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.
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.