I consider myself a pretty fearless dresser, but I’ve always been leery of “Asian” fashion trends: the Mandarin collars, silk florals, anime characters, bib-style halters, jade jewelry, bamboo motifs, kimonos, and qipaos. Then I read Michael Luo’s open letter in The New York Times, about having an Upper East Side woman scream at his family to go back to China, and amid all the typical reactions I experience when I hear stories like this — That’s terrible. But is anyone surprised? That happened to me just last Tuesday — I had an epiphany. In that moment, I realized that fashion, which represents both my career and my passion, has also been a source of shame for me. It occurred to me that I’ve spent my entire life actively avoiding that Upper West Side woman and her ilk, and my clothes — specifically the clothes that I won't wear — tell that story. I’ve written before about how Western fashion has a long history of using motifs from Eastern Asia as shorthand for "exotic," and the role that Orientalism has had in keeping emigrated Asians marginalized. Even in the ‘90s, when Asian Americans had been living in the United States for multiple generations, Long Duk Dong was still the closest version of ourselves we saw in the movies. Growing up, there wasn’t much I could do about what my eyes looked like or my parents’ accents. But I could dress in ways that signaled I was emo, mod, a vintage clotheshorse, a Carrie wannabe — anything but the kind of socially awkward, bookish Asian girl John Hughes might have cast me as. I did other things, too, things that make me feel hot-faced and uncomfortable to think about now, like choosing to respond to my parents in English when they’d talk to me in Chinese when we were in public. Or asking to have my middle name — Xiaokang — removed from my driver’s license when I was 16. Or purposely avoiding other Asians in college to prove to my white friends that I was more than just my ethnicity.
But fashion has always been the focal point of my ambivalence. I remember as a child begging my mother not to make me wear the shirts that my aunts and uncles would send to me as gifts from China, the ones that featured cartoons like Sun Wukong and Doraemon, complete with Chinese speech bubbles, instead of Disney princesses. I worried the other kids would make fun of me. But even as I got older, and those mean kids grew into more tolerant teens, I still resisted wearing them. It all felt too on the nose. Remember several years ago when those Chinese slippers became a mini sensation? I never asked for a pair of my own. While my classmates scrambled to find “silk pajamas” like the ones Lindsay Lohan wore in Parent Trap, I never told them that I had a pair at home, still in its wrapping. While I am a proud Chinese-American, I chose to wear my culture on my sleeve through the work I do, the company I keep, and the way I spend my time. But I’ve always drawn the line at clothes. My friend Nancy, a Korean-American, grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Southern California and has witnessed my fashion neuroses on multiple occasions. Each time I’ve asked her, “Does this make me look too Asian?” she has always answered me with one of her epic eye rolls. “I guess I don’t find there to be anything shameful about looking ‘too Asian,’” she explained over email. “I might also not be sensitive to it, because I grew up in a place where Asians were an overrepresented minority, but being Asian has never had any connotations of being different. I rarely got confused for someone who wasn’t born here.” When I first met Nancy in college, she wore a lot of thigh-high knee socks and pleated miniskirts, two of my personal style no-nos — I never wanted anyone thinking about Japanese schoolgirls when they looked at me. Still, the fetish lore hasn’t escaped her: “I think most Asian women, including myself, are concerned about playing into some sort of creepy man’s hyper-sexualized fantasy,” she told me. “I worry about that more than looking like an immigrant.” But Nancy knows — as any Asian girl knows — pervy comments will come regardless, if you’re wearing knee socks or sweatpants. Nancy’s dealt with this by developing a very polite, very effective no-thanks-boy-bye technique. The net result: She doesn’t allow the expectations and presumptions of others to influence or dictate her fashion choices.
Unlike Nancy, I grew up in predominantly Caucasian communities in Nebraska, Alabama, and Minnesota. I’ve had my fair share of “Go back to China” comments like the kind Luo describes in his article; but far more common are the subtle, daily asides that remind me that many people don’t see me as really American. These days, we call those remarks microaggressions, but when I was growing up, my family referred to them as “being patient with white people.” Like the time a waitress at Applebee’s misunderstood my order (fries) and told me, “Oh honey, we don’t serve rice here.” Or the time my mom went grocery shopping, and the checkout clerk asked her if we ate our cereal with chopsticks. Or when my American-born little sister ordered an ice cream cone and the server complimented her accent-free English before asking if she got to have treats like that back in her country. For my neighbors, whose understanding of China almost exclusively comes from a Leeann Chin or Panda Express box, it’s no surprise that their negs almost always have to do with what we ate. (Side note: Why is food the intellectually lazy person’s cultural shorthand?)
But Luo’s racist run-in is a good reminder for me that flying under the radar resolves nothing. We are living in a political climate where racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted comments come unfiltered, unsolicited, and from places devoid of reason, empathy, and kindness. Even if I don't consider my ethnicity as important an element in my identity as my intellect, my ambitions, or my passion, it doesn't matter if there are people out there (terrifyingly, in positions of extreme power) to make it the only thing that matters. Just ignoring them hasn’t helped quell the tide, and writing thinkpieces like this one is only the first step to fighting back. So, what to do? We need to run after them, like Luo did, and say that that what they said — to go back to China, that our names are too hard to pronounce, that they heard our genitals are as slanted as our eyes — is racist, cowardly, obnoxious, and won’t be met with silence. And if it takes something like what I’m wearing to get that conversation going, I’m happy that it’s at least on my own turf.
And here’s something that’s worth bringing up: Cultural appropriation has made it so a blonde, white woman who doesn't know her chopsticks from her hair accessories will always look “cute” in a cheongsam, and an Asian woman will look like she’s dressed in a costume. That was definitely how things were in the ‘90s, and is often the case today. But, to my surprise, I’ve also found hopeful signs that we are moving in a new, more informed direction. These days, when I encounter non-Asian people wearing Asian trends, oftentimes they’re from trips they took to abroad. They know the origins of these garments and are interested to learn more. I’m biased, but I’ve always found that these clothes are objectively beautiful, too; the silhouettes are striking, and the patterns hit that mix between eclectic and elegant that I’ve always been drawn to. I'm willing to share, but to do that, I need to have ownership of these trends, too. They’re rooted in a history that feels real and tangible to me. In my mind, Woodstock will always evoke technicolor snapshots from Life magazine; Audrey Hepburn’s LBD will always conjure scenes from the movie — those are my adopted cultural story. But a jade earring is my mother and my grandmother and my aunts and my cousin; it comes from the same place I do, and it's part of the narrative I was born into.
This morning, I placed an order for a dress I had dismissed last month as "too Asian." It’s bright blue and covered in a magnolia print that reminds me of a print that my Grandmother had made into one of the quilted dianzi bedding she used to give my sister and me for our birthdays. The shape is evocative of the ankle-grazing, column-style qipaos, though the off-the-shoulder ruffle calls to mind printed Carribean dresses, or certain West African Aso Ebi frocks. It was “too Asian” for me a month ago, but this morning, with Luo’s article still in my mind, it feels just right.