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My Experience With Cultural Appropriation

To begin with, let’s get one thing straight: I am a mixed woman of color. My mom is white, and my dad is half-Chinese, half-Nicaraguan. Throughout my life, I’ve been in possession of an assortment of qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, easily identifiable by its high collar, frog clasps, and bright silk patterns. Even though I take pride in my heritage, somehow, I can’t bring myself to wear them in public. There’s a myriad of reasons for this: my body type, the fact that I'm mixed. Suffice it to say I don’t feel comfortable when I’m the only one in the room wearing a cultural garment and everyone else is in Western attire. Is it a confidence thing? Maybe. Is it a race thing? Probably.

I was in class one day, when the topic of cultural appropriation came up. In the discussion, I brought up Keziah Daum, a white American who wore a qipao to her prom. As a woman of Chinese descent living in the US, this made me uncomfortable. In addition, Daum referred to the qipao as a “gorgeous dress [she] found for [her] last prom”. Her doing this overlooks its rich history, as a symbol of women’s liberation after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. The qipao, historically a men's garment, was used by women to deconstruct the gender role barrier. When criticism of Daum’s clothing choice was raised, it was countered with a narrative of how “People in China think she looks great! If they think it’s ok, why don’t you?”

That’s the problem. The experience of a person wearing the qipao in China is much different from a Chinese-American. In China, wearing the qipao isn’t seen as “exotic” or “different”. When you’re Chinese-American, all the efforts you’ve made to fit in with others are erased. Cultural appropriation is a fundamentally different experience between Chinese people living in China and the Chinese-American diaspora. Most of all, I don’t need a white person telling me I shouldn’t be offended because “real Chinese people” love it.

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