On Chopsticks and the Personal Politics of Design

 
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On November 21st, 2018, Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana were forced to cancel their “Great Show” right before its launch on November 21 in Shanghai. The reason for this sudden cancellation was a commercial for the brand’s “D&G Loves China” campaign which aimed to reach the lucrative the Chinese market. Dolce & Gabbana is the eponymous brand name for duo comprised of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana—the latter of whom demonstrated an unapologetic and controversial response to public outrage over the ad on social media. Gabbana’s response to an already heated situation further led to guest celebrities and models to withdraw attendance, which led to the cancellation of the promised “Great Show.”

The ads presented a Chinese model in a glamorous red dress trying to eat a variety of Western (i.e. popularized Italian) foods—pizza, spaghetti, and cannoli—with chopsticks. She occasionally laughed at her difficulties in picking up these foods, while hiding her mouth behind hand. She looked very shy. Her exaggerating clumsiness was meant to be ridiculous and funny, but the male narrator of the video provides patronizing and clueless suggestions like "don't attempt to use the chopsticks as knives" while she keeps poking at the abnormally huge plate of food. The ad, by design, leaves the audience with the choice of two feelings: humiliation after witnessing the reinforced stereotype of submissive and innocent-to-stupid Asian girls or confusion as to what message the video was even sending.

Among all the reasons for the outrage that prevailed in both the Mandarin and English-speaking Asian community, the least relatable to someone who’s not familiar with Asian culture is that people are offended by the ad because it is appropriating chopsticks for Italian cuisine. Chopsticks are the symbol of Chinese national pride, after all. This exemplifies the ignorance and cultural misunderstandings of the luxury design industry, and makes us aware of the changes it needs to make in response to a globalizing market—especially in terms of communications as certain buying markets (here specifically referring to China) require culturally customized messages and products in response to their growing economy and buying power. The traditional tactic of winning customers’ hearts by adding some local decorative elements to the original product/service will be considered half-hearted or even aggressively rejected.

Designed products are political. Take chopsticks for example. I recall a few years ago when I first landed in the US from China, the feeling of disappointment when walking around Chinatown and witnessing everyone’s mastery of chopsticks—Chinese or not. I thought the practice was unique to some Asian cultures but had lost its symbolic meaning in such a diverse place. I secretly mourned for losing something I thought was mine. Since then, chopsticks are not a homesick reminder of my country, but rather the object continually represents the feelings of culture shock and disconnection I experienced daily.

Chopsticks also witness a special kind of friendship. In Korea, chopsticks are made of iron so they won’t take in the smell of pickled vegetables, while in China and Japan, most chopsticks are made of wood. The world of chopsticks as objects is narrowed down into the category of one type of utensil based on their utility, and I wonder if the same principle applies to the fact that my Korean friend and I shared the same ambiguous identity as being “Asian” in America, even though its political and ethnological meanings vary from one mind to another. Being “Asian” has utility, too, mostly in conversations of equal rights where the Asian diaspora is narrowed down to a uniform group of people seeking the same things. It seems to matter less how one individual’s character differs from another.

Intellectuals in the field of design prefer to step away from identity conversations so that their work won’t be evaluated on their nationality or cultural origins. I can’t help but wonder if this type of self-protection will generate a psychological mysophobia of personal stories, leaving design studies an empty field, supposedly to be filled with efforts of inviting marginalized groups into the conversation? Can we still hold the assumption that we can talk about design without considering its political context? If design professionals have certain responsibilities to society, then accepting one's identity (or proactively making changes to improve these identities) as a minority shall be part of the conversation.

After graduating from the MA Design Studies program at Parsons, I started a panel series called IN SYNC, inviting Asian female designers to tell their stories of their experiences with identity crisis, how they communicate using a second language, what helped them to overcome self-doubt, and how do these experiences assist them in their design practice? I expected a singular group of people in the audience, but the turnout was more than “Asian.” The experience of being marginalized or living as a minority is quite universal, as long as there is a power dynamic, there will be a group potentially feeling oppressed.

The hope is that crisis is temporary. In a session on “self-knowledge,” a Chinese-born designer who studied in Finland and later worked in the US shared an anecdote with the audience:

When I was in Finland, one day I finally gave up socializing after 10 pm. I thought I would lose my friends since clubbing is a local social activity, and I was trying to fit in until that moment. But this was really not me, and I decided to quit. Surprisingly, I kept a few friends, and I made some new ones by staying true to who I am. The takeaway is that sometimes you can free yourself if you don’t label your own decisions and preferences with external factors such as identities or region of birth.

She experienced a process of which we can learn from to resolve identity crisis: recognize, address, have a new perspective.  

It is very difficult to switch from a mindset of collectivism to one of individualism, all while keeping oneself open-minded. It’s like working out a muscle; it's demanding. But these conversations are empowering because they are told by an Asian female to a group of Asian females in the audience, among others. To free yourself from the constraints of identity, you have to first acknowledge it.

The same day the Dolce & Gabbana show was canceled, the major Chinese television network CCTV published a high-quality video titled “Do You Really Understand Chopsticks?” featuring families from both the north and south, cities and suburbs, gathering together in celebration of the family. The video went viral, whoever was annoyed at the D&G ad found peace. But even now, I can’t help but wonder if chopsticks ever really belonged to me.

Why I started IN SYNC

 
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My intention of creating IN SYNC series started with my own experience as a resident of New York City.

It felt ironic to me that having worked in communications for over five years, I moved to New York from Shanghai and experienced miscommunication of all kinds, such as “I don’t understand what you are talking about”, or “I hear you but I don’t know if you mean it or not”, and on top of that “is it polite to say so?”.

It got even more confusing that my “identities” were created. The day I landed in America, I became a first generation immigrant, an Asian woman. None of these identities are immediately empowering. In fact they are the reasons that strangers on the street touch my hair or yell pick-up lines -- something I have never experienced before.

The strategy of self-empowering by simply celebrating an identity might easily fall into a trap — creating stereotypes of people who carry this identity. It might simplify the historically and culturally contextualized misunderstanding and disconnections. That’s why finding a role model is so difficult -- it’s hard to tell from one’s look or origin that which path he/she takes: celebrating whoever this person is, or joining a party so that he or she won’t be oppressed by this party, and instead oppress others.

A few weeks ago, the founder of a new product management program invited me to audit one of his classes. When I entered the room, a 29-year-old man in the familiar blue gingham button-down was cursing throughout his presentation. He felt necessary to constantly mention his dating app experience, and in a way of describing preys, he told everyone he has “a thing on Korean girls.”

After 30 minutes repetitive teaching, he presented a photo of Matt Damon with his wife, and in a scornful tone, he said this woman was a bartender before getting married (Google told me she was an air hostess). As everyone started to be confused about how this related to a product management class, he made his planned “joke”: “See? A product needs to meet your customers’ potential needs.” 

There were five women in the room, including myself, and nobody said anything until the same offensive slide showed up again. I was too furious not to interrupt. Later I realized that part of my revulsion comes from the fact he has a Chinese face — just like me. For the record, misogyny exists in the culture that I’m familiar with, as it does in many patriarchal societies, but this particular pattern that men can treat peer women as talking objects and even find it funny is similar to what American movies portrait all the time -- most recently, in Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman (btw, it’s a very good movie, you should watch it).

It’s easy to recognize sexism, racism or any “-ism” that discriminates certain groups over others, but actually dealing with them is hard and many choose to look the other way. I met a girl at the class mentioned above, who’s an unpaid intern at that program. Regarding the insulting slide, she responded, quoting her boyfriend, “if it doesn’t apply, let it fly.”

Some choose to reject every single time when they feel attacked. A smart young Asian American girl landed her first job in a tech company after gaining a degree from an Ivy League school, she is irritated by all unthoughtful behaviors from her male colleagues -- some are older than her, and did not receive their education in the context of such a high level of social awareness -- while she is brave enough to report to HR or confront with inappropriate doings, she is exhausted, frustrated, and losing interest in her reasonably good job. When trust among a team is deconstructing in the office, who can tell their true thoughts or feelings anymore? Anxiety exists in not only those who cry for a change but also in those who are willing to walk out from their privileged comfort zone, to take in pains of others and improve the situation.

On top of determination, we need tools and tactics to create sustainable conversations. And it doesn’t have to be perfect.

When writing an article for T Magazine on the super popular movie Crazy Rich Asians, I had at least three times in an Asian restaurant hearing Asians girls next to me talking about the movie. They looked excited and emotional, and every now and then I would catch the phrase “I had never…” I guess they were describing this emotional celebration of awakening — that rarely they would be proud of the fact that they are Asian — and I felt connected, too.

I was intrigued by the fact that this romcom is politically incorrect in many layers, yet because it was able to capture the subtlety of cultural conflicts experienced by an ethnic group, it is more effective in demonstrating media representations than an attempt that tries to be absolutely correct, objective, or complete. Full article in Chinese here.

As IN SYNC series about to kick off, I come across the decision whether to make it exclusive to a certain group, for example, women or Asians. It would be much easier to tell who IN SYNC serves, but it would risk repeating internal conversations that have little impact on a large scale. A language that one only speaks with families doesn’t obtain political power due to its lack of professional vocabulary, therefore, the heritage it carries would remain as a subculture.

Rather than asking how you identify yourself, I’d like to ask you what value you stand for. If you see what I see, if you believe that aside from two attitudes -- complete ignorance vs. devoting your life into fighting -- there is a third option that we can establish our unique communication styles to empower ourselves in the professional world, please join me in articulating tactics, tools, and relatable takeaways to equip ourselves with skills and confidence to express, to empathize, to build trust with whoever we want to work and live with.

IN SYNC is a community of genuine and open-minded people.