October 11, 2019

LIM | Depoliticizing Apples and Mooncakes

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The most alarming thing I’ve heard since coming to America is, “Since when were you so anti-China?” This came from my brother, who can tell me the angles six different international news agencies take on various issues, while I — reliant on my free student subscription of The New York Times — could reference only one. I decided that my brother’s balance on issues is something I need to learn from, as shown when he responded on what he thought a friend’s stance on Hong Kong was with: “Pro-stability.”

The tendency of American college activism to personify governments and populations into single entities with moral character is something I’ve since tried to distance myself from. In particular, the way this habit voids “the enemy’s” perspective. When I juxtapose this tendency with our campus climate’s simultaneous desire to give her diverse student body equal cultural voice, I am puzzled by the contradiction and cognizant of the way it politicizes aspects of culture that I grew up believing are better unpoliticized. Yet, reflecting on recent Rosh Hashanah and Mid-Autumn Festival festivities, I realize I too am homogenizing cultural expression when I carry this belief.

America’s relative “freedom of speech” doesn’t guarantee balance if all voices still start from the same premises, and if a failure to recognize this convinces the minority to have their perspectives rewritten. Growing up in a small country, where diplomacy is central to defense, I had been taught to track world events as actions and reactions more than as justifications for intervention or boycotts. Coming here, the new light in which Xinjiang was cast initially felt like a revelation, and the necessity of Israel and Palestine’s diaspora and respective allies playing out these moralized divisions abroad an awakening.

Yet, if I made Rosh Hashanah and Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated by cultures affiliated with Israel and China (not exclusively), a call to lay down arms to reaffirm the culture and humanity of domestic populations and diasporas beyond moralization, I would be dismissing the existence of perspectives like my own. Believing that the health of any system — from gene pools to workplaces — is diversity, I wonder what can be done for campus discourse today to feel more like a stacked cord of every student’s proto-framework shaped by their background and less like a dominant wave whose premises newcomers have to tune their frequencies to.

Perhaps promoting a variety of perspectives starts from catching myself in the act of homogenization: De-conflating identities with organizations, and organizations with the people in them. Watermargin’s Rosh Hashanah “potluck,” where our brisket and kugel were greeted with challah and bagels, was intended by our Jewish housemate foremost as an accessible platform for Jewish cultural expression on campus that didn’t have to entail Israel or religious beliefs. But even within organizations whose stated affiliations seem more guaranteed lie a diversity of opinions: I have been told that participants in Hillel’s programming hold a range of opinions on Israel, some more publicly expressed, even if the organization itself has obligations to specific positions. Organizations might bear political inflections, but occasions of cultural expression invite disentanglement. The Cornell Chinese Student’s Association’s Mid-Autumn festival last Friday included Cornell Taiwanese American Society. While the various organizations’ identities could have me recognize this as an act of cultural unity across political differences, I could also opt to not politicize a non-political organization on its behalf at all and view all festival celebrants simply as people.

Sure, there are instances where it is not an external voice, but a prominent internal voice, that politicizes cultural expression. But actions are reactions, and these strike me as a litmus test for the level of politicization in dominant discourse more broadly. They make me listen more carefully when peers note how America’s growing criticisms of China’s moral character coincide with the threat of her growing economy, for example. Politically-motivated images that redefine a culture on its behalf naturally invite a similarly political voice from said culture. It’s less easy to criticize a community’s decision to create politically-motivated holidays, or politicize an existing holiday if aggressors choose occasions as sacred as Easter for bombings, or Yom Kippur for a mass shooting.
The voice that uses mooncakes as an instrument of protest in Hong Kong should be recognized equal alongside the voice that sees Mid-Autumn festival, an occasion of family unity, as a non-political opportunity to culturally unite a diaspora. Just as my brother references a variety of news agencies in understanding an issue, I hope to have as ready an access to variegated self-definitions of culture, political or otherwise.

Kristi Lim is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at klim@cornellsun.com. Riskit Kristi runs every other Wednesday this semester.