Not yours to fetishize A personal essay on the appropriation and fetishization of Asian culture in North American society



I’ve noticed a startling trend on Instagram recently. My blonde-haired, blue-eyed white friend began posting selfies of herself with a Sailor Moon necklace, Hello Kitty stationary and various other Asian artifacts from my childhood. While it goes without question that interests and hobbies transcend race, what alarmed me were the comments under these photos. Friends of all races and ethnicities commented about how “cute,” “cultured” and “hip” she was for wearing a pendant that belonged to my childhood hero, Sailor Moon.


On my 20th birthday in February, I will have spent two decades in Canada. My parents emigrated from Hong Kong when they were in their teens. Similar to most immigrants, they were sent over by their families with hopes for both a better education and a better life. Assimilating into the vastly different Western culture was akin to being thrown overboard without a lifejacket; they had to learn how to survive on their own. They were starting both anew and alone. The journey of immigrants is one of hardship, fortitude and, from stories about their experience, one that never really ends.

As a first-generation Canadian of parents who immigrated here at a relatively young age, I spent my childhood watching Teletoon while eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch at breakfast. Compared to many of my elementary school friends, I grew up in an environment that was fairly Westernized. My dad and I watched football together. We ordered pizza when nobody felt like cooking. My mom and I shopped at the same stores as my white friends and their moms. At the same time, my father always placed great emphasis on remembering my roots. Growing up, our home was a no-English household. I went through 10 years of Cantonese school on Saturday mornings and went to dim sum with my grandparents every Sunday afternoon. Although I did not appreciate their efforts at the time, I am now extremely grateful that my parents stood their ground and provided me with a balanced and multi-faceted upbringing. In my adolescence, however, this cultural dichotomy proved to be confusing: how could I be so Chinese and so white at the same time?

“Dozens of fast-fashion and high-fashion brands have appropriated traditional Asian dress. Perhaps the most prominent example is the kimono, a traditional Japanese dress worn by women of the culture on special occasions.” 

Growing up, I was lucky enough to have attended institutions that surrounded me with a diverse body of students and staff. Although my group of close friends were predominantly white in high school, I also had a group of Asian friends, some of whom immigrated to Canada fairly recently. When these friends would speak Cantonese or Mandarin to each other at school, wear clothing with Asian lettering or speak about their penchant for Asian cultural icons like Hello Kitty, other kids at school would call them “FOB.” FOB stands for “fresh off the boat,” and is used as a derogatory term for immigrants. The dissonance between this reaction and the one that my white friend with a Sailor Moon necklace received is the primary cause of my concern and frustration. Why were my Asian friends berated, while my white friend was praised? How is it that society considers its white members who have a penchant for Asian culture as “cute” or “worldly,” while members of that very society are chastised for doing the same?
This fetishization and appropriation of Asian culture are evident in ways that often slip under our noses. Take fashion, for instance. Dozens of fast-fashion and high-fashion brands have appropriated traditional Asian dress. Perhaps the most prominent example is the kimono, a traditional Japanese dress worn by women of the culture on special occasions. If you search up “kimono” on Google, one of the first results that come up is a link to Forever 21. Another example is the cheongsam, a slim-fitting Chinese dress, which has been made popular by various Hollywood blockbusters and red carpets. While it can be argued that these are “just articles of clothing,” cultural appropriation isn’t confined to the act of wearing them; as an Asian woman, I can say that women of all races would look beautiful in a traditional kimono or cheongsam. The issue becomes how society perceives the wearer, and the difference in their perception based on the colour of the wearer’s skin. White women who wear cheongsam are cool and culturally-aware. Asian women who wear them are exotic. White women who decorate their Instagram posts with cute graphics, pose with peace signs, or enjoy Asian culture are adorable and desirable. Asian women who do the same are unrefined.

The issue goes far beyond Hollywood and fashion. Recently, I had to deal with someone discussing “yellow fever” in my presence. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, “yellow fever” generally refers to white men who have a sexual preference for women of Asian descent. My partner is white. It is a vastly ignorant and debasing phrase that reduces my interests, my personality, and my traits into nothing but my identity as a Chinese person. It bothers me when white individuals spew out their strong, rightful opinions on a bevy of racial issues, but turn to me right after and make an uneducated and insensible comment about my culture (such as this one). Championing for social justice is a noble cause. It is, however, just as important to become socially aware and responsible for your words. Do not embrace your white privilege and shout from the rooftops about how unjust the world is and then comment about the distinct shape of my eyes or voice your opinions on the “strange foods” that my grandparents eat.

The fetishization and appropriation of Asian culture is rampant in society; it can be found in pop culture, fashion and even in the discussion of relationships (#yellowfever). Its breadth is overwhelming in such small ways that, at times, even I forget that these problems exist. Although not everything is committed with ill intent, it is important to recognize this as a prominent societal issue that is just as important as any other. Anyone can like Sailor Moon — just don’t judge them differently based on the colour of their skin.

Photo Credit: Flickr Commons



Share This Post On