One Friday night, my boyfriend and I walked toward a dark underpass in Korea’s second largest city. We’d had a late night out with friends at the beach, and were headed back to my apartment. I lit a cigarette and my boyfriend threw his arm around me, leaning in for a smoky kiss.
As he breathed into my ear, we heard the unmistakable cries of salarymen out on the town for a night at the karaoke bar. I pulled away. We both walked faster, our eyes averted from the knot of three men headed in our direction.
One of the men stopped and stared at us. His face, flushed red with soju, turned purple. He rushed at my boyfriend, fists raised, swearing in Korean and vowing to pummel the “American”. But my boyfriend wasn’t the American, I was – the boyfriend was English. We stood paralyzed as the man rushed at him, spitting words into the space between them. The man’s two friends dragged him away and they struggled on into the night. Everyone there knew if we raised a finger against the locals it wouldn’t end well for the foreigners.
Foreigner. Stranger. An outcast with strange eyes.
It’s easy to feel the freak in a place where one’s skin, clothing and features are stared at or patted or giggled at everywhere outside of expat cafes and bars. When I had moved to Korea several months before, I wrote about the children shouting at me in the street, and diners who marveled that I could eat spicy Korean food with steel chopsticks. One friend replied: “Now you know what it feels like to be a minority.” A black lesbian who’s finally found her home in San Francisco, she knows all about the many ways there are to be different. And how rare acceptance can be.
She was right. For the first time it hit me, raised middle-class in a Midwestern metropolis that claimed to be color-blind but of course wasn’t ? that only those who belong to mainstream culture have the luxury to believe the lie that we belong to a kind of human template. I realized the shape of my face, the color of my skin and eyes and hair represents something to everyone I meet. And for some, I am not welcome. In a place like Korea, with its history of tensions with my home country, my nationality has stirred resentment with local colleagues. Every time they looked at me, every time I spoke, I reminded them of their hatred for my country.
Some people have their idea of what a Real American looks like, and I don’t always fit. A Lao boat driver once peered beneath my hat. ?Your parents are both American?? he said doubtfully. ?You have black hair like Lao!?
Others are provoked by dress. Here in Australia people have a penchant for screaming out their car windows at strangers. On cold nights I’ll wear a scarf over my head and it’s been mistaken for a hijab. Then I get a specially high rate of incomprehensible shouters.
This video explores the tangle of cultures, identities, appropriations and transformations that occur in western fetishitization of Asian cultures a.k.a. Orientalism:
As I write I wear a pair of decorative Chinese coin earrings my father once bought on the streets of San Francisco; a silk tunic tailored in the back streets of Hue, Vietnam; a wedding ring from Chiang Mai; I bring an umbrella with me everywhere to protect from the sun and rain, a habit learned in Hong Kong. Some may call this Cultural Drag, that I’m wearing items from cultures that don’t belong to me.
When does this appropriation cross the line from being a natural offshoot of the life of a perpetual traveler like me, to becoming a costume?
When it becomes art.
Last year I walked through The Lanes in Hong Kong lined with cheap satin cheongsam, and as usual never gave them a second glance. Instead I opened the doors to Shanghai Tang and tried on this one. Two layers of brilliant red silk slithered over my skin and encased me perfectly. As though the body it had been tailored for was mine. I had wanted to experience this style of clothing since I’d created the New Calendar Girl series two years before. These characters inhabited an imaginary city somewhere between St. Petersburg and Shanghai. White Russians and red Communists and black marketeers and spies mingled in a decadent society where anything seemed possible yet everything was broken beneath a paper-thin surface.
To flesh out my characters in paint I wanted to feel how the fabric can move, pull and tug at a woman’s posture, sense how it restricts movement and gives confidence. I’ve worn it while painting, I’ve worn it for reference shots for my paintings, and once I even wore it at the beach in Sydney for my profile photo.
But I will never wear it in public again – save for masquerades like Hallowe’en.