I Am Choosing To (Literally) Wear My Chinese American Pride. Here's Why.

"Each cheongsam figures prominently in my power-up wardrobe, making a conscious statement about my heritage, my culture, my visibility and my pride."
The author in one of her cheongsams.
The author in one of her cheongsams.
Lisa Helfert

More than two years into the pandemic, and many of us are back to work, face-to-face. In the early days of COVID-19, I had traded my structured suits for a work-from-home wardrobe like everyone else when the pandemic began: forgiving T-shirts and sweatpants. Working from the corner of my 3-year-old daughter’s bedroom, I would get down to business: addressing issues of anti-racism, equity and inclusion as a diversity dean at a Washington, D.C., medical school.

As the months wore on, I added statement T-shirts under blazers to the mix, including my MVP of tees, the softest black cotton tee that reads “Phenomenally Asian.” I wear it with pride as a Chinese American woman — born in Southern California to parents who emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1969.

I wore it when I went to get my first Moderna dose at a D.C. recreation center last spring. When I texted my parents my post-vaccine selfie, my father replied, “Great! Just want to make sure you’re not taking any unnecessary risk. Where did you get the thought-provoking shirt?”

His text conjured a memory of my first job as a community organizer in San Francisco in the spring of 2002. “Racist fashion’s got to go!” I chanted, assembled with hundreds of Asian American protesters on Market Street. We raised our voices against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch for releasing a series of graphic tees with Asian stereotypes, like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service ― Two Wongs Can Make it White” and “Buddha Bash ― Get Your Buddha on the Floor.”

Then, too, my parents told me — in equal parts pride and worry — to keep them posted on our campaign. “Stay safe outside on the streets,” they said.

The risk of asserting myself felt urgent back then. And, today, I’ve decided anew that being nondescript and subtle will not protect me. The truth is, just showing my face in America has been enough to make me a target for harassment or attack on the street in the middle of the day. I’ve decided I’m acting on a conscious dare of standing firm in my identity, not shrinking from it. I’m resisting my vulnerability with visibility.

I will tell my daughter when she gets older that I wore my phenomenal T-shirt when Asians were being scapegoated as the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. During a time when politicians were regularly using the terms “chinavirus” and “kung-flu” to perpetuate hate and foment racism in our society, I wore the shirt boldly. I wore it in the face of fear that attacks against Asian Americans meant we aren’t seen as fellow Americans or even human.

Recently I’ve made another, more surprising, sartorial choice: I started searching online for vintage Chinese dresses and integrating them into my at-home ensembles and my emerging post-pandemic wardrobe. A cheongsam, translated as “long dress” in Cantonese, is a sheath dress with a high mandarin collar and asymmetrical opening fastened by interlocking knotted buttons and loops of hua niu, or flower buttons. In my cheongsams, I can put myself together even when I feel fragmented, struggling to process being both Chinese and American in a country that has always had anti-Asian racism coursing through its veins.

I’ve acquired 15 of these iconic dresses from secondhand shops, boutiques and vintage stores. Each figures prominently in my power-up wardrobe, making a conscious statement about my heritage, my culture, my visibility and my pride.

part of the author's collection
part of the author's collection
Photo Courtesy of Susan M. Cheng

When I look at my reflection standing in a cheongsam, my posture straightens. My shoulders round out; my frame takes up more space. Standing taller into these dresses is what is called for, with their delicately embroidered patterns of lotus flowers symbolizing self-regeneration, the phoenix for renewal and bamboo for the strength of integrity.

My cheongsam collection reflects an evolution in how I embrace my identity as a Chinese American woman. When I was 6, I squeezed myself into an ill-fitting bright red satin cheongsam pantsuit my grandmother had purchased for me — two sizes too small and more costume than anything at a Chinese school dance recital.

In high school, the cheongsam took on more meaning before a pivotal sophomore winter formal I was allowed to attend with a date. On a return trip from Hong Kong, my Aunt Eunice had brought me a gorgeous white-and-sky-blue silk brocade cheongsam with sparkling silver thread adorning embroidered flower blossoms. I debated whether I had enough confidence to wear this dress and pull off looking different, possibly calling extra attention to myself. In spite of its beauty, I decided to go incognito.

“Sometimes I just want to blend in,” I justified to my mom, who sighed, caressing the beautiful embellishments of the glimmering blue brocade cheongsam and masking her disappointment with a tight-lipped smile before slipping the dress back into its plastic case.

During my wedding tea ceremony five years ago, I bowed to my elders, paying my respects and presenting them tea as they, in turn, presented my husband and me with gifts. My wedding cheongsam was a sight: bright red silk and lace woven together and cut to fit my true form. Six bespoke pearl buttons dotted the diagonal neckline, a reflection of our coming together — our two sets of parents, my husband and me.

My new collection of cheongsams is cut from a different cloth. In my midlife, these dresses are an inspiration. These dresses don’t hang back, tucked away in the corners of my closet. They are not costumes, not reminders of discomfort. They are not precious ceremonial markers reserved for life-changing events. They are the everyday fabric of my psychological armor.

They give me extra emotional strength to do my job, to organize bystander intervention workshops and to build an Asian American community of support on campus. They are out front, in frequent wardrobe rotation, worn with daily purpose.

Last March, my team organized a virtual university peace vigil honoring the eight victims of the Atlanta mass shooting, six of whom were Asian women. I wore a secondhand cheongsam with a bold, abstract pattern of jutting triangles in jeweled tones of fuchsia, yellow and purple. The design reflected the strength I needed in the moment. As I made my opening remarks about the oppression of anti-Asian racism and the feelings of invisibility amongst my students and myself, the Zoom screen captured the pointedness of the triangles converging in sharp tips all over me.

My voice unexpectedly faltered, and tears rolled down the sides of my cheeks as I read aloud the names of the victims. I felt these women could be anyone — my aunties, my mother, my friends or me. As I spoke, my right hand reached out to stroke the clasps of my dress, right above my heart, where a dull ache had lodged.

For some of the bystander intervention workshops I’ve organized with other Asian faculty and staff at my university this past year, I’ve worn a golden silk cheongsam with an intricate peacock feather print and gleaming yellow flower buttons. The dress threads glimmer like starlight, like my belief in finding a way forward through this dark time.

I’ve told co-workers who noticed my dresses that I’m making deliberate choices with my wardrobe. Allied in my vision for visibility, they ask questions, share their own cultural style pieces with me, and we speak about the signaling language of clothing and identity. These conversations seem to access my colleagues in deeper ways. We are stitching together whole abstract concepts of being seen, heard and valued in American society — without ever having to say anything at all.

Lisa Helfert

The rise in violent attacks on Asian Americans across the country has my whole family worried. Since the pandemic started, STOP AAPI Hate has logged nearly 11,000 hate incidences and counting.

“You and Dad are primary targets because of your age,” I explained to my mom. “The attackers are picking on the weakest.” As I remind her to forego their daily walks around their California neighborhood and their local Costco, she advises me to stay protected at home in D.C.

This spring, when I shared with her new reports of anti-Asian attacks and racial slurs near my campus, my voice started to quiver from exhaustion. Two years in, and we are still fending for our safety.

I opened up about what I wanted as a leader during a recent community support circle for Asian medical students. I imagine so much more. I want to go beyond an ever-present preoccupation of basic safety fears, biases and harmful microaggressions fueled by the “model minority myth” and other dehumanizing stereotypes. I want to clothe myself in a full range of visibility, representation and empowerment, where civil rights and health equity are realized.

On a beautiful spring day last month, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom in D.C., I FaceTimed my mom to show her the new pepper spray I finally added to my purse and the baby’s diaper bag. She implored, “Just stay inside at home. You don’t have to leave.”

“But I can’t stay inside forever, Mom — that’s not a life,” I insisted, pushing back gently.

I haven’t told her yet that my university announced in May that our new Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander Employee Resource Group is moving forward. We are planning our first in-person celebration in two years on campus with food, community building and purpose during AAPI Heritage Month. We are coming together to triumph over violence, racism and hate.

I’m already picturing the most stunning fiery rose cheongsam to mark my reentry.

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