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Wearing qipao to prom is not cultural appropriation

By BERLIN FANG | China Daily | Updated: 2018-05-19 09:35

Keziah Daum, a high school student in Utah, and her friend are at a prom in April.[Photo/Tweeter]

Several social media sites I visited recently carried stories about the controversy over a US student wearing a Chinese qipao to prom. My initial reaction was: Oh, no. Senator Marco Rubio will testify to the US Congress that wearing a qipao is a national security risk.

It turned out that the event was less dramatic: the robe was worn as a prom dress by Keziah Daum, a student from a Utah high school, which probably does not have a Confucius Institute to make the increasingly belligerent Rubio worried.

Keziah has a creative bent of mind, as her choice of qipao for her prom was entirely different from others. Most high-school students would play it safe by shopping for a dress with a style similar to the ones their peers wear. So what's the fuss?

I searched for articles about the controversy and found that on the Chinese mainland, by far the majority of people showed approval and appreciation for Keziah. In English media outlets, however, the phrase "cultural appropriation" kept coming up. For the uninitiated, the term refers to artifacts, symbols or ideas originally from a minority group inappropriately adopted or displayed by a culturally dominant group, for instance, when a white person puts on adornments of an indigenous people.

The word qipao is a combination of qi, which refers to the "Man" ethnic group (or the Manchurians) of the Qing Dynasty, and pao, which means robe. The Han people made up the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)-as they do today-but toward the later stages of the Qing rule, the Hans adopted the dress tradition of the Manchurians, a minority group. If that's not cultural appropriation, it should not be an issue for an American to wear a qipao to prom either.

Many of the critics of Keziah are Asian Americans, who are very likely minority groups in their own communities. I can partly understand their frustration. When they wear dresses like qipaos to events they may be laughed at as exotic, or frowned upon as challenging the local culture, instead of assimilating into it.

So why is it fine for an American to wear such dresses? The differentiated cultural treatment has white privilege written all over it.

Having two kids growing up in the United States, I can understand the struggles of Chinese students in US schools. Chinese Americans, even if they are born and raised in the US, often feel like aliens. Some prejudices and discriminations are real and hurtful.

For instance, in college admissions, students of Chinese descent often have to work against affirmative action-based practices that put them at a disadvantage. They often have to score much higher in American College Test or SAT (formerly Scholastic Assessment Test) to have the same opportunities as other Americans. Now, even in matters of dresses, it seems other groups are trying to take their place.

Keziah later explained that she wore a qipao to show her appreciation for Chinese culture. Since she claimed to have intended no offense, none should be taken. Issues like this are subject to highly subjective interpretations that are not based on entrenched common cultural understanding. However, Keziah should not have peppered her responses with swear words, even if she is frustrated with the unfair backlash.

For the Chinese American youths who took offense, I would advise them to look beyond the narrative of cultural appropriation. Chinese cultural heritage is little known beyond the confines of the Chinese communities. Go to Netflix and find the category for Chinese movies, and you will see the majority of them are kung fu movies. Chinese elements in a non-Chinese environment are pathetically few, and those that get to stick in popular culture are being abused into clichés.

If someone finds qipao to add to the list of Chinese elements, it should be celebrated, not resented. If someone catches you off guard by using your heritage, treat it as a wakeup call for you to represent it better yourself. Where there is ignorance, enhance understanding. If you see others as disrespecting your heritage, ask if you have respected it yourself.

You, too, can display artifacts that show pride in your parents' or grandparents' origins. People may laugh at you, but be persistent and proud.

Who says it is easy to shape an identity that is both unique and nonconfrontational?

It is my experience that the US is not exactly a melting pot. It is a hot pot sizzling with the same soup into which everyone can throw in his or her own favorite veggie or meat.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

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