What Chinese Checkers Taught Me About Cultural Appropriation

Photo: iStock

The gnats descended on the photo of a woman with a tattoo of a Yin Yang symbol with outstretched wings. Angry that what should have remained a piece of pale fleshy fruit was instead garnished with an emblem representing an ancient Chinese philosophy, these gnats swarmed and hurled insults into the cavity of social media outrage:

Offensive! Distasteful! Ignorant! Insensitive! ……Cultural appropriation!

With the integrity and survival of their species being hinged on a photogenic human arm, I did what any bystander would do in the midst of a moral crisis — I slugged pieces of dirt into the pit of wrath.

In an inane attempt to penetrate the tribal dogma of my bellicose interlocutors, I almost metamorphized into a monstrous vermin myself. Fortunately, I managed to drag my buggy legs out of Kafka’s nightmarish dilemma to make contact with reality. I retreated back to the safety of my room just in time to watch my distorted arms and legs morph back into human form.

Cultural appropriation is generally defined as the “adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group.“ The debate on cultural appropriation often centers around power structures and oppression (both defined by race), and commodification. In the current social media zeitgeist, cultural vigilantes call out ‘cultural appropriation’ in the same breadth as ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege.’ They accuse perpetrators as being ‘ignorant,’ ‘racist,’ and ‘colonialists’ as haphazardly as me squirting Siracha on anything that lands on my plate.

After willingly diving into conversations about cultural appropriation and being swarmed for holding views deemed non-virtuous, I recalled the humid summer evenings playing Chinese Checkers with my family. Flies, gnats, and mosquitos whirred aggressively around us as we dropped carcasses of watermelon rinds and sun flower seed shells into a compost bin next to our game table. Something about the ambient level of nuisance caused by these flying critters while staying focused on my next move reminded me that Chinese Checkers can illuminate a few lessons about cultural appropriation.

  1. Cultures are fluid, and any attempt to contain any culture’s influence, and dare I say, appropriation, is foolhardy and pointless.

True to its name, Chinese checkers was invented in Germany in 1892 as a variation of an older American game called Halma. It was ultimately introduced to China via Japan, where it became known in China as tiaoqi (跳棋) or jump chess.

Chinese Checkers is actually neither a variation of checkers or chess, as it’s English and Chinese name suggests.

The name “Chinese checkers” originated in the United States as a marketing scheme by the Pressman company in 1928, after being originally called “Hop Ching Checkers.”

These facts reveal that this game was created devoid of any authentic Chinese cultural context and that a white guy had named it ‘Chinese’ to make it sound exotically fun. The game then ping-ponged across the Pacific Ocean and jumped into the homes across China so that my grandparents played with their children, and I, in turn, learned to play the game from my grandparents.

Does Chinese Checkers represent a case of cultural exchange or cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation vigilantes argue that there is a clear line drawn between the two and that they support the former but not the latter. But is the line really so clear?

Did the Germans “borrow” the game from the Americans, the Japanese from the Germans, or the Chinese from the Japanese, but not before an American company brought sexy back to the game by naming it ‘Chinese’? And what to make of the Chinese then taking something that “did not belong to them” and turned it into something as ubiquitous as a wok in the kitchen?

The only clear line to be drawn here is that the process of cultural exchange and appropriation lives on the same continuum of mish-mash and collision of cultural influences that bring us into a common shared humanity.

According to John McWhorter, Linguistics Professor at Columbia University, groups have come together and imitated each other throughout human history. Therefore, as an inhabitant of this earth, I see humanity residing on a Venn diagram of overlapping cultural features and historical experiences so that we all relate to each other against the backdrop of the same starry night.

I live by the universalist principle that no one owns a particular culture, but everyone inhabits one (that inevitably overlaps with others), and should be free to straddle several. Jason D. Hill, Philosophy Professor at DePaul University purports the view that culture “belongs to the world” and “is a dynamic and interactive enterprise among all human beings.” This is not to say that cultures should not be preserved or honored. I am merely cautioning against the idea that there is such a thing as cultural purity to uphold. This notion can breed intolerance and turn people into gnats that buzz aimlessly to stop what is a natural cycle of human progression.

2. Not every human (inter)action is a game of Chinese Checkers

Chinese Checkers is a shameless competition for territorial appropriation. The goal of the game is to compete for getting all of one’s pieces into the corner on the opposite side of the star-shaped board before the opponents do the same. The destination corner is called home. Essentially, the winner ousts one by one the pieces that once belonged in someone’s home so that they are eventually all replaced entirely by the winner’s own pieces.

Cultural appropriation vigilantes interact with people through the prism of playing Chinese Checkers. All players are embedded in a perpetual system of white supremacy — there are only oppressors and the oppressed, determined by race. Every benign action, or move, is interpreted as colonizers seizing land and cultural artifacts where the victims are denied access to their own culture, or in Chinese Checkers world — their home corner.

One only needs to look up #cultural appropriation in Medium to see how self appointed cultural vigilantes insist to frame their world views like a game of Chinese Checkers, where cultures are seen as turfs to be defended and owned.

However, all cultures have tangled histories of domination and adaptation that have brought them to their present day. According to John McWhorter, all empires, including non-European ones, “were all about rampant interethnic appropriation.”

To be clear, we should call out true cases of cultural appropriation that mock or perpetuate negative racial stereotypes. But most accusations represent spurious and confusing moral aggrandizement. For example, vigilantes raged against a teenager in Utah wearing a Chinese prom dress, accusing her for co-opting culture and perpetuating colonial ideology. At Oberlin College, vigilantes turned themselves into Chinese Checker pieces by stamping out the dining hall’s version of Banh Mi Sandwiches because they were disrespectful to the “original” ingredients. I am sure this sent the Vietnamese baguette into an identity crisis questioning its internalized white supremacy.

However, as much as I enjoy playing Chinese Checkers, I do not intend to react to the world according to its rules. Unless perpetrators are seeking to wipe out and replace a population, as players would in a round of Chinese Checkers, cultural appropriation has not taken place.

3. Chill out and play Chinese Checkers!

Despite the pressures and hardships of navigating an unfamiliar new world in the U.S., my relatives always played Chinese Checkers with joy, levity, and humor. During one game night, a fire broke out in the basement of the tenement in which we lived. Without much fanfare, we grabbed our essentials (mine was a plush Gund stuffed polar bear), and filed out of the building into the street. The fire department arrived and squashed the wimpy conflagration that our landlord had once again ignited to attempt to spook the tenants to move out of our rent-controlled building. We returned to our apartment and resumed our positions around the game table.

Unperturbed by the landlord wielding power over our existence, I advanced my board piece one step closer to territorial domination and conquest over my opponent’s home corner. Thinking of the swarm of vigilantes I have encountered online, I cannot help to think that perhaps a round of pretend play could help them work out their angst of being threatened by some pervasive force of white hegemony.

More importantly, instead of participating in digital tribalism that distorts acceptable social decorum, they would benefit from the real-life interaction and camaraderie that is fostered by the game. Being face to face with someone inevitably fosters a level of civility and goodwill with people, even with those with whom you disagree. Oftentimes, the same family members who I had bickered with also became the best playmates in Chinese Checkers. Therefore, it seems to me that when faced with the primordial impulse to swarm, people should seek to instead engage in more one-on-one TLC. That’s right, that’s — Talk, laugh, and chill, over a game of Chinese Checkers.

At the foundation of cultural appropriation is some noble protest against inequities that may be attributed to unjust power structures often shaped by race. However, not every act represents a social justice transgression. Oftentimes, the real transgression is the tribalism that drives the attacks against mundane acts of mere participation in a multi ethnic society.

While the online cultural protectionist brigade assailed the act of turning the Ying Yang symbol into a tattoo on white skin, they attacked the principles of Ying Yang itself, which broadly represents the belief of an interconnected world. In particular, Yin Yang posits that the world is composed of many different, sometimes opposing, forces, that can coexist and even complement each other. Whereas Yin Yang inherently recognizes the ever changing nature of the world around us, the gnats have never evolved beyond flying in people’s faces.

Perhaps one day, cultural vigilantes will find themselves entrapped in the body of an arthropod in the Kafkaesque malady that they created for themselves. Through their shells, they will see people joyfully commingling and bantering over a game of Chinese Checkers. As the earth continues to rotate, individuals who participate in the cross pollination of ideas, and welcome the messy interaction that comes along with that, will move civilization forward without those who rage against that spirit.

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