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In this piece I designed and made a pair of bi-directional glasses that has disparate messages inscribed on each piece—one reads, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, as quoted from the title of a WSJ article; the other reads, “Freedom of Speech”. Followed by a series of video clips posted on my Instagram account, depicting people choosing either side, or idly standing by, this piece aims to make a metaphoric social commentary.
Back in February, when COVID made its grandeur debut in my home country—populace cities were shut down, harsh quarantine measures were enforced nationwide, everyone, including most of my family back in China and me, was sieged by a mixture of disabling anxiety and fear—it had yet to claw its way to elsewhere in the world, and was thus considered to be largely a Chinese trouble that essentially troubles Chinese. Such was the circumstance when I first came across the jarringly gloating WSJ article, titled China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia, penned by a professor from my home school.
For anyone who’s interested, ‘Sick Man of Asia’, an archaic but notoriously famous racial slur for Chinese, was first coined by western colonists/imperialists during the semi-colonial period of China. To an international students from mainland China, the literal translation of ‘Sick Man of Asia’ has a similar effect the unspeakable word has on an African American person.
Well, so much for the background info. As a self-identified global citizen who enjoys a healthy dose of wry humor, my original reaction to this whole mess was—inspired by the ingenious reappropriation of the N-word by African American people—to grab the term and turn it into a name-brand, a tattoo, whatever, and to wear it with my friends at Bard. Then someone raised a legitimate concern—in doing so, we would, sort of, culturally appropriated the reappropriation, the honorable struggle of the African American people.
In an essentially indisputable way, cultural appropriation is a no-go. But for some reason I still don’t fully comprehend, freedom of speech/expression doesn’t seem to shelter cultural appropriation. Yet being obnoxiously mean to Chinese, and oftentimes, Asian Americans in general, usually wouldn’t be much of a problem, by virtue of freedom of speech.
Either being called out—largely due to international tidal shifts—or being censured by domestic political wisdom, as an individual who’s perpetually being regarded as an outsider, I had constantly found myself trapped in a stasis. This is the backstory this piece tries to divulge.
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