• Chinese-Americans live in the land of the free and home of the brave, but they’re neither Chinese enough to be asked to comment, nor American enough. (Getty Images )
Chinese-Americans live in the land of the free and home of the brave, but they’re neither Chinese enough to be asked to comment, nor American enough to be listened to.
By
Leah Jing

4 May 2018 - 10:53 AM  UPDATED 4 May 2018 - 2:01 PM

When we prepare for the prom – or in Australia, the ‘formal’ – rarely do we expect our photographs to be retweeted 42,000 times. But when Utah teenager Keziah Daum uploaded pictures of herself in a cheongsam(traditional Chinese dress) from her prom recently, her photographs went viral.  

 The response was due largely to a comment from Twitter user Jeremy Lam, who retweeted Daum's pictures with the caption, ‘My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.’ 

 Considerations of cultural appropriation lit up on social media. And yet in the week following the furore, it is Daum , not Lam, who has been granted a blue Twitter ‘tick’ of verification, with many commenters contending that it was not cultural appropriation — that it was “just a dress”. In contrast, Lam has been plagued with racial slurs, and an onslaught of offensive, photoshopped images falsely attributed to his account. Lam’s own account remains unverified.

If this incident is worth noting, it’s not so much because there is yet another white girl clad in ‘exotic’ traditional dress, but rather the media’s response to Daum’s so-called attempt at cultural ‘appreciation’.

But the logic involved in asking Chinese nationals to comment is deeply flawed. In doing so, these stories are ignoring that cultural appropriation is inherently tied to one thing — the imbalance of power.

 Interestingly, rather than asking Chinese-American experts for their thoughts, many publications chose to reach out to China-based nationals for comment. South China Morning Post noted that “those commenting in mainland China were less opposed to Daum’s dress”, while The New York Times wrote “Teenager’s Prom Dress Stirs Furor in U.S. — but Not in China”. In the article, journalist Amy Qin notes that in Mainland China, commenters even consider Daum wearing the ‘traditional high-necked dress as a victory for Chinese culture’.

But the logic involved in asking Chinese nationals to comment is deeply flawed. In doing so, these stories are ignoring that cultural appropriation is inherently tied to one thing — the imbalance of power.

Chinese people living in China aren’t impacted by this very American structural imbalance. In a country with a population of 1.3 billion Chinese people, it would be rare to be made fun of for wearing a cheongsam, eating rice, or to be told they have ‘Chinese’ eyes. In China, a cheongsam isn’t exotic, it’s traditional. Rice is just food. And whatever ‘Chinese eyes’ are, they would be, well, the norm – eyes are just eyes. 

In her 2015 essay ‘What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation’, writer Maisha Z. Johnson points out that cultural appropriation is “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”

In Daum’s case, it’s important to remember that the people who are upset by the cultural appropriation aren’t Chinese Nationals. They’re Chinese-Americans — a diaspora who have been systematically oppressed by white Americans.

In Daum’s case, it’s important to remember that the people who are upset by the cultural appropriation aren’t Chinese Nationals. They’re Chinese-Americans — a diaspora who have been systematically oppressed by white Americans.

When I first came across Daum’s photos, I wondered if she was aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first American federal law to deny entry to a specific ethnic group. This document set precedent for subsequent racist legislation around the world, such as Australia’s very own White Australia Policy.

The Chinese Exclusion Act necessitated the creation of an ‘immigration station’ in San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island. Unlike the iconic Ellis Island, a symbol of freedom to many, Angel Island is considered by historians to be an ‘icon of suspicion, of rejection’. Not unlike Nauru or Manus, Chinese people attempting to immigrate to America were held on this island for an indeterminate time, in despicable conditions, and faced ‘grueling interrogations’.

My Great-Grandfather travelled from China to America for a better life, and was instead held captive in the Land of the Free. He was one of the lucky ones; his stay on Angel Island was less than a year, and he was eventually granted passage to the United States. Yet my family still lived under the Chinese Exclusion Act until it was repealed in 1943.

A generation later, my Californian-born Grandfather fought for America in WWII as a member of the  US Air Force. His plane was captured over Germany, and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp for six months. Later, at a job interview back on his home soil, an interviewer said to him, “You’re qualified, but you’re, well… Chinese. My Grandfather had fought, struggled and was captured for his country, but when it mattered — he was not American enough.

When there are untold decades of racism, literally built into legislation, it’s hard to dismiss a white teenager’s casual appropriation of Chinese culture as nothing more than ‘just a dress’.

When there are untold decades of racism, literally built into legislation, it’s hard to dismiss a white teenager’s casual appropriation of Chinese culture as nothing more than ‘just a dress’.

And while Daum may have had every intention to show her ‘admiration’ of Chinese culture, what’s interesting is that in a photo where she is smiling and surrounded by friends — the close circle with whom she shared the precious memories of prom night — none of them appear to be Asian. Nor did there seem to be a single person of colour in the mix. And this is why cultural appropriation hurts: white people may enjoy eating our food, wearing our clothes, but when it comes to us as people — we are not enough.

There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. And it’s vital that cultural appreciation begins with historical engagement, with empathy, and by listening to us when we try to tell you: it’s not just a dress.

Leah Jing is the editor of Liminal magazine an online platform exploring Asian-Australian identity. You can follow her on Twitter: @_leahleahleah  or her website

This article was edited by Candice Chung, @candicechung_, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Would you like to be involved? Email chung.candice@gmail.com 

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