Learning about different cultures is fun and interesting. Cultural anthropologists even struggle with avoiding this on a daily basis. That’s why there’s constant discourse in the anthropological world on how to write humanistic, culturally sensitive ethnographies.
But sometimes, you want to join your Hindu friends in Diwali, learn about Gudiparan bazi from your Afghan neighbors, or observe St. Lucia with your Swedish in-laws. It’s fascinating to learn about something new. It’s understandable.
So how do you celebrate these traditions without tiptoeing into cultural appropriation? Well, don’t celebrate it without expressed invitation or permission from the people. Don’t assume you know or understand more about its history, meaning, symbols than the actual people. Don’t speak for the people. And, most importantly of all, don’t ever try to take meanings of a culture and try to separate them. Those rituals are heavily embedded with history and meaning. Don’t ever fucking do that.
"No worries, I won’t do that. I adore the meanings behind those symbols and celebrations. In fact, I want a tattoo of it."
No. Just no. I’m sure certain individuals within the culture would be fine with it, but let’s err on the side of safety and say, no. Why? Because it’s extremely easy for that symbol to lose it’s meaning. To you, it may mean a great deal. You may actually understand the symbolic meaning behind it perfectly. But to someone else, they may just see the symbol and not the symbolism. There’s also a shitton of history behind those symbols you probably want tattoo’d on you. There might be rituals involved. I know, if I saw a non-east asian person with a fucking Chinese dragon tattoo, I want to scream. Or a lotus tattoo. There’s a lot of history and meaning and by putting it on your foreign body, it takes that away and is just purely for “aesthetics.” If it is on the actual body of the person who is in that culture, that’s a different story because that is their identity. That’s their identity to claim and embrace, not yours.
"Okay, but I want to properly visit a shrine. Can I wear the traditional garb?"
No. No you may not. Too much has this been abused. You’re only a person experiencing that moment for a short amount of time. You’re not ever going to experience it the rest of your life. You can go to the shrine and learn about it and try to experience it. But you will, and can never, get the full experience because part of that experience is being a member of that identity. Wearing the traditional garb will not help. It may make you feel closer to the identity, but it’s just clothes that you can slip into for a moment and slip out of. The people from that culture cannot slip into their cultural identity and slip out of it.
"Okay, I understand that. But my Balinese friends invited me to go to the Galungan festival with them. Can I?"
Yes, yes you may. You thought I was gonna say no to everything right?
I was tempted to. Always listen to the people within the culture. Be extra aware that you’re not within the culture, that you’re an outsider. There’s very few spaces where one can celebrate one’s own culture. If you’re lucky enough to experience a taste of it, by all means go and learn. Learn about their history, the meaning behind it, the people, their struggles, their folklore, their triumphs. Let them talk. Let them show you what they’re comfortable showing you. Let them invite you to rituals only they’re comfortable with inviting you. Don’t ever try to speak for them about their own culture. Don’t ever try to take something from their culture out of it. Do only what your friends are willing to let you do. Be willing to apologize should you say or do anything insensitive. Be willing to learn. Enjoy it, but just know and stay aware that you’re an outsider.
—- Most importantly of all ——
Whether or not you’ve travelled outside the country, if you are doing something belonging to a different culture, you are a tourist. You can view and aww and appreciate its beauty and meanings and learn more about it, but you are only a tourist in that culture. You are not, and can never be a member of it. You can never have others identify or associate you to that culture. You can never have the history, injustices, prejudices, etc of that culture put on you. You can never have the negative impacts of that culture put on you. All you can do, is appreciate the positives and spin it to your own comfort. And that’s not fair and insensitive to those who are within that culture and have to live with both the positives and negatives. That is disrespectful. That is why, you can’t celebrate many parts of another’s culture unless you are invited by said people. Because unlike those within those culture, you can take off the culture when you’re done. They cannot.
It is their identity. Not yours. You’re always a tourist.