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Illustrations: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Illustrations: Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Blonde Girls in Cheongsams

Growing up in a world that said Chinese culture looked best as an accessory on a white person, I wasn't sure who I was or what I should wear

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XOXO was one of the slighter stores in Roosevelt Mall in the late ’90s. It was narrow but deep, and had the sort of moody lighting that was romantic the way seedy motels look romantic on the big screen — dim and pinky and brown. I liked beholding the XOXO sign, big, neon and lit.

It was something the girls in my school would scrawl in peppy, loopy handwriting when passing notes to each other. Or maybe they never did, but it seemed only right that the girls who were cheerleaders and student council members and on the yearbook committee and the girls who baked cookies to raise money for charity and the theatre girls who stayed after school to practice entertaining us for one night in the fall and one night in the spring would write XOXO to each other and to the boys they were dating.

In my high school in Long Island, I only knew girls who wore chopsticks in their hair to dances and none who knew how to eat with them. This was a far departure from the Queens neighborhood I grew up in, one of those actually ethnically diverse, actually working-class neighborhoods in which the kids of color far outnumbered the white kids, to the point that when in fourth grade we had a transfer student from Ohio with the kind of Irish skin that was so pale it flushed pink without warning, we mocked him ruthlessly, covering our eyes to indicate how his white skin blinded us, not realizing there was a whole other world where we, with our hair and our skin tones and our facial features, were destined to be the butt of most jokes.

In my high school in Long Island, I only knew girls who wore chopsticks in their hair to dances and none who knew how to eat with them.

It took the good, old-fashioned American dream of upward mobility —€” moving to the suburbs —€” for me this to dawn on me. It hadn't meant anything to not be a white girl until I was surrounded by them. Suddenly, I was the odd one, an immigrant who up until that point, knew mostly only other immigrants. It hadn't occurred to me that it was strange I had never eaten toast, that I'd had cereal only once before, when a houseguest brought a mini-box of cornflakes with him and I'd been permitted to eat them dry, straight from the box like chips. The experience was terrible, tasteless, but still, I insisted, if only I were allowed to sample some of the other cereals —€” Fruity Pebbles and Lucky Charms and Cookie Crisp, or even Kix ("kid tested, mother approved") —€” I might have a shot at becoming like the other girls, someone who ate cold cereal with a spoon for breakfast instead of hot rice porridge with chopsticks.

Yep, I use them for everything, I said once over dinner at a Chinese fast-food restaurant downtown with my new friends, who held their chopsticks gracelessly, laughably, or else just used a fork. I was smug, still too young to know how much shame lay ahead of me, something that enough men in my life have since pointed out is about feeling bad about who you are, as opposed to "guilt," which is about feeling bad about what you've done. I used chopsticks to eat slabs of meat, runny eggs, spaghetti, birthday cake. That was what I knew, and the white girls in my school who showed up to school dances in '90s teen-girl formalwear — bright, shiny, satiny dresses —€” topped off with a pair of colorful chopsticks in their highlighted updos made me cringe.

There must have been other Asian kids in my grade, but the one I remember was from Hong Kong, and he was much more sadistic than the white kids in making fun of me for being Chinese. It was an odd time, especially because it was 1997, the year Britain was scheduled to hand Hong Kong, until then a dependent territory, back to China. In the West, it was referred to as "the handover," and in China as "the return." Somewhere inside me, I felt he and I should have been co-conspirators, not enemies, and the distinction he drew, as well as the way the media discussed the "transfer of power" —€” technically, officially, sterilely, with little mention of the cruelty and arrogance of colonialism or how the people of Hong Kong felt about being ping-ponged between Britain and China — bothered me.

It didn't help that everywhere I looked that year, someone was wearing a mandarin collar or a dragon-and-pagoda-print mesh top. The Delia's catalog began offering a regular selection of Asian-inspired clothing. I tried saving up for a pair of Chinese Laundry shoes, only hazily registering that its chunky-heeled, faux-satiny sandals were always photographed on a white girl and never someone like me, a Chinese girl who had never been inside a Chinese dry cleaners in her whole life because it was considered the most luxurious of luxury expenses, and so did not even recognize the stereotype this company was capitalizing on by calling itself "Chinese Laundry." I just wanted what the other girls had: trendy shoes, trendy clothes, trendy accessories.


If anything, I was thrilled that my ethnicity had made its way into the name of a coveted brand. When these poorly made, floral-print sandals, qipao-inspired dresses, and hair chopsticks started popping up in stores and catalogs, I thought this indicated, in some watered-down way, that finally, the cultural products of the country in which I was born were suddenly very, very in.

That was also the year I started going to the mall as a social pastime. Before then, it had been more utilitarian, accompanying my mother on two hour long drives to outlet malls in New Jersey, where there was no sales tax, or to Lord & Taylor's clearance stores that still sold jackets with massive '80s-era shoulder pads. This was while we were living in Queens, and I was more interested in reading at home for hours than in going anywhere at all. But being a teen in a Long Island suburb meant weekends at the mall with my mom and my best friend Diana, who still lived in Queens, and her mom. The four of us were mu-nu, my mother would say in Chinese, meaning mother-daughter, a connection I was eager to sever, just a little, in service of being more like the girls in my high school who were dropped off at the mall, or went with their older siblings who could drive.

But not me. Not us. The four of us went together, starting at Nordstrom because that was where the ample outdoor parking was, but when the sun shone too brightly, or the day was too cold, we'd go in search of the highly coveted covered parking outside of the Bloomingdale's, a search that often resulted in protracted shouting matches. Once parked, we would snake our way through the department store until we emerged onto the mall concourse. Then we quickly separated and went off in pairs, my mom and Diana's mom to Ann Taylor while Diana and I went next door to Wet Seal, where I once spent far too long looking for a pair of lavender corduroy bellbottoms that three of the most popular girls in my eighth grade owned, two of them wearing the bellbottoms on the same day, the other on another, which probably indicated some kind of power struggle from which I was entirely excluded. As our mothers perused the boots at Nine West, Diana and I browsed the Limited Too, where every shirt was stretchy and sparkly, imploding with psychedelic prints, and pants with such poor stitching, they'd unravel in the dressing room. Sometimes, all four of us went into Guess together, my mother making a beeline for the tiny clearance racks and then immediately back out again. At the end of our mall run our moms would do a quick loop around Banana Republic and then wait for us while we tried on skirts in Contempo Casuals.

I was the only one who ever really advocated for going into the XOXO store, though. Marooned in a no-man's land, next to those odd stalls in the middle of the concourse that sold things like nail buffer kits, or foot massage machines that mysteriously doubled as humidifiers, it was too juvenile for our parents and too girly for Diana. But I lived for its clothes, which were out of my price range and never on sale. I had my sights set on a form-fitting brown rayon skirt with a dragon embroidered on one side and a less-than-demure slit on the other.

Do you really want this, my mother asked me kindly after the third time I picked it up in front of her and pressed it against my body.

Yes, I said. Yes, I do.

Chinese Laundry's floral-print, faux-satiny sandals were always photographed on a white girl and never someone like me.

It became my most prized item of clothing. Wearing it to school with a pair of knock-off platform Doc Martens ordered from Delia's made me feel wonderfully visible. I was someone to see. A week after I wore it to school, I had a boyfriend who was in a hardcore punk band. A boyfriend! In a band! I was really someone, I thought. I was someone's someone, so I was someone.

Did you know, Diana asked me while we stuffed our clear cellophane bags with sour belts at Sweet Factory, that this is the second largest mall in America? What's the first?

That Mall of America in Minnesota or whatever.

Wow, I said, feeling a stab of pride that comes with associating yourself with something powerful. What was more opulent than the second largest mall in the richest, most powerful country in the world? Nothing, except for the first largest. Pre-Google, we didn't bother verifying, but we were wrong. It was the seventh largest in the country and second largest in the state of New York.

It was built in 1956 on the very airport and military airfield that the mall was named after — Roosevelt Field —€” where, a few decades prior, 150 people reportedly gathered to watch Charles Lindbergh take off in his modest plane, brightly named the Spirit of St. Louis, to complete the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. There was a plaque commemorating his trans-Atlantic flight in the mall, which Diana and I always breezed past to get to the Disney store. Amelia Earhart used the former airstrip at Roosevelt Field as a launchpad as well, a fact many of my die-hard Long Island born-and-bred teachers liked to share with us, repeatedly. So when you're at the mall this weekend, my history teacher said, think about that.

I didn't think about it at all. I was too busy writing a letter to Diana on Morning Glory stationery about the things I wanted to buy on our next mall trip: those black, flatform foam slides with two thick white bands, a baby-blue spaghetti strap tank top from Wet Seal, a cropped white T-shirt from the Limited Too to go underneath, dark denim bellbottoms, brown corduroy engineer pants from the Gap, and everything, just every damn thing in XOXO.

Looking up photos of XOXO retail stores on Google now, I see again that I was wrong. In all the photos that show up, the store looks massive, spacious, blindingly white with garish lighting. I must have fabricated a false memory of the store being cool, moody, and romantic. It looks like any store in any mall, if not on the uglier side of ugly.


Diana and I liked spending Saturdays playing board games —€” Dreamphone, Party Mania, the Game of Life, 13 Dead End Drive. But my favorite was Mall Madness. Every part of it pleased me: the irritatingly complicated set-up, the soulless computer voice that announced the sales and went "ching ching" when you bought something. We played in maximum overdrive, upping the stakes to 60 items instead of just six to win the game. Sometimes after Diana left, I would keep playing by myself, swiping all the money from the bank and going on a mad spree to buy up everything until I had it all.

At Roosevelt Field, like most seasoned mall-goers, we had a routine, and an exit strategy. Getting teriyaki chicken with extra sauce ("More! Sauce!" my mother repeated as we moved through every step of the food assembly line) at the food court signaled that we were an hour away from having to leave. Our last stop on the ground floor was typically Express, by which point, exhausted by whatever psychological forces made shoppers like us think we couldn't settle for the first or second or third or fourth or even fifth thing we wanted, we would make a mad dash to grab as many $7.99 sale items we could find in our sizes. One time, my mother and I came across several racks of sweaters, tops, and pants that had been priced at $3.99, with an additional 50 percent taken off at the register.

This has to be a mistake, I said. Who cares, my mother said, grabbing me after we had checked out and running out of the store as someone was coming after us to make us pay back their mistakes. There were things in the store priced at $39.99 and even $79.99 that I'd wanted more, but instead we had bags full of $2 clothes. That was when I started making a mental catalog of things I would steal once I found a way to get back to the mall on my own, which was tricky, but not impossible.

At the height of the Asian-inspired fashion trend, Claire Danes showed up to the Romeo and Juliet premiere at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles wearing a vaguely "oriental" printed Prada jacket over a vaguely "oriental" printed long skirt. I don't remember if I thought any of it was significant — that Danes, who exemplified the height of enviable, beautiful girlhood in her role as Shakespeare's Juliet, was posing for red-carpet photos in designer clothing that appropriated Chinese fashion while standing in front of the most iconic of Hollywood theaters, which was constructed in 1926 with imported artifacts from China, and partially built by hired Chinese artisans to resemble a giant, red pagoda with a dragon across the façade, two Ming Dynasty Heaven Dogs on either side of the gates, even more dragons scattered along the cooper roof, and lotus-shaped fountains sprinkled around the Forecourt of the Stars. This is the famous theatre millions of tourists visit every year, posing and taking pictures with the handprints and the autographs of Hollywood stars —€” of course, it was originally conceived as the Chinese theatre.

Meanwhile, in my corner of the world, I had to endure girls walking past me every day in the hallway after English class and yelling "Jenny ZHANG" as though my last name were a readymade insult, until finally, after weeks of this, I pulled the main offender into the bathroom and said, I will fucking hit you in the face until every bone is broken if you don't stop.

In my corner of the world, girls walked past me in the hallway after English class and yelled 'Jenny ZHANG' as though my last name were a readymade insult.

Built by (and originally named after) the theatre magnate Sid Grauman, Grauman's Chinese Theatre opened to the public in 1927. America's first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, drove the first rivet into the steel girders. The theatre was the height of grandeur and opulence. After all, what is more grand and opulent in the West than reproducing a long-held fantasy of the exotic East? It was renamed Mann's Chinese Theatre in 1973, when it was bought by a businessman named Ted Mann. Then, in 2013, a Chinese electronics manufacturing company bought the naming rights to the theatre and it became the TCL Chinese Theatre —€” making it the first time since the theatre was built, that one could say the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood actually had something to do with the Chinese. Was it a handover? Was it a return? Or really, to be far less romantic, was it just one corporate power being bought by another?

On the official website for the TCL Chinese Theatre, the first words you see when you click on the "history" tab are the words, in all caps: "It was once stated that ‘to visit Los Angeles and not see the Chinese Theatre is like visiting China and not seeing the Great Wall.'"

It was around the same time that I also started seeing the word cheongsam in my mother's Vogue and InStyle magazines.

Do you know this word, I asked, pointing to a caption of a celebrity in a cheongsam dress.

That's a qipao, my mother said. Kind of.

Cheongsam isn't a word that exists in any Chinese dialect. The earliest form of this garment came by way of the Manchus who conquered China and established the Qing dynasty in 1644. They wore loose, high-collared, long-sleeved, A-line-shaped shirts that went down to the ankles, and required the Han Chinese to do the same. The edict was eventually lifted, but by then it had become a fairly common way to dress. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the style was revived in Shanghai in the 1920s, and the qipao (the Mandarin word for these high-collared dresses) evolved to be more fitted, ornately embroidered, and stylishly cut close to the body.

Once the Communists assumed power in 1949, qipaos were considered too ostentatious and feminine for a country in the throes of a proletarian revolution. Utilitarian unisex work clothes were in. Qipaos were out. The Shanghainese who fled to Hong Kong carried the fashion over, where it flourished and hemlines got shorter, the cut tighter. In the Cantonese dialect spoken in Hong Kong, these dresses were called chèuhngsàam. In English, the word was altered to become cheongsam, a word as foreign to me as Peking duck had been until my father explained that Peking duck was simply a manner of preparing duck that people in Beijing were known to enjoy.


There's this kind of irresolvable trap that occurs when you're too young to have any power but old enough to know that you want some. It's the trap of being too inarticulate to have the clarity people expect you to speak with when you speak of the depressing black hole of systematic racism. What I wanted to say was how it felt to grow up in a country that indicated to me everything from the country I was born in looked good on anyone but me. This trap made me think the classmate in the hallway making fun of my Chinese last name while sporting a Chinese character tattoo above her ass, was the person I had to defeat, when, in reality, we belonged to the same world —€” a world that said that Chinese culture looked best as an accessory on a white person. In this world, a qipao was a garish costume on me, but a polyester cheongsam mini-dress on a white girl was adorable.

My walking half an hour to wait another half an hour to catch an hour and half bus to Roosevelt mall to go on a stealing spree in Bloomingdale's, Macy's, and Nordstrom was a trap, too. The spoils of my plundering —€” microfiber thongs, push-up bras, a random assortment of plain T-shirts and athletic shorts, anything that didn't have an electronic sensor and could be worn underneath my clothes —€” no matter how easy or illicitly thrilling, never looked good on me when I got home and laid everything out on my bed, because as any girl who has ever dealt with disappointment through retail therapy (or in my case, retail theft therapy) has likely experienced, clothes never look good on a person who feels like shit.

The person I imagined myself being in these clothes was illusive. I knew I didn't need to spend money to become a valuable person, but what I didn't know was what kind of currency I could spend (or rather, earn) to feel worthwhile. What I wanted was a whole other system of values. Can I be the lout who quotes Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech in an essay about '90s fashion? I'll be that lout. "We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society."

After my freshmen year of college, I spent a month in Paris, enrolled in a French immersion program. I packed my XOXO dragon skirt, wore it nearly every other day, felt and loved how it clung to my body, plumper from a year of finally being responsible for my own eating choices and a meal program that allowed me to eat as much cereal, whipped-cream-covered waffles, and syrup-drenched french toast as my heart desired. I had occasional impetuous urges to steal that were mostly curbed by how logistically difficult it was to swipe a baguette from a tiny, family-owned boulangerie, and furthermore by how wrong it felt to try.

When my parents and little brother came to visit me for a few days, I stayed in their dormitory room, which was located in one of the better resident halls of Cité Universitaire, where I also stayed. Their room was far nicer and cleaner than mine and even had a private bathroom.

What I wanted to say was how it felt to grow up in a country that indicated to me everything from the country I was born in looked good on anyone but me.

You stay here, my mom said, after we leave in the morning. Take a shower, take a dump. It'll be more pleasant than doing it in the communal bathroom. So I did. I took a shower. I took a dump. I took another shower. I was late to my morning class and left a scattered assortment of clothes that I had brought over: a pair of loose, sheer, yellow pajama-style capri pants (I know, I know), a three-quarter-sleeved pastel paisley shirt with a flappy pair of neckties I usually left loose, and my XOXO dragon skirt. When I came back, the room was locked. I had missed check-out, and housekeeping had already swept the room. I asked the front desk if there was a lost and found, but was told gruffly that it was up to the individual housekeeper who cleans the room to decide what to do with stuff that has been left behind.

Sometimes, the man at the front desk told me, it goes straight to the dump.

I found the housekeeper on duty and asked her if she had seen a dragon skirt, using my fingers to draw in the air the swirl of the dragon's tail.

Un jupe brun? I said, botching the French, becoming increasingly shrill and desperate. Est-ce que vous avez vu?

Non, she said.

I went outside with the intention of dumpster-diving for my skirt. It was gone.

Back home at my parents' house in Long Island, I went to the XOXO store in Roosevelt Mall and scoured the racks, even though years had passed since I had bought the skirt.

Do you ever make the same item again? I asked a salesgirl behind the counter.

Dunno, she said. Probably not.

It was 2002. Mandarin collars, dragon mesh T-shirts, Chinese Laundry sandals, chopsticks stuck into buns with a few spikes of hair pulled out, cheongsam dresses — they were all on their way out. A year prior, my family, like so many other families in New York on September 11th, desperately tried to reach my father on his cell phone, knowing that he had to pass under the World Trade Center to get to his office in a neighboring building. In another year, I would be participating in an emergency protest and teach-in on the Stanford Quad after George W. Bush announced he was sending ground troops into Iraq. The kids who used to think my name was shit were now shitting on names like Osama and Mohammed, while sporting nonsensical Arabic tattoos instead of nonsensical Chinese characters. It was the end of one era, but also the continuation of a world in which we had always lived, except it was becoming increasingly clear to me who, exactly, was permitted to be free.

When I was caught shoplifting from Bloomingdale's the summer before starting university, one of the things they threatened me with was a lifetime ban from the store. If you ever step foot in this store, the security guard said to me, there will be a warrant out for your arrest. Still, years later, when I drive to Roosevelt Mall with my mother in the cold, wet season, we park outside the Bloomingdale's, and as we're walking past the hosiery and the hats and the jewelry and the makeup counters to get to the "outside" of the inside of the mall, I sometimes feel the smallest of thrills. The thrill of getting away with something. The thrill of no longer being trapped.

Jenny Zhang is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. She's the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and the chapbook Hags. Her collection of short stories is forthcoming from Random House in 2017.


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