By Phoebe Suh '18
Buried in an album is a photo of my family from 2003. The four of us stand on the deck
of a ship, smiling into the Caribbean sunset, and on the far left stands my mother in her qipao, a traditional Chinese dress. Black silk sheaths her body from high collar to ankle-length hem, bound by two lines of crimson piping. Scattered over the fabric are embroidered branches of red plum blossoms. Three frog closures hold the front of the garment shut. Perhaps it’s the dress, or perhaps it’s my imagination, but I like to think that, standing there in the photo, my mother might pass for an Old World beauty.
She never wore a qipao again, and I understand why. My mother immigrated to the U.S.
from Taiwan in 1966, when she was two years old. She was the only Asian at her Nashville high school, at the Boston law firm where she held her first job, and in the DC neighborhood where my older brother was born. My mother’s ethnicity marked her as different the day she arrived in the U.S., and she has struggled to escape her otherness ever since. In 1975, escape meant developing a southern accent to match that of her classmates; in 2003, it meant consigning her qipao to the closet. My mother decided that year that it was easier to hide her heritage behind a row of old coats than it was to appear a Susie Wong among Americans. Assimilation comes at a price, and my mother paid with her qipao. She taught me to do the same—I don’t own a single piece of traditional clothing.
But some days, I fear that I have assimilated too far, that my English and my blue jeans
might destroy whatever is left of me. At those times, I exhume the qipao from the closet. The satin is smooth and cool and catches on my rough hands. It slides over my shoulders with a soft rustle. Of course, the dress isn’t mine, so it fits all wrong. The waist and the bust gape; the hip clings and puckers. The fit doesn’t matter, though. What matters is the high collar, the frogs, the plum-blossom print. When I see these details in the mirror, I know that even when English has stolen the last word of my mother tongue from my lips, my mother’s qipao will still be there to remind me of my identity, one final, physical testament to my heritage.
After a minute, I slip out of the dress and return it to the closet. My mother chose to assimilate, and this is where her qipao belongs.
I, however, have made a different choice. I am tired of paying for a right that should already be mine: the right to be considered American. I was born and raised on U.S. soil; there is nothing for me to prove. So I refuse to hide my heritage inside of a closet. No one will ever wear my mother’s qipao again. But one day, I will have my own, one that fits me as well as my mother’s fit her in the photo, and I will wear it whenever I want, because I am American, and I am Asian as well. To choose between the two is to choose between two halves of myself.