Culturally Appropriate: Steal These Traditions to Improve Your Life

What can we learn from Japanese gift-givers, Italian coffee aficionados, and Indian festival goers?

The world knows no greater evil than a White girl in a cheongsam-inspired prom dress or a non-Dutch person in Dutch braids (also known as boxer braids and often worn by people who aren’t, in fact, pugilists).

I, too, have been the victim of “cultural appropriation” while in Japan during the holiday season, forced to endure Christmas sponge cakes, fried chicken vendors on every street corner, and what appeared to be the conflation of the good Colonel with Jolly Old Saint Nick. (Japanese people feast on KFC to celebrate Christmas—possibly due to some very bodacious marketing.)

And while I was stoked to find not a single restaurant closed on Christmas Eve, it was quite the disconcerting experience to be the only non-romantic pair dining out that night. Yes, rather than a family holiday, Christmas Eve in Japan is for couples, akin to Valentine’s Day. (Which they also do wrong.) Bah humbug. It’s offensive how little the Japanese understand the true spirit of Christmas, that most cherished time of the year where we participate in rampant consumerism and the Pagan ritual of decorating a felled tree.

However, cultural appropriation need not be a bad thing; there are traditions we’d be remiss if we didn’t nab from other cultures. Call it cultural appreciation.

Dessert before dinner

‘If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding’, spits the psychotic principal in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Totally unfair. The Japanese joke that they have a betsu bara, a second stomach dedicated to dessert, but there’s no denying a filling main course often leaves little room cheesecake.

In South India, people will often have a bite of something sweet before the main meal during festivals. In this case, a sweet morsel is designed to act as a palate cleanser rather than a table cleaner as per the original meaning of the French desservir from which we get the word dessert.

Next time you’re at a fine dining establishment, do me proud and order the chocolate mousse before your soup and salad.

Unwrapping gifts in private

Although it’s often the sentiment that is appreciated rather than the item itself, it can be hard to school one’s features into enraptured delight upon unwrapping a puke-yellow sweater or a copy of “Deadly Equines: The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses”. Sure it’s the thought that counts, but I can’t even begin to fathom what someone who gifts Etsy baby tooth necklaces is thinking. (Yes, that’s as real as the murderous horse book.)

The Japanese, who are big on letting people save face, have a solution for this potential faux pas. The trick is to take the proffered tidily-wrapped gift reverently with both hands, profusely thank the giver, admire the wrapping done by the sales clerk, and set the present aside so you can open it not in the present. Unwrapping gifts in private means there’s no pressure on the receiver and absolutely no chance of offending or hurting the gift giver.

I think this is the way to go, particularly when receiving gifts purchased by distant/doddering relatives or by co-workers who know you only well enough to venture that you seem to enjoy consuming oxygen and visiting the lavatory. (Then again, this tradition might merely be a conspiracy by Big Giftbag.)

Short but sweet coffee breaks

Modern-day life with its to-go coffees is much too hectic; a coffee break referring to the fetching rather than the enjoyment of your beverage. In contrast, the Italians imbibe their caffeine at the counter (al banco), with the taste and moment savoured to the fullest. A far more relaxing and indulgent experience than the sad act of sipping a tepid one-thousand calorie frapptrocity all day at the office lest one’s sugar levels dip and one falls into a coma.

This brings me to my solution for the post-lunch coma—that stupor from which even copious amounts of caffeine cannot save us, otherwise known as the afternoon slump.


Everyone knows the brain is incapable of forming complex thoughts at the same time as we’re digesting complex carbohydrates. I suggest workplaces start encouraging naps after lunch, perhaps even provisioning employees with under-the-desk hammocks. (I believe these can be purchased from four places, all from the hammock complex on third.)

Telling parents their progeny is hideous

In Thailand, it’s common to “insult” a newborn as ‘very, very ugly’ (na kilat mak mak) as praise might attract the attention of evil spirits. (I guess it’s the same sort of logic as believing well-wishing jinxes a performance and telling actors to ‘break a leg’.) At last, we could all say what we really think when confronted with a child who looks like a cross between a foot and a Blobfish:

Fashionably late to meetings

I had an acquaintance that did some pro bono actuarial work in… er, I can’t remember, so let’s say it was in Tonga. She described marvelling at the people she was trying to help (free of charge!) arriving several hours late to meet with her.

Ah, African Time, how I wish the rest of the world would adopt you. Imagine if it were in vogue to arrive fashionably late not just to parties but team meetings too. I mean, I already do, with the poor optics of a takeaway latte in hand, no less. I should also mention that this very person once told me I was late even by African standards.

Fluff, feathers and Lamingtons

Now, this is a lot of stealing without any giving back—time to remedy this. Here’s something I offer up from my own culture for the taking. We say neither fluff nor feather (ni puha, ni pera) in Russian instead of good luck. The fun part is what you get to say in response: To hell with it! (More accurately, k chortu is ‘To the devil with it’.) And let me tell you, that confident, devil-may-care dismissal really puts one in a better mindset for, say, tackling an exam than a timid thank you ever could.

I also wanted to give you something from Australian culture but then the visions of dancing Lamingtons started (as happens when I think too hard on this aspect of my identity). So how about you settle for an appreciation of irreverent humour as per this article?

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