about an ask on language learning as appropriation
September 25, 2013
i got this ask about white people learning Japanese and whether or not it is appropriation I didn’t answer because only people of a culture are able to determine it’s boundaries and what is or isn’t theft1
i would like, however, to tender my personal experience with something related to, but not quite, this issue.
those who know me well, know that I’ve studied Chinese in the past. Indeed, I do know that my Chinese (some of the skills anyway) are better than some of the diasporan Chinese people I regularly talk to (esp. if we are talking about Classical Chinese, which i’m pretty ace at). This means that I have better access to certain key elements of their culture than some of the people who are actually of that culture.
this is not cool. particularly if i were to talk this privileged access and knowledge and, say, idk, write an MA thesis claiming to know more about their culture than they did… excpet, i totally did this thing. while it may be plausible that learning the language alone could have been ‘fine’, participating in the vast orientalist machine that is ‘Asian studies’ in the white academy is not okay. my only comfort is that i wrote on a very very very esoteric topic and my research is unlikely to be widely read or even paid attention to.
during the course of my studies, i also managed to snag a scholarship to do a year’s worth of research and study at one of China’s best universities. It was a pretty generous scholarship, since China is trying to boost their global reputation in higher ed and part of what does that is attracting foreign scholars. my monthly stipend was larger than what my Chinese friends got for an entire year in their scholarships. this is also a problem.
for a while… i excused this participation in culture white supremacy becuase, “I may not be Chinese, but at least I’m Asian!”. Which… lol, no. Sorry. Doesn’t work like that.
The problem with just asking a question about ‘learning’ a language, is that it is almost never just ‘learning a language’. Why do you want to know? what is your motivation? will you learning it somehow end up with you contributing to the oppression of the people to whom that language belongs?
there are no neutral activities. everything takes place in a context. so don’t ask me about your singular, contextless action, and whether or not it is moral, tell me what your context is. tell me your motivations. explain to me why you deserve this thing. maybe if you do all of this, you may not even need to ask another person…