Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

OP-ED

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Yasmeen Tajiddin

November 2019

Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent. 

Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?

The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?

Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.

            Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.

Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.

On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience. 

We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.

Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities

 

Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Ria Golovakova

November 2019

Plato can rejoice: writing has finally caught up to speech.

Back in 370 BCE, the Greek philosopher lamented in his dialogue Phaedrus that written words “stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.” In contrast to a live speaker, the author of a text is unapproachable. As a reader, you only have the words to go by, and “if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” If you want to express a criticism, the author needs to be there to support her writing, as “alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”  Except not anymore—social media has changed that dynamic.

Photo courtesy of freestocks.com

Authors are everywhere, and they want to talk to their readers: much like asking a question after a speech, a reader can now close the book and tag the author on Twitter, sending her all the pressing questions that the reading inspired. If the ending was unsatisfactory, the writer can be pressed to disclose more information. If a side-character was popular, the reader can request a spin-off or at least extra tid-bits about the character’s life. If the premise was controversial, the writer can be made to acknowledge the criticism. Roland Barthes is irrelevant—the author is no longer dead.

In 2017, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian that “writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low,” and he lamented that the new Internet age has destroyed any notion of a “private life” outside the screen. He also wondered about the writer’s role in this digital landscape: “what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and reported back?” I propose to answer that question with the case study of a very Internet-active author: J.K. Rowling.

An example of
J.K. Rowling’s infamous tweets.

Photo courtesy of freestocks.com

The writer behind the beloved Harry Potter franchise has taken a particular liking to Twitter. In fact, she has now become a running internet joke (or meme) for her notorious use of the platform to add to and augment the series’ canon. She has posted answers to fan questions that drastically changed the interpretation of her books or contradicted them entirely, with claims that Albus Dumbledore was actually homosexual or that Hermione Granger wasn’t white. In an article for WIRED, Emma Grey Ellis claims “at this point, Rowling herself seems to be running with scissors, ready to slice up your childhood.” She compares this behavior to the culture of fan-fiction, which has exploded since the early 2000s on Internet forums and has been particularly active in the Harry Potter fandom. But Ellis recognizes that Rowling’s interventions “seem as remote and unnatural as bad fanfic,” because they do not respect the internal logic of her original stories.

Still, consensus holds that Rowling’s statements are canon because they are made by the original author. In a paper titled “The ghost of JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the ur-fan,” Dion McLeod and Travis Holland suggest that such intervention forces the fans “who wish to read the texts through the dominant authorial lens established by Rowling” to “reinterpret the meanings they had previously found in the texts.” The paper in fact proposes a new way to look at the reader-author relationship, where Rowling becomes “the ur-fan.” In this role, she interacts with the fandom in a way that a fanfiction writer might, but she is given precedence because of her status as the original author of the text. This way, her interactions with the series become a gray area of not-quite-text and almost-canon.

These blurred boundaries suggest that the text is no longer the whole story, even with authors who are less active on social media than Rowling may be. There has been a rise in authors who either started out as popular social media users or who became more successful as writers because of their social media followings, such as John Green or Rupi Kaur. Of course, one can argue that all of the authors discussed so far do not write literary fiction, and that more mainstream pop fiction may lend itself to social media interactivity. But to me it seems short-sighted to assume that the authors of highly literary works could not be interested in the possibilities that Twitter brings. The dynamic between readers and writers is now fundamentally different, and even those writers who do not appear on social media do so as a conscious decision, which becomes part of their branding.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Even if a writer is not on Twitter, some of his or her readers will be. Ellis speculates that “the future of storytelling is likely something more participatory and inclusive,” with readers actively involved in creating and interpreting literature in ways that were not possible in the past. Fan fiction, interpretive theories, analysis video essays, speculative fan art, inspired original fiction, discussion boards: readers can gather in multitudes of digital spaces and mold their favorite works as they please, potentially toppling down the author’s superiority and making literature a two-way street instead of a sermon.

Rudy Rucker’s science fiction novel Software presents a model of evolution that resonates with this  discussion. Within the story, the creator of “boppers” (intelligent and self-conscious robots) Cobb Anderson, realized that “no one can write a bopper program … they’re too complicated” but one might not have to. Instead, he “set a thousand of simple AI programs” loose, with “fitness tests” that mirrored natural selection, and mutation when “all the surviving programs were randomly changed.”

Twitter reminds me of this software battle ground, where readers instead of AI programs are all set loose and compete for likes and retweets with their contributions to a fandom. Authorial intervention or other unexpected events, as well as the simple changing make-up of users, serve the role of mutation to the general landscape. Individuals build their ideas off of each other, creating complex systems of theories and interpretations that none of them could have come up with alone. As a public forum, the internet has created a growing network the creations of which are more than the sum of its parts.

The future of literature may be in trusting the crowd and the community. After all, genuine fans tend to want the best for the books they enjoy and their engagement may increase the value of the text more than the isolation of a static book ever could. Perhaps literature has now become the new Athenian assembly, after all. If Plato saw it, maybe he would not criticize writing as much as he did.

 

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

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The Burkini Ban

The Burkini Ban

OPINION

The Burkini Ban

How About We Start from Within?

Einas Alhamali

March 2019

In 2016, images of armed French officers forcing a woman to take off her burkini at the beach surfaced on the Internet. A burkini is a type of swimwear that covers the entire body and hair, suitable for hijabis. The officers were acting under the laws of their city, which, like other cities in France, had banned burkinis at the time.

The general response on social media was outrage, especially amongst Arabs and Muslims. When I saw the news, I was horrified, imagining myself forced to take off my protective layer under four men’s gazes. This incident was only one case that became viral; who knows how many more never reach the public eye?  

I was angry at France and their“secular” laws. I was angry at Islamophobic people. I could not imagine the anger and fear coursing through that woman’s body.

Little did I know that Islamophobia hides right under our noses.

Last summer, my family and I went on a vacation in the mountains of Lebanon. We had found the perfect hotel: antique décor, a big balcony, and cool, tranquil weather. At the reception, my mother asked about the pool. She needed to swim to keep her post-surgery arm from getting stiff. The receptionist answered, “Yes, of course. The pool is available if the men would like to swim.”

A moment of silence.

My mother gave a half-laugh. “And the women?”

The receptionist bit her lip and explained that burkinis were not allowed. We were almost too dumbfounded to respond. My mother had once told me that there were instances when she had not been allowed to swim in some hotels back in Syria either, but I thought that was a thing of the past. Surely, Arabs of different religions have reached a point of reconciliation? When it seems like the entire world stands against us, surely, we could at least support one another?

Why are private resorts in Arab countries banning the burkini, a sight that should be familiar considering the numbers of Muslims here?

But no. Over the next two days the receptionist and the manager asked us to please understand, it wasn’t their fault. They were only upholding “the hotel’s policy.” My father asked what the policy stated, and we tried to argue against it. Visitors must wear proper swimwear (invalid argument; burkinis are made of the same material as any other swimwear) that consists of one or two pieces (invalid argument; go ahead and Google images of burkinis; they’re usually two pieces with a head piece, but if you’re going to count the head piece then you should also count swimming caps, which would make bikinis three-piece swimsuits). 

And while the Lebanese government has its issues, this“policy” was not their doing. We found another hotel, only twenty-five minutes away by car, that allowed us to swim.

The case of the first hotel is not an isolated one. Friends have told me that this ban occurs in other Arab countries as well, such as Morocco and Egypt, where hijabis are not even allowed to sit on some private beaches. While the ban in France was under the name of secularism, these enterprises cited “hygienic reasons.” This excuse stems from a lack of knowledge—or maybe a lack of willingness to acknowledge—that women do not wear their own undergarments beneath the burkini. On the contrary, it often comes with its own swimming-suitable lining.

To put it into fewer words, both France and these private resorts in Arab countries were acting under a common incentive: prejudice.

Unlike France, however, the resorts were not following city laws. Their prejudice was the work of individuals.

In some ways, that’s scarier.

How can we expect other countries to respect our values when the same disrespect resides amongst us?

I find myself raising two questions I have yet to find an answer for: One, why are private resorts in Arab countries banning the burkini, a sight that should be familiar considering the numbers of Muslims here? Two, why are those situations not garnering social media attention?

I speak from personal experience. When the ban in France happened, my Facebook feed was flooded with the news; on the other hand, I only heard stories of the bans in Arab private resorts when I pitched this piece to my writing class.

I know that a national ban and individual cases of private enterprises are not on the same scale, but how can we expect other countries to respect our values when the same disrespect resides amongst us?

And it’s not like it’s impossible to ensure that hijabis are allowed to swim in private enterprises. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, I never have to worry about the matter. I can swim in pools and beaches, public or private, in a burkini—or a bikini, for that matter—and no one would bat an eye. I can even find places that allow women only, so that I feel more comfortable.

It’s going to take a collective effort to reproduce that freedom of swimwear in other Arab countries where some enterprises issue the ban. The change may start with a post on social media, or a review on the hotel’s website, or a report to the relative authorities.

But until then, whenever my family and I go on vacation, we will have to check beforehand whether burkinis are allowed.

 

 

Einas Alhamali is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi. She was born and raised in Syria but has also lived in Lebanon and the UAE. In her free time, she reads novels, watches anime, and anxiously solves 1000-piece puzzles.

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What’s in a Restaurant?

What’s in a Restaurant?

URBAN STUDIES

What’s in a Restaurant?

Reflecting on the UAE’s Stories of Migration

Laura Assanmal

March 2019

They had no menus in English. After the way that cinnamon and powdered sugar melted in my mouth after the first bite of pastel de nata—a rich egg custard nestled in crisp pastrythat is the one thing I remember from the night we stumbled upon Al Ulya-Loule.

We were supposed to have dinner at a popular Korean barbecue, but committed the grave mistake of showing up on a Friday night without a reservation. After a couple hours of roaming around, we found a small cafe hidden in Al Ramlah Street in Abu Dhabi, filled with the scent of strong coffee and people speaking nothing else but Portuguese. Sitting among them felt like we had walked into a well-kept secret; the recreation of a quaint, small town in the Southern tip of Portugal, existing strangely in a corner of the UAE. 

Restaurant-hunting had become one of our rituals, and the feeling of being transported to some faraway town while browsing old, wrinkled, menus was nothing new. After spending time in the bustling streets of Mumbai and growing up within the vibrancy of Latin America, I have often found the silence of Saadiyat Island to be just a little too loud. Trying a new cuisine each Friday became a way to make up for all the things that I missed from home, from the spice that was so painfully absent from the food served in our own dining hall, to the sound of people living and existing around me.  Soon after, I realized that at the backdrop of my food adventures lay a larger story about Abu Dhabi and the UAE—one that is often missing from tourism blogs and official stories of how this place came to be.

As a student at NYU Abu Dhabi, you are taught a thing or two about the history of the UAE. You learn of the generosity of its rulers and the hospitality of its people. We are told stories of bravery and compromise about the negotiations that took place so that seven very different kingdoms could come together and form a federation. You learn that Oman and Bahrain were supposed to be part of the union, and that Ras Al Khaimah was the last of the Trucial States to join the agreement. Then, in some strange fast-forward, you are shown the beauty, opulence, and high-rises. What we often don’t learn about is the in-between—the stories of those who imagined, planned, and built the streets and buildings we walk on today.  

I have often found the silence of Saadiyat Island to be just a little too loud. 

What they don’t tell you about the UAE is that is also the home of a fascinating population dynamic—that it is a country built by migrants. Fortunately, Abu Dhabi’s restaurants help tell that story.

In a way, Boti Street—a small Pakistani restaurant whose neon sign flickers at the bottom of Liwa Tower—tells the story of a South Asian diaspora that would shape the demographic landscape of the UAE forever. Every night at its tables sit perhaps a dozen of the 1.2 million Pakistanis nationals who migrated or were born in the UAE. From crane operators and taxi drivers to fishermen and bankers, they are a force within different sectors of the economy and today constitute over 12% of the population.

And they don’t sit alone. All around Abu Dhabi, they sit elbow to elbow with some of the over 2 million Indians with whom they share, among many other things, a love for chai, cricket and naan, and decades of postcolonial hatred for one another. Despite the grievances of a bloody postcolonial history, in UAE where the life of a migrant worker is mined with difficulty, food and spice provide a space to find common humanity in taste, memory, and nostalgia. 

On Salaam Street, Lebanese restaurants, Syrian cafeterias, and Turkish supermarkets exist side by side with each other, despite decades of conflict among these countries. In Abu Dhabi, restaurants serve as examples of peculiar coexistence, where people whose ethnic identities and political pasts could have prevented them from ever sharing a table. 

A stroll down the area surrounding Abu Dhabi Central Souk, where you can’t walk more than a couple blocks without seeing a tea shop serving 1 AED cups of karak—a thick and milky type of Indian tea, often spiced up with cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon— tells the story of a country that is beautifully and undeniably shaped by those who “aren’t from here.”

A majority of UAE residents lack the luxury to visit their countries when homesickness takes over, and that is when food becomes a way back home, but in places like Ortego’s Deli, and countless other Filipino bakeries that adorn the corners of Hamdan Street, workers get to enjoy pandesal and reconnect, even for a brief moment, with the island they left in search of economic opportunities.

The restaurants found in every corner of the city are whispers of belonging and small tokens of resistance.

It has been a year since I moved to the UAE, and I have yet to find out what Emirati food tastes like. But I’ve had Nepalese dumplings in Vansha Ghar, Ethiopian breakfasts at Bonna Annee, Bait Al Khetyar’s Lebanese manakeesh, and have spent warm afternoons waiting for chat and dosas outside Chhappan Bhog—one of the only places in the city where North and South Indian food come together. Abu Dhabi’s restaurants do more than tell individual stories of migration, and they are more than occasional culinary adventures. They are reminders that the UAE, at its core, is a country whose foundations it owes to the courage of those who left everything behind. They serve as reminders that there are gaps in the stories we tell.

The infinity of choices available to us every Friday are not an accident, each one of these places deepens our understanding of Abu Dhabi. Food diversity in the UAE is not the product of commercialized chains opening branches in a rapidly-growing city, it is the result of wave after wave of migration. The restaurants found in every corner of the city are whispers of belonging and small tokens of resistance, owned by the very people who made the choice to leave their homes. Even if these people and their stories are missing from the common discourse of the creation and rise of this country, it takes a short ride on the public bus and a walk down Hamdan St to find out.

Laura Assanmal is a sophomore from Honduras studying at NYU Abu Dhabi and currently living in London. She is a Social Research & Public Policy and Film & New Media major, but her true passion is writing about issues of gender, race, immigration, and intersectional feminism. When she isn’t consuming unhealthy amounts of coffee, she’s trying new restaurants in the city. Send her recommendations at lma502@nyu.edu.

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Videogames; or, Literary Merit

Videogames; or, Literary Merit

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Video Games; or, Literary Merit

Julián Carrera 

February 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged that video games are a form of media. Entertainment media, but media nonetheless. They share the stage with books, films, and plays. And yet, why are video games not being talked about in-depth? Different forms of media are analysed and given attention in academia. Why not video games?

Is it a problem with the games themselves? Or is it a problem with the fact that they’re games?

Video games are the black sheep of literary analysis. Techniques that used to limit themselves to different kinds of texts have been extended to other media such as cinema or theater. It was a natural progression: films and plays rely on written scripts, so they could be analysed through the lens of literature. But so do video games, so why aren’t they analysed to the same degree as films, plays, or books? Video games are another medium to express ideas. Look, for example, at Undertale or Doki Doki Literature Club, games that look beyond the scope and expectations of the genres they adopt.

Undertale, developed by Toby Fox—and thus called an “independent” or “indie” game—is a Role-Playing Game (RPG) that puts the player in control of Frisk, a human kid who fell from the surface to the underground, where Monsters live, and must find a way to get back home.

Most RPGs with a premise like Undertale would have the player use a weapon to kill all the Monsters that stand between the player and a way back home. Undertale took this aspect of the genre and flipped it. It is the RPG where “you don’t have to kill anyone,” according to the game’s website. Undertale gives the player the choice to be violent or non-violent, and judges the player based on how much violence he or she used.

Screenshot from Undertale.

Courtesy of undertale.com.

Undertale’s premise alone makes it an achievement of the medium in that it takes inspiration—and quotes through game mechanics—from games that came before it and flips the expectations of the genre by being an RPG where nobody has to die. Books and films and plays that do the same thing are analysed ad nauseam in academia, so why not video games?

Is it because Undertale stands as an exception?

It doesn’t.

Look at Doki Doki Literature Club, another indie game by Team Salvato, which is not an RPG, but rather a dating simulator. Like Undertale, it flips a fundamental part of the genre to deliver a message.

Dating simulators are text-based games that give the player two main choices: which character to date and what line of dialogue to say. They are not built to be deep, nor to pose a challenge to the player. After the player chooses someone to date, he (in very rare instances, she) will be given a choice of dialogue options, one of which will scream “This is the right thing to say,” while the others will be written to be the wrong choice.

Doki Doki Literature Club takes this idea and, given its literature club setting—in good dating simulator fashion, it is a club comprised of four girls and the player—turns the dialogue into a “poem.” The player is given a collection of words to “write a poem,” and next to the list of words, there are the three girls available to the player for dating. Whenever a word is picked, one of the girls will jump, signifying “progress” with said girl. It is a system that is easy to cheat, as one of the girls likes dark and long words, another likes cute and animal words, and another likes short and simple words.

It is also a system based on a choice that doesn’t matter. Regardless of the player’s choice, the game always progresses to the same end: a transformation into a horror game where all the player’s agency to choose is taken away. The player is forced to see and experience the horror, with no choice to avoid it other than by abandoning the game. The dissonance of a horrifying game with the aesthetics of an anime dating simulator creates a narrative style that unsettles the player.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.”

Apart from these flips to the genre and to the games from which it draws inspiration, Doki Doki Literature Club flips the expectation of the medium itself. Before the game transforms into a horror game, it uses every design aspect to make the player feel that there is something wrong with the game. The background music is off-key at times, the characters break the fourth wall by calling out a joke that doesn’t work in translation (even though the game is in English and isn’t translated from any other language), and characters reference everything that happens in the horror part of the game through obscure dialogue. After it transforms into a horror game, it uses everything it established in the non-horror part of the game and flips it. Characters sometimes stand in front of the dialogue box instead of behind it, images that took up the entire screen turn into covers for jump scares once the player clicks away, and the game starts using “glitches,” or coding mistakes, to unsettle the player. The music plays off-beat and distorts, backgrounds start twisting, character designs start garbling up, dialogues appear in different fonts or are a random string of characters.

At one point, the game requires the player to dig through the game’s files and delete one of the character files to progress through the game. It gamifies the logic of computers beyond the game.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.” So why is it not treated in academia like all the novels, films, or plays that did the exact same thing?

We need to look beyond what has been established and start seeing video games for what they are: another medium to develop ideas.

Screenshot from Doki Doki Literature Club.

Courtesy ddlc.moe.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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ARTND ART HISTORY

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

OP-ED

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

Xiaoxiao Du

February 2019

Five girls surrounded me while I was getting my henna tattoo done in a chaotic square of a Moroccan town. Their eyes followed the curvy lines drawn on my hand with a special herb product that dyed the skin. After she finished the last petal, the old henna artist admired her work for a second, decided that any addition to it would be redundant, and let go of my hand. I paid and stepped aside to make room for the next customer, but the other girls exchanged looks amongst themselves, and none of them sat down.

I was confused by their paradoxical admiration for the henna and their reluctance to get one, until later that night, my roommate, one of the five girls, revealed the magic words that kept them from getting a henna tattoo: cultural appropriation. Offending the locals was a lesser concern, because the henna artist was sitting in the middle of a square filled with tourists, and the locals passing by did not pay any attention to the henna stall, not to mention appear offended. It seemed that it was the mutual censorship, the fear that other students might accuse them of cultural appropriation, that kept them from getting a henna tattoo. In the end, you can never be too careful when dealing with potential cultural appropriation. 

Later in the Morocco trip, we had a chance to talk to local university students. We asked them whether they thought that it constituted cultural appropriation if someone outside their culture got a henna tattoo and then posted pictures of their henna on Instagram. The Moroccan students first asked what cultural appropriation was. They were amused by our concern about the appropriateness of getting a henna tattoo and replied that, no, they do not feel offended at all. They added that they felt flattered when people appreciated and spread their culture, so long as they were not poking fun at it. 

Moroccan Coast

Photo: Xiaoxiao Du

The Moroccan trip made me realize that cultural appropriation is a complex concept. I thought I was acquainted with the term “cultural appropriation” and its implications, but I failed to make the connection between getting a beautiful henna tattoo in Morocco and being guilty of cultural appropriation like other girls. I thought the criteria were simple: first, I have no intention of claiming henna tattooing to be part of my culture; second, my action did not offend anyone; and, third, it is just what tourists do. I would even go as far as calling my action “cultural appreciation.”

Yet talking about cultural appropriation is about calling into attention what people, tourists included, just do without questioning. The discussion about cultural appropriation is inseparable from other social and cultural discourses such as colonialism, orientalism, and the history of slavery. Talking about cultural appropriation sensitizes people so that they are more aware of the harm they could cause for the less privileged cultures and peoples.

The Oxford English Dictionary incorporated the term “cultural appropriation” in 2017 in response to the heated discussion about it in the western world, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Despite the appearance of clarity, the definition is problematic. The key terms are vague: what kind of adoption is inappropriate? How much acknowledgement is needed? For instance, a headdress which appeared in Victoria’s Secret’s 2017 show resembled a traditional war bonnet of the Native American culture. It is considered blasphemous for an outsider to wear it, and the headdress enraged the Native Americans. The leading opinions of the fashion world all agreed that the war bonnet constituted “cultural appropriation. It is unproductive to ban all assimilation of other cultures, but if we replace the war bonnet with less scared or mundane items, when does it cease to be cultural appropriation and become acceptable?

The conceptual confusion is not only a concern for scholars studying postcolonialism. When the line is hard to draw, and when people throw the term everywhere, an objective judgment is sometimes nowhere to be found. Worse, the resultant dispute can cause miscommunication and hatred. 

For instance, Jeremy Lin, a Chinese American basketball player, is known for his frequent change of hairstyle. When he posted on Instagram a picture of himself wearing his new choice of hairstyle, dreadlocks, he explained that he saw his hair as a tribute to the black culture. None of Lin’s teammates protested against his new hair, yet Kenyon Martin, a black basketball player from another team, bashed Lin’s African hairstyle, interpreting his action as a sign of wanting to become black, and labeling his hair “cultural appropriation.” People got so excited and ready to attack the person labeled as if they were a gam of sharks that smelled blood. Although some from the black community expressed their support or remained neutral, others followed Martin and left vicious comments under Lin’s Instagram. The dispute came to an ironic end when Lin responded to Martin, “At the end of the day I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos. I think it’s a sign of respect.” The term, coined to call for respect, has turned cultural exchange into name-calling. Its abuse pits people against people, minorities against minorities.

The dialogue about cultural appropriation does not happen in every country and every culture, but the need for respect is universal. It is for the purpose of fighting discrimination and trivialization of the less privileged cultures that we initiate the conversation about cultural appropriation. But maybe “cultural appropriation” has gone too far that its practice defeats the purpose of promoting genuine respect and appreciation. Those who lack respect weaponize the term, whereas those with great respect for other cultures, due to the fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation,” lose the chance to take advantage of their cultural exchange experiences.

Talking about “cultural appropriation” cannot guarantee mutual respect. As someone who got a henna tattoo in Morocco and who might have been guilty several times of “cultural appropriation” according to stricter versions of its definition, I am not sure to what end the discourse is leading.

Xiaoxiao Du is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her name means “small small.” She is a philosophy major with special interests in metaethics. She can re-read novels by Cao Xueqin and Gabriel García Márquez any number of times without getting bored.

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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

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