I'm not Chinese. I also wore a qipao to my prom.
Let's start this off by saying that I'm not Chinese. I'm Filipino/Welsh. I grew up and lived in Hong Kong for over twenty years (I'm twenty four, for reference) and moved abroad to England, believing it'd bring me closer to my dad's British roots. But after studying at an English university for three years, I decided deliberately to ring out my final year in a qipao at my graduation ball - the traditional Chinese dress at the centre of an American prom controversy.
SOME CONTEXT ABOUT THE CONTROVERSY:
Keizah Ginger Daum, a white American high school girl, wore a qipao to her prom and posted photographs of it to Twitter.
Another user called Jeremy Lam criticised her in a now viral tweet, retweeting her image gallery and captioning it: 'My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.'
It didn't take long for the tweet to spread like wildfire and for people to quickly choose which side of the fence they were on. Jeremy released a longer statement clarifying his position and Keizah responded in an interview with The Washington Post, saying she wore the qipao she found in a vintage store to show appreciation for Chinese culture and because she found it 'absolutely beautiful'.
(The funniest part of the story to me is that an image of her and her friends standing around with prayer hands clasped to their chest has been cited as racist. It's actually been taken out of context. It's a direct reference to an internet meme by YouTubers h3h3, who actually defended her.)
CUT BACK TO:
After seeing the maelstrom that surrounded Keizah, it immediately threw me back to 2014 - standing in the middle of Royal Leamington Spa's Pump Rooms, dressed in a qipao amidst a sea of gowns and cocktail dresses. As I started to read all the think pieces and social media critiques dissecting her decision, I started to feel guilty and worry that I'd been an agent of cultural appropriation.
It's weird because the decision to wear a qipao made total sense to me at the time and it was a deeply emotional one.
Like I said before, I'd chosen to study at an English university because I was chasing the idea that I needed to connect to my father's heritage, to somehow justify my passport and the British blood in me. But as the months rolled by, I actually started to feel more and more disconnected - not unwelcome, but definitely not British. My American accent, a hangover from Hong Kong's international school system, instantly distanced me. I learned to read between the lines of leading questions about my background and understand they meant why did I look Asian? (Somebody asked me at a club why I had 'the eyes' the other month and it was offensive, but refreshingly direct.) And of course, every few months I'd get hit with a bout of homesickness - a sharp stab at first, then later a slow burn of longing.
I came to realise in my final year that I was never trying to reclaim my Britishness. Like any lost twenty something cliche, I was looking for my own identity and thought I could find it in my father's part of the world, which had always been a big question mark to me from across the pond.
One of the defining hallmarks of my university experience was my loneliness - both culturally and also more literally during a very dark period in my second year. Once I overcame that in my final year, I found myself thinking a lot of Hong Kong (the last place I'd felt like I belonged) as well as the people there who'd helped drag me out of my funk.
When I went home for Easter break a couple of months before my graduation ball, I came across my old qipao at the back of my closet.
The story of my old qipao is another complex one. It's not entirely unusual to see Westerners and expats wearing qipao alongside other Chinese women at traditional weddings or celebrations in Hong Kong. Hell, in the 90s every adult seemed to have an outfit from Shanghai Tang. I remember at my old school our Mandarin teachers actively encouraged all of us - whether we were Chinese, southeast Asian or Western - to dress up for Chinese New Year at school assemblies. The longer you lived in Hong Kong, the more likely you were to have owned a qipao or Mandarin collar jacket at some point.
When I was still in high school, I wanted something beyond the plasticky qipao in the Mongkok shopping district since they were mainly associated with tourists and were super low quality - more often than not, the zip would tear right through the synthetic silk. I was sixteen when my Filipina mother gave me the gift of a custom qipao. I travelled across the border into mainland China with her, where she brought me to a Chinese tailor specialising in qipao that her local friends were familiar with. I remember carefully listening to the tailor as she explained what we needed to buy for her from the materials bazaar next door (thick embroidered silk, a softer fabric to line the dress), choosing the exact style of Mandarin collar and position of the zipper, poring over the colour of the piping and knot buttons in a little swatch book in her shop. When it was finally done a week later and came home with me to Hong Kong, I didn't feel like I'd done anything wrong - in fact, I felt even closer to my Chinese hometown and my mother.
I was overwhelmed by that feeling when I found the qipao years later in my closet. While I didn't decide then and there that it would be my graduation ball dress, I took it back with me to England as moral support in case I swung into a low period again; a reminder of the place and the people I had come from.
As the days leading up to my graduation ball flew past and the inevitable talk of what everyone would be wearing came up, my best friend told me his mother was making him a Kente cloth for a later graduation celebration - a way of taking his African heritage with him. Given that we were two of the few students of colour in the university's humanities department, it resonated with me and I wanted to do the same. I debated dressing in Filipino traditional costume and finding a Baro't Saya or Maria Clara to wear on Amazon or in the depths of nearby Birmingham, but ran into the same issue I had with my British heritage - I wasn't particularly connected to the Filipino side of me.
However, Hong Kong and the people in it had defined me as a person and - well - I had a five year old qipao in the back of my closet that miraculously happened to still fit. So I did my hair up, slid into the dress and an awkward pair of heels and I felt more beautiful and less alone than I ever had in my life that night.
It's now nine years down the line. I wore the qipao the other month in a Chinese New Year outfit post and it's still folded neatly on a hanger in my closet. I don't wear it as much now. But I don't think I'll ever be able to get rid of it.
It's been interesting watching the social media fallout over Keizah's qipao on a personal level. My Chinese friends back home are in full support of her decision on Facebook, while I've noticed more American Chinese people are firmly against it on Twitter. There's a lot of things that tie into the divide but I've seen the point put across that (and I'm boiling something very complex down to the basics) in China, Chinese people are understandably in the majority where they hold all the cards and in America, Chinese people have experienced a history of disempowerment and seen their culture eroded or commercialised by white people. A pal of mine put this into light in a much more researched and thoughtful way, you can read about the whole divide here. Conversations about racism and cultural appropriation are ones we need to be having and necessary for meaningful change, however I'm not sure if Keizah's prom dress is the hill we should be dying on.
Speaking as a half Filipina girl, I understand the difficult crisis of marginalisation of the Asian community in the west, where we seem to be lagging behind other communities of colour's strides forwards. Speaking as a half British girl who wanted to appreciate Chinese culture and a beautiful dress, I choose to believe Keizah when she says the same thing even if that may seem naiive. And speaking as someone who loves Hong Kong and the people in it deeply, I understand exactly what my qipao meant and nobody - no Twitter user, no cultural commentator - can take that truth from me.