The power of taking up space.
“You look like a jellyfish.” It’s strange to think of those words as a compliment, but my friend intended it as such. He was describing the unconventional style of clothes that I was drawn to wear, pieces usually by Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons (this top specifically) or Sacai, that were billowy and featured some sort of trailing pieces of cloth that fluttered around me as I walked. They weren’t exactly trendy nor were they traditionally pretty, but they did grab your attention. The average person would describe them as strange or eccentric, but I treated them as armor. Deliberately weird and taking up physical space, these clothes were my way of saying, “I want you to see me but don’t you dare mess with me.” And in a year, where Asian American women have been subjected to violent racial attacks, my style has never been more of an important source of protection.
I learned how clothes affect my sense of self and safety at a young age. The common joke about kids who grow up in New York City is that they’re 15 turning 25, but that’s not a lie. At age 11 most kids are taking a bus to school or dropped off via car. My school offered an expensive bus service that we could not afford and my parents had full-time jobs that meant they couldn’t accompany me on the hour-plus subway ride from South Brooklyn to the Upper East Side. And so, I would dutifully take three trains each way daily, cramming my way onto the 6 train like every other business suit-clad commuter.
As a five-foot-tall Chinese girl who looked extremely young for her age, I was an easy target for creeps. Early on my parents told me to keep my head down and be quiet, to avoid a dangerous situation instead of fighting back. I learned to identify who would be a threat, but I also hated feeling weak and helpless. I couldn’t stop taking the train or predicting when a dangerous person would step into my train car, but I could control how I carried myself and reacted to them.
The first layer of protection was in the way I dressed. I wasn’t necessarily trying to appear older, it was about projecting self-assuredness and fearlessness: I wanted to look like the “bad teen” who would mouth off and make a potential predator uncomfortable. Instead of slim jeans and nondescript t-shirts, my outfits hit on the trends of the time: enormous wide-legged JNCOs, baby tees, orange Sun-In hair, and dark brown lipstick. They were loud and absurd, giving me the confidence to yell, curse, and talk back when the situation called for it.
Of course, the way I dressed caused my Chinese-American parents plenty of grief. In Chinese there’s a word, guai, that’s the ultimate compliment a parent could give another parent about a child. You’re praised as guai when you’re quiet and obedient. Guai kids dutifully do their schoolwork, chores, and listen to their parents. They dress to blend in, opting for styles that are neither too revealing nor outlandish. While my clothes weren’t offensive in my parents’ eyes, my blonde hair and dark lipstick were decidedly not guai. According to my parents, it was what the girls who hung out with “gangsters” (aka wannabe Chinese triad members) would look like. In their eyes, these girls were of questionable morals, likely to get in trouble with the law, and generally brought shame upon their family. In my eyes they were shameless and tough, the type of middle-fingers up confidence I wanted to exude during my daily commute.
My parents and I fought constantly about my hair and makeup, although eventually, I dyed my hair back to black for the college application process, much to their relief. But the idea remains a part of my ethos as I’ve always railed against the concept of being guai. And I’m not alone: if you read this Reddit thread, there are plenty of Chinese Americans who grapple with its implications in mainstream American society. On the positive side, it’s an extension of the way collectivist Asian cultures hold filial piety views in highest regard. A guai child who listens to her parents grows up to become a good citizen who follows the rules and works hard to make them proud, all commendable qualities. But, on the flip side, it can lead to erasure and invisibility. If you are too afraid to defy your parents, how do you find the confidence to defy other authority figures or speak up to defend yourself in a bad situation? I never put too much stock in behaving or dressing guai — I could be a good and kind human being without being afraid to assert myself both stylistically and personality-wise.
During my early 20s, I discovered the world of Comme des Garçons via message boards like The Fashion Spot. Her image caught my eye — here was a Japanese woman who would look at the camera confrontationally. Often clad in a leather jacket, she not only looked cool, she exuded that same don’t mess with me quality I long admired in other women. Plus, she was a designer who made strange clothes that took up space, much like how my JNCOs occupied two seats on the subway. I was drawn to the shapes they made and once I was able to afford her clothes, I slowly started adding them to my wardrobe.
In a call back to my teens, I also decided to bleach my hair a few years ago, although it’s now platinum blonde instead of Sun-In orange. Ironically, one of the first criticisms I received shortly after was in Chinatown, where a woman approximately my mother’s age commented on it. She said, in Cantonese, how I didn’t look “Chinese” to her and asked me what was so wrong with my black hair. Really, what she meant was why did I feel the need to stick out so much? Why did I want to be this bright, bleached spot in a sea of silky, straight black hair? Why couldn’t I be a good Chinese girl? I politely smiled and said something about liking the way I looked, before grabbing my takeout and running out the door. As placating and respectful as my words may be, the fact that I even defended my choice of hair color was an act of defiance. It was a gentle nudge back at an elder, something a guai child would absolutely not do.
I wonder when interacting with strangers and acquaintances alike, what their perception of me is. Am I meek? Agreeable? Rebellious? Desirable? Or do they even notice me at all? Asian American women can feel invisible, fetishized, or usually both at the same time. Those creeps who approached me as a tween likely thought I was docile, unlikely to fight back while they found pleasure in harassing me. They also assumed that no one would notice or care enough to intervene. It’s that same mix of apathy, hatred, and objectification rearing its ugly head when you hear about the shootings in Atlanta or the beating of the elderly Filipina woman in New York City or the stabbing in San Francisco of a Chinese grandmother.
This year taught me that the terror and anxiety I experienced as a tween has been named and acknowledged as a real risk to women who look like me. And more than ever, the same attitude I had towards getting dressed then is how I feel now. I can’t control what may happen when I set foot out the door, but I can protect myself mentally. You can’t ignore the shocking white blonde hair nor can you avoid being hit in the hips by an enormous black Comme des Garçons skirt should you get too close to me. While it won’t exactly do a person harm, it forces others to acknowledge my existence. And though my appearance is attention-seeking, it also signals that I don’t want to be approached or perceived as friendly or open to a stranger’s conversation. So, that’s where the jellyfish compliment feels most apt: Admire me from afar but come too close and you’ll be stung.