Cultural Appropriation, Place, and Learning

This past week saw the Darmasiswa closing ceremony–all of the scattered foreigners in Indonesia gathering in Bandung for a couple of lavish meals, a lot of waiting around, and some performances. The first evening, I watched as foreigners wandered into the performance hall decked out in various colorful costumes. As their numbers grew, so did my discomfort. Seeing all these white people in heavy makeup and traditional costumes made me feel…unsettled.

I’ve never been one to draw strict white/non-white lines as I, myself, tend to dance between the two. Nevertheless, I found myself vaguely disturbed by the sight of all the white people. At the same time, I recognized that I do the exact same thing every time I dress up in a Javanese dance costume.

According to the technical definitions that I’ve found on the internet, cultural appropriation has a lot to do with imbalances of power. But what about when there are no white people involved in the borrowing? Is that still cultural appropriation?

These are just some of the things that I struggled with over the three-day event. I found myself annoyed with the foreigners, annoyed with the accented Indonesian I heard around me, annoyed with the poorly-planned events, and annoyed with myself for being annoyed.

Even now that I’ve returned to Solo and my routine, I’m still not sure what to think about the whole thing. Cultural appropriation also has to do with whether or not one was invited to adopt or try on the cultural trapping involved. In this case, obviously all the Darmasiswa participants were invited and, moreover, encouraged. So no cultural appropriation.

As I was squirming in my seat, trying not to judge the people around me, I knew that there wasn’t cultural appropriation going on. To be honest, this only increased my discomfort, because it meant my annoyance was caused by something else. By the idea that I’m special, perhaps. That somehow, because I can put on a Javanese dance costume and do my makeup in the right way and stand on stage at Prambanan and have people shake my hand and congratulate me in Indonesian without looking at me twice, somehow I’m exempt. Somehow I’m above all the other foreigners.

Not true, of course, not true, not true, but I was nevertheless bothered. I watched the imperfect dances, looked at the girls with their hair-sprayed hair and sparkling kebayas and reminded myself over and over that I was just like them. All of us dabbling in something that we’re not.

It was a sobering, strange few days. I spent most of the time wondering what all of us have gotten out of this year. Some language skills, maybe. A few dance moves, or maybe a little more knowledge about gamelan.

Over a plate of overpriced fried rice (everything is expensive in Bandung) on the last night, I commented to my friend that, if I hadn’t already spent two years in Java dancing, I would have been just like the people back in the performance hall. I wouldn’t have gotten anything out of ISI. Dropped in a new country, unable to speak the language, knowing nothing of the dance form–I wouldn’t have been able to stay afloat. Even having all that, I still struggle. Really, those people in the hall were doing a commendable job. They’d taken a tricky situation and they’d done the best they could, just the same as I have, all of us foreigners in this country picking up little bits of knowledge and, maybe, of understanding.

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