For you to treat our tattoos like a part of some costume…! My culture isn’t a game!
Gene Yang has done a lot of very strange/generally incorrect things with The Promise, but this is something I’m glad to say he got very right. Culture isn’t a costume, and wearing traditional dress or images from an unaffiliated culture simply because you’re a “fan” is inappropriate.
This is how I feel every time I see bindis included in magazine spreads, or decorating the foreheads of celebrities and schoolgirls. It gets taken up by fashion and becomes “cool”…as long as it’s not being worn by my mother or my grandmother or, for that matter, me. I’m not cool when I wear a bindi—a real one, the red, thumbprint-sized one. I’m ‘ultra-Indian’. I’m conservative, traditional, demure. I am all the stereotypes that the West has ever imposed on Indian women. I’m not fashionable or modern or admired.
Tread lightly where other peoples’ cultures are concerned. There are ways to appreciate them without appropriating.
Hey tumblr, if you’re gonna start saying Gene Yang is suddenly a good writer, you should know that one panel before Aang was completely cool with them wearing arrows as long as it was a costume. It also stands to mention that because these girls used airbending forms to hit soldier with
sticksstaffs (remember how airbenders love a good fight?!) he lets them eventually become air acolytes! So I guess the real moral of the story here is that if you really like a culture, you can just become a part of them by reading and interpreting their philosophies your own way and everything will work out!
I think—or am hoping—that the situation is a bit more complex than that. Aang’s reaction isn’t the “ideal” reaction to cultural appropriation, but it does seem like a realistic one. If you look at ethnic identity development and place it in the context of Aang’s position as coming from a culture that experienced mass genocide, it makes a bit more sense.
Before Aang ran away, got frozen, and was defrosted by Katara, he lived with the Air Nomads. He was surrounded by other people (mostly men) from his culture and although he had some exposure to people who were Fire Nation (Kuzon) and Earth Kingdom (Bumi) the encounters seemed to be relatively peaceful and multicultural-exchange warm fuzzy.
We see in the animated series that it’s not offensive for people in the Four Kingdoms to try on each other’s clothing as part of a cultural exchange. Avatars Roku and Korra do it to train in different elements (like Korra in her Air Nomad uniform.) Sokka dresses up in Kyoshi Warrior clothing to train. Between the Four nations it is not viewed as culturally appropriative (though the imperialist influence of Fire Nation clothing on the children in colonies in that one episode where Aang goes to the school is oppressive.) So it makes sense that Aang meets some people dressed in Airbender clothing and he views it as yet another cultural exchange between two cultures—so initially he is open to it. Maybe even a bit excited. It’s already established in Part 2 of The Promise that he really misses being around people who understand and appreciate his culture.
But suddenly, when the girl tells him they’re actual tattoos…it hits him. It’s just appropriative, and part of a fan girl game. Their motivations are well-intentioned, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a ghost, it’s not real.
Up until this point, Aang has kind of avoided thinking of his people as a decimated and oppressed group. When Aang was getting the tattoos, they were earned through hard study and serious contemplation. Perhaps they were a mark of mastery—a permanent sign that you were a part of Air Nomad culture. He wasn’t around to experience the aftermath of the genocide—how hard is it to hide when you have a tattoo on your head and you can’t even deny your identity? The tattoos likely became something non-tattooed Air Nomads eschewed and something associated with terror and death. (I highly suspect Ty Lee’s parents were Air Nomads who assimilated into the Fire Nation to survive…) This probably didn’t come up for Aang until after he infiltrated the Fire Nation and the tattoos became a major liability.
These Yu Dao fans who have gotten Airbender tattoos have never had to experience any of that history. They are more than just tattoos, they’re the story of an entire culture and all the history and oppression that goes with it. I think in this depicted moment, this clicks for Aang and it’s no longer simply cool or exciting or nostalgia. He sees that these women are interested in Airbending culture not because they are genuinely interested, but because they are fans of him and decided to appropriate his culture by extension. He sees that he never got to dictate or have any control over how his people were depicted.
I guess I’m also thinking about my own identity development and really how I felt about being Taiwanese American. When I was younger and lived in a predominantly white town, I used to think it was really cool to see non-Asian people (usually white) in qipaos—this sensation of like “wow, someone actually appreciates my family’s culture” (well, technically the culture of a colonizer of my family’s culture but that’s another story.) ”Why, gosh, they even ‘appreciate’ it enough to display a Chinese fan or a ceramic buddha in their living room!” ”Someone actually appreciates my culture enough to wear clothing from my culture! My culture is valuable to them! Someone white is actually paying attention to my culture!” I used to appreciate when someone would greet me with “ni hao, ni hao” because I had internalized such a low view of my culture, and such a low view of society’s views of my culture, that any attention was better than no attention at all. It meant my culture was worth something to somebody.
It didn’t occur to me until I was older and felt better about my ethnic identity that not all attention was rooted in real respect or understanding. That the person wearing the qipao might have been doing so because it was exotic or because they had sexualized it; that they could dress like an Asian for one day and stop being Asian the next. That they could display something in their living room because they found it absolutely fascinating, that their genuine interest had manifested in cultural voyeurism. That they could be speaking to me in mangled Chinese based on warped assumptions and stereotypes of who I was simply because I was Asian. That maybe there was an entitlement to my culture, one that allowed others to flaunt it while still otherizing it.
That right there is why when I initially heard about Avatar: The Last Airbender and I saw the Chinese writing and the clothing and the martial arts, and I realized it was not done by Asian or Asian American creators, I was initially incredibly worried about it. I was worried it would not be done respectfully. I guess I was worried it would turn into what M. Night Shyamalan did to Airbender.
And from there, I feel there stems this conflict about wanting to share parts of your culture while still leaving some parts off limits. I think Aang came to this conclusion too, eventually (even 70 years later, only those who master Airbenders can get the tattoos…none of the acolytes get the tattoo.) In a way, I think the Air Acolyte plan was his way of reclaiming his culture back from this “fan club”—the Air Nomads had novices, too.
(What The Promise didn’t show, which most certainly did happen, were some fans who likely gave Aang hell for not sharing eeeeverything with them or for not understanding that their intent was just appreciation and how dare he be offended and flouncing. But it does show Katara making the mistake of minimizing what happened for Aang…as someone from the Water Tribe she can’t fully understand what the tattoos mean to Air Nomads, not in the same way Aang does. )
Anyhow, that’s what I thought of when I was reading these scenes.
EDIT: One last thought: The realization that people could “pay homage” to my culture in a destructive way was initially why I was incredibly skeptical of Avatar: The Last Airbender when people started telling me about it. I saw the Chinese influences but was worried that because Bryke wasn’t Asian American they would be doing the show the same way these Yu Dao fans misappropriated Air Nomad culture. I was relieved to be wrong. (I don’t feel bad for being skeptical, the number of crap representations of Asians done by non-Asians is astronomically higher than the number of Avatar quality representations.) I am okay with Bryke incorporating Asian elements in the series because they did it respectfully and with input from people from those cultures. To me, that is the difference between what the girls did in this part of the comic, and Aang coordinating the Air Acolytes in the end.