I am a Filipino American. My mom was born in The States and my dad came here from Bontoc, Philippines when he was four years old, only knowing his native language, Kanakaney. My father always told my family and me stories of his childhood, many were of his life assimilating in America. When he was in school, he had a hard time learning English, so his teachers told my grandparents to stop speaking his native tongue at home. Soon, him and his siblings only knew English. When immigrating to America, so much of our Filipino identity is lost. Many face discrimination, and were either forced to or wanted to assimilate into American culture, losing our identities of being a Filipino. For a myriad of reasons first generation migrants may be either unable or unwilling to continue these traditions onto their children. Such reasons could be traumas associated with migration, war, colonialism/colonial mentality, socioeconomic factors, and more. With that, we forget the histories, language, and traditions; we even dress and look differently to assimilate. Since colonization, we’ve had parts of our culture taken away, with many arts practices on the edge of extinction.
Today, many Filipinos grow up in America knowing more about American culture than their own Filipino culture. I meet many Filipino Americans that do not see the value of keeping their Filipino culture alive. Maybe it is there, but it could be overshadowed by other things, or may their latent desire may remain unsparked even because of the lack of cohesive communities and community resources. I am like many Filipinos Americans in Chicago that did not grow up around other Filipinos. Growing up, there were such a lack of other Filipino students and faculty in my schools that I would often think of myself as “just Asian”, and I was even told by Filipinos that I am “not Filipino enough” because I don’t speak Tagalog. Because of these and many other reasons, people in my generation often feel lost and question their roots and identity. It wasn’t until my late high school years, where I became prideful of who I was. Although my parents are Americanized, my dad was very connected to our Igorot heritage. I was not just proud of being a Filipina, I was proud to be Igorotak.
I want to encourage young people like me to really dig into their family’s heritage and to proudly wear it on their sleeves. Just as my dad would wear a bahag, when all the other Filipino men wore barongs. I am one of many Filipinos in my generation wanting to reclaim our roots, and to continue cultural practices and teachings that were previously lost. This photo series seeks to honor our ancestors and to reclaim the significance of traditional, cultural attire by incorporating such pieces with our everyday wear. I want to normalize the act of wearing our peoples’ clothing, without being seen as a “costume” or something that is only to be worn for a Filipino-specific celebration, and to continue the practice of wearing and passing down our families’ clothing, a piece of our own history. The Pinays in this project show that our islander clothing can still be worn in Chicago’s very cold winter. For those of us who often feel as though we are caught between cultural identities - that of our ancestors and that which we currently live in - doing so demonstrates embracing our roots, being proud of where we came from, and ultimately, the importance of hanging onto, celebrating and propagating our families’ cultures.
Ethiopian & Eritrean
Elsa Redi Medhin
I want to share the stories of my people through my lens-whether that be through my hairstyle, my clothes or my jewelry. These are just the physical ornaments of my culture but hold important meaning and history. Both my parents are from Eritrea, my father is from the city of Asmara and my mother is from the village of Aseb. I would be considered first generation Eritrean American. To me that means as much as I am American, I am Eritrean. Geographically speaking, Eritrea lies in the Horn of Africa right above the more commonly known Ethiopia. Eritrea comprises of nine ethnic groups and we represent Tigrinya. Each group has a certain style or colors that pertain to them. The gabi (clothing) draped over my shoulders and hair is called a netela, habesha women wear this to cover their hair during church service, on holy ground or in celebration, it’s also an addition to the 3 part formal wear, and a staple in older women’s everyday wear. Gabi’s are large and typically have tibeb (colorful and intricate designs). Kidan habesha (Eritrean/Ethiopian dress) is a traditional dress in our culture. It’s handmade out of cotton and also worn to weddings or church services. This particular dress I wore is what Tigrinya women would wear, quite conservative but I put my own lil twist by pairing some creepers and adding gold werki (jewelry) to stand out. The colors red, green, yellow and blue not only represent our national flag, these colors are valuable individually. I wear at least one of these colors daily and I feel as though I have a little piece of my country with me at all times. But I’d also like to point out that although I have all the privilege and opportunity that comes with being an American I oftentimes find myself more comforted with my own culture and surrounded by my community. I grew up with the values instilled by my Eritrean parents and those same values instilled by theirs. We are truly people of resilience and beauty. Growing up I did not have spaces where I could embrace this outside of my home or with my own people. I was taught to be prideful in private. I’m a bit older now and I’ve taken upon myself to reclaim my roots.I’m Eritrean and I don’t give a fuck about the standard of beauty in this country and I don’t want to hear what you have to say unless it’s coming from a place of love. I will wear these clothes in public, I will rock my mother’s jewelry and wear my braids in confidence. I am a multidimensional woman balancing both of my identities, and I will not be put into a box.
I don’t believe I have to choose when I accept I’m multidimensional and I embrace my two identities. This is my culture and I want to share it.
My Culture Is Not Your Costume
In America today, assimilation and Westernization means the practice of wearing culturally significant clothing has largely disappeared from view. We save our qipaos, only for specific celebrations among our immediate communities. Meanwhile, clothing retailers steal and appropriate our designs, disrespecting and removing them from their intimate context. As a result, our traditional clothes are often seen as costumes, perpetuating the problem idea that ethnic heritage is both a sign of foreign “otherness” to be ashamed of for certain populations, yet also available for other people to take under the pretense of being “edgy”. This photo series seeks to reclaim the significance of traditional, cultural attire by incorporating such pieces with everyday streetwear. For those of us who often feel as though we are caught between cultural identities - that of our ancestors and that which we currently live in - doing so demonstrates embracing our roots, being proud of where we came from, and ultimately, the importance of hanging onto our family’s culture.
"So what I’m wearing is a qipao, which is a traditional Chinese dress from the 1920’s. It actually has a cool history with women’s liberation movements in China: the qipao echoes the style of a changshan, which was a robe only men were allowed to wear for centuries. So the qipao represented a promotion of gender equality, as women also called for the end of bound feet and began cutting their long hair off. At the same time, the qipao very much emphasizes the feminine figure with its form fitted-ness, which also led to its popularity among women. To me that’s really cool, because the dress both symbolizes gender equality and femininity as empowerment, to be enjoyed by and for powerful women.My JiaJia, or grandma on my moms side, gave me the qipao I’m wearing. I’ve never gotten to wear it before - though qipaos used to be an everyday item of clothing, I’ve only gotten to wear them and see them at special occasions like Chinese New Year or community dances. Which makes me sad, especially when I see Halloween stores sell cheap mimics of qipaos, or Urban Outfitters use some vaguely brocade-like material to make “Asian-inspired pinafores.”Like, why is isn’t cool for someone like me - who knows the significance, the intimacy, and treasures the value of this clothing in its traditional form - to wear a qipao, and all the sudden it’s so popular if some random white girl wears some cheap polyester knock off? Why does do other perceive my wearing of a qipao as “super Asian,” while others get to just be “cool and edgy?”
So getting to incorporate my moto jacket and docs was awesome for me, because i think it precisely showed how the qipao is both feminine and badass, not just delicate. It let me show how my wearing of the qipao doesn’t have to be merely traditional - styles of wearing it have come a long way and as a descendent I can continue that. And it let me feel like I could show off and be proud of such a culturally significant piece, and thus embrace and be proud of my own heritage as a daughter of Chinese Immigrants."
Chinese New Year
This photo series, "Acclimate Not Assimilate" seeks to honor our ancestors and to reclaim the significance of traditional, cultural attire by incorporating such pieces with our everyday wear. For those of us who often feel as though we are caught between cultural identities - that of our ancestors and that which we currently live in - doing so demonstrates embracing our roots, being proud of where we came from, and ultimately, the importance of hanging onto, celebrating and propagating our families’ cultures.
Kelly Mei Luu is a Chinese/Vietnamese American, who chose to incorporate Jade stone in her fashion.
"To the Chinese, the Jade stone is an embodiment of the Confucian values: courage, wisdom, justice and compassion. You’re given a piece of Jade to wear when you are born as a symbol of goodness, preciousness and beauty. We strive to represent the stone itself: purity from its polish, intelligence from its hardness, and justice from its angles. It really is an honor and a precious moment when I am passed a piece of Jade to wear from my grandmother. What I feel when I wear my grandmother’s Jade bangle and necklace truly reflects all the values I was raised upon. The desire to be pure, just, and good is present.”