An “Appropriate” Afterthought: Oktoberfest

Hello again, fateful followers whose stats I can see on my webpage. Funny how high tech the world is now that I can see who’s reading my rants and raves from miles away. I don’t want to get into the idea of personal information access via Internet because, let’s face it, I will go and have gone on and on about this.

Anyway. I apologize for the painstakingly long eight whole days in between posts. I’ve been somewhat busy in London finally setting up what courses I am taking for the semester. I guess since college was nearly free for Brits for the longest time and students only took courses in one discipline for years they felt no need to worry about administrative stuff. Dropping the ball doesn’t look good to me when it comes to college admin. But my classes are set so that’s that.

I spent the past weekend enjoying sunny (not at all) and warm (more of a brisk 62 Farenheit) Munich, Germany, with a handful of peers for the 182nd annual Oktoberfest. The festival is quite literally a festival dedicated to beer. Well, not at first – originally a celebration of a royal marriage between King Ludwig I and Princess Therese, Oktoberfest was all about horse races. It wasn’t until around 1818 when beer and carnival rides made their first appearances, and the infamous and hilarious experiences that are the beer tents didn’t make their debut until 1896. Wow. The more you know. Thanks, ofest.com

Oktoberfest for Americans is, yes, essentially what you are thinking of. We dressed up in lederhosen and drindls, drank beer from massive biersteins, and ate bratwurst and pretzels. We watched others stand on tables and chug, we listened to the oom-pa-pa of the German band as they performed “Ein Prosit” every twenty minutes – loosely translated to “I’m cheers-ing to coziness/good cheer” – and all were merry, not to mention a little broke by the end of it.

Upon returning to our respective study abroad locations, my peers posted photos to social media just to notify others that we had done this great experience. One of my flatmates was confronted by a friend of ours about how disgraced she was that we took part in such an example of cultural appropriation.

Here’s where I’m puzzled. Oktoberfest is a very, very old festival, and the lederhosen and beer and “Ein Prosit” are not strictly put together to appeal/appease the tourists that bring commerce to Munich for three consecutive weekends. These are German traditions that have German meaning behind them, but is taking part in a festival like Oktoberfest a demonstration of cultural appropriation, even if we don’t mean it to be?

My flatmate justified that it was not by saying: “if you went to a Cinco de Mayo festival in Mexico and everyone was drinking tequila and dressed up, would you have done the same?”

I guess. But for me, that feels different. In the 180+ years it has been around, Oktoberfest has become an international festival. 15% of the six million visitors each year come from the rest of Europe, the US, the UK and Canada. To me, part of the beauty of Oktoberfest was that everyone, regardless of nationality or country of residence, embraced German culture and was a part of a much bigger celebration in a way that I don’t think was culturally offensive. In the Cinco de Mayo hypothetical situation, my same feeling applies – being a part of a festival that means so much to a nation and its culture does not seem to me like appropriation.

It’s when these festivals are taken elsewhere that I feel like a cultural appropriation-based flag could be thrown. Take Leavenworth, Washington for example. The town a little over two hours away from Seattle hosts their own Oktoberfest ever year, complete with German beers, German-style food and German music. It feels like a strong demonstration of cultural appropriation, yet it has been an annual fixture of Leavenworth since 1998, upheld each year by a non-profit organization that promotes the “Bavarian theme” throughout the town. A “theme” that was made up by the town leaders to attract visitors!

I draw the line at Leavenworth. While Oktoberfest in Munich is definitely a commercial event, the repackaging, so to speak, of this event to western Washington state feels like a total appropriation. It takes the authenticity out of a celebration that has been so important to Munich, Bavaria and Germany for nearly two centuries.

I want to end on a more positive thought. While doing research on this topic, I found an article from 2014 in the UC Santa Barbara Daily Nexus. Allison Wright’s experience at a Santa Barbara Oktoberfest celebration and subsequent grapple with this same question reach a resolution in her final paragraph:

While cultural appropriation remains a hot coal in our societal balance, sometimes we as people ought to embrace our position as international citizens…’an exchange enriches both of our cultures.’

I can only hope that the exchange of cultures for both sides will lead to more of an appreciation less of an appropriation in the future.

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