How is This Still a Thing? In which I emerge from work-induced silence to say a few things on this:
*Of course, How is This Still a Thing? is a nod to John Oliver. Here is one of my favorites:
Recently, that truly obnoxious person Kim Kardashian (West, whatever) has been the latest to declare that she's come up with a brilliant new product with an inspired name (trademarked!), only to have everyone say, "WHAT???" and then for her to respond with the standard, "Look, I'm not appropriating anyone's culture! I love the culture this comes from! But I stand by this and I'm not changing a thing." I am, of course, referring to her new "solution wear" (not to be confused with the more pedestrian shape wear the peasants were being forced to wear), Kimono (trademarked!). Now, I've already addressed the general problem with this sort of thing (see an earlier blog post). But as is obvious from this latest complete clusterf*^% idiocy of a product line and a string of misguided "Asian-influenced" restaurant concepts that are tone deaf, pretentious, and occasionally outright engaging in acts of imperialistic aggression (hold on, I'll explain), I felt the need to put down my knitting needles, turn off my sewing machine, take a break from my various income-generating projects, and jump into the fray.
Let me just deal with Kim right off the bat. Unless you've been hibernating under a rock, you've probably heard at least part of this story. She announced a new form of what is essentially skin-tone inclusive shape wear (which she's calling solution wear, because of course she is).
In other words, these are body-hugging forms of lingerie intended to keep those little bulges and bumps and pooches tucked away under clothing. Whatever. These are things people wear. The issue is she decided to name her line, Kimono, and then trademark it. (More on this truly aggravating practice of trademarking words that DO NOT BELONG TO YOU--related to imperial aggression--in a sec.) Her absurd amounts of privilege--in her case, largely because of her obsene wealth and celebrity--is revealed in her lack of preparation for the inevitable backlash. I am always so incredibly amused when some celebrity does something like this, and then seems to be genuinely shocked that people will react in any way other than laudatory. But, my idea is so brave and brilliant! Why are you attaaaacking me?????
Bitch, really? Because! OMG do I have to explain? There are so many ways this is wrong. YOU DON'T OWN KIMONO! Is the first one. This would be as absurd as a Japanese person attempting to trademark the Japanese spelling for suits (スーツ) as the brand name for a line of skirts. It's a generic term in another language that refers to, literally, clothing. It means, literally, things you wear. But if we're going to get a bit more specific, it refers to the kind of clothing people in Japan have been wearing for centuries. We (and I'm going to use the we here because I take this personally, Kim!) are already annoyed by the various faux kimono garments called kimono, and the weird use of especially bad examples of kimono being worn to signal some kind of exotic authenticity (Tokyo Seoul in Pullman, WA, I'm looking at you!) But this is just excessive.
Things have escalated to the point where the mayor of the city of Kyoto has sent her an official letter asking her to reconsider trademarking "kimono" for her clothing line. Now, not to reinforce stereotypes or anything, but in this case, what the mayor of Kyoto really means, despite his coy and tenuous language, is, "bitch, stay in your f*&^*&& lane! Or I will unleash on you the snooty rage of a million Kyotoites who consider Tokyo beneath them and have absolutely NO patience for this random person from a country that's only been around a few hundred years. You are nothing to them and usually they can't even be bothered, but this might actually draw them out of their Kyoto-specific aloofness. Don't try them!" Oh, you didn't get that from his letter? Trust me. It is the Kyoto way. (I should mention her that she's trademarking the logo--designed by Kanye, of course--so it's not the word, kimono, in general, but the word as presented in a specific way. But you know what? Who cares. No one does, Kim. We're still mad.)
So we will just have to wait and see if Kim, using what brain cells she's spared from her busy schedule studying for the California bar, realizes the error of her ways and makes this absurdity disappear. Or if she will stubbornly continue to antagonize hundreds of millions of people.
Alas, this is not a new controversy. Which brings me to the other series of cultural appropriation controversies that just don't seem to die: white people opening restaurants that promise to do Asian food, "just better than the original thing." (And then occasionally trademarking!)
The current controversy along these lines has to do with Lucky Cat, Gordon Ramsay's latest restaurant. This one hurts me, because I am (don't judge) a fan of the screaming Scot. Binge-watching Kitchen Nightmares a few summers ago, especially taking in his expletive-filled rages at bad owners and managers, helped cheer me up to no end in a particularly dark time. But in the last year, he has disappointed me. There's the TV show he's making with National Geographic that just sounds like a "let me in on this game now that the irreplaceable Anthony Bourdain is gone." That's all I'll say about that. But the second sin has been Lucky Cat. Now, I'm assuming the name is inspired by the maneki neko, or the cat that beckons good luck:
So I'm just confused why it apparently looks like this:
Now, here's the thing. As this critic points out, if the food turns out to be delicious, that would make up for a multitude of sins. But also, as that same critic pointed out, why claim to be authentic!
Because the issue here is this: the world in many ways, is a zero sum world. When someone creates something, that also shuts out someone else from a similar opportunity. There is only so much room in the market, only so many investors (resources), so much interest that can be generated. To make a biblical comparison, why, when you're the King and have access to any woman, do you go after Bathsheba, who was the only woman for her husband (yeah, of course what about Bathsheba's desires! But I'm not getting into that here.) The point is, there are plenty of talented people whose relationship to this food is deep, forged through struggle and life experience, for whom the chance to open a restaurant (and in the Mayfair neighborhood of London no less!) is beyond a dream. But they still dream of such things. Who is Gordon Ramsay to do this just because he can? That IS privilege, the belief that just because you want to, you should be the one to do it, and people should embrace you as brilliant instead of question your choices. His reaction to the criticism has not been very measured.
Since Lucky Cat just opened this week, it still remains to be seen if people eventually embrace it or if the food (if it ends up being good) won't be enough to cover up a multitude of sins. This brings me to the other misguided celebrity/Lucky/Asian restaurant monstrosity that was Andrew Zimmern's Lucky Cricket. He is best known for the show, Bizzarre Foods, where he wandered the world in an extended food eating dare (which is its own kind of problematic concept).
He opened Lucky Cricket in order to offer midwesterners good Chinese food, as opposed to the "horsesh&^" Americanized Chinese food (made by Chinese immigrants) that they'd been subjected to. This conceit exposed so many layers of latent prejudice and arrogance, and he was immediately called out on all of it. First, the Chinese food available in the midwest was often the result of Chinese immigrants adapting their food to appeal to the palates of their new communities, and they opened restaurants in the first place because they were among the few industries immigrants could get into and make a living despite the rampant and often violent racism directed their way (and if you doubt me, just read a bit about the horrific mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century...and that's just for starters.)
What makes this story comical, and not just aggravating, is that it turns out Lucky Cricket SUCKED. Also, inexplicably, tiki torches. WHY? And also all of the controversy cost him his lucrative TV work. Take that!
Now the annoying use of the adjective "Lucky" for "Asian-inspired restaurants" (ie done better because white person!) is a veritable epidemic. This brings me to Lucky Lee, the truly obnoxious "clean Chinese" restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village. Suggesting her food is the clean version is of course a back-handed way of saying "regular" Chinese is unhealthy, full of MSG, ingredients of unknown origin (insert dog-eating joke here), and not something a health-conscious, fair trade and organic-conscious resident of Williamsburg should eat. But she'll offer a guilt-free version! Oh, and also? She swears the name isn't meant to sound Chinese. Lee is her husband's name. The restaurant is named after her husband, and isn't intended to sound like a stereotypical Chinese restaurant in some kind of performative parody. If you want to feel your blood pressure go through the roof, I suggest reading the article linked above to get a full sense of her complete obliviousness at why what she is doing is OFFENSIVE AND WRONG. Also, here are some thoughts on the actual food. As it turns out, it sucks too!
Just listing out these incidents is exhausting. And I'm not even done. I will now finally address the infuriating act of imperialism: aka the white guy in Chicago who trademarked the name "Aloha Poke," and then sent cease and desist letters to poke restaurants of the same name, including one in Hawai‘i. He trademarked two words that are Hawaiian and told them to stop using them. I CAN'T EVEN!!!! Who did this guy think he was? Oh, a business owner? So you have the right to the name of your business and the right to protect it? BUT THESE WORDS DON'T BELONG TO YOU! I don't care about laws. Laws are agents of power until those without start using them against power, and then those with power get their panties in a twist. Arguing something legal is one way oppression creep happens. It's how whole populations were robbed of land, property, belongings, language, culture. I could go on.
There is so much to unpack from each of these examples, but I am tired and want to spend the rest of my Sunday doing something edifying and productive. I have a headache. So I don't have the energy to put a neat little bow of a conclusion on this post. All I will say in conclusion is this: culture is not a play thing. Whether in the form of food or clothing or words, culture is comprised of complex, often painful histories that reflect diverse and messy groups of people with endless associations and meanings. This does not mean we can't appreciate things from other cultures. Or love them. Or move to a different country (heck, I am a literal direct product of someone doing that so I can't object too much or I would disappear like an unfortunate in the post-infinity stone Marvel-verse.) But before you decide to start your Lucky Cat or Kimono clothing line, just ask yourself: why! And if, just maybe, you don't have a very well thought out answer besides "oh I think Japan's fun and I want to use a word loosely associated with my brand that makes people think of cool exotic things, including a cocktail with a literal f*%&*(^ geisha on top," just stop. Go back to your lane. Hang out with your family on reality tv (this goes for you too, Gordon). And leave our stuff ALONE!