Art, Culture & Exploitation

When do displays of culture as art become exploitation?

You walk into a coffee shop. All you want is a strong, soothing cup of coffee to brighten your day, to get you started. You smell the alluring aromas. (It’s most likely an independent establishment.) You order at the counter and walk away with your warm brew for which you probably paid more than your bank account should allow.

This coffee shop sources its beans from around the world – Asia, Africa, South America. Lining the walls are stimulating photographs of the people who live in these regions of the world. Today, the shop is going through a phase of African villages. Today, hanging on the walls are the photos of African children and workers and people living their daily lives to harvest that which they will probably never taste in its final form. The coffee that’s harvested and industrialized and barista-ed for the people’s $5 Sunday pleasure. These photos are intended to decorate, transporting you, making you feel connected and sustainable and grateful…

But something feels gross about it. I’m sitting here, gazing upon a photo and it feels invasive. This person’s way of life is so different from mine. And I wasn’t invited. This person’s way of life and appearance and norms captured in photos that line all of the walls are my “decoration” to view upon on this Sunday morning.

Most people walk in hardly taking a glance at the walls. They’re too focused on the work that they have to do or the person sitting across from them or the book in their hands. But it still creates an ambiance. It subscribes to the “responsibility” of an independent coffee shop. This isn’t the mass production of Starbucks, it screams. (As I listen to the barista/cashier denounce all that is wrong about Starbucks.)

We’ve seen the #InstagrammingAfrica and phenomenon of African voluntourism. And what about “art” and “décor”? And I’m truly asking – where exactly is that line? When does it become some form of self-serving exploitation?

An Ode to Coffee

Coffee is a glorious and wonderful thing. I could thank the person who discovered it every day. It has the power to keep me alert, keep me awake at all hours of the day and night, without discrimination, without regard to my pre-existing condition, which is probably irreversibly sleep-deprived.

Note that I make a distinction here between coffee and caffeine. Caffeine can come in many forms. But the coffee goes down with pleasure, alongside the rich aroma. And I don’t mind added milk, be it cold or steamed. I know, I’m violating the idea of a real purist coffee drinker. Kill me. I add things.

Let’s resume. It has the power to keep me up at all hours, finishing things that I “need” to do, right now, right this minute. I whiz through texts and writing and analyzing. I find my flow.

Its duality amazes me. While it is able to give enjoyment and provide a certain utility, it is also able to give extraordinary anxiety. I feel my blood pumping, my brain churning, sweat on my palms, my face hot, the tremors start. All of these things, coffee is able to achieve all at once or separately.

Yet, it also has the power to make the morning inviting and the weekend welcoming, when I don’t have any obligations. It’s a source of enjoyment.

It’s something shared. Everyone is willing to sit with you for a cup of coffee. Unless they don’t like you, in which case, that’s a different issue. It can bring people together, and also push peoples apart.

To Do: Merge Worlds

I recently took a trip back to New York City. The trip had multiple purposes. One, I missed New York. I missed my friends and the life that I had there, however brief it was. Two, I wanted to maintain connections with my former organization and maybe make some new ones. Three, I wanted needed a vacation.

For the past nine months, I’d lived in San Francisco. It’s become one of my favorite cities. It’s often compared to New York. Apart from the fact that they make up opposite metropolitan centers on each coast, I’m not entirely sure why they’re so often compared. To me, the comparison isn’t justifiable.

I was there for a week. I fell easily back into the routine of long hours, post-work drinks, late-night trains, date nights, and bottomless brunch. Days were long. I was moving forward, getting relevant work done, and on the whole, a productive member of society that also had a rich social life. Yay, me. Perhaps these were the feelings that I’d missed.

I loved my trip back, but it also highlighted how much I’ve changed in only a year. It highlighted the extremes to which one’s environment shapes one’s thoughts and way of thinking. Maybe it’s the barrage of data and technology in San Francisco and what money and success means here compared to New York that makes the distinction so palpable.

In San Francisco, the conversation revolves around technology: engineering, coding, machine learning; data: data systems, integration, visualization; startup culture: entrepreneurship, innovation, connections, capital. Now, I realize that a life in New York means many different things to many different people, but mine is and was about being part of an international city. My world turned for global policy and world politics, the goings-on of the United Nations, who was coming to the US, and what it meant in the world. Relevant issues were defined as what we were doing about the refugee crisis, what was happening in the Congo, Syria, Lebanon, and the Ukraine, what you thought about it, what should be done, and the role you and others played. It’s not that these issues are forgotten in San Francisco. It’s just that discussion of them is often diminished by news of the most recent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and what that means for society and private companies. And while these happenings too are important, the inherent differences between them are compelling.

I went back to New York with a mindset dominated by the accepted importance of data, tech, and startup culture. In New York, I encountered my old self – one for which the significance of these concepts were only peripheral. For that time, I forgot everything I was aiming to pursue in San Francisco. But the San Francisco influence clearly affected the way that I thought about and responded to old friends’ conversation around the usual international development issues.

What alarmed me the most is that I only realized these changes when I returned to the West Coast. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out of that environment that I realized its impact, that other places are consumed by different worlds. It highlighted and re-emphasized a few things for me.

  1. Make conscious choices about your environment – friends, work, and culture – because it will shape you and your life.
  2. Your world is small. Don’t forget that your present and its concerns are often only small elements of others’ worlds.
  3. Seek out new experiences and new places, but revisit the old ones. Don’t forget to reflect on them and recognize how you’ve changed as a result.

My task now is to effectively integrate and balance these perspectives for innovation and impact. These are experiences that make each of our views unique and relevant. So how do I make mine tangibly relevant? That still remains to be seen.

The Best of Both Worlds

“What are you talking about? You can’t say anything. You’re hapa, you have the best of both worlds.”

Translation: How could you possibly relate with me with respect to race and the racism I experience? You’re part them.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_03-04And I am proud. But no one on the street would pick me out as white. That is fact. So much of how people treat you is based on appearance – an age-old phenomenon of human nature. Never considered white and never considered Asian. Is it really the best of both worlds? Or is it simply a constant reminder that you don’t truly fit anywhere?

I grew up in a close-knit family, always perceiving that I was different in a way over which I had little to no control. I didn’t know the language as well as my cousins of the same age. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable Som Pas-ing every time I saw grandparents. And sometimes, I didn’t know how to properly react to things, but knew that as my mother’s adorable offspring, both she and I would be unreservedly judged on my responses. Instead, without being fully white American, I spoke impeccable English, my dad being a stickler for that sort of thing and my mom fearing that being fully bilingual contaminated my brain with a ‘foreign-ness’ that would hamper my chances in a decidedly Western world.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_00-05Even among other hapas or multiracials, even if you matched two people’s distinct cultural composition, each will have his or her own melding of cultures to different degrees of acceptance and understanding to form his or her identity. Applied to real life, this translates to distinct differences in experiences with regards to race and minority issues.

In my case, my parents divorced when I was young. The separation between Asian and white cultures was distinct – lines drawn with the disdain that often comes with such life events. There was an Asian house and a white house with no communication between. Living primarily with my first-generation Asian mother, it wasn’t until my dad reminded me, “You’re white too, you know,” that I realized how much I related with one culture over another at that point in my life. Simple words captured how I had shaped my identity based on one perspective, but neglected to account for how much the other also pervades. I knew how to properly pray at a Buddhist temple, but could also recount to you my lines in that year’s Christmas pageant. Rice is a staple of my diet, but I could also make a mean lemon meringue pie. I bridge the influences of a strict Asian tiger mom and a hippie, openly affectionate father. On top of all of this, I am, in many ways, quintessentially American.

Friends have had markedly different experiences. Third- and fourth-generation hapas have expressed regret and loss at their own tangible separation from cultures that are inevitably represented on their faces. Not knowing languages or how to cook cultural foods, inability to communicate with family elders, failing to fully grasp the meaning behind traditions, and still being regarded as part of this group in society can make you feel like an imposter – even if an imposter by circumstance – where you can’t live up to implicit expectations coming from all sides.

Still, this duality also gives an unprecedented freedom to choose what you believe and what you value. Young first-generation immigrants may also experience this kind of freedom as a result of being thrust into a new culture and society. While some cultural ideals complement each other, others compete. If they do compete, you or someone else (usually parents) must choose which to live by. Your parents and influences, assuming that your parents are active in your life, build so much of who you are. But in some cases, being two or more requires conscious choice, rationale, and justification. It also fosters greater openness to entirely new ideas and ideals, where it seems true innovation and uniqueness can flourish.

Looking to the future, my potential children will have a completely different identity, a mixture of cultures as well as parts of the collection that I’ve become. It leads to a number of questions into how multiracialism as an identity will affect dominant understandings of race, culture, and values into the future.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_00-01It is human nature to want to fit in somewhere, to relate to other people on different levels and find where you “belong.” What happens when individuals can’t be categorized? Is that a category in itself? I’m not proposing that any of these ideas as wholly new concepts in society today. It floats around with questions of “finding one’s identity” and “heritage awareness” and “racial affiliation” – “The Hapa Movement” and “The Multiracial Identity Gap.”

Multiracial Americans as a demographic group is growing three time as fast as the population as a whole. It’s increasingly becoming a natural consideration for inclusion and a focus of research, policy, and politics. So how do we deal with a population group that doesn’t necessarily mesh within their own family units, let alone a larger subgroup, that is based on a self-constructed, often fluid identity? Can we get real answers to any of our questions about multiracials when the diversity of backgrounds and self-proclaimed identities that we are attempting to make fit are inherently disjointed?

Something Borrowed

It’s an old pastime of young girls to imagine their future selves, embodied in a future name – written and signed. Using the last name of a crush, perhaps, just to see how it all fits together, and the vibrations through the air as it rolls off the tongue. It sounds just perfect, and so does the imagined pride of having this new identity, to be this new someone that matters to a particular someone. This pastime is learned at a young age and continues into adulthood. Don’t even try to deny it now. It is learned at a young age that we, as girls, take our husband’s surname – because we will marry. Most girls learn this from their mother and their own family. Mom took dad’s name – and that is how the world works.

There has been a lot of chatter around whether a woman should take the name of her husband’s. And a lot of judgment. It isn’t a new discussion. There are a number of ways that this could go.

  • The traditionalist: a woman changes her family name to her husband’s upon marriage.
  • The relegation: adding the new name last, demoting her name to a middle name that is really never used, let’s be honest.
  • The egalitarian: the abhorred hyphen.
  • The keeper: no change. You modern woman, you.
  • The feminist: man takes her name – I know, rare. It happens. So for completeness, humor me here.

There are issues with each of these options, as there are issues with the concept and act of committing to sharing your entire life forever with a single, often dynamic, person in an unstable world of circumstance. But, that is a discussion for another time.

Now, a necessary aside: this is coming from the perspective of a straight, (partially) white, educated, middle-class female and in the context of getting married, though there are plenty of other reasons to be changing your name. Changing names with the added attachment of another person, however, brings about these particular complex and curious ruminations.

Judgment is always passed on our choices. This choice in particular puts a label on an identity. This change is out in the open, on exhibition to the public. This change brands a shiny new scarlet A – there to be recognized and acknowledged, and judged. She’s anti-feminist. She’s lost herself. She’s attached. She’s no longer her own individual. She doesn’t care about her career and what this will do to her professional life. The hyphen is so unattractive. It makes your name too long, how inconvenient. The name no longer speaks to a pure heritage. It’s a jumbled mess. She doesn’t want to be attached to him. She doesn’t want to label herself. She doesn’t love him enough. And, how emasculating.

Why the judgment? Why is so much physical and virtual brain space dedicated to this choice?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

But names carry so much, even if all they hold is a mental construct to which we are unwillingly subjugated by the perceptions of others. It’s the first experience of labeling and identity about which we usually have little choice in today’s Western society. And it follows you around. It is a label, that once attached, is to encapsulate a personality, career, self-image, judgment, and social experience – and the choice is so seemingly arbitrary. So what does it mean to change it, when it’s been established and when, say, things like marriage maybe come along? Well, with all of the hullabaloo about it, we seem to think it means a lot.

Much of this discussion has been built around the rise of the “career woman” and how we must lean in to get ahead in this world. In the relatively new professional world of females, keeping one’s name has become an indicator of an independent, ambition-driven woman, entrenched in circumstances where her own brand carries weight enough to warrant breaking tradition and forever attaching her label to her past, current, and future achievements. Alternatively, she could simply like her name, just the way it is.

Still, there are long lists of how-tos that in themselves reflect the impending judgment and re-evaluation. You’re urged to introduce it in the right way to soften the blow: “How to Change Your Name and Keep Your Professional Identity,” “Changing Your Name? Tips for the Workplace,” how to write that first email. Regardless of how it’s done, you can hear it already, “Oh…, she got married. And this makes it different from before. She has concerns and obligations to someone else, and relationships and character facets that I can’t discern from over here.” When taking marriage and a changed surname as public announcement of a woman’s capacity for care and empathy but also dependence, this change can be perceived as weakness. This decidedly does not pair well with the image of the career woman.

So, here it is. The public discussion and judgment and professional & social reception and identity and brand, all laid out in various spaces of physical and virtual reality. So, how does one choose?

I consider myself independent, a feminist. My career is important to me. My name is attached to things. Regardless of whether or not I get married, it’s a choice that captures identity and forces greater understanding of its facets and veiled values. So…would I change my name?

The conclusion that I’ve come upon is that this choice is a deeply personal one, which means high variation for different kinds of people and different circumstances. Anti-climactic, I know. I’m sorry to disappoint. I never claim to have these answers. I’m better at the questions. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll share my thoughts of the moment on the matter and how others might start to think through this choice.

To begin with, it’s simple. Based on my most primitive fancies, what do I want? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t particularly like my name – its appearance, spelling, sound. I’m not attached to it in the way I find that many are – by their family life and experiences. My last name has never carried the label feature, characteristic of my identity in the same way as my first name. Instead, it floats in my wake, as if connected by a shimmering string of a spider web, easily severed.

Names seem to fit others, while I’ve always had a hard time saying and explaining my own. It’s something I’ve been working on getting used to and I’d say it’s been growing on me for nearly 25 years now. Based on this, my choice seems moderately straightforward: welcome a change that may be more fitting. However, I work in a space where keeping your published name is ideal, if only for the sake of convenience, historic record, respect, and recognition. This is the challenge. What is to be weighed?

Again, my primordial inclination is to say fuck others’ perceptions and judgments and do what you feel. But then, years of socialization force some level of rationalized discussion. These changes induce perceptions and judgments that affect, if only by a smidgeon, respect, recognition, and experience. And experience shapes your life. Or maybe I’m making a bigger deal of this whole thing than it really is.

Luckily or not, I still have time to make my choice. Or I think I do. All I can say if it comes to it is that I hope that I will be the one to shape the name and what it means as applied to me in my past, present, and future – and not all the rest of it.