Monday, April 27, 2015

PhD Adventures: Inscrutably Oriental--Some Sartorial Observations on Intention and Reaction

Some of you readers may be familiar with my steampunk magistrate outfit that I've worn to conventions across North America:

This is not me; this is the designer, Jeanette Ng.
I look like this, as well you know, or should.

I commissioned this in 2010 from the Costume Mercenary, a history-graduate-student-moonlighting-as-designer for Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) outfits. The idea was this: the character I was gestating would be a magistrate for one of China’s colonies in Maritime Southeast Asia, most likely one of the Malay sultanates (present-time Malaysia, where I am from). Chinese traders had established their own port communities since the 1400s at least, and until China closed its borders after the Zheng He expeditions, clearly had imperialist ambitions abroad. The character would be a lead in a LARP game Ay-Leen the Peacemaker and I had thought up. 

The game would involve my character accusing Ay-leen’s partner of smuggling opium into the colony, and Ay-leen would lead the players through the game, collecting clues to both clear her partner’s name, and educate the players about the extent of the Opium Wars that led to the establishment of a British colony in what is now Hong Kong. 

Although the LARP Game never happened (I'm still holding out that it will, though), I still wore the outfit to steampunk conventions across Canada and the United States, firstly out of a sense of satisfaction with how fantastic the whole outfit is, secondly to kickstart conversation in which I talk about the Opium Wars and of Chinese diaspora communities, and thirdly to embody what steampunk could look like when divorced from the Victorian aesthetic. 

Now, if you read this blog, you presumably know a bit about steampunk, so you know that roleplaying a steampunk persona, or a “steamsona,” is very popular, because it gives newcomers a thematic idea around which to start building their costume. One goes in or out of character to steampunk events, and theoretically, if all else fails in finding things in common to talk about, we can always ask each other about our steamsonas. 


Because convention spaces are a rush of people trying to get from event to event, and also because attendees are socially awkward nerds, one is also likely to speak at length about one’s costume, forgetting to ask one’s interlocutor about their own costume as well. 

I love you all very much, but let's not mince words here, this is a thing! And I, too, am guilty of this. 

There is a disconnect between what I think I am communicating with my outfit, and what other people are reading from it. In all the conventions I have attended wearing this outfit, exactly one person understood it enough to exclaim at me, “does that necklace have exactly one hundred and eight beads?” 

In his articulation of this problem, in a lovely book called Fashion Theory: An Introduction, Malcolm Barnard interrogates the idea that clothing can send “secret messages” through the analogy of telecommunications. There is a tension in the space between sender and received, which he calls “noise,” that creates an anxiety, on both ends, on whether the right message is being sent or received. The lack of cultural knowledge that Barnard touches on permeates this noise, adding or subtracting from the cues of what could be passed, and sounding completely different to each person. 

This probably accounts for the tension I feel around other Chinese people in this outfit; a recognition of something that should be familiar, but has been defamiliarized for a variety of reasons, without the words of exact knowledge to articulate how or why. I once passed by a restaurant on the street wearing this outfit, and when I looked in through the glass wall of this restaurant, I found a whole host of Asian elders looking at me. I still wish I knew what they were thinking. 

This is probably also the psychology behind how a white man, who I ended up trapped in an elevator with, decided that the best compliment at the moment was, “nice geisha outfit.” 

This is not necessarily a breach of etiquette: if one sees another wearing a lab coat with all sorts of laboratory accoutrements attached, one might say, “nice mad scientist outfit,” because those items all belong in the category of ideas associated with the mad scientist. Because we are socially awkward, we might not ask questions, for fear of looking ignorant. Much like in the game of Chinese whispers, no one can just state what they think they are hearing volubly, no one thinks to ask for clarification, everyone fills in the gaps of the message with their own words, there are mumblers and murmurers, and thus the person at the end of the line hears something completely different from the original statement.

If my outfit was a category of ideas, from my end, one might summarize it as “a Chinese magisterial woman wielding moral and legal authority as representative of the Imperial bureaucracy.” This requires the receiver to remember that China was an imperial power, with its own justice systems and symbols thereof. Without this key component, the phrase becomes, “a Chinese magisterial woman wielding moral and legal authority as representative of the Imperial bureaucracy.” In the larger context of North American race relations, the ability to differentiate between cultural outfits of Asia is not common, so the phrase becomes “a Chinese an Asian woman.” This Asian woman, however, is clearly wearing something ethnic, something formal. 

When I queried the man as to why he assumed I was wearing a geisha outfit, he clearly panicked, and backpedaled: “your shoes.” 

Ah, my shoes. These shoes, from Foamthreads, which I bought in a Hamilton store, meant for indoor wear and the exact kind of old-lady patterns I like a lot. A pattern I might see in Malaysia, which is very far away from Japan. These shoes:

They were on sale for $25!
I suppose it looks reasonably Asian. The generous reading of his reading on his end, therefore, is that he had no other point of reference for “an Asian woman wearing silk, beads, gold shoes, and makeup” besides “a geisha,” which does contain the generic connotation of “beautiful Asian woman” in North America, but also, unfortunately for him, me, and everyone else in the elevator, the stereotypical connotation of “a beautiful Asian woman providing entertainment and occasionally sexual services to an elite class.”  

In the liminal space of the elevator, all these ideas floated about in ideological combat, expressed in the silence of the man’s confusion at whether he had said something wrong, everyone else’s faint embarrassment at the exchange or at not knowing whether he had said something wrong, and if he had, what it was, and my refusal to explain what had gone wrong with the pleasantry. 

The magisterial robe became inscrutably Oriental, its whispers unheard. 

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