When Loving a Foreign Language is “Weird”: Culture as a Costume

I remember the day I asked my mother to buy an English-Japanese dictionary for me.

I’d been an avid reader since the age of 6 with the help and encouragement from family and elementary school teachers, but this wasn’t reading in a traditional sense anymore. The confusion at this seemingly random new interest on my family’s faces spoke loudly enough as I voraciously consumed how-to books. I was twelve years old and irrevocably in love with the taste of Japanese culture I’d picked up from a late night TV show. Said “show” was, more specifically, an anime (a contracted word for Japanese animation) called Inuyasha and simply because of its novelty I was effortlessly pulled into a love for a bigger world beyond cartoons–a love of language.

As my love for the Japanese language deepened, the increasingly baffled expressions my friends and family continued to wear reflected an experience that holds a familiar feeling of dread. The words “weird”, “random”, or simply “why” are particularly for learners of Japanese and other acute languages apart from Latin, anglophonic backgrounds. I fell in love with an East Asian language because of something as simple and unique as its culture–so why was I continually demonized for it?

Cultural appropriation and fetishization are the usual suspects when sniffing out a language learner’s passion. The term “weeaboo” has been exclusively coined for over-zealous lovers of Japanese language and culture, reducing it to something of a humiliating fetish. Popular website Urban Dictionary, self-described as a veritable cornucopia of streetwise lingo posted and defined by its readers, defines weeaboo as “someone who is obsessed with Japan/Japanese Culture/language/Anime, etc. and attempts to act as if they were Japanese, even though they’re far from it. They use Japanese words but usually end up pronouncing them wrong and sounding like total assholes”.

Well, needless to say, this is problematic on more than one front.

America is currently experiencing a social trial, unique to the makeup of its people: understanding the line between appreciation and appropriation. And with growing media attention, social discourse is finally coming to the defense of cultures that have been bastardized and commercialized for the sake of entertainment, fashion, or even football, and which have gone decades without reparations or acknowledgement. That well-placed animosity, then, finds its way into the sphere of globalization and where we millennial women and men position ourselves in the face of so many cultural interests.

Wearing an obi everyday and dropping the occasional Japanese phrase while simultaneously claiming profound understanding of an entire people is obviously deeply unsettling. Fetishization, when capitalized upon, can find itself as an appropriative and hugely disrespecting agent for cultural exchange, easily able to heighten tensions between peoples and political structures. But when a country like South Korea uses its culture to shape a hugely successful promotional strategy of carefully cultivated entertainment as a form of soft power and enjoys any and all consumption, appreciation, or just plain presence of its success, is the crime of cultural appropriation necessarily in the eyes of the beholder? It’s often the pre-packaged, commodified products of a culture that make it into the global discourse in the first place, allowing the more curious to engage it without stigma. Similar to my simple curiosity in a cartoon, language learners are born from the sneak-peeks into foreign societies that  entertainment industries allow us to see and appreciate. How this interest manifests is a responsibility assigned to many players and factors: support, resources, presence in the media, and interactions with people.

In order to encourage a more freely interacting world in the age of cultural exchange and globalization, exclusivity can be harmful and intimidating. Similar to welcoming babies into the world of speech, responsibility lies with the parents to talk and interact with them as if they already understand–and in time, the babies come to do just that. The same goes for our connected world that, with one click or “share”, puts us a hair’s breadth away from troves of cultural knowledge. Those belonging to a particular culture are now faced with the choice of building walls to keep Others out or work, albeit arduously, to see that they are well understood. A similar responsibility lies with the learner, however, as well: you have to earn the right to talk freely in or about someone else’s space. When learning about a culture and language, respect and authenticity are paramount.
So is there an eight-fold path to becoming the perfect language lover and learner? What about a new-age dogma something to the effect of “love thy neighbor”, but when your neighbor is wearing a costume out of your identity? Not quite. But increasing social dialogue is definitely a start to understanding and transforming these stigmas each of us might have against the Other. So language learners of all kinds, go forth and learn on–just make sure to carry a touch of humility along the way.

Anita Williams

Anita Williams

I am a 20 year old student and avid learner of all things cultural. Engaging with people is what I enjoy most and I hope to excite and urge more conversations around the real circumstances, perspectives, fears and hopes in our lives as we wade through the roaring waters of adulthood.

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