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When mainstream America adopts Asian cultural artifacts as a fashion trend, many Asian Americans react with a visceral but ill-defined uneasiness.  This is because we have learned that whites who study kung fu, practice tai chi, eat Szechuan cuisine, wear silk dresses, own oriental vases, or lust after geishas are no more likely than the general population to accept Asian Americans as equal social, economic and political participants in American society.  As I recently told reporter Vanessa Hua, "Mainstream American culture appropriates whatever cultural artifacts it can digest, and racial justice is hard for most people to swallow."

A recent article by Dan Wu and Jean Chen in Stir Magazine describes the selective nature of this cultural appropriation:

 

Asian culture may be prevalent in our pop culture society but it is certainly nothing new. The Oriental mystique has always existed as the predominate fascination of the Western world. Americans look to Asian culture as a way to make themselves ethnic by appropriating symbols that represent a sense of exoticism and intrigue. Chinese tattoos, for example, often prompt onlookers to ask the tattoo wearer the significance of their meaning, giving the tattooed a chance to seem cultured and otherworldly. It is the best of both worlds: not having to truly educate oneself about another culture and being able to wear the pretense of mystique and wisdom on one's sleeve (or arm). It is the superficial possession of a cultural trinket without having an understanding, or even willingness to understand, its true significance.

The limits of this "willingness to understand" extend also to a willingness to share cultural power:  whites are generally willing to engage in cultural and social transactions with Asian Americans only to the extent that white domination of American culture and society is not challenged.  The eating of sushi and the wearing of Chinese-character tattoos as fashion trends do nothing to protect Asian Americans from continuing racial discrimination.

-- Andrew Chin

Year of the Dragon

We All Scream for Chinoiserie

Commodifying Buddhism

How to Cash In and Make a Fashion Statement at the Same Time!

By T. T. Nguyen
Hardboiled
December 1999

The first time I saw a non-Asian girl wearing a Chinese dress was at the junior prom. All around me, girls cooed over her exotic find from Hot Topic. Meanwhile, I resisted the urge to confront a girl who, at one time in her life, probably taunted the rare Asian girl in her Catholic elementary school for having “chinky” eyes . . . only to realize she was wearing chopsticks in her hair, dark liquid eyeliner, and bright red lipstick. Was this a prom or a costume party? Five years and countless Chinese character and dragon print T-shirts later, I’ve come to accept the incorporation of Asian designs into American fashion. Why shouldn’t non-Asians be able to enjoy the beautiful fabrics and the symbolic power of the dragon?

Furthermore, instead of the meaningless chicken scratches that used to pass for “Chinese”, progressive clothing companies now take that oh-so-hard extra step to translate an English word into an actual Chinese character. I was inclined to believe that American society had begun to embrace Asian culture as opposed to exoticizing it. That is, until I came across the most recent Asian-inspired fashion trend: Buddha prayer bead bracelets.

A fashion trend is a great thing. Today, I can wear my MAC lip gloss because I’m feeling “dewy.” And tomorrow, I can wear my leopard print shirt because I’m feeling “animal.” Fashion trends provide endless ways to express ourselves. And while some trends evolve into classics, others simply make people embarrassed of ever having jumped on that bandwagon. Still, every time you wore your pegged jeans (yeah, you) or left one strap hanging from your overalls, you didn’t offend anyone -- just their visual senses.

But now, I feel a line has been crossed with the ubiquitous “Buddha prayer bead bracelet”. These bracelets are made of many large circular beads and one larger bead strung on elastic. They come in different colors or painted with Chinese characters for luck. Lauded as the “hottest new fashion accessories worn by the rich and famous,” they can be seen on a third of Cal’s trend-conscious and practically everyone at UCLA and USC.

Buddhists, however, wear these prayer beads, called Malas or Nenjus depending on the sect, not to compliment today’s outfit or to emulate Madonna, but to meditate and praise Buddha. To take these bracelets out of their religious context and mass produce them as something as empty and tacky as a fashion trend is to trivialize not only their inherent symbolism, but the Buddhist religion as well. So, if you’re sporting one of these bracelets around campus (and feeling unrightfully defensive), read on and learn a little about what it is exactly that you’re expressing.

Last fall, a white woman named Zoe Metro sparked the Buddha bead craze when she began marketing powerbeads under her own brand, Stella Pace (Italian for Star of Peace). A New York native who studied ancient Asian art at Princeton University, Metro got her “inspiration” (more like the entire design) for her powerbeads from the Buddhist prayer beads she saw on the Dalai Lama’s wrist. Although she began with wooden beads, Metro eventually put a New Age spin on the beads, using semi-precious stones believed to possess certain powers. For example, rose quartz to bring love, hematite for happiness, mother of pearl for money, black onyx for will-power, and carnelian for PMS relief. Very spiritual. Believing that she is encouraging spirituality as she is taking in $20 -$40 per bracelet packaged in a kitschy Chinese take-out container, Metro told Francine Parnes of The Associated Press (9/16/99): “Our bracelets . . . come with the four traditions of Chinese good luck: fortune, wealth, long life and happiness. When you put one on, you say the four traditions.” And then what? Now that I’ve filled my ‘spiritual quota’ for the day, do I simply wait for love, money, and cramp relief to fall from the sky? Right.

As in the way of fashion, once Metro’s powerbeads began appearing on celebrity wrists and in fashion magazines, cheaper versions of the bracelets started being cranked out by stores such as Express ($22), Urban Outfitters ($8), and Chinatown novelty shops ($0.67). Generally, these cheaper glass or plastic versions emphasize the luck they supposedly bring rather than the intended spiritual significance -- that is, if the stores bother attaching anything other than the price tag. So shoppers, enticed into the store by the dragon print shirt, leave with a Buddha bracelet to match, unaware that they are trivializing more than a symbol of religious identification, but a very personal, sacred aspect of religious prayer.

The Mala’s rich use of symbolism in almost every aspect of its construct is what provides deep, religious context for prayer, meditation, and mantra practice. The cycles within Buddhism are symbolized by the shape of the circular bead. 108 virtues and 108 defilements are represented by 108 beads. In the case of Jodo Shinshu (Japanese Buddhism), the beads represent all of Buddha’s followers, with the larger bead representing Buddha. Wrist Malas, portable versions of these beaded necklaces, contain 27 beads so that 108 is reached after four times around the bracelet during prayer. However, since trendy Buddha beads need to accommodate the size of most people’s wrists, only a meaningless number of 21 beads is used. Lastly, unlike powerbeads which concentrate on various semi-precious stones to bring the wearer luck, Malas can be made from bone, Lotus seeds, and sandalwood, depending on the specific practice to be performed. As for the plastic Buddha beads, Philip Barry of Shambhala Book Sellers considers the substitute acceptable as long as the wearer has the right intention.

Intention. That’s what makes the difference between a practicing Buddhist wearing prayer beads and a non-religious girl from USC with every conceivable color greedily covering her arm. The right intention is what makes it okay. Do you have the right intention? When people don these beads, I doubt they plan to use them for prayer. I doubt they recite the four traditions of Chinese good luck. And I doubt they understand the signifance and value imbedded within the beads. They think, “Hey, I’m into Eastern spirituality. It worked for all these celebrities. Maybe this will do something for me that other religions can’t.” Or, “I’m Asian, and this is Asian, and I’m going to sport it to show my Asian pride.” Or even, “Wow, I’m really hard up for cash. I’ll try anything.” But rarely do they think, “These are really cool. They must have some deeper religious meaning to them, and I’m going to learn how to use them correctly.”

Sevenju Pepper, a fourth year at Cal who comes from a Buddhist family, explained, “When people exoticize something, they don’t feel the need to learn more about it.” Or if they do look deeper, their romantic views cause them to selectively filter what they learn to maintain that exoticized image, so that, in the end, they don’t actually understand the true meaning.

Some people, like the salesguy from American Eagle, argue that since the trendy beads are not actual Buddhist prayer beads, wearing them for fashion is acceptable. But would wearing a rosary “inspired” necklace be acceptable to most Americans? I don’t think so. Furthermore, not even all Buddhists wear prayer beads because only the truly devoted meditate and pray on a regular basis. So why would you? And why would Christians wear Buddha prayer beads? The same people who, seeing my bright, green jade Buddha around my neck, still give me lollipops on campus in hopes of converting me or invite me to fun retreats, only to slip in the Christian part five minutes later. Christians obviously don’t practice Buddhism or hold New Age beliefs, so why hope to gain love and money from bracelets when the teachings of their God should suffice? Aren’t they inaccurately proclaiming their religious beliefs? Perhaps not. Perhaps because they don’t view these bracelets as part of a serious religion, but as just another Chinese dress.

It’s infuriating how people can reject or ridicule other’s religious or cultural practices only to turn around and take what they want from them to start a fashion trend. For example, the explosion of Indian culture’s bindis onto the fashion scene. It’s just as galling to discover that Zoe Metro has the nerve (although she does have the legal right) to copyright her Stella Pace beads and is currently “in hot pursuit of those that are illegally selling look-alike items.”  Because she came up with the designs all on her own? This is the same woman who insists that she’s spreading spirituality through the marketing of her pretty accessories. Or is it that she’s merely capitalizing on the wave of trendy Americans exploring Buddhism and Eastern spirituality? Is this what you want to be a part of? I suggest that the next time you buy something “ethnically-inspired,” you think twice about what it is you’re trying to say about yourself. Because what you’re saying right now, isn’t worth hearing.

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