How to appreciate cultures as a student abroad?

During our time as students we are likely to travel around either before our studies, for our studies, during our studies, after our studies - and if we’re privileged enough, all of the above. Yet, as we travel around broadening our horizons, interacting with interesting people and learning about different cultures; we choose to either appreciate, appropriate or reject the culture altogether.

Appreciating culture is, first and foremost, respectful to the people who live this culture. While for us as guests in their country, their culture might just be part of an experience or a temporary living situation; the language(s), food, music, art, spirituality and traditions that compose a culture are part of people’s history and constitute a great part of their identity. So respecting their culture, is respecting them.

However, appreciating culture is not something you do out of the goodness of your heart, it is our moral obligation to respect people’s cultures. Yet, whether we realize it or not, we have been accustomed to favor western cultures above all others. Assuming western countries are superior translates in our rejection and appropriation of southern cultures.

What does it mean to reject a culture?

Rejecting culture is basically imposing our/the western culture onto southern countries. Appreciating culture doesn’t just include respecting the unfamiliar taste of people’s foods, it must also include the unfamiliar way they do business transactions or the unfamiliar customs they have in their homes. We reject culture when we reject the local language, when we refuse to support local businesses, when we refuse to interact with local people or when we criticize and belittle people for not behaving according to our own cultural values.

Rejecting culture isn’t a new concept that was invented along with airplanes, it dates back decades ago e.g. the colonization of the American and African continent. The west has historically been responsible for stripping countries of their cultures and imposing their own onto them for decades. And as we travel around the world expecting people to speak our language back to us, to prioritize efficiency in the workplace or at school, to not practice anything other than Christianity and hold everyone to our ‘western standards’ we are not appreciating culture, we are enabling the results of colonialism that aim to mold southern cultures to those western standards.

What does it mean to appropriate culture?

Cultural appropriation is the tokenism of cultures. It is when we make a symbolic or performative attempt to appreciate culture. This tokenism of cultures a.k.a cultural appropriation can take many forms, for instance:

A lazy and entitled attempt to ‘appreciate culture’

A lazy and entitled attempt to appreciate culture occurs when we are too lazy and entitled to learn the history, traditions and values people attribute to certain elements of their culture and use it in a disrespectful, inappropriate or insensitive way. For instance, wearing a bindi or Native American war bonnet for aesthetics. The reason we define this as a lazy and entitled attempt is because if we would put in the time and effort to understand the historical, religious and cultural value Hindus, Jains and Native Americans attribute to these cultural/religious elements, we wouldn’t wear them at all.

However this isn’t exclusive to those who appropriate culture. Many people who reject culture, also do it because they are too lazy and entitled to appreciate culture. For instance, people who deem dreadlocks to be unprofessional or unhygienic have clearly not educated themselves on the careful maintenance of dreadlocks and the religious significance they have in Rastafari religion - nor have those who appropriate it.

Making a culture profitable

Stolen art in British museums, the Zara selling Kimonos, Ashlynn the celebrity yoga instructor, etc. are all ways in which southern cultures are made profitable. When we take important cultural elements or a culture as a whole and turn it into profit for ourselves, we are appropriating culture.

There are two main ways in which people profit off cultures that aren’t theirs: 1. They take an existing market in a country and use their resources to make it more profitable for themselves. E.g. Kendall Jenner starting her own tequila brand to take over a market currently supporting Mexican families. 2. They take a sacred or intimate cultural element that local communities themselves don’t use for profit and turn it into profit. For instance, the Latinx dance industry here in Europe that charges people to learn and perform dances; that people in Latinx communities dance in their homes and at social gatherings.

As students, we are likely not at a point in our lives that we are starting ‘cultural appropriation’ businesses, but we are at a point in our lives where we have the moral obligation to make conscious decisions about consumption.

Selective appreciation

Selective appreciation of culture occurs when we pick and choose what we deem ‘acceptable’ of a culture and what not. An example of which is when we watch our Anime and eat ramen every day but go to Japan on exchange and criticize people for slurping their noodles. We don’t get to pick and choose what is worthy of respect and appreciation.

However, selective appreciation can also mean ‘appreciating’ a culture just not when exercised by the local community. For instance, deeming cornrows cool on white women, but unprofessional on black women or praising Gigi Hadid (a non-Muslim woman) for wearing a hijab on the cover of vogue, but calling Halima Aden (a Muslim woman) a ‘bad feminist’ for doing the same.

Direct mockery

And finally, directly taking something from a culture to mock and belittle people. Think of blackface, while the black skin of someone isn’t a cultural element per se, doing blackface is a mockery and ridicule of the experiences of black people - but also pulling your eyes with your fingers to mock Asian eyes or dressing up as a chola for Halloween.

How do we appreciate culture?

The first step to appreciating culture is learning about a culture. Not just what are the foods, languages, art, music, spirituality and traditions; but also the history and the values they hold. Over and over again as people are criticized and called out for cultural appropriation, their main reasoning is “I didn’t know”. If we immerse ourselves in the culture, leaving our biases and prejudices behind, we are able to learn and move on to the second step which is being mindful and respectful of the culture. But being mindful and respectful of other cultures also means acknowledging that there are boundaries to what and how we should engage in the culture.

Being able to travel the world is a privilege, having people welcome us into their country is a privilege, learning about the world beyond our bubble is a privilege; the least we can do is leave our entitlement behind and open ourselves up to learn. Learning isn’t a linear process and people don’t always agree with each other on how to respect their culture, but as long as we keep trying to bring down barriers and reject the notion that western cultures are superior - we will be better able to appreciate culture.

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