More than two years into the pandemic, and many of us are back to work, face to face. At the start of COVID-19, I had swapped my structured suits for a work-from-home wardrobe like everyone else when the pandemic started: indulgent t-shirts and sweatpants. Working from the corner of my 3-year-old daughter’s bedroom, I got down to business: addressing issues of anti-racism, equity, and inclusion as the Dean of Diversity at a Washington, D.C. medical school .
Over the months, I’ve added trendy t-shirts under blazers to the mix, including my MVP of t-shirts, the softest black cotton t-shirt that reads “Phenomenally Asian.” I wear it with pride as a Chinese-American woman – born in Southern California to parents who emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States in 1969.
I wore it when I picked up my first dose of Moderna at a DC recreation center last spring. When I sent my parents my post-vaccination selfie, my dad replied, “Awesome! I just want to be sure not to take unnecessary risks. Where did you find the thought-provoking shirt? »
His text evoked a memory of my first job as a community organizer in San Francisco in the spring of 2002. “Racist fashion must go! I chanted, gathered with hundreds of Asian American protesters on Market Street. We raised our voices against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch for releasing a series of graphic t-shirts with Asian stereotypes, like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service ― Two Wongs Can Make it White” and “Buddha Bash ― Get Your Buddha on the Floor”.
Then, too, my parents told me – with equal parts pride and concern – to keep them posted on our campaign. “Stay safe outside on the streets,” they said.
The risk of asserting myself then seemed urgent to me. And, today, I’ve decided again that being mundane and subtle won’t protect me. The truth is, just showing my face in America was enough to make me a target of harassment or attack on the street in the middle of the day. I decided to act on a conscious challenge to stand firm in my identity, not to shy away from it. I resist my vulnerability through visibility.
I will tell my daughter when she is older that I wore my phenomenal T-shirt when Asians were scapegoated as the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when politicians routinely used the terms “chinavirus” and “kung-flu” to perpetuate hatred and foment racism in our society, I boldly wore the shirt. I wore it in the face of fear that attacks on Asian Americans would mean we are not seen as fellow Americans or even human.
Recently, I made another, more surprising clothing choice: I started searching online for vintage Chinese dresses and incorporating them into my at-home ensembles and emerging post-pandemic wardrobe. A cheongsam, translated as “long dress” in Cantonese, is a sheath dress with a high mandarin collar and an asymmetrical opening closed by interwoven knotted buttons and loops of hua niu, or flower buds. In my cheongsams, I can pull myself together even when I feel fragmented, struggling to come to terms with being both Chinese and American in a country that has always had anti-Asian racism in its veins.
I acquired 15 of these iconic dresses from thrift stores, boutiques and vintage stores. Each features prominently in my power-up wardrobe, making a conscious statement about my heritage, culture, visibility, and pride.
When I look at my reflection standing in a cheongsam, my posture straightens. My shoulders round; my frame takes up more space. Standing taller in these robes is what it takes, with their delicately embroidered designs of lotus flowers symbolizing self-regeneration, phoenix for renewal, and bamboo for the strength of integrity.
My cheongsam collection reflects an evolution in how I embrace my identity as a Chinese American woman. When I was 6, I slipped into an ill-fitting bright red satin cheongsam pantsuit my grandmother had bought me – two sizes too small and more costume than anything at a dance recital in Chinese school.
In high school, the cheongsam took on more meaning before a pivotal winter ball that I was allowed to attend on a date. On a trip home from Hong Kong, my Aunt Eunice had brought me a beautiful white and sky blue silk brocade cheongsam with sparkling silver thread adorning embroidered flowers. I debated whether I was confident enough to wear this dress and look different, perhaps drawing some extra attention to myself. Despite its beauty, I decided to go incognito.
“Sometimes I just want to blend in,” I justified to my mother, who sighed, caressing the beautiful embellishments of the shimmering blue brocade cheongsam and hiding her disappointment with a tight smile before putting the dress back in its case. in plastic.
At my wedding tea ceremony five years ago, I bowed to my elders, honoring them and presenting them with tea as they in turn presented gifts to my husband and me. My wedding cheongsam was a spectacle: bright red silk and lace woven together and cut to fit my true form. Six bespoke pearl buttons dotted the diagonal neckline, a reflection of our meeting – our two sets of parents, my husband and I.
My new collection of cheongsams are cut from a different fabric. In my 40s, these dresses are inspirational. These dresses aren’t lying around hidden in the corners of my closet. These are not costumes, not reminders of discomfort. They are not precious ceremonial markers reserved for life-changing events. They are the daily fabric of my psychological armour.
They give me extra emotional strength to do my job, run spectator intervention workshops, and build a supportive Asian American community on campus. They are at the front, in the frequent rotation of the wardrobe, worn for everyday purposes.
Last March, my team hosted a virtual college peace vigil in honor of the eight victims of the Atlanta shooting, including six Asian women. I wore a second-hand cheongsam with a bold, abstract pattern of protruding triangles in jewel tones of fuchsia, yellow, and purple. The design reflected the strength I needed at the time. As I made my opening remarks about the oppression of anti-Asian racism and feelings of invisibility among my students and myself, the Zoom screen captured the tip of the triangles converging into sharp points all over me.
My voice dropped unexpectedly and tears ran down the sides of my cheeks as I read the names of the victims aloud. I felt that these women could be anyone – my aunts, my mother, my friends or me. As I spoke, my right hand reached out to caress the hooks of my dress, just above my heart, where a dull ache had lodged.
For some of the bystander intervention workshops I held with other Asian professors and staff at my university last year, I wore a gold silk cheongsam with an intricate print of peacock feathers and sparkling yellow flower buds. The threads of the dress shine like starlight, like my belief in finding a way forward through this dark time.
I told co-workers who noticed my dresses that I made deliberate choices with my wardrobe. Allies in my vision of visibility, they ask questions, share with me their own pieces of cultural style and talk to us about the sign language of clothing and identity. These conversations seem to access my colleagues in a deeper way. We stitch together abstract concepts of being seen, heard, and valued in American society – without ever having to say a thing.
The increase in violent attacks against Asian Americans across the country worries my entire family. Since the start of the pandemic, STOP Hate AAPI recorded nearly 11,000 hate incidents and counting.
“You and dad are prime targets because of your age,” I explained to my mother. “Attackers go after the weakest.” As I remind her to forego their daily walks through their California neighborhood and their local Costco, she advises me to stay protected at home in DC
This spring, when I shared with her new reports of anti-Asian attacks and racial slurs near my campus, my voice began to tremble with exhaustion. Two years later, and we are still fighting for our safety.
I explained what I wanted as a leader at a recent community support circle for Asian medical students. I imagine so much more. I want to move beyond a pervasive concern with fundamental security fears, prejudices, and harmful microaggressions fueled by the “model minority myth” and other dehumanizing stereotypes. I want to dress in the full spectrum of visibility, representation and empowerment, where civil rights and health equity are realized.
On a beautiful spring day last month, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom in DC, I FaceTimed my mom to show her the new pepper spray that I finally added to my purse and to the baby’s changing bag. She implored, “Just stay inside the house. You don’t have to leave.
“But I can’t stay inside forever, Mom – it’s not a life,” I insisted, pushing back gently.
I haven’t told him yet that my university announced in May that our new Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander employee resource group was moving forward. We are planning our first in-person celebration in two years on campus with food, community building, and a goal during AAPI Heritage Month. We unite to overcome violence, racism and hatred.
I can already imagine the most beautiful fiery pink cheongsam to mark my return to school.
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