By Tiffany Chan
Edited by Morgan Moore and Catherine Harlow
It’s prom season and you may have seen a recent viral story gracing the internet about a girl (of non-East Asian descent) who chose a Chinese qipao as her prom gown. This story took the social internet by storm after it was brought to the attention of the Asian American community via Twitter.
It’s important to outline why someone might be offended in the first place. While qipao can be worn for any occasion, red qipao are traditionally worn by brides. How do I know this? Because my sister wore one at her wedding, and any time I try to buy a qipao, my mother always reminds me NEVER RED (but I guess her 媽媽 never taught her that). To put it in perspective, think about how people react when a white lacy dress is worn at inappropriate times. It could be at prom or even [GASP] at someone else’s wedding. Just because the garment has been divorced and debased from its original form and you can order it from Amazon Prime does not mean that choice is in good taste. We cannot erase the fact that it means something specific within the contexts of its culture or origin and is now being used for something different. Considering the general nature of teenagers as well as the fact that Utah is a predominantly Caucasian state, I can only assume that this was done for notoriety.
Am I personally offended and outraged by the story? No, I’m aggravated by it, but I learned very early that you can not be outraged by everything that is actually offensive lest you burn out. Personally, I have always tried to set my sights on critiquing cultural institutions, textbooks, and media: platforms that I believe in general have a larger social impact than a girl and her prom dress. But to those who took up the cause in this situation, more power to you for continuing the conversation.
What does make my blood boil however is the reaction of non-Asian Americans to the responses and stories of Asian Americans. On multiple platforms, I’ve seen people trying to say that the outrage expressed by the community is an overreaction, and therefore we should stop talking about it. Furthermore, as we’ve seen with previous stories of this nature, the perspectives of nationals are brought in as the ultimate authority, thereby trying to silence those Americans who first raised the issue. This has gotten and continues to get under my skin, perhaps precisely because of how we are trained to think in art history classes. While we many not necessarily ‘like’ any given artwork, we’re trained to speak about it with a certain degree of clinical detachment from our opinions. If it is from a different culture, we try to be mindful that its culture of origin has a legacy and is a heritage.
I wish to make this point incredibly clear— the Asian and Asian-American experience are two COMPLETELY different things.
Let me explain by talking about me. I am not Chinese, I am Chinese-American. I grew up in a very white suburb, where I was one of three students of Asian descent and the only other people who looked like me were my family members. I have physical characteristics that mark me as very much Not White. I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese (which is really embarrassing), but I also have a deep attachment to Cantonese dishes, which remind me of my own home and are a shared cultural identity when I do meet other Chinese people. But it becomes very obvious that my childhood was distinctly American when I meet someone from China or listen to the stories my parents tell about their childhoods, which feels like a world away.
Being [country of origin]-American to me means that you occupy the liminal space between the Old Country and American society. You don’t wholly fit in either category neatly, and that can be overt or creep out in insidious ways. Hasan Minhaj said it best when he said that minorities all face the same issue: do you try and fit in? Or be different because you ARE different from the norm? The same people who now think it is so cool to wear bindis and qipao are likely the same types of people who teased people of color (POC) for not fitting the mold only years earlier. And again, this is a way to try and silence people rather than have a dialogue. It’s okay if you didn’t know this, I had to take a college course to wrap my head around it and have the language to try an articulate my (then) two decades of experience. Once fully cognizant however, most minorities have a finely-tuned radar to racial inequality in the United States in a way that someone from the Motherland would not be.
You can personally think that people are overreacting, in this instance or others. Per the First Amendment, that is your right, you are entitled to your opinion. If you are not a POC, by all means please have the conversation about what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation. That issue really is complicated and is worthy of hours of discussion. So-say whatever you want. But the moment you refuse to acknowledge the lived experience of (in this case) many Asian Americans and try to purport that opinion as fact, then you cease to be an ally to me. Full stop. I frankly don’t care how progressive you claim to be in other respects.
But it’s really quite simple to take the first steps towards being a good ally! There’s a couple things to keep in mind: Listen to them. Keeping an open mind does not necessarily equate to wholly agreeing with someone, but it does mean that you’re listening (or trying to). You are not entitled to anyone’s story, especially when it could potentially involve trauma, but if they choose to share that story with you, the least you can do is listen. Sharing stories that are not the normative experience is a brave thing to do, so respect it and don’t ask for more details—especially if you intend to use those details to somehow try and undermine someone’s argument. All you need to do is say “We might disagree, but I hear you and I believe you.”
When you say “it’s not cultural appropriation and we’re being too sensitive,” what you’re essentially doing is valuing your own opinion above someone’s lived experience and possible trauma. When you say we shouldn’t talk about it because someone says it’s alright, you are prioritizing your own discomfort at talking about the subjugation of minorities…over the actual subjugation of those minorities. If it’s uncomfortable for you to listen to it, I beg you to empathize with what it is like to live with that burden, without the ability to escape when it becomes too uncomfortable, too much to handle. And everyone who comes across your opinion will know that you may or may not be a safe person to talk to about things of this nature. It breeds distrust. We can’t ask the peoples’ of long-gone civilizations how they felt about the images of their time, but our contemporaries are literally begging for us to hear them, take them seriously, and just be better. It’s time to listen.
Further reading from Asian American voices: