as: The Appropriation of Chinese Culture and the Met Gala

The Appropriation of Chinese Culture and the Met Gala

By Kelly Luc

When I was little, my family kept a chicken in our backyard. My parents dressed me in off-color “PokyFriends” t-shirts, and shoved me in stuffy red velvet dresses from ChinaTown. I burned incense with my grandparents every morning, and perched at my grandmother’s feet as brewed her favorite, bitter herbal soup. Our family never served orange chicken or chow mien. My parents never dressed me in a CheongSam or decorated me with dragons. i was Chinese, yes, but never in the way that America—my birthplace—imagined me. I was, and still am, more than just chopsticks and cranes.

This year’s Met Gala was a gentle nod towards the importance of Chinese visibility in a nation ailed by colorblindness. The theme, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” was chosen to examine how eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture in an exchange that [Andrew] Bolton likens to a complicated game of telephone.” With each photograph, it grew increasingly apparent how deep these misunderstandings ran; “China” had effectively become reduced to a few emblematic symbols casually donned by Western consumers. This is not to dismiss the efforts or the outfits of the attendees, however. The theme was practically designed to create controversy. Matching the theme, evading all the flagrant stereotypes of Chinese culture, and recognizing all of our subconscious racist micro-aggressions is no easy feat.

Most attendees played it relatively safe. Jewel tones, ornate gilt details, and the occasional “Chinese” print punctuated the bustling crowds. Some individual’s outfits certainly erred on the side of controversy, but no attendee wore anything (I found) blatantly offensive. Almost all, however, did conform to a very singular and conventional reduction of “China” into a monolithic mass of stereotyped images. Emma Roberts, for instance, posted a selfie on Instagram where she was wearing chopsticks in her hair. Sarah Jessica Parker wore an extravagant and wildly debatable headdress (“Dragon lady” or “tasteful homage to the 2008 Beijing Olympics model”?) Dakota Johnson carried a “Chinese” face Chanel bag, and a handful of others wore sexualized versions of traditional Chinese dresses.

As for successes, Rihanna is perhaps the unanimous winner of this year’s Gala. She was one of the few attendees who chose to pay homage to China by wearing a dress actually from China. Crafted by esteemed designer Guo Pei, the dress—though admittedly pizza-like in certain regards—proved that it is possible to “appreciate” a culture without appropriating it. By reaching out to those most suitable to contextualize “China,” Rihanna was able to avoid the folly of many other attendees, who wore dresses designed by Westerners who can only ever interpret China.

The problem is, these (usually Western) interpretations are often grossly wrong. China is not, for instance, a metonym for all of Asia. How many times have I walked into a restaurant, and had someone someone unabatedly greet me with a “Ni Hao?” No, kind waiter. I speak Cantonese, but hello to you, too. No, passing stranger. “Gung Hay Fat Choy” does not mean thank you, and yes, it’s a different language altogether. Yes, museum worker, neither is “Sayonara,” but props for your effort. Also, please don’t take this badly, but I’m really not not related to Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan/Michelle Kwan, but I’ll laugh politely anyways. But please, please, please stop making kung fu noises as you serve me my sandwich. And I beg you, don’t smile and respond to my gentle corrections with: “So pretty much the same place, anyways.”

And yes, your tattoo looks pretty cool, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t intend for it to say “mad diarrhea.” Those chopsticks are pretty Asian, but those aren’t supposed to go in your hair. I know you don’t mean to be mean, but I am not a caricature and my culture is not a costume. I know you don’t intend to misunderstand me, so please listen when I try to help you understand me.

We Chinese-Americans are one of the largest growing populations in the United States, yet we are disproportionately misunderstood and misrepresented. This year’s Met Gala made this clearer than ever.

Kelly Luc is an ambiguous Chinese-Vietnamese-American. She detests bland food, enjoys being near bodies of water, and hopes to someday have at least two cats.

Dawn Wu