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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

So-called Cultural Appropriation

At  Wake Robin Farm, we were surprised and dismayed to see this girl in Utah, Keziah Daum, publicly taken to task for wearing a Chinese qipao to her prom the other day.  She was chided for the sin of "cultural appropriation."  Lighten up, everybody!  I really dislike the way the internet and social media has unleashed these various squads of flying monkeys to anonymously express all their basest, most negative feelings.

 

In particular, a story about a qipao  would jump out at me because my new memoir, Wedding in Yangshuo, begins with a scene  of me getting measured for just such a dress while in China for our son's wedding.  The Hong Kong tailor certainly did not deliver the beautifully tailored dress to me with any admonitions that I not wear it in America!  In my book,  I write about my awareness that the jewel tone colors and slim cut of these dresses look better on willowy, black-haired women than they do on slightly plump, freckly, brown-haired me, but I never thought I didn't have the right to give it a shot.  I was trying to honor the Chinese culture,  just as I was trying to honor the  Khmer culture—and indeed was invited to do so—by my friend Sam-ou, who gave  me a length of Cambodian silk and instructed me to wear it to the New Year Celebration in  Portland during the time I was researching Children of the River.

 

It's pretty simple, really.  People should be allowed to wear whatever they want.  When our daughter-in-law's father arrived from China last week wearing blue jeans and a big, Western-style belt buckle, were we supposed to chew him out for cultural appropriation?  Um, no?

 

Of course the same goes for who gets to write what in fiction.  The only sensible rule is that everybody should be allowed to try to write about anything and anybody they want.  I'm so glad I jumped in and innocently, passionately wrote Children of the River before the cultural sensitivity police showed up to take down anything written by somebody NOT the color or religion of the characters in question.  Silly me!  I just admired these people and wanted to share their story at a time when none of them were ready to do it in English themselves.  Although I much later read gripes about the way I had "perpetuated the myth of the model minority," I still stand by every word I wrote, and nothing that has happened with the families on whom I based the story over thirty years ago has changed my mind about their successes in adapting to life in the United States.

 

All this internet nastiness is the reason that what you are reading right here is my sole involvement in social media.   I don't have to worry about what Facebook knows about me because I never signed up.  If people write to me, I answer them, one on one.  What I have to say is mostly in my books, not blathered out on an hourly basis in tweets like a certain President, who has contributed greatly to the total coarsening of our culture.

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