mind which should help you spot appropriation when you see it happening, whether it is in your own or someone else’s behaviour.
The main aspect of cultural appropriation is a lack of respect or awareness. Appropriating means taking an aspect of someone’s culture without understanding the context surrounding it. You appropriate that aspect and then use it for your own purposes. For example, someone might put on a Japanese kimono completely randomly and use it to try and look cool, completely ignoring what kind of behaviour or occasion goes with such a national dress. Alternatively, a foreigner could put on a turban and act like a fool in order to poke fun at cultures from the Middle East or Southern Asia. In both of these cases, the aspects of culture are ripped from their proper context and used as a means to either show off or disrespect them.
Another thing when talking about cultural appropriation vs. cultural appropriation has to do with reach. For example, someone dressed in the traditional clothing of a small Pacific island culture might think they are doing them a favour by promoting it, but in all actuality might simply be presenting their own, modified and flawed version of said culture to the world, eclipsing their authentic, though less famous counterpart.
In the end, cultural appropriation means using an aspect of a culture that is not one’s own for the wrong purposes. These purposes include aggrandizing the ego, making fun of something, or simply misusing symbolism which some people might find sacred.
Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, is when you honour someone’s culture, taking into consideration the context of their dress, customs, and cuisine. This produces the opposite effect of appropriation. Instead of the person being potentially offended or feeling that their culture was used to simply look cool or make fun of them, they feel appreciated and understood, like you have taken the time to fully comprehend the significance and meaning behind certain traditions and incorporate them into your life.
You can even notice this in yourself. Surely there have been times when you did not like the way someone was interpreting or using something that was culturally significant to you. In the same way, respect needs to be given and care taken when trying to share the cultures of others. And this is another important point. Loud voices often harp on cultural appropriation as being the only result of culture sharing and thus destroy people’s will to engage in this kind of bonding. However, intercultural exchange is the basis of global peace and a healthy planetary society. It would therefore be a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater and immediately assume that all forms of culture sharing are wrong in some way.
The most important thing when thinking about cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation is to think about your intention and approach. As long as you participate in cultural exchange with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and respect, there should be no issues. After all, is this not one of the most exciting things about studying abroad?
Of course, do not forget to also share your own culture in a respectful way. Who knows? You might find that there is someone who will really appreciate it and fall in love with how your people do things.
Some of the most popular destinations for studying abroad are anglophone nations like the USA or the UK where you can find many different cultures from around the world. This is exactly why it is so important for international students to be aware of this distinction. Now that you know what cultural appropriation is and how it differs from true appreciation, you can have the right approach and create true intercultural bonds with your future friends.
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