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Exotic Eastern Religions?

awkwardturtle's picture

Exotic Eastern Religions?

Last week, I did a broad exploration of migration and cultural contact within Ruth Ozeki’s novel, All Over Creation. In this paper, I will focus specifically on the appropriation of Asian cultures as a result of human migration. To gain a better understanding of what cultural appropriation is, I looked up “appropriation” and “appropriate” in Oxford English Dictionary and “cultural appropriation” in Urban Dictionary. The main definition of “appropriation” is “the making of a thing private property...taking as one’s own or to one’s own use” (Def. 1). The first definition of “appropriate is similar, “to make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make his own; to set apart.” Both of these open up questions about ownership and property of culture within cultural appropriation. Other definitions of “appropriate” include to “assign to a special purpose,” (Def. 6) and “to assign or attribute as properly pertaining to; to attribute specially or exclusively (Def. 7). These definitions describe the self interest that accompanies cultural appropriation, as well as the privilege and power that makes appropriation special and exclusive, which is further demonstrated in the Urban Dictionary definitions of “cultural appropriation.” The top, most popular definition is, “the ridiculous notion that being of a different culture or race (especially white) means that you are not allowed to adopt things from other cultures.” The second, significantly less popular definition:

The act of taking customs, practices, or traditions from one culture (usually by a member of a dominant culture) to either mock or simplify the meaning or significance of that piece of culture. Also, taking/wearing something from another culture and appreciating it only when it is not on the body of a member of that culture.

Overall, the definition cultural appropriation is unclear, but it is influenced by questions of ownership, selfishness, ignorance, and power dynamics. It is also important to note that the cultural appropriation occurs in Ozeki’s novel as a consequence of cultures coming into contact zones. In this essay, I will analyze the situations of Momoko practicing Methodism and Duncan practicing Buddhism and Hinduism, using the definitions to complicate my initial assumption that Duncan was appropriating Asian culture, but Momoko was simply assimilating into American culture through Christianity.

The first question pertaining to cultural appropriation is whether or not culture is something that can be owned as property by groups or individuals. The reader finds out about Momoko’s religious affiliations after Yumi asks about Zen Buddhism, “‘Never heard of it. Anyway, why you need enlighten when you got good Methodist church to go to?”’ (Ozeki 21). Momoko makes it clear that the Methodist church is open to Yumi, and does not paint the church as an exclusive institution for white people or any specific group. “You got” hints at posession of the church, but whether the ownership is of a specific church or an entire domination is unclear. At the same time, Momoko is ignorant of Zen Buddhism, which is widespread in Japan where she is from. Clearly, Momoko claims no ownership of Zen Buddhism; however, culture is much broader than a subsect of a religion, so it is possible she still views her own culture (or at least the culture she was once part of) as her property. Her tone and attitude towards Yumi makes this seem unlikely, however. Duncan also practices religions of another culture , specifically Buddhism and Hinduism (I am using “culture” and “religion” very loosely here, as religions are often not associated with specific cultures), “‘I was finding Buddhism somehow lacking—too spare for the new millennium...the times were calling for a more robust system of devotion’” (Ozeki 275). If ownership is to be applied here, it is as if Duncan owned Buddhism and then owned Hinduism, which is supported by “finding” and “lacking.” However, “system” implies that Duncan feels he is a part of something greater, demonstrating no ownership. The phrases “new millennium” and “the times” imply exclusivity, which I will talk about next, as “cultural appropriation” has a meaning on its own beyond the meanings of “culture” and “appropriation.”

Cultural appropriation is influenced by power dynamics. Duncan demonstrates exclusivity in his transition from Buddhism to Hinduism, as he fails to acknowledge anyone who has practiced these religions before him, when in actuality religions are heavily shaped by the humans that have practiced them. In contrast, it is probably obvious to Momoko that she is different from the other people in her church, and she has to come into contact with that reality constantly, even if she feels more American than Japanese. Duncan; however, may never have to come into contact with any Asian people when practicing eastern religions. Momoko’s marriage to Lloyd and immigration to the United States leads me to assume that Momoko joined the Methodist church as a survivability tactic, a way of assimilating into her new environment. Duncan, on the other hand, is not going through an immigrant experience, instead, he comes from a place of white privilege, allowing him to see eastern religions as exotic and foreign and as something “for the new millennium” rather than deeply rooted in human history. His experience also differs from Momoko’s in his easy and abrupt transition, whereas Momoko’s transition into Methodism was accompanied by a much bigger life change.

The concept of cultural appropriation is much more complicated than whether or not people can partake in cultures outside of their own. Cultural exchange is a seemingly natural consequence of human migration, an example being the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia that allowed for Zen Buddhism to exist in the first place. The ownership of culture is not a clear cut line. Cultural appropriation is not just the “ridiculous” idea that white people are not allowed to adopt any cultures, but it takes into account that not all appropriations of culture are created equal, and that the power dynamics resulting from these contact zones affect the impact of the cultural appropriation.

Works cited

“Appropriation, n.” Def. 1.  OED, Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

“Appropriate, v.” Def. 1.  OED, Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

“Appropriate, v.” Def. 6.  OED, Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

“Appropriate, v.” Def. 7.  OED, Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

"Cultural Appropriation."" Def. 1. Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

"Cultural Appropriation."" Def. 2. Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. Penguin, 2004, pp. 1-168.


Anne Dalke's picture


I'm smiling broadly here at the very close, word-based reading of All Over Creation which you offer: I like the way you move from "getting" to "finding" and "lacking"; and then again from "system" to "millenium" and "times." The most interesting etymology, of course, is the one that traces the "appropriate" root of "appropriation" to matters of "property," and so to what is "proper." It's a delight for me to see such fine-grained analysis.

The other important thing you do here, I think, is focus on the ways in which "cultural appropriation is influenced by power dynamics"; cf'ing Momoko's practice of Methodism with Duncan's embrace of Buddhism, and then Hinduism, gives you a good textual anchor for supporting your claim that the capacity for appropriation is determined by privilege. I am heartened by your taking "into account that not all appropriations of culture are created equal, and that the power dynamics resulting from these contact zones affect the impact of the cultural appropriation."

And now we move from questions of human domination of other cultural groups to domination of the will "appropriation" play out there...?