My memories of my early childhood in China are populated with beautiful dresses. Back then, we could afford to buy the clothes I wanted, but my mother insisted on making her own designs. She was a fan of frills, A-line silhouettes, matching sets. She loved delicate pinks and purples. But they all turned brown when I ran to play with my best friend, a boy with dirt on his face like me but who was unburdened by girlhood.
I still remember the itch of lace on my neck. I hear the whirring of my mother’s sewing machine and the clack of her typewriter, a sound capsule of the days she spent writing statistics textbooks while designing my clothes. I smell mothballs and cotton, the latter sitting by the ream at her side. And every Sunday night, my squeals of discomfort and her pleas for patience as she fitted me with her new creation.
I resented those dresses. I wanted to run and jump without my skirt floating up. I wanted to fly my kite without adjusting my sleeves. I longed for the freedom that had been given my best friend, that I had been inexplicably denied.
Clothes came from my father, too. But they were never handmade. My father was an English professor, a teacher and avid student of Dickens, and a passionate critic of the Chinese government. He brought home pale-skinned guests with gifts for me – tops emblazoned with impossible-to-understand letters such as ‘Chanel’. Guests were ‘British’ and ‘American’, my father said, and their gifts were typically worn by ‘rich people’. I didn’t know what this meant, but I treasured the tops. All that mattered was that the Western separates were more comfortable. To be American was to be as free as a boy.
This, as it turned out, held some truth. When I was five, my father left China for New York, in continued frustration with the government that persecuted his family, and later forbade him and others from acknowledging the country’s dark history. Days after I turned seven, desperate to keep our family intact, my mother and I followed him on visas that expired too quickly. Inside two black suitcases were all the belongings that would shelter us in our new life. My dolls, new bike and many of the dresses my mother had made were left behind in a storage locker three hours outside Beijing. The childhood that might have been.
America untied me from the laces of girlhood. The realities of life as an undocumented immigrant liberated me from weekly dress fittings. Clothes became utilitarian, and whatever I wore, I wore for a week. I stuck to dark colours – to hide stains – and big sizes from the 99-cent store.
Like fear of deportation, the ugly clothes accompanied me everywhere. I wore them on the subway, where I ran from anyone in uniform. I wore them while other kids ate ice cream as I picked through bins for furniture, my stomach snarling. I wore them as my white teacher called me up to the front of the class in my Chinatown school, wrinkled his nose and asked me why I wore the same clothes every day. I wore them still in the sweatshop, where I slumped with my mother for 10-12 hours at a time, calloused hands on silk and cashmere, my mother bent over the sewing machine that had once only been for fun on weekends.
She affixed labels and I snipped loose thread, earning one cent per item of clothing. The polyester we wore threw into relief the luxurious fabrics we laboured over. A pair of trousers that set my thighs aflame still burns in my mind. I couldn’t focus on anything except the itch. I spent much of my school day running to the bathroom to scratch with fervour, marking my legs with bloodied claw prints. I grew nostalgic for the irritation of lace.
Every September, I selected one pair of shoes from Payless ShoeSource that I’d wear for 365 days. In the annual ritual, I wandered around the store in agony, comparing near-identical trainers for hours until I settled on the pair I hoped would serve me the entire year. But no matter how carefully I chose, the shoes always smelled within months.
By the time the snow and salt of winter arrived, my growing feet rubbed through parts of the fabric, loosening threads and creating escape valves for the odour. In class, I sat with my feet folded under my chair, all too conscious of the smell as I stared at the pretty girls in their new frilly dresses. It was in that freedom from girlhood that I craved the rustle of tulle under my skirt, polka dots on a coordinated set, the knowledge that I’d honoured a special day by wearing a new outfit. It was a privilege that I recognised too late.
Over the next decades, as I managed to claw out of that ditch of poverty – working 40 hours a week at several part-time jobs while juggling university and applying to law school – what came to define my clothing was not those joys. They had been impossible to manufacture after the fact, across the expanse of geography and trauma. Instead, fashion became armour against the past I wanted to hide, moulded by identities I longed to shed: poor, illegal, Chinese.
By the time I graduated from an elite law school, I’d spent three years studying the US upper crust while lying about my origins. In those years, I learnt that ‘riding’ referred to horses, not bicycles. ‘Yachting’ and ‘travelling’ qualify as legitimate passions. There were students who did not have jobs but who instead sent laundry out and brought in maid service. Most of all, that there were clothes I could use to gild myself, to conceal the blemishes of my past.
Upon receiving a bonus at a major law firm, I spent weeks researching designer bags, determined to invest in one to camouflage my outsider status. I homed in on three, assessing the likelihood that someone might come to suspect each was my only designer item. When I’d made my decision – a gold-trimmed black Fendi satchel in textured leather – I walked to the store in £73 ($100) leggings, having been taught that the more casually dressed the customer, the better the luxury service. An observer might have thought that I had chosen the bag on a whim, without regard to price. Indeed, it was as if I were not the same woman who had studied its dollar-per-wear ratio, the girl who had attended elementary school in daily hunger, nor the person who had lied about her childhood for the decades since.
It would take more purchases of Louboutins, Chanel, Hermès and Prada before I found my way back to myself. For behind the thrill of adorning myself with status followed always a hollow sadness – the knowledge that my insides did not match my outside, that no matter the height of my Jimmy Choos, I could not stamp out the past I wished to escape. It was in that dark cave of luxury that I decided to stop scavenging outside myself, and start excavating within.
By the time of my wedding in 2019, I’d uncovered a sense of fashion that, for the first time, gave me home in my body. For the ceremony, I wore a white gown that incorporated my mother’s beloved lace while centring the freedom and sleek simplicity of which I had dreamed so many years ago.
For the reception, I chose an embroidered red and gold silk qipao that allowed for the vibrancy of our first dance and the richness of my heritage. And, of course, I wore designer stilettos with each dress, a mark of my new reality. It was among this menagerie – a collage of identities – that I stopped allowing fashion to define me and began to define my own fashion.
Bold colours now dominate my wardrobe: vibrant reds, neon yellows. I once would have run from these shades. But without the fear of being noticed as an imposter, the act of dressing has shifted from erasure to creation. My defences in remission, it’s my imagination that holds the reins, demanding that I wear a patterned H&M jumpsuit with Manolo Blahniks. My ensembles are a meeting place for who I was, who I hope to be and who I am. It is in that company that I discover myself, for the first time, revelling in the joys of girlhood.
Beautiful Country: A Memoir of An Undocumented Childhood by Qian Julie Wang is out now.
This article appears in the 2021 September issue of ELLE UK.
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