All My Culture is Stolen

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Crushing grapes in California

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights.” ~ Wikipedia entry for “Cultural Appropriation”

I’ve been watching the rise of this topic lately with great interest, primarily because I have no culture. That is to say I was raised without any specific cultural references, without religion or beliefs of any kind even atheism, and have only the barest awareness of my genealogy and biological history.

I understand the premise of cultural appropriation and respect the outrage felt by minority groups who see elements of their culture taken, distorted and even used for profit, but I don’t know how I, a cultureless being, fit into all this.

Every bit of culture I have or was raised in, by virtue of my adoption, is not mine. As for the rest, let me explain.

Religion and Belief

In the short time I spent talking with my dad after my sister’s death and before his death, I asked him if he had been raised in any particular religion. You see, religion was simply never mentioned in our house. My parents, to the best of my knowledge were neither believers nor atheists nor agnostics. When I went through my brief “born again” phase, after returning from a heavy-on-the-brainwashing Christian summer camp, there was a lot of smiling and nodding but I don’t recall any member of my family agreeing or disagreeing with me about God, Jesus, the bible, etc. Eventually, without the daily peer pressure and happy Jesus sing-alongs, I returned to my normal state of “whatever”.

The story Dad told me was fascinating and makes me kick myself for not delving into his history much earlier.

Yes, he said, he was raised to believe in God and his parents dragged the whole big Marrington clan to church every Sunday. I’m pretty sure it was a Catholic church but I could be misremembering.

My grandad, Stan, worked a lot of different jobs during the depression since he was not exactly a skilled labourer and jobs were scarce. (When I asked Dad what he knew of the Marrington history he said all he knew was that apparently they had been chased out of the slums of London). One of Grandad’s jobs was delivery man and one of the places to which he delivered was the church he and his family attended.

According to Grandad, security was tight at the church. He would deliver shipments of food and be met at the service door by one of the priests. The priest would lead him to a room to unload the goods and then bid him farewell. Grandad was not allowed to actually put the food in the big, locked, walk-in coolers and he was never left unattended.

But one day there was a different priest there to meet him and that priest left him alone to unload the goods. Grandad opened the first walk-in cooler and was awed by the sight of stacks and stacks of roasts, steaks, chicken, and seafood. This was a banquet! It was also food exclusively for the priests. Not the poor, not the hungry, just the holy men.

Remember, this was during the depression, there were a lot of poor and hungry.

Grandad looked at the bounty in that cooler and thought about the single mother he had seen the previous Sunday–one of those poor and hungry. She and her scrawny children had dutifully added their coins to the collection plate every Sunday even though they could obviously have used every last penny. Meanwhile, here were the priests, stuffing themselves like kings.

That, my dad told me, was the end of church, the end of god, and the end of religion in his family.

And so, I grew up in a household that did not badmouth god but simply refrained from any discussion on the subject. It was as if my family, collectively, slapped their hands over their ears and said “La la la, I can’t hear you” to erase religion from their world.

Ancestry and Heritage

If I could choose to be born into any particular race or culture, chances are my choice would be food-based. I’ve spent time with Italian families, Greek families, Croatian families, Dutch families, you name it. Even though these families were legally Canadian or American, their culinary heritage was alive and well. And, might I add, delicious.

But it’s more than just the food that bonds these families, it’s everything that happens around the food. Prez’s Italian step-family in California have get-togethers for making food and drink. Pressing grapes, standing barefoot in casks that are over 100 years old, it’s impossible not to feel the thread that runs through each member of the family, across the ocean, back to the home of their ancestors.

In my writing group in Nelson, our Norwegian member wrote a long description of the Christmas tradition of making lefse in her family. She made a batch for us and even showed us the special wooden, lefse rolling pin that had been handed down in her family through generations. So much history and tradition for one dessert.

Some of my friends have rules around their food that go back over a thousand years or more.

My dad’s side of the family was British, my mom’s Scottish. What were the food traditions in my childhood home?

Sunday nights we usually ate overcooked roast beef, which meant Monday nights were usually overcooked hot roast beef sandwiches. Saturdays were reserved for takeout–Chinese or pizza. Gram occasionally made Scotch Broth, which was tasty but nothing I’d call all my friends over for. And our few “traditions” gradually fell by the wayside when my sister moved away and I got older and less excited about family dinners.

Nothing was passed down to me. I have no recipes. I’ve never cooked or baked anything that my mother or grandmother cooked or baked. It is as if our family history was written in disappearing ink that is now beginning to fade into obscurity.

And that’s just food. My family had no art, no music, no style of clothing that marked us as a distinct culture. Everything about us was new, generic, bought at a mall or Kmart.

Stealing Culture

If there is one legacy that was passed down to me from my parents, it was a love of travel. My parents were not big adventurers and seldom went off the beaten path but they loved camping, car trips, cruises, sunny vacation spots. As an adult, I took that ball and ran with it as far as I could.

Every country I have visited or lived in–and I have not visited one tenth of the places I would like to–has made its mark on me. There are wonders in every nook and cranny of the world. Oh, and the language! I love language and I love the little phrases unique to all the pockets of the planet.

Nearly seven years after leaving the Cook Islands, Prez and I still say, “It’s hot as” on particularly warm days. (We also say it in a Kiwi accent, with heavy emphasis on the “as”). My day-to-day speech is peppered with Latin-American Spanish, some French, and bits of Japanese, American slang and, of course, Kiwi-isms–remnants of my other homes.

I’ve studied Japanese martial arts, Indian yoga, and Polynesian dance. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up so close to so many other cultures, to have dipped my cup in so many rich and colourful traditions.

I’m not a souvenir collector in the traditional sense but, from every place I visit and everyone I interact with, I steal a bit of culture. Is it wrong, what I do?

And what of my genetic ancestry? From what I know, my biological mother’s side of me was German. Bio-Dad’s ancestry, like the man himself, is a mystery. In any case, I feel no blood urges related to my biological ancestry.

What am I? Who am I? Canadian? What does that even mean?

If you’re a blank slate, if you have no deeply ingrained culture and traditions, then isn’t your entire life culture appropriation?

Awareness

With all the necessary talk around cultural appropriation, I have become hyper aware. My new workplace has a small gift shop area with a selection of goods decorated in First Nations art. The actual items–t-shirts, mugs, scarves–are probably made in China but the artwork is all from Pacific Northwest First Nations artists and they receive credit and payment for their work. This should make the idea of purchasing these items guilt-free for me.

It doesn’t.

I think about walking around in an obviously First Nations art t-shirt and wonder if I’m now being disrespectful or if someone will assume that the art I’m wearing has been plundered and that I’m exploiting an entire culture when, in fact, I just really dig the design.

I’ve never thought about the culture I steal before because a) I always thought what I took was done out of genuine respect and appreciation and b) I had so little culture of my own.

Now I wonder, where’s the line? Am I a thief or am I a woman patching together a quilt of identity?

 

This entry was posted in Family & Children, News and politics, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to All My Culture is Stolen

  1. I’ve wondered many of the same things, though I appear to have more heritage connections than you do. I’ve also spent time wondering how society can step away from “White is standard/neutral” if everyone is forbidden from borrowing outside their culture. Example using hair: Right now POC populations feel enormous pressure to try to emulate hairstyles that are easiest to maintain for white people. In order for society to popularize hairstyles that work best on dark, kinky, or coarse hair, those styles need to be seen as cool, which means that white people will try to wear them. When is a white person wearing a traditionally POC hairstyle appropriation that should be quelled, and when is it a sign that society is finally shifting away from “all things white are normal.”

    • clubfredbaja says:

      Good question! I have no answer. It’s become a minefield, that’s for sure. A friend of mine (who spent part of her childhood in a Japanese internment camp in the US) told me how frustrated she was as a teenager because she could not replicate the make up styles she saw in magazines with her Asian eyes. She actually wrote one of the magazines and asked them for tips but of course she received no reply. She would have loved a more blended and inclusive view on culture.

      • Sandra Tayler says:

        Exactly. I have these thoughts and mostly don’t say them because that would be yet another white person taking control of a conversation. And yet if the white people are the loudest voices by default and they say nothing, then the problems continue. It is all complicated, so I live with unresolved questions in my head, which is uncomfortable for me. But I think I am a better citizen of the world for seeing these questions than if I were more oblivious or more certain that a single way to be is the right one.

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