for my yin yin whom I miss dearly and have so many questions for.

i did not know you,
not in typical terms.

you were gone before
i even knew
what to

before I knew

but i know you
in other ways.

in the ways your blood pumps
through my veins,
under skin

in the ways my feet
and hands
are always

in the ways my father
remembers your cooking—
mixing what you knew with what you
hoped for

in the ways you’d watch us splash in the pool from the kitchen window,
live fish awaiting it’s fate in the sink,
wok heated almost as hot as the summer sun

in the ways i remember
your imperfect laughter,
squeezed together so tightly
into an armchair,
broken record player to our left,
dreams of seeing me grow up to your right.

how does a poem make up for
the years
I let myself

I don’t know if I
believe in
but if it means
the possibility of
knowing you
then I will believe

Of Cheongsams, Cholas, and Henna

Of Cheongsams, Cholas, and Henna

A series on cultural appropriation by Warda Nawaz, Christina Ong, and Karina Ruiz

Lately there’s been a lot of education and truth dropping on mainstream medias and people are speaking out for social change. Amongst these topics is cultural appropriation. Many articles have been built to educate white audiences; In response to this, we three womxn of color have collaborated on this series to not only call attention to the fact that cultural appropriation is in fact happening, but how it’s hurtful on an individualistic and personal level. The following is only my portion of the series, but I encourage you to go on and read all three as we share our own thoughts and encounters with the cultural appropriation of cheongsams, cholas, and henna.

Growing up as a Chinese American girl in a predominantly white neighborhood, I didn’t have the terminology for how it felt when there were no role models who looked like me on the silver screen.  Now, I understand cultural appropriation to mean my community’s misrepresentation or an entire lack of it.

Orientalism did its job well, relegating Chinese culture to punchlines.  It worked to otherize Asian bodies, speaking to white America’s fears about immigration and confirming its belief in eurocentrism.

Decades later, and we’re fighting a different version of the same battle.  White America, like all my friends thinking Panda Express was real Chinese food, continues to mock our traditions under the guise of paying tribute.

In 2015, the infamous Met Gala themed their festivities, China Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion.  It was, in essence, an appropriative overtaking by Hollywood’s elite. Dresses worn were “inspired” by cheongsam (or qipao if you speak Mandarin), but were influenced by other Eastern Asian cultures, or were made into low-cut dresses for sex appeal.  Traditional Chinese cheongsam is actually tied to womxn’s liberation, as womxn were previously forbidden from wearing robes typically reserved for men. Wearing the cheongsam became a form of political expression–of our feminism and strength.  Sexualizing the cheongsam trivializes our struggles and re-emphasizes the false notion that Chinese womxn are subservient. People who do not identify as Chinese need to realize that cheongsam’s purpose is not an opportunity for an adult game of dress-up.  Someone’s sex appeal should not come at the expense of our dignity.

What happened at the Met Gala extends to all of the media’s representation of Eastern Asians.  Though we should know that Eastern Asian cultures are vast and its people are diverse, representations of our people in pop culture have been monolithic. While our men are represented as kung fu masters or desexualized sidekicks, our womxn are exotified.  These misrepresentations are steeped in a legacy of Western imperialism and militarization.  As Sam Louie writes, “the desire to sexually possess, conquer, and at times humiliate a subservient Asian womxn permeates our culture.” And even still with these limiting, hurtful representations, we were never even allowed to play ourselves. White America’s heroine, Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese womxn whose village was conquered by Japanese soldiers in the 1944 film, Dragon Seed.  Whitewashing, even in 2016, is a pervasive problem for the Asian American community.

The issue with cultural appropriation is that it consistently centers characters who have no right being in our stories. That is not to say non-Eastern Asians should not learn about our culture or history.  But, they need to know that their knowledge does not give them ownership.  If their intentions are to play the lead role in our own stories or parade around in blatantly sexualized versions of our cultural clothes, we need to tell them to take a seat.  We have for too long allowed dominant, oppressive behaviors to run over our self-esteem and acceptance of who we are.

Yet, there’s can be progress for us. Hollywood strongholds like Constance Wu and Margaret Cho have recently called for representation of Asian actors in more roles.

Until we are allowed to create and popularize our stories, culturally appropriative legacies will continue being a problem, and Chinese feminists will make sure you know we aren’t the hypersexualized womxn you write us to be.

Read about how chola fashion is being copied by celebrities; how it continues to marginalize Latinx communities; and how Chicanx individuals can reclaim this aesthetic.

Karina Ruiz is a Chicana researcher interested in Latinx-American identities and U.S. assimilation. She is a McNair and Sally Cassanova CSU Pre-Doctoral scholar applying to doctoral programs for the ‘17-’18 year. Karina currently lives in Gilroy, California with her chug and partner.

Read about how henna is being used to exotify women of color; how to avoid misrepresenting the art and practice; and how Indian and Pakistani women can stop it.

Warda is a Pakistani immigrant to the United States and a self-proclaimed feminist and women’s rights advocate. She studied art history at UC Davis and is now a graduate student at California Northstate University College of Pharmacy, where she hopes to learn the art and science of drug delivery and make an impact on minority groups including women and children in clinical and outpatient settings.

Chinese Amer-I-can’t Deal With This Question Anymore

Chinese Amer-I-can’t Deal With This Question Anymore

I have been having issues as of late with the idea of ethnic and national identity. I have always considered myself Chinese American, or Asian American in broader contexts. I still think those labels define me adequately, and yet there is something very unnerving about the ways in which others react to my identity.

The most common question I get, right after “so, what ethnicity are you?”* is the dreaded, “You speak Chinese, right?”

I always smile a pained, forced smile and shake my head no.

That question is one of the most irritating, ostracizing questions I get. And I’ll tell you why.

That question constantly reminds me that I am out of place—that my fragmented identity is, in fact, a reality; that I am neither fully Chinese nor fully American; that no part of me belongs anywhere.

When a person asks me if I speak Chinese, they already assume they know the answer. They know how the conversation will go. They think I will say “yes”, that my parents or I immigrated to America fairly recently (within the past twenty years), and that I speak it at home. Maybe I’ll make a joke about a Chinese curse word or my parents’ inability to clearly enunciate the “l” sound. We’ll laugh and move on with our conversation.

But, the thing is, that is not how the conversation goes because that narrative is not my family’s or my own.

Assuming I speak Chinese automatically otherizes me in the eyes of the asker. If I speak Chinese, it makes sense to them. It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, so you speak Chinese. You’re not really American—you’re Chinese.” And, if I speak honestly and say that I do not speak Chinese, at home or anywhere else, the immediate follow-up by the asker is when my parents immigrated to the United States. My own history and life is not the topic of conversation. My being born in America suddenly has no bearing on if I’m considered American or not.

My issue with this is not isolated or a standalone situation. America, a cultural melting pot (though now I think people are using the metaphor of some kind of mixed salad), has produced a generation, my generation, of people that are excluded from specific cultural contexts. The problem with being Chinese, but not Chinese enough; American, but not American enough, is a universal in the immigrant and descendants of immigrant community. You would think that after twenty-two years of living, I’d have come to terms with this state of limbo—of navigating between cultures and contexts. But, no matter how old you get, I think cultural identity is something you will always struggle with.

Further, aside from this personal struggle with identity, the question of native languages connotes the issue of belonging, which has historical proportions. Chinese immigrants were by no means welcomed with open arms. The denigration of the Chinese through dehumanization and exploitation of labor should not be taken lightly. Surviving in such an unwelcoming environment meant working as hard and as fast at becoming “American”. It meant blending in. And blending in meant speaking English and being as close to your white counter parts in dress, language, and mannerisms as possible.   It was the only way to escape the bullying and harassment that came with being a Chinese immigrant (or any immigrant, really).

It is why my father doesn’t speak Chinese fluently, and why my brother and I never learned. It is why growing up, I naively conveyed confusion and slight embarrassment that my mother’s mother never learned English after over forty years in the United States. It is why not one of her ten grandchildren can have legitimate conversations with her and why she still laughs at me when I struggle to convey affection in broken Cantonese. It is true irony when you uproot your family to find a better life, only to realize that that life includes ten grandchildren you can never communicate with.

In short, it matters a great deal to me that I cannot speak Chinese because it is a symbol and a symptom of the oppression of my ancestors, of the collateral damage we all have from being children of immigrants.

It is also a constant reminder that in my life, no matter how hard I try, I will never be Chinese enough or American enough to even the most well trained eye.

So, the next time you ask a question about speaking my mother tongue as some form of introduction by saying, “It’s curiosity. It’s just a simple question meant to spark conversation.” I will not smile and nod. I will be sure to tell you otherwise.

* I could dedicate an entire collection of blogs on this. The worst part about the “what ethnicity are you?” question is when people try to guess before you answer by running down the list of every single type of Asian ethnicity they can think of. And when you finally confirm one, they say, “I knew it!”

How on earth was it so glaringly obvious to you if you had to guess a number of different countries before you landed on the right one? It’s not that hard either—China is the biggest Eastern Asian country there is. You do not win a prize for boiling my ethnic and cultural identity down to a super fun guessing game.