It Is Not “Dress Like a Chinaman Day”

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Today is Chinese New Year and I found myself in line for Panda Express. This was an unfortunate coincidence as my wife’s Abuelita requested Panda Express for her birthday dinner, but I have to admit, I do enjoy the orange chicken. I looked behind me in the long line, and the white woman behind me was wearing a loud Chinese jacket. I hate that shit.

White Lady, Chinese Clothes

Please just stop it

Not only was this woman wearing a tacky Chinese jacket, but she was wearing it presumably for Chinese New Year and celebrating the evening with a Panda Express dinner of Firecracker Chicken and fried rice, like the whole holiday is just a fun theme day for her.

Why do non-Asian people think that this is ok? I once attended a performance of a visiting Chinese Opera troupe and the white dude behind me wore a mandarin jacket.  He looked like a douchebag. Do I show up to his Thanksgiving Dinner in a Pilgrim outfit?  Not yet. We ethnic folk have very few holidays or days of importance that are acknowledged in the U.S. These days can be very useful in fostering cultural understanding. Unfortunately, all too often, these occasions are appropriated and turned into caricatures of the entire culture it originates from, e.g., Cinco de Mayo, and the outfits/costumes are a glaring physical manifestation of it.

White Lady in a Sari


Some helpful hints to avoid looking like an ignorant fool who wears ethnic clothes as a costume:

  • Do not wear the historical or ethnic clothes of an ethnic group other than yours as some sort of tribute.
  • Do not celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a sombrero and colorful knit poncho.
  • Do not spend Diwali in a Sari.
  • Do not honor civil rights on MLK day with a dashiki.
  • Do not show up to Panda Express on Chinese New Year in a Mandarin jacket.
  • Really, just to be safe, don’t wear any of these unless you know 100% that this is appropriate and expected of you.

There are rare occasions where I believe it is not offensive to wear the clothes of an ethnicity other than your own. It’s best to check with the host of the event (whose ethnic origin must match the event’s cultural origin) to find out what is appropriate.

4 thoughts on “It Is Not “Dress Like a Chinaman Day”

  • January 24, 2012 at 12:54 am

    lol. omg i love it

  • January 25, 2012 at 10:59 am

    I’m feeling this article. The same can be said about the many people “celebrating” El Dia De Los Muertos, and making their cute little “altars” for their dog FIFI.

  • January 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Its crazy because I am half chinese and I went through this “asianprincess” phase in my early 20s where I was clearly appropriating my own chinese culture by wearing silk brocade and fur like they did in Shanghai cigarette posters from the 1930s. I loved those posters and I wanted to appear like a life like manifestation of them in my art and life at the time. But I knew I was a Chinese American appropriating historical Chinese culture. Did that make it okay because 4 generations ago my people came on a boat from China? It made it MORE ok but really what I realized in “going back to china” in 1999 that I was NOT Chinese really, but totally 100% Chinese American, specifically San Francisco Cantonese! So it depends, the poncho and the Cinco De Mayo definitely offensive, fake afro on Halloween, kimono and silk brocade (Japanese and Chinese cultures are different, but both of these fashions originate from Chinese colonialism) . I started to take some of this ignorance with a grain of fried rice from Panda Express. We must pick our battles. Consciousness and INTENT are the rules to quality performance art, and that’s what I believe I am doing when I wear a Vietnamese Ao Dai that I got from Vietnam and combine it with a rice patty hat that is seen on most South Asians in the rice fields. I am not ethnically Vietnamese, but if I put on the costume, I can pass. I am not Mexican, but if I paint my face for Dia de la Muertas does that mean I’m being an asshole?
    If this overt costuming is occuring on mainstream media, yes that is worth a boycott but talking to everyone who appropriates would be impossible and it would make us need to turn the mirror on ourselves and cite how much hip hop we’ve taken from Black culture, how much blues and soul music we’ve taken, how much etc etc. We’re ALL guilty. everyday.


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