I can and I will

CN: Sexism, use of the c-word, workplace sexism

“You’re just not a leader.”

“I went to a better university than you.”

“Women just aren’t suited to that kind of thing.”

“Why is the Chief Executive meeting with you – isn’t that a massive waste of his time?”

“I think you’re a vicious cunt.”

Well, I think you mean nothing.

You want to tear me down? Fine. Try. You will fail. I don’t need your validation. I don’t want it. It means nothing to me.

You’re not special. The world is full of insecure men unable to keep up with the world as it changes around them. If you are a woman, you will spend your life fighting against their assumptions, their prejudices. You will spend a lifetime being called “darling” in the office. You will spend a lifetime being catcalled in the street, and groped in bars, and abused by men who are not worth the dirt under your shoes. Think about it. Think about all the men who have tried to tear you down, to tell you that you are worthless. Or, almost worse; that you’re not quite good enough, not quite what they were looking for. We all know what they mean.

We don’t talk about it, far too often. We carry these silent burdens. We shrug it off. What does it matter that someone senior to you at work slipped his arm around your waist at that Christmas function? It was just a joke when that man hit on you at the end of a meeting. You shouldn’t be offended when someone mistakes you for a waitress at a work event (bitch I’m running this thing.)

Fuck that. We have been silent for too long. Next time a man looks at you and finds you wanting, you laugh right in his face. It’s far too easy to let those assumptions slither in. They are poison, creeping through the veins of every woman. You are enough. You are smart. You are beautiful. Your hips are gorgeous. Your smile is contagious. You got that job because you earned it. You can lead. You can follow. You can do, and be, whatever the hell you want to be, because this is 2017 and we will not be held down.

There will always be people to tell you that you can’t do that, you can’t achieve everything you want them to. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that they’re wrong. I’ll say it again: you are enough. Have that confidence in yourself. Whenever I come up against comments like the ones at the top of this post, I take a deep breath, and I list myself.

I am smart. I am ambitious. I am driven. I work hard. I am loved. I can do whatever I want to do.

And then I remember this, and I feel again the solidarity of thousands of women who have held themselves back because they didn’t believe in themselves. We are enough.

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“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

CN: body image, weight loss, potentially triggering comments, mention of actual weights

I wrote a while ago about body image. I had just gotten to a point – finally, after so many years – of being happy with the way I looked. I wrote that I would ignore the weight on the scales, and I would focus on loving my body for what it is; flawed and human and beautiful. Nearly a year later, that ideal is under threat.

Moving to London, I joined a new rowing club. It’s easily the best decision I’ve made since coming here. My new girls are funny and smart and kind, and getting to know them, becoming their cox, has been a pleasure. It’s given me somewhere to go when the days at work seem too long, somewhere to focus and forget how much I miss Cambridge, how much I miss my friends, how much I long to see my boyfriend. A bad day at work can be worked out in the gym with them, lifting half of what they do. It can be alleviated squatting behind them on the ergs, watching their splits drop and willing them on with everything that I have. The best times are when we’re on the water, and it’s still and calm and I can feel myself slipping back into that place I loved at Cambridge, where the world is a puzzle and your voice, your words, provide the solution. When there is nothing else in the world but the rhythm of the rowers, and everything else melts away. It’s why I love racing so much; in that moment, we are one.

We have a new coach. He’s eccentric, and constantly grumpy, and also, I suspect, slightly brilliant. I enjoy coxing under him; it’s stressful, but he reminds me of my DoS at Cambridge, a woman I admired above all others. Compliments are rare; criticism is swift; and you can feel yourself becoming better the more time you spend with them. It’s not a picnic. More than once, I’ve sat in the boat on the edge of tears, as my coach tears into me and I feel, more than anything, that I’ve let my girls down. But then he says “good job today, Sarah”, and suddenly it’s all worth it. He’s clever like that.

The first time we met, he took one look at me, his eyes pausing on my long legs, my strong thighs, the curve of my hips.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

It was not the last comment he would make on my weight in the months that followed.

“How much weight can you lose and how fast?”

“You’ll need to cut down”

“Do you even fit into the boat?”

“See her? She’s a real size for a cox”

“You probably weigh as much as me!”

“We’ll need to run that muscle and fat off of you”

“You need to take responsibility for your own weight.”

“We need to get you down to an acceptable weight.”

I’m big for a cox. I’m tall, always have been, and with my long legs comes extra weight. The minimum weight for a women’s cox is 50kg. The minimum weight for a men’s cox is 55kg. I am currently sitting at around 60kg. The whole point of the minimums is to stop coaches forcing their coxes to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, as going below that results in the cox having to carry weights into the boat and so any advantage is lost. 50kg for me is not possible; my coach accepts that, even if he’s not thrilled at the idea. But 55kg is certainly within reach, and that’s what he wants me to get down to.

I’ve never tried to lose weight as an adult woman. My body has changed so much over the years, gaining and losing weight, and it’s now settled into where it’s meant to be. Where it’s happy being. This is the me that runs and lifts weights and does yoga and climbs. This is the me that dances around the kitchen and spoons my boyfriend late at night and wiggles into skinny jeans and buys tiny crop tops from charity shops. If I wanted to, I could tell my coach to bugger off, tell him that I love myself and I won’t change for anyone.

But I know that I have it in me to lose that weight. I’m competitive; I want the best boat I can get, and there are smaller coxes in my way. More than anything, I know it would help my girls. The trouble is, how do you love yourself when you’re constantly weighing yourself? When every mouthful you eat has to be analysed? When you find yourself hating yourself a little bit more every day? When a glance into the mirror isn’t “damn girl, you look hot today” but “fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have had that sandwich for lunch”?

I don’t have the answer. I need to take this slow and steady. I need to lose weight doing the things I love; I need to run, faster, and lift (if not anything too heavy) and climb, and stretch. I need to cook, healthy meals from scratch. I need to dance around that kitchen, and then I need to snuggle on to the sofa and watch a movie with a glass of wine. And if, it the end of everything, I can’t get to 55kg, I need to be the best damn cox I can be. I reckon that’s more important than an extra 2kg any day.

Moving on and letting go

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference at Warwick University. It was generally good fun; I met lots of new people, I got drunk in the Warwick students’ union, I ate some great food and I got to feel like a proper grownup with an (admittedly small) expenses account. I was there for the induction to the graduate scheme I’m on, so it was mostly introductions and admin. Some of it was useful. Some of it, to be brutally honest, felt like a waste of time. But there was one talk that really, really struck a chord with me. The speaker was telling us about opening a new chapter in our lives. His basic premise was that you can love what you’re doing, you can be having the time of your life, but you can still miss what you’ve lost. You can live in the moment, you can love your moment, and yet you can still mourn what you’ve left behind.

I’m enjoying my life. I live in a beautiful part of London. I see my boyfriend regularly, and I’ve met up with old friends from Cambridge since being here. I’ve joined a new rowing club, and I’m already a cox for the top women’s squad. My work is interesting and varied, and I have colleagues who are helpful and friendly. I’ve started to make friends, some of whom I’ve trusted enough to confide my mental health struggles to. I still exercise here, and I love to run alongside the river, just as I did in Cambridge. And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

Cambridge was, is, still is, the love of my life. I come from a small town. I grew up, with friends, but always feeling on the edge, never feeling accepted. I was bullied and lonely in that small town. The scars littering my body can attest to that. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that university was like Hogwarts for smart people. I clung to that. I clung to the idea that I could escape my conservative hometown, I could find somewhere where I would be happy and safe, and I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. I never imagined something as good as Cambridge.

It had its flaws; I’m not going to deny that. But to me, for the first time in my life, I felt completely at home. The cobbled streets felt like a dream, something I had imagined and woke to find was real. The towering spires of the colleges welcomed me, even as they intimidated me. I walked across the courts of St John’s, and felt, deeply, a sense of belonging. Over the vacations, I ached for those strong walls. I was homesick for the swooping arches, the regimented grass, the uneven wooden stairs of third court and the painted roses of second court. I longed for the beauty and the warmth and the comfort.

I built a life for myself. I met my boyfriend there, and some of my happiest memories with him take place within Cambridge. Running to his college in the rain, throwing paint at each other in Lent term, study breaks in the middle of exam term, late nights huddled under sheets. I met some of my closest friends there. I met my housemates from the last year, who are funny and smart and gorgeous. I miss them more than they can know. I miss coming home to them, the kitchen windows steamed up and every available chair crowded with friends and strangers alike. There was always someone new to meet, something new to do. But, at the end of the night, there were always people to sit quietly with, friends to hold your hand and tell you it would be ok. I miss that.

I see Cambridge everywhere I go. I see the college in the beauty of the council chamber. I see the river when I walk into town. But it is a pale imitation. The council cannot match the splendour of John’s. The river is so wide, bereft of the swoops and curves that taught me how to cox. I see the red oars of Kingston, and I feel longing for the red oars of Maggie. I see my boyfriend, at the weekends; when my work and his hospital rounds allow it. No more running to Fitz in the middle of the night, desperate to see him, thinking 15 minutes was too long to go before I could be with him. Now, it’s an hour and a half across London to be in his arms. Friends are scattered across the country; even some of the ones in London feel as thought they could be a thousand miles away. I saw two of my housemates last week, and I almost cried when I met them at Waterloo station. They felt like home.

This makes it sound like all I do is miss Cambridge, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Kingston is amazing. I love so much about it, and I’m doing so many amazing things that I never imagined when I was still a student. Every time I think about Cambridge, I try and remember that lecture at Warwick. I can be happy here, I can build a new life and live it to the full; but I can still look back and mourn.

Fear

CN: Sexual harassment, flashing, sexism, threat, mention of sexual assault, mention of potential rape

I love horror movies. Some of my favourite films and TV shows – Scream, Silence of the Lambs, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Martyrs – belong to the genre. Some of them, I love for their complexity and their intrigue, like Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs. Some, like Scream, I love for guessing who the killer is. Some I love just for the gore, something thought provoking and shocking (and trust me, I’ve never seen anything as shocking as Martyrs. Saw eat your heart out.) Most of the time, though, I’m just looking to be scared. Like many people, I find it fun, sitting in the dark, not sure who will live and who will die. It’s harmless, and you know (however much it might seem like a serial killer is lurking in your closet as you lie in bed that night) that you’re safe.

Today, I wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a movie, and it wasn’t fun.

It was early morning, and I was walking to my new boat club, excited, nervous, still a little sleepy. I’ve been planning to join for a while, and today was meant to be my first outing with the top women’s squad. The walk from my home is relatively long – about half an hour – but I was entertaining myself by playing on my phone, looking around as the sun rose over the river. The last part of my walk took me through a park, only for maybe the final five minutes. The park was dark, not well lit, and it was pretty much empty. Still, I kept walking. I was worried I was going to be late for my first session. I was concentrating on my phone, when I sensed someone near to me.

I glanced up, and there was a man, standing just a few feet away from me on the same path. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a black balaclava that covered his entire face, leaving only crude holes for his lips and eyes. I was taken aback, and I kept walking. Then, I glanced over again, nervous now, and I saw that he had dropped his trousers. He had dropped his trousers, and he was masturbating himself. And he was looking right at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do. All I knew was that I had to get away, as fast as I could, without antagonising him. I quickened my pace, but kept it at a walk. I lowered my eyes to my phone. I toyed with calling my mother or boyfriend but decided that I didn’t want the man to hear the sound of my voice. I didn’t want to look back. I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I felt sick and embarrassed and suddenly, painfully, aware of how vulnerable I was. My boyfriend wasn’t expecting me back for hours, and no one at the club had my number. If that man had decided to attack me, I would have been entirely vulnerable. As I neared the end of the park, I saw the lights of the boat club, heard the familiar whir of ergs. I dared a glance behind me; the man was nowhere to be seen. I entered the boat club; I met my new crew; I coxed an outing; and I helped the women put their boat away; and I smiled and laughed and said I would see them tomorrow. I walked home, and it was only as I crossed that path in the park again that I remembered what had happened. It was daylight, late morning, the park was busy and full of people, families and children and women. I was still scared.

I was scared as I walked home, and through the park near to my house, and when my boyfriend and I went in to town later in the day to go food shopping. This is a fear that every woman knows. The fact that I could brush aside what happened this morning so easily is evidence of that. I am used to that fear, when I walk home alone at night, or I see men in public and no one else is around. I feel it when a man’s eyes linger on me in public. I felt it, 16, when a boy I had gone on a date with held me down and rubbed himself against me, and I lay there, scared and not sure how to react. I knew then what I know now; that the power was in his hands, that I was vulnerable, and that if he chose to hurt me, there’s no guarantee that I could defend myself. We as women carry these scars, we carry this fear.

I called the police when I got home. I talked to a sympathetic woman, who took down the details of what had happened and tried to comfort me. I am walking that same route tomorrow morning. And I’m scared. But I know that I want to go cox another outing, I want to make new friends and commit myself to my sport all over again. I’ll just have my phone out and ready to call for help. Just in case.

“Asking for it” – rape culture and misogyny

CN: Graphic description of rape, rape culture, alcohol, drugs, victim blaming, consent issues, rape.

I heard a story today. I was sitting on a train, a train that would take me in to London, to the place where I would begin work, to visit my boyfriend. Usually I would read; today I forgot my book. A couple of seats behind me, on the other side of the aisle, a couple of men were having a loud conversation. I had nothing to do; it’s over an hour into London from where I live. I sat and I listened to them, first in amusement, then horror.

They started talking about a night out – whether it had been themselves or someone they knew, something they had read about in the paper, perhaps even a legal case they were working on – I couldn’t say. I don’t know.

I know that the story was about a group of men. Men, that was the word they used. And this group of men had met up with a group of girls. Girls, that was the word they used. They had gone drinking. By the sounds of it, they had all had rather a lot to drink. They had taken some cocaine. Most of the females – females, that was the word they used – left, while the men and one of the women went back to the office to get some champers (their words.) There, the woman – girl, they said – had continued drinking, until she fell asleep on an office table. When she woke up, several hours later, still drunk, she found one of the men one top of her. Raping her. While she had been passed out.

They laughed. They laughed as they said this. They didn’t use the word rape, of course. They said “what could she have expected?” They said “it was her own fault.” They said “no court would convict him.”

Several seats away, I shook in silent anger. I cried. I cried, thinking of that woman, waking up, realising what had happened to her. What has happened to so many women.

This is what victim blaming is. It is telling women not to walk home alone in the dark, not to drink too much, not to take drugs, don’t go home with men you don’t know, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t flirt if you don’t want to follow through. Our bodies, our actions, policed constantly by ourselves and society to keep us safe. Safe from the men, the rapists, who are the real problem. And if we don’t follow these rules, right to the letter, being raped is our fault. Even if we do, rape is our fault. It is our fault.

One night, in my first year at Cambridge, I got drunk. Really, really drunk: possibly more drunk than I have ever been before or since in my life. I had recently had my heart broken, and I wanted to forget. Naively, foolishly, I thought that alcohol was the way to do that. I went out clubbing, losing my friends quickly. I stood on the dance floor in Life, spotted a man, grabbed him and kissed him. I don’t remember what he looked like. I never knew his name. I took him back to my college, and we kissed for a bit… and then I promptly ran to the bathroom and threw up. Then, I passed out.

I woke up the next morning, naked and lying in my bed. I panicked. I assumed the worse. There was no sight of the man, I couldn’t remember anything past throwing up, and I was naked. I found out later that nothing happened. My roommate, thankfully, had been home. He had heard the man carry me from the bathroom, put me into bed and then leave immediately.

I could have been raped that night. I wasn’t. I was lucky. The man I took home acted with decency and did the right thing. But how many men don’t? When we live in a society where grown men can talk about rape so flippantly, so openly, in public, we teach boys that women can’t say no. We teach boys that women are there for their sexual pleasure. We teach them toxic lies, about sexual worth and virginity and consent. We tell them that if no one says “no”, it’s consent. We tell them that if the woman is drunk, or passed out, she was asking for it. We give rapists like Brock Turner six months in prison, and then let him out three months into his sentence for “good behaviour.”

The whole cultural conversation surrounding rape is fucked up. We tell men they can’t control themselves, and make it easy for them to get away with sexual assault when they don’t. We tell women that rape is their fault. We have one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe. We talk about how much the woman was drinking, what they were wearing. We give rapists light sentences, and then let them off early.

I waited until we were nearly in London. Then, I stood up and walked over to the men. My heart was hammering in my chest. I could feel the eyes of the surrounding passengers on me. I felt, already, the familiar shame of speaking up, of saying something that no one wants to hear. The men were older than I imagined, maybe late fifties. Made no difference to me.

I had imagined what to say. I had run through the curse words, the anger, the pain. Instead, I stood before them, calmly.

“I heard what you were saying about that woman. Earlier in the train ride. And I just thought you should know that what you said was disgusting, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Most men argue back. These ones were stunned into silence. I left the train, heart still hammering. What difference does it make? Maybe not a lot. But leaving that train, saying nothing, would have been worse. I hope they think about me tonight. I hope I threw a spanner into their nice little commute into London. I hope I forced them to think about their words. If nothing else, I hope in that moment I made them feel like the victim blaming, misogynistic wankers that they are.

“Provocative” dressing and the female body

CN: Burkini ban, racism, rape, transphobia, street harassment 

A few months ago, I bought a new top. It’s a denim crop top, lace on the sides, Hollister, second hand for £4. I fell in love with it; how comfy it was, how well it fitted me, how it looked hugging my ribs. In spite of that, it took me months to wear it. Why? Because it is easily one of the most revealing tops I own (which, for me, is saying something.) I was worried to wear it in public.

Why be worried? Because, as the burkini ban (more on that in a bit) has illustrated perfectly only this week, clothes are never simply clothes, and women’s bodies are battlegrounds. Women are judged much more harshly than men on the way we look; the clothes we choose to put on our bodies speak for us before our mouths can open. Our bodies become public property; what we wear, how we dress, becomes something that the world feels able to comment on (see: any article on the Daily Mail ‘sidebar of shame.’)

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The Daily Mail, reporting on important current affairs

There are so many rules to follow: personal, professional. How short can a dress be? How much cleavage is too much? Can you show your legs and your chest at the same time? Is it ok to wear a backless dress without a bra? Is it acceptable if your nipples show through your shirt? Should your bra straps show? What if you’re plus sized? Are the rules different? (To the last: no, they shouldn’t be.) Work wear becomes even more of a nightmare – heels, not too high, dress, not too tight, skirt, not too short. Always thinking about what to wear, how to present yourself, while silently screaming “I’m a goddamn educated woman, look at my ideas, not my tits.”

As a woman, navigating these rules is, at best, an inconvenience and at worst, the difference between life and death. Rape cases have been dismissed based on what the victim was wearing (as though that should make any difference.) Trans women face pressure to “pass” by wearing female clothing, and are often murdered for failing to do so, or doing to “too well.” I know the fear of walking home, feeling male eyes rake over a bare shoulder, an exposed midriff, a shadow of cleavage. Or the shame of having a friend point out that they can see your nipples through your shirt. Hearing men shout in the street, commenting on any part of your body they see fit. Dress codes in certain parts of America have spiralled out of control, placing male sexual desire above female education. We degrade our men by assuming they cannot control themselves, and we shame women for dressing as they feel comfortable.

Covering up is not the answer; we are not the problem. When I wore that denim crop top, it was because I liked it, and it was a warm day. I should have the right to show my legs, and my cleavage, and my arms, and any part of myself that I feel like. Incidentally, a reason why I am a supporter of the Free the Nipple campaign; I am incensed when I see a man, shirtless in the summer sun, while I sweat into a tee-shirt. I digress.

Covering up is, for some women, not the answer; but for others it is. Our bodies are ours, to cover or reveal as we see fit. The rules that call women “sluts” and “whores” for wearing a short dress, the rules that say that the rape victim in a short skirt was “asking for it”, are the same rules that objectify and exoticise ethnic minority women for covering up. Of course, for women of colour, the sexism and misogyny of dress codes and clothes rules come layered with xenophobia, racism and, in the case of the French burkini ban, Islamaphobia.

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Obviously a key part of winning the war on terror

It is humiliating and wrong to force women to undress in public to fit in with Western, colonial ideals of how a woman should dress. No one should make me cover up; no one should make a Muslim woman undress. Do we honestly believe that all Muslim women are oppressed? They’re not – but even if, even if they were, on what basis do we think that we as white people ought to intervene? Women of colour don’t need saving by the rules of white men.

The truth of the matter is, we can’t win. If we wear too little, we are sluts. If we wear too much (if we are white) we are prudes. If we dare to be both a woman of colour and wear too much, we are oppressed. Clothes don’t oppress us in of themselves. What oppresses us is the mindless and numbing rules, the what to wear and how it impacts on our lives. We are not the problem. We have the right to wear what we like, be that string bikini or burkini.

Cultural Appropriation and Interracial Relationships

CN: (potential) cultural appropriation, discussion of race

A few days ago, my boyfriend bought me a dress for our anniversary. We don’t usually exchange presents, preferring instead to spend any money on a shared love of food, or a day out together. This purchase was an exception. We were wandering through the Amsterdam flower market, debating whether or not we would be allowed to bring tulip bulbs back into the UK, when my partner spotted a Chinese shop. Intrigued, we ventured inside. It was full of tiny, intricate rice bowls; gaudy stuffed pandas; painted fans; small glass ornaments. At the very back of the store, a row of beautiful embroidered dresses. At my partner’s suggestion, I tried several on; and, upon falling in love with a white and black embroidered dress, he insisted on buying it for me.

It is one of the most beautiful garments I have ever owned. Although not strictly traditional (it has a zip down the back, and I suspect is cut more generously for my European hips than would be the norm) it is modelled in the style of a qípáo. It has the same high collar, embroidery, leg slits and figure hugging cut that seems, even to the untrained eye, uniquely Chinese. And here lies the problem; unlike my boyfriend, I am white. I have never been to China. Outside of a few random words picked up in our two years of dating, I don’t speak any Chinese. My sole experience of his culture has been through him and his family. And, as I stood in the changing room, staring at myself in a beautiful dress modelled on Chinese fashion dating back to the 1920s, I wondered if wearing the dress was disrespectful.

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My beautiful white dress

Race politics are complicated, and I am not going to pretend for a second that I know very much at all. As mentioned, I’m white; I grew up in a white family, in a predominantly white town. I have never experienced discrimination or prejudice because of my race. I cannot fully understand or appreciate what it means to be an ethnic minority in 21st century Britain. I can only listen and observe. I can see my boyfriend surprised when a film or TV we watch has Asian characters in a substantial role. I can listen to one of my close friends telling me of the racial abuse she has suffered since the Brexit vote. I can ask questions, and listen to the answers, but I can never fully understand what it feels like to not be white.

I fundamentally believe that a key part of intersectional feminism has to be listening to oppressed groups, and not speaking over their experiences. Just as a man has no right to tell me what it is to be a woman, I have no right to make assumptions for what it is to be a POC. Ultimately, I allowed my partner to buy me the dress because he said he didn’t find it offensive. On the contrary, he said that it made him happy to see me embracing his culture.

That is something I have tried to do from the beginning of our relationship. Interracial relationships are becoming increasingly common in the UK, and the fact that my partner and I come from different races is no longer something unusual or frowned upon. My partner was born in the same city as me, only a few months later. He was raised in the UK, went to a school (strangely enough) just down the road from my own. We attended the same university. We share a love of food (Asian and Western, and anything at all really) and exercise, and a sense of humour. Our similarities are more than our differences. And yet, there remain some small cultural differences.

Only a month ago, I was shocked when his degree was awarded in his Chinese name; his official name. For me, it is strange that the English name that I have always known him by is not his legal name. I found it even stranger when, upon asking him which name he preferred, he told me that he liked them both equally. Arrogantly, I had assumed he would prefer his English name. A few weeks later, the onset of the Olympic games led me to learn that he cheers for both the Chinese and the British teams. Likewise, I hadn’t realised that my slating of the Chinese gymnastics team would draw such a frosty reaction from him; his national loyalty going deeper than I expected.

My mother has the unfortunate habit, whenever his Chinese identity comes up, of exclaiming “but he’s British! He was born here!” But it is not that simple, of course. As he has often explained to me, he is both Chinese and British; and as a result, feels something of an outsider in both cultures. It’s something I have always had to try hard to understand, being only British myself.

When he showed the dress to his mother proudly, I cringed a little. I was worried that she – born in China, but living here since she was my age – would find it offensive, or think that I was being disrespectful to her culture. After all, I couldn’t even read the washing instructions (they were in Chinese.) I didn’t realise that the lines at the bottom of the dress symbolise a river, or that the leafy greens are actually intricately embroidered bamboo canes. I was so worried that my partner asked her later, in private, what she thought. It turns out my worrying was for nothing; she said she didn’t see a problem with it.

I cannot undo my privilege as a white person. What I can do is try as hard as I can to understand and learn more about his family and his history, and the culture that is clearly important to him. When his aunt skyped from China, I swallowed my shyness and said hello, mindful that she didn’t speak a word of English and I not a word of Chinese. When his parents talk about their childhoods in the Chinese countryside, I listen and ask questions. I am fascinated when they explain the history behind my partner’s name (my parents’ reasons for choosing my own name being rather less complicated and interesting.) I try my hardest to pronounce his Chinese name correctly, and am not abashed when his parents laugh at my attempts. I learn the odd words he teaches me, and the other day I even laughed at a joke his Dad told in Chinese (picking up from his body language and my partner’s English reply what he had said.)

It is a minor part of our relationship, but still a part; and to deny it exists would be to deny part of my partner’s identity. My grandparents’ wedding anniversary is coming up, and I’m planning to wear the dress. In the meantime, I will keep trying to question and relearn my own internal biases. More than anything, I’m honoured that my partner and his parents see no problem with me wearing the dress.