Cultural Appropriation in Asia

Cultural appropriation is a big word that’s been getting thrown around a lot lately, especially in regards to popular culture referencing Asia.

Cultural appropriation: the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.

You could go on a googling frenzy reading all the articles written on the subject. Everyday Feminism’s “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” is a good example. Is it cultural appropriation every time you do yoga or eat sushi for dinner? When is it appropriate to take things you like from other cultures and when is it offensive? It’s often a fine line. The main thing that people seem to agree on is that cultural appropriation becomes offensive when you make a joke out of another person’s culture. Dressing up as a sham version of another culture for Halloween, or braiding your hair in cornrows as a joke.

We live in a very cosmopolitan world and it would be crazy to think we wouldn’t pick things up from other cultures. Food is a big one for me. I love international cuisines, and the great thing about growing up in Seattle and moving to Washington DC is that I was never lacking great food. Most of us danced along to Gangam Style and can appreciate Bollywood culture. I personally don’t find enjoying things from other cultures disrespectful as long as it’s not portrayed as a joke.

Recently, there have been two main instances where Asian cultural appropriation, or cultural misappropriation has caused a backlash in the media and online. The first is How I Met Your Mother’s “Slap of a Million Exploding Suns” episode, where some of the main characters don “yellow face” and dress as wise Chinese “slap” masters. The episode prompted a Twitter backlash with tweets like #HowIMetYourRacism and caused the creators to eventually apologize for the episode. Co-creator Carter Bays responds on Twitter, “With Monday’s episode, we set out to create a silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved. But along the way we offended people. We’re deeply sorry, and we’re grateful to everyone who spoke up to make us aware of it”.

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(photo from

While many people, especially Asian Americans, were very offended by the episode, others complained the backlash was too strong and that we as a culture are too easily offended. Honestly, I think living in China has desensitized me to cultural appropriation. Many of the teachers at my school are shocked that I don’t eat Hamburgers and Pizza for all my meals. They’re surprised I know how to eat with chopsticks and still ask me if I’m used to Chinese food. To them, these assumptions aren’t offensive, they’re just curious questions.

After reading a bunch of articles about the HIMYM episode, I asked around to some of the students and teachers I know watch the show. HIMYM is extremely popular in China, along with Big Bang Theory, and recently House of Cards. Everyone I asked loved the episode and thought it was great. They viewed it as America recognizing Chinese culture in a fun, funny way. I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to be offended about the episode, I’m merely pointing out that it went over really well here. Chinese people viewed it as a “shout-out” to their Chinese fans, which it probably was.

The second, more recent issue of cultural appropriation is Avril Lavigne’s new “Hello Kitty” video, which has said to be blatant Japanese cultural misappropriation. I made the mistake of reading a bunch of articles about the video before I actually watched it, so  I was expecting it to be a bit more “horrible” and “shocking” than it actually is. Coming from someone who lives in Asia, I can tell you right now that this video was not made for a Western audience. Avril is super famous in Asia, much more famous here than she is back home. Whenever I go to Karaoke, all of the Chinese girls want to sing her song “boyfriend”. If you look up other J-pop videos, they are extremely similar to hers. K-pop is a little different: sexier outfits and much more of a focus on dance moves. This video was not meant to be offensive to Japanese culture. It was specifically created to cater to a Japanese audience that loves her. I’ll admit, the video is not that great, and she really needs to work on her acting skills. Also, the fact that she has expressionless robotic Japanese dancers/ body guards is a little weird. I’ll let you all check it out for yourselves.

Overall, I think it’s interesting to compare Western and Asian reactions to these appropriations in popular culture. How can producers strike a balance between making Asian viewers happy while not offending Western viewers in the process. A good example is the Big Bang Theory’s episode where Sheldon attempts to learn Chinese for the purpose of arguing with a restaurant owner about whether the “citrus chicken” is made with real citrus.

I think the reason why this play on Chinese language went over so well is that it’s making fun of a white person trying to learn a very hard language. Nowhere does it make fun of China or Chinese people, it merely plays up the fact that Chinese is very hard to learn, and people can make a lot of awkward pronunciation mistakes while speaking a new tonal language.

What do you all think about the HIMYM episode and Hello Kitty video? Funny, lame, offensive?

*banner image from



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

8 comments on “Cultural Appropriation in Asia

  1. Lots if Asian Americans are in some way more sensitive to these things than people who have spent their whole lives living in East Asia. People who grew up and live in a small Chinese city will obviously see these things much differently than say a Korean American from NYC. Much in the same way a Korean American from NYC and LA might see things differently.

    • Thanks Alex! I totally agree, and that was kind of the main point I was going for. I don’t think it’s right to tell other people, especially other Asian Americans, how they should feel about something they find offensive. I just thought it was interesting to compare their reactions and the reactions I’ve seen online, with the responses of people I’ve met living in Asia. I don’t think anyone is right or wrong in how they feel, I just thought it was an interesting comparison and something worth discussing.

  2. The reason that the Chinese viewers in China didn’t find HIMYM’s act offensive, in contrast to the reaction of Asian Americans, is because the Chinese viewers have not experienced racism in the West and they are thus not familiar with the various racist taunts that are practised against Asians. If you had asked the Chinese students and teachers around you regarding their opinion of expressions like “ching chong” or the mocking imitation of Asian accents, you would’ve gotten a similarly puzzled response as to why they should be offended.

    HIMYM’s act was not an instance of cultural appropriation, and it was most definitely not intended as a shout-out to Chinese fans.

    • Suigetsu, that’s a really great point and it makes a lot of sense. While Asian Americans may have been taunted or made fun of with some of these jokes, most people living in Asia haven’t so they’ll probably come off better. Sort of like when other countries have “America parties” making fun of Americans- I find it funny because it’s interesting to see what other cultures jokingly think of us. But when people make jokes about all Americans being ignorant and obese it is a little offensive to me because I’ve heard those “joking” comments before in my travels and everyday life.

  3. Perhaps the word “appropriation” is not the correct one to use because, a least to me, it suggest claiming or implying in some way the ownership of something. Perhaps “abusing cultural expressions” woud be a btter way to describe the phenomenon…

  4. As a fellow Westerner living in Asia, I also get confused as to where the line is drawn between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, especially when the discourse focuses on a narrowly Western perspective.

    For example, when focusing on the United States exclusively, it’s easy to pinpoint appropriation of Asian cultural elements by whites and why it isn’t okay. Katy Perry performing in a kimono caked with geisha make-up and a geisha hairdo, for example, is easy to quantify as an example of cultural appropriation in the context of American history, where Japanese Americans have long been sexualized, exoticized, excluded, underrepresented, and even forced into internment camps due to being deemed untrustworthy and not American enough. When we expand the concept of cultural appropriation to a global context, however, as it more and more often is (Prince Harry of the UK getting called put for appropriating Aboriginal Australian artwork, for example), it becomes trickier.

    The other day, I saw a Facebook video about a “sushi burger,” which consists of two sticky rice cakes, hand-shaped to resemble the two halves of a typical hamburger bun and stuffed with typical sushi fillings such as crab meat and fish to mimic a hamburger. Many people called it out as stealing from Japanese culture. Some of these pointed out that the concept of making a burger bun out of rice already exists in Japanese fast food chains and is a derivative of that.

    In such a case, who’s appropriating from whom? The original Japanese “rice burger” exists in the context of many Japanese innovations on Western and international foods – Hence in Japan you can find squid-ink pizza, taro ice cream, red bean pastries, and green tea chiffon cake. If we can accuse the American making sushi burgers of appropriating from the Japanese, how do we define these many unorthodox Japanese borrowings from Western cuisines?

    As a secondary question, who is suffering from the sushi burger? The classic example of harmful cultural appropriation in a foid context us that of a middle-class white American traveling to a poverty-stricken village in Mexico, learning how to cook from the locals for free, and then returning to the US to use his newly- gained knowledge to open a five-star Mexican cuisine restaurant with a high profit margin. In the sushi burger context, we have someone borrowing from a country that is the third largest economy in the world and one of the most developed countries. While Japanese-descended people are a minority in Western countries, in the larger global context, the Japanese are not an oppressed people in their own country and have actually been the oppressors of other Asian nationalities in history. Japanese innovate on Western foods just as much as creative Western chefs play around with Asian fusion.

    If the white American chef making a burger bun out of rice is stealing from the Japanese (and not Japanese Americans), what about Chinese and Korean fast food chains that have blatantly copied the rice burger in its original form? In the context of 20th century relations between imperial Japan and its then-weaker neighbors, is it appropriation for Chinese and Koreans to use Japanese cultural innovations?

    We must also ask, can Asians in their own countries be perpetrators of cultural appropriation themselves? Once, in China, I visited a grassland camping site where tourists could spend the night in a Mongolian yurt. While most yurts were operated by local Mongol families, some where owned by Han Chinese. Isn’t that a case of a majority profitting from minority culture? What about the boxed yellow curry roux that is a staple in Japanese supermarkets – a world away from India, the birthplace of curry, where curry is made from freshly-ground spices and almost never made with beef? If Chinese character tattoos and t-shirts are appropriation in the West, then what about tattoos and t-shirts bearing nonsensical or inappropriate English words and slogans?

    In an increasingly global context, it becomes more and more difficult to quantify cultural appropriation.

    • wow this is an amazing comment! I totally agree with your entire argument. If you ever want to expand on this a little bit and write a guest post, please let me know! I would love to hear more :)

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