Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The zeal of the immigrant: the pain of what we have left behind

I know you might be tired of hearing about immigration. Or if you hear about it you want to focus on the dire situation at hand. I get that, although I'm at a loss personally about what to do short of supporting legal challenges and supporting lawyers waiting to represent people at airports.

Bruno Catalano's immigrant
But I want to explain, as an immigrant, the dynamics of what we feel right now. You've heard of the zeal of the convert. If you convert to a religion, you had to study it rather than being brought up in it, and you're usually more observant than the non-convert. Immigrants are like converts. Most of us chose to come to America. We chose it because it was free, welcoming, and gave us opportunities we couldn't have in our countries of origin. In my youth I briefly thought about immigrating to the United Kingdom. While I still love the UK, I recognized then that even if I went to a top school and got a professional degree there, my professional trajectory in the UK would be limited because being so visibly other would be a continuing obstacle. And for more than two decades I've never had a reason to question my choice of coming to the US instead.

But in choosing to come, we also made a choice to leave. And as complex as our relationships to our countries of origin might be, there is loss in what we chose to leave behind. This sculpture describes it more eloquently than I could. And that hole feels larger every time we are reminded that we are not fully accepted in the country we chose. Every time our loyalty is questioned, despite the active choice we made, somehow it is assumed we are less loyal than those who were born here. Every time we're questioned even if we were born here, because we don't look like the majority of the people who came before, we must be just a little less loyal. That hole keens and aches. And it makes us question whether we were right to set forth, bag in hand, to this land.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cultural appropriation--I get it today

Sometimes realizations come to you at the weirdest times. As the brainstorming facilitators always tell you, there are no bad ideas (well not really), but it is true that insights will come to you on their terms not yours. And yours not to question why.

Karlie Kloss. B-list celebrity. A-list model. Honestly, I couldn't pick her out in a lineup. But she made the news today because she showed up in Vogue in yellowface this month. Not on the cover, mind you, because this apparently marks the first time a real Asian-American has made it on the cover of American Vogue. 

We all borrow culture and history and art. That's what triggers innovation--liminal spaces invite creativity. The Impressionists got huge mileage out of their Japonisme. Kurosawa borrowed time-tested plots and shots from US westerns. The world is richer for all that. It took Karlie Kloss to show me that where cultural appropriation happens is when the borrower is still the only person allowed in the room with that cultural heritage. So Karlie Kloss putting on a geisha shoot in Vogue starts feeling offensive not because of the shoot, but because Vogue is still a place where Asian models are not welcome. So if it takes a white representative to bring that culture in, then yes, it begins to feel like appropriation. 

In contrast, I didn't think the brouhaha over the "Kimono Wednesdays" at  Boston MFA exhibit of Camille Monet's two years ago was really warranted. There's plenty of Asian art at the Boston MFA, Camille Monet was depicting a white woman wearing a kimono, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK had commissioned the kimonos. But today, on Vogue, I got it.