In light of events that have occurred on campuses around the United States I decided to wear an ‘asian conical hat’ for two weeks this last semester. It was a mixture of performance art and (non)protest. The rules were simple. (1) While outdoors, I must where the hat. (2) While indoors, the hat must be near me. (3) If I ever forget the hat, I must retrieve it as soon as possible. These three simple rules resulted in two most emotionally exhausting weeks I’ve had in college.
But first, a little bit of background on the conical hat. ‘Asian conical hat’ is the entry name in Wikipedia for the hat. It’s wonderfully vague and decidedly pan-asian. The hat is worn in many countries in southeast Asia and the surrounding areas. The hat protects the wearer from the sun and is commonly used in farm work. The hat is often depicted in bucolic paintings that romanticize agrarian roots and simpler times.
Romanticized Asian ideals are surprisingly not common in the Inland Empire. Conical hats cannot be bought at Target. It was going to take a bit more work to find one. I went to the retail place that has never failed me. The place that I’ve turned to in the darkest hour of my consumer needs. I went on Amazon. A quick search on the website confirmed my suspicions. Conical hats were abundant. Unsurprisingly, most of the sellers were from Halloween costume stores. Surprisingly, many of the reviews applauded how the hat was great for gardening.
Let’s take a second to set up our intellectual mies en place. An online Halloween costume store was selling (what was probably a racist) accessory. Yet it was being used by real people for gardening because that’s what it was designed to do. Additionally, let’s not ignore the conditions in which the hats were made, probably unsavory. The hat is a wonderful little intersection of hilariously pragmatic and globally existential forces.
The following are reviews from Amazon regarding the hat. Notice the earnestness and general ambivalence towards any racial implications.
“Got this exact hat at memphis zoo. It has a wicker ring inside that keeps the hat off your head and lets air circulate keeping your head cooler than any hat I have ever worn. Wide brim provides protection to your shoulders. I am buying a second one so that I can wear one to outdoor events and another for working outdoors.”
“My wife just loves it she works outside a lot and it shades her face and neck.”
“Ive used the hat on the beach, gardening, but mostly to wear on my long summer day runs…its flawless! Its July 2011..and my coolie is still keeping me cool and looking cool. In perfect condition btw. This has been one of those buys that turned out to be a true value..knowing what I know now I would have paid an extra 25 to 35% over what I did pay for it!!!”
This collision between the cultural baggage of the asian conical hat and the practical nature of the object is beautiful! There’s a woman right now in Phoenix who is wearing an asian conical hat to garden. A lifeguard is wearing this hat to avoid getting an unsightly tan. Someone in China wakes up every morning and goes to work in the conical hat factory, making ‘inauthentic’ versions of the hat only to have it shipped to America to have people use it ‘authentically’. Yes, this brings up some troubling aspects about global capitalism, but fundamentally, this exchange of goods and culture is hysterical.
Recently talks about cultural appropriation have taken center stage across many American colleges and even the general media. For the uninitiated, cultural appropriation is essentially the exotification of typically non-western cultures in order to provide something ‘new’ and ‘interesting.’ This often manifests itself in motifs and accessories of a culture being trendy for a period of time. Generally, little care is placed on understanding the culture and the people associated with these trends. Oft-cited examples include bindis, which were all the rage in the 90’s and the proverbial Native American-esque wear commonly found in music festivals like Coachella. The prevailing view is that cultural appropriation is damaging to the people of that culture and disrespectful. Being a costume isn’t fun.
But, would a man in Minnesota wearing a conical hat on a fishing trip be considered appropriative or appropriate? From a material goods standpoint, of course he should buy it. The hat is a good product, and he should use it lovingly. He could even advertise the hat to his friends. Is practicality racist in this instance? A quick Google search produces pages and pages of articles on the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. But what if the act is culturally ambivalent? The man would have no relation (exotification or otherwise) to the hat’s cultural baggage. In midst of the resurgence of identity politics can anything be disassociated from it’s ‘source culture?’ How does someone even bridge the gap between ambivalence, appropriation, and appreciation without making an ass of themselves? I believe that we haven’t had enough time to discuss more nuanced situations like this. One could argue that anyone who wears the hat is embodying and living the source culture. What’s a better way to appreciate a culture than actually participating in its rituals? Culture is confusing, and unlike the directive and decisive scholars before me, I have no course of recommended action.
With these deeply pretentious philosophical thoughts in mind, I clicked the ‘add to cart’ button on Amazon page. I had spent six dollars on the conical hat. Hopefully, the outcome would be comical. It arrived a week later in all its Halloween store glory. The hat was plastic and had a black shoelace for the chin strap. The phrase elegantly ambivalent came to mind. It was cheap and offensive. I was in love. The performance was about to begin.
At first, I was afraid of how others would react. Pomona has a reputation for being a little too liberal and disconnected from the greater world. Would I be attacked by a mob walking to the art building? Will there be a scathing op-ed in the campus newspaper? Am I going to be an ostrich in the Asian American community? The soon-to-be Facebook event page became clear, “Protest Against Jacky Tran, Disgraceful Twinkie”. I hid my fears with a plastic smile and walked into the abyss.
Nothing happened. When confronted with such blatant acts of appropriation, people froze. Without computer screens to shield them, the extent of actions against me were limited to staring and the occasional snicker. Sustained eye contact was made but never a word. I imagine this is what zoo animals feel like, put out on display, no actual interactions. With some thought, I’ve concluded that people’s inactions were a result of one of two things (1) a racist Asian American had never been a possibility to them, not to mention a self-immolating one or (2) the people simply didn’t care. Lets keep my latent megalomania in check. I’m not important. Since the hat is part of my culture, shouldn’t I celebrate it? What does celebrating a culture look like for someone who isn’t really connected to the culture? Am I connecting to my ever-important roots by wearing this conical hat? Will I gain the cultural street-cred I was so desperately seeking? The answers were unclear. Everyone seemed more confused than when we started.
I started wearing the hat with smug pride after a few days. I was thinking deeply about issues of race, diaspora, and heritage. While others were preoccupied with their econ problem sets or labs, I was putting myself in harm’s way. I felt wonderful but also horribly conceited. Low self-esteem can’t be cured by a plastic hat. In order to counteract my feelings of superiority, I should mention that the hat had no ventilation. Plastic is not a breathable fabric and I was constantly sweating. Near the end of the performance, I nicknamed my hat ‘the tagine’. It was a cerebral braise of sorts. A friend made the astute observation that by orientalizing myself, I was in actuality whitening myself due to sun protection. This aptly summarizes the performance. What is culture? Can it be owned? Should we all start wearing conical hats? At the end of the two week period I hung up my conical hat. My venture into loaded plastic headwear caused more confusion than anything which seems appropriate.
Conical Hat was a performance in and around the Claremont Colleges. It took place from November 23rd to December 6th, 2015. The artist wore a cheap plastic coolie hat while outside, and carried the hat nearby at all times.