If you’re looking for something to get needlessly angry about this week, may I suggest salad names?
That’s what got Bonnie Tsui in a tizzy last week in the New York Times after she saw an “Asian salad” on a menu and felt micro-aggressed by the micro greens. She writes that the “Greek salad has some integrity” and can be found in Greece, but the Asian salad is a wholly American creation.
Six hundred words in, Tsui asks, “So what’s my problem with Asian salad?” The next line is not, as you may imagine, “I have too much time on my hands.”
Tsui also asks, “Am I taking this too seriously?” Uh, yes, ma’am, you are taking the name of a dish that exists in chain restaurants far too seriously.
That’s the nature of our current “everything is offensive” cultural moment. The week before that piece appeared, the music festival Coachella spawned dozens of think pieces, as it does every year, on whether various outfits at the show constituted “cultural appropriation.”
A girl who had posted a photo of herself in a Native American headdress actually felt forced to issue a public apology.
In a world where such a thing as “festival wear” exists (and the many emails I get from fashion houses trying to sell the ridiculous style to me suggests that it does), it’s not surprising that people may take things too far.
Then again, while teenage girls are shamed for such things on the internet, Elizabeth Warren literally, actually appropriated Native American heritage for herself, and benefited from this appropriation — yet remains a liberal star.
Culture is fluid, especially in a country like America. But what is American culture? It has long been a collection of other cultures. Some pieces of those cultures get co-opted, and others get discarded.
Yes, we take beautiful things from elsewhere without necessarily knowing the full weight of their significance. But it should be taken more as a sign of appreciation than appropriation. When Beyoncé wears a henna tattoo, she’s not discounting India’s rich history or proclaiming herself Indian; she’s just saying this is a pretty henna tattoo and I like it on my hands.
Everything we wear and eat began somewhere. Americans should consider if they still want the country to be a melting pot or if we’re going to go down this segregated, “everything is appropriation” path.
Critics are quick to make assumptions in judging cultural appropriators. Jessica Andrews in Teen Vogue, for example, urged people to avoid the “cultural appropriating epidemic at Coachella.” Andrews wrote, “For South Asian women, bindis are a cultural symbol that represents the third eye, a sacred site of wisdom and spiritual development. For some Coachella attendees, it’s just a pretty forehead accessory.”
Of course, Andrews has no way of knowing what the Coachella attendee with a bindi is thinking. Maybe she was raised in South Asia. Maybe she is South Asian.
When Kylie Jenner displayed cornrows in her hair, “Hunger Games” star Amandla Stenberg criticized her in a tweet for appropriating “black features and culture” but failing “to use ur position of power to help black Americans” and “directing attention towards ur wigs instead of [toward] police brutality or racism.”
So if Jenner were also using her celebrity to speak out, say, for #BlackLivesMatter, her white-girl cornrows would be OK? Is someone going to eventually write a manual to keep track of all this?
It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. In Tsui’s salad piece, she writes that “the casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic — who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation.” The joke, of course, is if someone presented this salad, with soy sauce, ginger and sesame, as an “American salad,” that would be cultural appropriation, too.
How dare we use traditionally Asian ingredients without at least a nod to the culture they came from.
I came to America as a child, born in a city that has since been renamed, and in a country that no longer exists. Even when the Soviet Union was around, my Jewish family wasn’t considered Russian or Ukrainian or Belarussian, despite having lived in those countries for generations.
Yet in America, I’m shorthanded to “Russian.” This doesn’t cause an existential crisis for me, and it doesn’t detract from my actual identity in any way. If you want to eat pelmeni (Russian meat dumplings) and have your kids play with matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls), that’s fine by me.
Oh, and no one in Russia has ever heard of “Russian salad dressing.”