The Importance of Language in Using Traditional Carriers
Posted on September 05 2019
With Mid Autumn Festival rapidly approaching, it seems an appropriate time to celebrate one of our favorite Asian-style carriers here at 2Lambie (I said one of!!). The perfect combination of structured carrier and wrap, A Mei Dai provides the security of a full buckle carrier with the closeness and control of a woven. This traditional Chinese carrier has been used for hundreds of years in East Asia, where babywearing is and was a cultural norm.
This longevity and history is part of the reason why it’s so important to have an open dialogue about some tough things: cultural appropriation for example. This phrase has been making a lot of news in the past few years, and it’s often wildly misinterpreted, but that, in fact, makes it even more important to talk about.
I need to preface all of this by saying that I am white, I don’t identify as a part of any Asian culture or background, and aside from a love of authentic Chinese food (I’m talking pork intestine and pig ear authentic), I have limited knowledge of Asian culture. Any information I wrote on this topic is coming from a ton of reading, a bit of research, and a lot of respect for the aspects of other cultures that have made their way into Western Society.
A basic explanation of cultural appropriation is when someone takes something (clothing, hairstyles, accessories, makeup, and yes, baby carriers) that is traditionally a part of another culture or society, ESPECIALLY when this action exploits, caricaturizes, exaggerates, or makes fun the other culture, and brings it into another culture without acknowledging or respecting its origins. This is particularly dangerous because often the societies from which these things are being taken are marginalized and appropriation only perpetuates stereotypes about them.
We see this happen when looking at Halloween costumes, on fashion runways, in music videos. We see Twitter feuds and Facebook posts argument that people should be more (or less) sensitive. And, unfortunately, it happens in the babywearing community.
So why is this such a big deal? I find myself thinking about important items in my life that I wouldn’t want mistreated or misrepresented. I’m not religious at all, but I would still be bothered a bit if someone took a Tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) and wore it half naked down a runway (this happened. It was a sacred Native headpiece at a Victoria’s Secret show). Many people are bothered by misrepresentation or mistreatment of the American flag; it’s something that is a symbol of pride and strength and people feel disrespected when it is used in a way that defiles it at all. Now, multiply that feeling by years of oppression and otherness, and maybe we can begin to understand what these cultures are going through when a piece of their heritage is bastardized in any way.
There is a history of this happening in the babywearing world. Without mentioning names, there have been instances of patterns that have sacred meaning stolen and used in commercial products. Products have been named things that are either offensive or outright racial slurs. But I think the most common bit of cultural appropriation found in the babywearing community is in the misuse of names of the carriers.
A Meh Dai is not a Mai Tai or an MD; Meh and Dai both have meanings and names, and they belong together as a grammatical representation of the carriers they represent. Onb* is not an acceptable shortening of the word Onbuhimo, and not only does this, again, break Japanese language rules, but it also disrespects the women and families who have been relying on these carriers for more than just keeping their babies close. Babywearing was the reason people could work and still have families, it was the reason people were able to easily migrate and live nomadically when they needed to. It was so much more than the convenience it is today.
In all of my reading and watching interviews with artists of color, I’ve found that there is a distinct difference between cultural appropriation and respectful representation of someone else’s culture, and I think that’s what we need to keep in mind in the babywearing community. There is nothing wrong with using these traditional style carriers as long as we are aware of and vocal about the beautifully rich history that they have and the significance they hold in cultures that are not our own. We can start to do this by calling things by their proper names and correcting those who don’t.
Language is an undeniably important part of any culture or society. Words matter, respect of those words matters, especially when we are knowingly taking a piece of someone else’s heritage and using it in our own lives.
Content note: cultural photos are personal photos from a 2Lambie team member.