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You can't patent culture

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By Jason Lim

Something's rotten at Oberlin College. According to the Oberlin Review, the local food service vendor "has a history of blurring the lines between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect to certain Asian countries' cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many who have expressed concerns over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes."

The Atlantic cites an example: "The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork, and coleslaw. ‘It was ridiculous,' Nguyen said. ‘How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country's traditional food?"

Ok, so I kind of sympathize with the Vietnamese student here in that if you are expecting to eat a Banh Mi sandwich and end up eating an American pork BBQ sandwich from Porky's, you could feel cheated. After all, it is a type of bait and switch. I mean, I remember eating "Kimuchi" in Japan a long time ago expecting it to have some passing resemblance to Korean kimchi only to be totally confused and palatably displaced. Kimuchi was to kimchi like a vegie burger is to a Five Guys cheese burger dripping with hot grease. It just isn't the same.

But you are kind of pushing it if you call it cultural misappropriation. After all ― while admitting that I am largely ignorant about Vietnamese history ― I always thought that a baguette was originally French. So, does that mean that the Vietnamese misappropriated what was originally French and is now passing it off as indigenous Vietnamese food? Were the Vietnamese the original cultural misappropriater accusing a secondary misappropriater of not being a competent misappropriater? Now, I am misappropriating the English language. Should the British get upset with me?

How about sushi? The Atlantic piece quotes a Japanese student ― Tomoyo Joshi ― who said that "the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful. She added that in Japan, sushi is regarded so highly that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it."

There is that word again: appropriate. To quote the immortal Inigo Montaya, I do not think it means what you think it means. So, if someone didn't take years learning to prepare sushi under a Japanese master, is the sushi then not sushi? What about all those sushi restaurants in the U.S. run by Korean immigrants? Are they misappropriating sushi?

According to Joshi, yes. "When you're cooking a country's dish for other people, including the ones who have never tried the original dish before, you're also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture. So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,' it is appropriative."

Ah, so does that mean that you are not misappropriating ethnic food if it's authentic enough? Who makes that determination? Is there some type of global standards and measurements body that makes such determinations?

OK, perhaps I am having too much fun at the expense of a bunch of college kids who are just starting to wade into the complex and ever-shifting world of social justice and activism. But I do want to point out that an underlying assumption that no one is talking about in this debate: culture as a discrete product that can be owned by one specific group.

But culture is not a product; culture is essentially a process of engagement and interchange, an organic mingling of various peoples from different backgrounds over time. Any food, language, music, literature, technology, or other "culture'' is merely a by-product of that process, a passing and constantly changing artifact that one group or geography can claim, at best, only temporarily. In that sense, no one can "own" culture. It's not something that's subject to intellectual property protection.

In fact, culture is like an open source code. The more that it gets shared and worked on by many people, the better and stronger it gets, with each person tweaking the code to suit his or her specific needs and circumstances. That's not a bad thing. Experimentations should be encouraged and celebrated ― most will bomb, but a few will rock and enrich everyone's lives.

And guess what? You can't stop it even if you tried. Korea should know this better than anyone, with its explosion of hallyu popularity across the world. I don't think a "Psy" could have happened in Korea if the only musical culture that he had access to was traditional Korean music. Even North Korea, the most isolated country in the world, now has a popular girl's band. And that is definitely a good thing.

Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at, and @jasonlim2012.

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