If you are into fashion or following news in Asia, you might have read that D&G cancelled a huge fashion show few hours before its launch in Shanghai. The brand and its designers received a backlash of their misbehavior and racist comments on social media. One main event on the timeline is that the company released a series of promotional videos in which an Asian, presumably Chinese, girl dressing in a glamorous red dress and clumsily using chopsticks to eat pizza and pasta, reinforcing the stereotype of submissive and innocent-to-stupid Asian girls. The audience on Chinese social media weibo was outraged for multiple reasons: the outdated stereotype, the male voiceover mispronouncing “Dolce&Gabbana” and making misogynistic jokes, and, seemingly incomprehensible to people from non-Asian culture, the appropriation of chopsticks to eat Italian food.

It was perceived as a mockery of how poorly the East and the West met in the growing market of consumption in China, therefore, not funny but offensive.

It reminds me of an assignment from Writing for the Public Realm, a class I took two years ago in Design Studies program. “Write and post a 750-word critique of a work of design, or an object from daily life, taking into account its social, political, and/or material context.” And I wrote about chopsticks. In a sentimental tone, I reflected how surprised I was when learning that many in New York have learned how to use this utensil, and I somehow mourned that this is no more unique to me.

As I re-read it a few days ago, I started to understand the confusion my classmates and possibly Susan felt back in 2016. I was not talking about design, at least not in a traditional way. I was using an object as a medium of cultural shock and disconnections. In the essay, I also mentioned that when I was sharing food with someone who doesn’t use chopsticks in his culture, I was occasionally shocked by how different we interpret a historical event, and my opinion was always considered less valued, because the country I grew up in does not have unlimited access to information.

Could I write this essay better now? Maybe. I would clarify and shorten some sentences, but I don’t want to change any main idea. My struggles of providing or getting sufficient context to confidently express myself as a non-American, a minority, and a student of design discipline will continue. Rather than thinking I haven’t acquired enough knowledge, I often find myself trying to fill the gap between political/cultural reflections and the discourse of design. While design thrives with technological innovations, our critical thinking sometimes remains to be under a culturally dominant framework.

My current project IN SYNC invites Asian female designers to tell their stories of dealing with the identity crisis. In the session of “self-knowledge”, there is one takeaway:” Sometimes you can free yourself if you don’t label your own decisions and preferences with external factors, e.g. identities, region of birth.” It is very difficult to switch from a mindset of collectivism to one of individualism, and I feel keeping open-minded alike practicing one's muscle, it's demanding. But these conversations are empowering because they are told by an Asian female to a group of Asian females. To free from an identity one has to acknowledge it first.

So boldly, I believe there’s no neutral perspective, and it has been always political. Without addressing them, one might as well stay in the bubble that design equals beauty.

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.