Editor’s Note: This post is a personal essay and deals with my own experiences and thoughts about encounters I’ve had as a British-Chinese woman. It is meant to formulate part of a much wider conversation that, granted, I am still a novice to.
A few months ago I was walking back to my client’s office after lunch and I noticed a crowd gathering outside a restaurant in Chinatown, London. There was a cameraman, photographer’s assistant and a model, and around 15 bystanders. The model, white, was wearing your typical East London get-up. Pastel dungarees, platform boots, varsity socks, an oversized baseball tee. Oh, and chopsticks in her hair. Double oh, slurping noodles using chopsticks incorrectly outside the restaurant, which showed off a stereotypically Chinese facade.
Naturally I was frustrated. It’s 2019 and somehow people still find it acceptable to not only wear chopsticks in their hair, but to do so outside an actual Chinese restaurant in an area highly frequented by real Chinese people. Aren’t we supposed to be living in a progressive society where all walks of life can coexist? I suppose it’s a resounding no. Cultural appropriation is well and truly alive.
The crowd were similarly horrified: an 阿伯 pronounced ah bak, a form of slang used to describe an older man) tutted and muttered ‘鬼佬 (pronounced gwei lo, somewhat controversial slang used to describe white people) are all the same’, another said ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this’, a lady — I think she was from Hong Kong! — said ‘why do these people wear chopsticks in their hair?’, I thought ‘it’s 2019 and this photographer thinks THIS is a great concept?!’, and the restaurant owner came out shaking his fist asking them to ‘be rude elsewhere’. Of course, the shoot continued.
I’ve encountered and experienced several forms of racism over the years. Having my entire existence reduced to my external appearance is cruel, demeaning and ignorant. Whilst growing up I learned to ‘accept’ it and deal with it in my own ways, these days I’m doing my best to stand up for myself and show up for my fellow British-Chinese who I know have had similar experiences. But it isn’t as simple and black-and-white as explaining gently that their remarks are at best offensive and at worst racist.
‘Don’t be so sensitive.’
‘Everyone I know calls it [a takeaway] a Chinky.’
‘I saw so-and-so wear chopsticks in their hair.’
‘People have dressed up as North Americans for years at Halloween.’
‘This is MY take on a stir-fry, it doesn’t matter how you do yours.’
‘I might start celebrating Chinese New Year too, and get a takeaway in or something.’
What is cultural appropriation?
The topic of cultural appropriation is a difficult, greatly nuanced conversation, and in times of huge cultural shifts it’s often hard to pinpoint what is appropriation and what is simply paying homage to a culture. However at the heart of it, I certainly believe it isn’t in the appropriator’s eyes to deem whether or not it is offensive. As such, what I might find culturally insensitive might seem perfectly fine to a fellow British-Chinese person.
Wearing chopsticks in your hair is NOT a nod to celebrating Chinese New Year. Chopsticks are exclusively used for eating. In fact, there’s an entire etiquette around how to use chopsticks at mealtime and these are rules taught to all of us at a young age. Did you know, for instance, that you should never stand chopsticks up in your rice bowl? That you shouldn’t display them stood upright in a cup? With the elegant etiquette of chopstick use in mind, it begs belief that anybody ever thought wearing chopsticks in their hair was a good idea. Plus, it’s no longer 200BC where Chinese soldiers wore their hair in a bun for practicality, so please don’t ask me why I don’t wear my hair in a bun. It’s 2019.
And also, why are you looking to celebrate Chinese New Year? Of course it’s great to add in a bonus celebration to your diary but no, I won’t be getting drunk and, yes, it is a bit annoying I don’t get the day off [in England] to celebrate it properly. There are 14 days of celebration for Chinese New Year and they all involve different symbolic activities, it isn’t a call to get drunk, order a Chinese takeaway or tell me about all of the Chinese people you’ve encountered in a bid to offset the mildly racist comments you opened up with.
Calling a loose flowing top a kimono might sound like a micro topic of contention, but ultimately it’s the commodification and commercialisation of a traditional Japanese garment typically worn for special occasions, like public holidays and festivals, weddings or funerals. They’re tied at the back with an obi in a musabi knot. There was huge, rightful, outrage when Kim Kardashian attempted to trademark the word for her new fashion label. Even the mayor of Kyoto wrote to Kardashian asking her to reconsider her choice, as it disrespected Japanese culture and the cultural significance behind the garment and word. As I write this post, Kim hasn’t taken down her filings for the trademark.
How can we avoid cultural appropriation?
Lizzie of Hello Lizzie Bee made a great point: ‘[Cultural appropriation] is one of the worst forms of racism, so embedded in society that nobody understands that it’s racist. Dressing up as a Native American for Halloween. Putting chopsticks in your hair in Chinatown. Putting on an accent when you talk about having a curry. As soon as you go to speak up about it you get shut down by thousands of voices saying, ‘oh but it’s not racist, it’s been happening for years’.’
The excuse that it’s been happening for years is one I hear constantly. Hearing the same racial abuse for years doesn’t make it any less racist, in the same way that sitting down and taking it doesn’t make a case for change. It’s time to educate ourselves — and that includes me — speak out and stand up for ourselves and each other so that it doesn’t carry on this way.
Further reading on cultural appropriation:
- What is cultural appropriation?
- What’s wrong with cultural appropriation?
- A guide to understanding and avoiding cultural appropriation