Prom dress fracas reveals continental divide

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/10 20:18:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Keziah Daum, a white high schooler in Utah, probably never thought she'd get her "15 minutes of fame" in such a dramatic way, or that said fame should be among Chinese people. After Daum posted pictures of herself wearing a Chinese cheongsam dress, also known as a qipao, at her prom, the 18-year-old found herself in the swirl of a scorching international debate about racism, exoticism, orientalism, cultural pride and appropriation.

A netizen named Jeremy Lam first posted a complaint under the photos, saying "My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress." It was retweeted more than 40,000 times and received close to 180,000 likes. Then a war was ignited between those who supported Daum and those who sided with Lam. Daum, who bought her dress at a thrift store, was chased after by the media. She told them she wore the dress with full respect for Chinese culture and didn't regret her choice.

What interested me most about this brouhaha is that Chinese who have grown up in China and Chinese Americans who grew up in the US were separated by their geographic backgrounds. People in the former group tended to enthusiastically acclaim Daum for helping promote Chinese culture, and those belonging to the latter group were more likely to be sympathetic to Lam and blame Daum for cultural appropriation.

Some posts were emotional and others were heated. For example, a supporter of Lam wrote: "Years back, my father delivered Chinese food to my third-grade class & was met with kids, pulling their eyes back and mimicking his accent. I was fkn mortified and told my parents i didn't want to be chinese anymore." And a post addressed to Daum, in Chinese, said: "I think it's necessary to let you know that we Chinese (real Chinese) all like you very much. The qipao suits you well. Welcome to check out China's Weibo, where you can find out our real opinions on this matter."

I myself grew up in China and now I am living in the US. The geographic separation works for me too. I don't think Daum did anything inappropriate by wearing the qipao. But I do think we China-born Chinese need to understand where the anger of her critics comes from.

Cultural appropriation was defined as "taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expression or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission" by Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.

In the past few years, a burrito shop run by two white women in Portland, Oregon was forced to shut down for allegedly appropriating Mexican food. Pop singer Katy Perry apologized for a performance in which she dressed like a Japanese geisha. Jeremy Lin, the Chinese American basketball star, was criticized for wearing dreads, a hairstyle popular among African Americans. These are only a few examples.

Some may sound ridiculous. Indeed, the cultural appropriation police have a tendency to go to extremes and they do have their own share of criticism for harming the creativity of artists and suffocating cultural evolution. But as Greg Tate, black writer, musician and producer pointed out in his introduction to Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, the 2003 book he edited, mainstream culture in the US views black culture through a "commodity fetish" prism. It longs for the exotic elements of black culture but at the same time doesn't want to credit black people for them. So there is a constant search for white people who can perform black cultural offerings as well as black people. And the white performers are "contrived and promoted to do away with bodily reminders of the black origins of American pop pleasure."

Without the experience of being oppressed, exploited and witnessing your own culture be both ridiculed and stolen for profit at the same time, one may not fully understand what cultural appropriation really means to minorities in the US.

So I don't expect Chinese living in China to fully comprehend the sensitivity or over-sensitivity of Chinese-Americans on such issues. But at least they need to realize that not all Chinese think the same way. Different upbringings, suffering and memories shape different viewpoints. But this doesn't make any one less Chinese.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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