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In late April, Korea is alive with bursts of green, purple, and pink. Spring has truly arrived with an explosion of flowers. After one of the coldest winters since the Korean War, the country has thawed, and people have begun enjoying the weather by strolling along the Han River and picnicking in parks before summer blazes in.
One of the most popular destinations in the city is Gyeongbokgung, or the Royal Palace. It is packed with people, Korean and foreign alike, taking photos, absorbing sunlight, and watching special performances. And even better—if you wear a hanbok, or traditional dress, you get free admission! On this particularly clear day, my friends and I took advantage of the weather and headed into the heart of the city. My friend, visiting from the States, had a short and specific bucket list: to wear hanbok and take pretty pictures inside the palace.
I felt my heart rate increase. Dilemmas and uncertainties flew around my head like bees ready to sting. Is this cultural appropriation? Is this okay for me to do? Are people going to criticize me for this? Other foreigners doing it doesn’t justify my participation, does it? Am I perpetuating a system that deems this culture as secondary to my own? Am I treating this culture like it is a plaything to be worn for an afternoon and then discarded?
As an American who spends most of her time in social justice spheres and multicultural organizations, I had long ago understood the message—don’t overstep your bounds, be mindful, and stay educated. These questions weighed on me like an immense, immovable stone. As my friends convinced me, as the shopkeeper helped me dress, and as my hair was braided, my heart kept pounding out worries.
Walking out onto the street was infinitely worse. I felt my muscles seize up and a few hot tears made the escape I desperately wished I could. But slowly, with encouragement from my friends and overheard compliments from passing Koreans, I was able to lift my head. Suddenly I could see the world from which I had been trying to hide. In the bright sunlight, the palace front grounds were covered with people in colorful, gorgeous hanbok. Korean, foreign, women, men, young, old… all were enjoying this lovely Sunday afternoon.
In regard to multiculturalism, a disconnect between Western opinion and Eastern experience seems to exist.
Americans are constantly in a battle over the question of how to treat various foreign cultures. As the country has a mixed population with large percentages from dozens of other countries, this discussion is necessary and ongoing. However, these ideas and conversations do not always translate across the oceans. In Korea, this is not often a central discussion, and understandably so. The politics are different, the history is different, and the people’s needs are different. It is a homogeneous society while America is decidedly the opposite. So when Westerners try to look through their multi-colored glasses, sometimes it distorts a much simpler, black-and-white situation.
Don’t get me wrong, I know this is an oversimplification of a massive global historical issue, and it is one that will not be solved easily. I am merely writing from a personal perspective and magnifying down to an individual level. After all, large problems are solved one step at a time—one person at a time. Slowing down and focusing on empathy, education, and experiences can be more effective than anger and aggression. Everyone wants to be seen and understood on their deepest levels. Before we can dig deeper, we must first acquire the shovel. And once the hole is dug, then flowers can be planted.
Humans are naturally curious, mostly about each other. People explore different countries and cultures to catch a glimpse at others’ histories, foods, and ways of life. The ever-present question of what is it like for you? is followed closely by why? We are incessantly looking for these answers. If we are lucky enough to have experiences that not only answer these questions but create new ones, then it is natural we would want to dive so deep that we cannot see the surface anymore. The attempt to understand—to experience firsthand—is at the root of our curiosity. This is our attempt at grabbing the shovel, you might say.
However, it has become a common aspect of Western social justice to put limits on who can have experiences in different cultures. Not without reason, considering that white Westerners have for centuries stolen and appropriated foreign cultures. The line between appropriation and appreciation is both thick and thin, and the topic of many thought pieces.
Before appreciation can exist though, knowledge and experience must be had. These are the best ways to break through the mold of ignorance that often leads to appropriation.
Perhaps the most common example is the wearing of traditional clothing, known as hanbok in Korea’s case. In America, while there is a spectrum of opinions, the main thread is: people outside of that specific culture should not wear the clothing unless they meet very specific standards. Namely, that they have extensive knowledge of the clothing and/or the culture and its people. This is not completely unreasonable, as the history of the West has been globally open and their populations tend to be diverse. Americans generally believe a person should not wear traditional clothing outside their own culture unless they already possess background knowledge and are therefore deemed acceptable.
In contrast, a majority of Koreans will delight in your participation. Any interest is greeted with enthusiasm and immediate education. Proud of their history, culture, and language, they give out bits of knowledge like free samples. And why not? They expect foreigners to know nothing, and they have virtually no concept of cultural appropriation. When you are in Korea, you are in their world and American rules simply no longer apply.
They are wholly unaware of the stipulations Americans have placed upon one another because historically (and even contemporarily) cultural diversity did not exist. Whether you wear hanbok to visit historical sites, for traditional ceremonies, or just for fun, you’ll more often than not find many Koreans alongside you doing the same. It is normal, and you will probably learn something you would never have had the chance otherwise. This new awareness and the facts you will learn along the way will forever change your worldview. Therein lies the invaluable benefit.
This idea of legitimacy, that foreign people cannot participate unless they meet a certain standard, is overall detrimental to building understanding among those wanting to learn and grow.
Americans have the idea that their view of equality and social advancement is absolute and correct, and therefore hold a certain authority to make rules for behavior and opinions for the rest of the world. This seems only to perpetuate the idea that the West is on a higher level on the global ladder rather than all cultures and countries being equal. It implies people in the East, including Korea, are unaware and therefore their opinions do not count.
The second aspect of legitimacy is the need to be accompanied by a person of that culture, an “actual” Korean if you will. This has a fair basis in truth. The fence separating cultural appropriation and appreciation or participation is sometimes easy to jump, but it relies heavily on the intent of the person. Jumping the fence into the garden and being invited in through the gate are vastly different circumstances. Generally, people are trying to simply walk through the gate, whether they are walking in already accompanied or looking to make a new acquaintance along the way. Additionally, the standards of expected knowledge are usually much higher in America compared to Korea.
Everyone has different sets of knowledge, focus, and experiences, so sometimes even a Korean will have forgotten certain facts or trivia that Americans expect them to know. This lack of knowledge is acceptable in Western eyes because of the perceived legitimacy of the person. It is impossible to know what you do not know. Research and education can provide a solid foundation, but sometimes there are gaps that cannot be helped regardless of the person’s intentions or effort.
Furthermore, the reverse is frequently true as well. In Korea, ignorance of other cultures and countries is visible. There is a lot of misinformation and occasionally offensive occurrences, but since the U.S. does not pay much attention beyond economics and politics, social incidences get swept aside. Naturally, with a global history of Western colonialism, simply saying this oppressive history is the culprit is easy. Still, this piece is addressing these issues from a magnified perspective. If weeds are growing in both gardens, claiming they sprouted originally from one garden does not help solve the problem. We must pull the weeds, one by one, in order to cultivate the world we want.
All in all, people must enter the garden and try planting before they can gain more intimate knowledge. Will their hands get dirty? Probably. They’ll forget their gloves, pull a flower instead of a weed, or forget to water once in a while. But if their intent is to help maintain and create a beautiful garden, then the first step is to lend them the shovel.
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