the problematic nature of cultural appropriation.

Xiao Pan

Culture, regardless of the origin, should be respected.

I remember when I first heard of the term, I lacked understanding of the word ‘appropriation’. I thought it was just making something appropriate, and I was confused why people were angry about it.

For your information, Cambridge Dictionary states that it is ‘the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture’.

So now you’re wondering, why am I angry about it?

A small introduction, I’m Xiao and I’m a British Chinese woman studying Law, it’s nice to meet you!

Around a month ago I discovered a person close to me wearing a butchered version of a red Qipao, (or cheongsam as some people call it) with a rip past the hip that revealed their underwear. The dress that was key to the Woman’s Liberation Movement and elegance, was paired with a coned shape red hat made by this person in attempts to profit off their start up DIY page. Imagine if I wore a prom dress that showed my underwear, with a builder’s helmet. You see? Not a good look.

This person is not Chinese or of Chinese origin.

If this was me at 16, I’d have been over the moon that someone from a position of power was appreciating something so close to my heart, my culture, and therefore for me to have felt seen. The question is, am I being seen and respected? I know if I wore the same thing I’d get weird looks and comments, maybe even abuse, not only from non-Chinese people, but also Chinese people. Because internalised racism is real, and assimilation is what us outsiders desire in a country where regardless of where I was born, my slanted eyes and my dark hair makes me a foreigner. Somehow because a white woman decided it was trendy, she should be praised for her innovative style.

Regardless of what side of history you stand on. In 1840, Qing Dynasty, the Great British Empire decides to battle China in the Opium War. Countless innocent people suffered, the woman and children, raped and killed. When that war finally ended, Hong Kong was a part of the Empire for 100 years till 1997. Only two decades ago.

Colonisation isn’t just taking over another’s land, colonisation is rooted in supremacy and capitalism. Colonisation can consist of a powerful authority determining how you should feel even when they harmed you. Colonisers’ descendants often forget it shouldn’t be the case of ‘their way or the highway’. When I raised my concerns of ‘my culture is not your costume’, I was blocked.

That should be the end of it right? It’s not a big deal, no one got hurt, maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut. But I couldn’t. I have been censored for twenty years, no more. In a world where ‘ch*nk’ is still used in rap songs and by non-Chinese people, in a world where being called Ling Ling just because you look Chinese is not frowned upon. In a world where Asian men are still being perceived as a joke in the media. In my world where years of bullying, fetishisation of Asian women somehow became a medical condition of ‘yellow fever’ so apparently it’s socially acceptable, in my world where I still get told to get over it, even that time when COVID first hit, people spat at me.

The offender was unapologetic, they didn’t care what impact they had on the community where that culture lives. They didn’t care who it’ll offend, that’s what makes me sad. Even when I shared this incident with other people, my friends told me to get over it, other Chinese people told me to get over it. Understandable? I suppose, since we have ‘bigger fish to fry’. What people fail to contemplate is the fact every time we stay silent, we allow the oppressor to get away with the little disrespectable things they’re doing, we allow them to offend at a greater rate each time. It is not the victim’s fault that the oppressor gets to do this to them. However, to me it’s simple. As Emma Watson famously said, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when? ‘

Of course, I was faced with criticism, if I didn’t then I wouldn’t be doing it right. I had inboxes full of messages telling me I’m a bully for sharing what this person chose to do and post on their social media, they told me I was harassing her for expressing my upset. They even tried to scare me by saying they will get me kicked off my course at University and that police will be involved to charge me. For sharing what this person did, nothing more. This person has expressed that they are scared of me, they claimed they cried all night because they are so upset that I shared their actions to other people. Racism towards Asians is so normalised that when we speak up, we are threatened with exclusion and criminalisation. I don’t think this person once considered that they shouldn’t be scared of me, but vice versa. I should be scared. I should be scared that when someone wrongs me and I refuse to be wronged I could have my whole career and life taken away, even my freedom. This is why colonisation is still present through white supremacy in our society.

I cannot stand by and allow my culture to be shaped by people that utilise it for their own benefit, a themed dinner is not an excuse, whatever your intentions were, the damage is done. When someone is upset, the least you could do is listen to them. Impact always beats intention, please remember that. Also, just for good measure, Google is free, so if you wouldn’t mind moving your fingers for a few seconds and utilise a few braincells to think about your actions, find out for yourself!

I’d like to add a final note that I love my culture, I’m proud of my culture and I’d love nothing more than to ensure everyone gets to celebrate it with me. I would never condemn anyone for trying to learn, but don’t do it with the mindset of ignorance, don’t reduce my culture to a costume or a night out. Let us do it right and do it together.

about the author:

Xiao Pan

Xiao Pan is a final year Law LLB student at Oxford Brookes University. Xiao immigrated to the UK from China without speaking English. With determination, she overcame her challenges and is now the President of the Oxford Brookes Chinese Students and Scholars Association. As a human rights activist, Xiao expresses her passion through her role as a Recruitment Officer for the United Nations Association Youth Platform as well as leads and participates in many other organizations. Xiao is proud to be a Campus Champion with Bright Network, Campus Ambassador for ICAEW, Oxford Brookes University and also their Brand Ambassador. In her spare time, she enjoys doing online courses to improve her knowledge, and to be a better citizen in the world.