Why A Qipao Is More Than Just A Dress

It’s a cultural symbol, a proud manifestation of Chinese-American identity in a country that has painted painfully ignorant stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

I never went to prom. I was too introverted, and I thought it was a ridiculous American tradition, so I never wore a qipao. But I did wear a qipao to my college’s Senior Gala, because unlike Keziah Daum, the Utah-based high school senior who wore the traditional Chinese dress to prom in April, I’m Chinese-American. Although I was fully aware that I’d stand out in a college that was more than three-fourths white, people had already spent my entire college career singling me out. Despite the many microaggressions I’d endured, I wore the qipao out of pride, to represent my culture and heritage.

Daum says that she never intended to be racist, and I believe her. But that’s where all agreement ends. She doesn’t concur with her critics, many of whom are Chinese-American, and she needs to understand that asserting she did nothing wrong, rather than accepting accountability for her actions, shows how racism is rooted in white denial.

Chinese people in mainland China disagreed with the cultural appropriation furor, but they don’t understand the struggles of growing up Chinese-American. They’ve spent their entire lives surrounded by people who look just like them, by people who don’t try to “other” them. Asian-Americans are paradoxically expected to assimilate into white culture, and yet white people constantly remind us of our “foreignness.”

Mandarin Chinese was my first language. My elementary school enrolled me in ESL, or English as a Second Language. Although my parents signed my brother and me up for Chinese classes with other first-generation Chinese-American children, no kid wants to learn on a Sunday afternoon. By middle school, my brother and I escaped the classes, and we stopped responding to my mom in Chinese. When I hit college, I’d lost my fluency.

Contrary to popular American belief, languages aren’t an inherent part of our birth, much less our race. Imagine that you were born to American parents in a country where English isn’t the native language. Imagine not being able to read or write English despite your Anglophone heritage. When you visit your parents’ country, you look like everyone else but can’t speak the language. Awkward and embarrassing, isn’t it? So imagine being Chinese-American and walking into a Hong Kong haircuttery, where your mom has to act as translator because you don’t speak fluent Cantonese or Mandarin and the hairstylist doesn’t speak English. Imagine having your mom tell you that the hairstylist asked if your dad was white, because it made no sense that you didn’t speak Chinese.

Throughout public school and college, I never spoke in class, afraid of fulfilling the “model minority” stereotype. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by answering questions or participating in discussions. I was too self-conscious of the fact that people would assume I was smart because I was Asian, and not because I’d spent hours studying.

It took 22 years for me to stop feeling self-conscious about my race and relearn Mandarin. During my last semester of college, I needed to sign up for a fourth class to keep my scholarships, and my eyes snagged on Elementary Chinese II. Sure, I could understand spoken Chinese and hold basic conversations with my mom, but if someone were too drop me off in the middle of China, I’d have starved to death in a restaurant.

About a week into the class, after I’d spent hours studying all the vocabulary I’d missed from the fall semester, I answered a question in flawless Mandarin. A girl turned and glanced back at me, whispering, “She’s Chinese” to her friend.

I frowned. It would become my perpetual expression in that class, especially when a girl actually uttered the words “ching chong” to her friend.

As college drew to an end and my friends talked about attending the Senior Gala, I tried to find a dress to wear. But I had inherited my mother’s petite genes, and none of the extra small or small dresses that I could find would fit. And then inspiration struck: Why not wear a dress that was built for people like me? While growing up, I’d worn qipaos to various events such as dance performances, picture days, and Chinese festivals.

The night of the Senior Gala, I wore a sky blue qipao, determined to rebel against assimilation. I’d spent too much of my life trying to fit in, so why not stand out? I was done apologizing for my race. If people were going to keep making assumptions about me, I would not retreat to the shadows for their comfort.

“Hey, everyone keeps talking about how pretty your dress is,” a friend told me, and I snorted. I found it hilariously ironic that the whisperers could find beauty in something they’d never be able to wear, not unless they wanted to be accused of cultural appropriation. They had spent years mocking my culture, race, and ethnicity, and now, they could somehow find beauty in my clothing.

In the early 1900s, when the qipao still resembled men’s robes, Chinese women wore the garment as a feminist statement. When the Communist Party rose to power in the 1940s and ’50s, they banned the tight, feminine version of the qipao, and so Shanghai tailors fled to Hong Kong to keep the tradition alive. When I wore the qipao, I was saying that I’d spent too many years buried in the ashes of racism and objectification. Now, I was ready to rise up.

This is why Daum’s response, “It’s a fucking dress,” incenses me. The words drip with defensive denial, and the qipao is so much more than a dress. It’s a cultural symbol, a proud manifestation of Chinese-American identity in a country that has painted painfully ignorant stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

Daum said she wanted to appreciate Chinese culture, which is fine, but she needs to understand that, in America, Chinese and Chinese-American experiences exist separately. People like my parents, who immigrated from China, have never had to undergo identity crises, have never had to wonder why people conflate race with nationality. But Chinese-Americans live solidly within the hyphen, in that marginal space that simultaneously connects and separates Chinese and American.

So unless you understand the daily microaggressions and outright racism that Chinese-Americans face, you don’t get to wear a Chinese dress to an American tradition. Women without Chinese lineage can’t wear a qipao to an American event because they’ve never experienced alienation at the hands of their own neighbors and classmates. They don’t belong to a history of ostracization, assimilation, and fetishization. They’ve never had to rise up from the ashes of racism and objectification.

I don’t think Daum had cultural appropriation in mind. Few people do. But that’s where the problem lies: White people do and say things without considering how their decisions will affect people of color. Daum needs to stop, to think about her actions and how they affect Chinese-Americans. We deserve an apology, because history has never apologized to us. Most of all, she needs to set aside her white privilege, to stop justifying her actions and listen to the voices of people who have spent their entire lives being marginalized.

Sarena Tien is a queer Chinese-American feminist and Francophile. Her work has appeared in online publications such as Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, On She Goes, Argot, and Samada. When she’s not trying to become a polyglot, she can often be found fighting for social justice or folding far too many origami stars.

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