I'm Glad My Parents Dressed Me Like A FOB
By Victoria Lee
“You guys look like SUCH FOBs!” he laughed when he saw the picture of my sister and me as toddlers.
I chuckled too. Being the children of Chinese immigrants, my sister and I weren’t dressed in little 90s Anoraks, vintage Levis, or denim overalls. Instead of sporting a more child-friendly version of 90s fashion trends, my sister and I flaunted flamboyant styles more reminiscent of Chinese fashion.
If we had overalls, they were not denim, but pink or red, and probably made of a different material as well. Almost all of our clothing had crazy colors or patterns, and often times we seemed to look more like characters from a children’s show than normal kids in sweaters and patterned leggings.
Of course, there wasn’t a huge difference between us and the other kids, because most children’s fashion is pretty crazy anyways. People love to plaster their children in fun prints, Disney characters, and little costumes. Perhaps it is emblematic of how we see youth – less serious, more experimental, and less afraid about others’ opinions of us.
“Perhaps it is emblematic of how we see youth – less serious, more experimental, and less afraid about others’ opinions of us.”
As I grew older, the children in my town started to dress more seriously, and my style often diverged from the other students’. Part of it was because my father had (and still has) an addiction to Sears, and so I didn’t end up shopping at the same places the other kids in my town did. Their parents brought them to Justice, Aeropostale and other trendy stores for tweens, and my parents didn’t have a clue what those were. They were immigrants! They loved that they could buy a lawn mower, a new coffeemaker, and their kids’ clothing (which we were constantly outgrowing) in one quick trip to Sears. The clothes weren’t overpriced, were well made, and quite stylish, according to my parents’ taste. What else could you ask for? They had other things to worry about than getting me a way-too-expensive tank top that had the Justice or Aeropostale logos plastered over it.
And so did I. I honestly didn’t even consider the clothes I was wearing until middle school. I was busy living life as a kid – I read books, played outside with my friends, went to dance class and swim team practice.
In 7th grade, however, I realized I was different from the majority of the kids at my school.
I grew up in a suburban town filled with mostly white or Asian immigrant families, and I believe the rift between these two groups started to surface during my teenage years.
“They had other things to worry about than getting me a way-too-expensive tank top that had the Justice or Aeropostale logos plastered over it.”
In middle school, some concept of a “popular crowd” of kids emerged, and for some reason, most of those kids were white. I believe the popularity network was created based on a few factors: how attractive a person was, your friend network before middle school, and whether you participated in “cooler” sports. You could be a part of this “in” crowd through a few different ways: you could either be deemed attractive enough, you could try to work your way into the preexisting friend groups by emulating them, or you could engage in “cool kid” sports, like lacrosse or cheerleading.
These criteria seem insane as I am typing this as a 20 year-old, seven years later. But I can painfully remember how I and many others tried to win the favor of this group of children. I honestly still don’t know how this group was established.
As I said, one way to become accepted by this group was to try and mimic their lifestyle. In order to do this, some people sacrificed much to dress like the status quo. I remember one girl had more conservative immigrant parents who forbade her to wear tank tops — but tank tops and short shorts were all the rage, and so she would sneak into school and change her clothes, despite being afraid that her parents might catch her.
One of my friends told me that, since she grew up with a lot of the people who became popular, she was automatically chosen for this popularity cohort. However, her friends scolded her for not owning an Aeropostale shirt, and demanded she buy one. When she bought one that was black, they said, “that doesn’t count.”
I myself tried to jump on these trends. I forewent the beautifully patterned skirts my mother used to buy me for leggings that had the Victoria’s Secret Pink logo plastered on the waistband; I bought short shorts that were similar to the Hollister ones that everybody had.
Unfortunately, I could never have the Hollister ones, because they were too overpriced and too short for my parents. Moreover, they found my newfound taste in clothing to be bland and ill-fitting. My mother always wanted me to wear fancier, flashier clothing (more similar to the style in China), and I always scolded her in return.
“No one wears this stuff,” I’d roll my eyes. “I look like a child.”
Due to my parents’ limitations, I was never truly dressed the same as the popular circle. I looked much more like a knockoff— and to be very honest, my style was just a knockoff. It’s disappointing to me now that I couldn’t see the value in the beautifully detailed and bold outfits my mother always tried to get me to wear. In fact, I actually really enjoyed the clothing my parents bought me as a kid, but once I became a teenager and this popularity contest fired up, I just wanted to fit in.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the way the popular crowd dressed. It just wasn’t authentic to who I was or how I was raised. It was a part of the majority culture, and I wanted to assimilate, because I was uncomfortable with who I was.
I didn’t want to be a FOB-looking nerd anymore. I already felt like I stood out because the Asian circles in my town just never really overlapped with the white community, which is natural, but made me feel like an outcast. It was infuriating to me that I could not be in this group because I was Asian, which made me not pretty enough, not naturally involved in sports like lacrosse or cheerleading, and prevented me from being in these preexisting friend groups, due to the nature of who my parents were friends with. I was, admittedly the most insecure I have ever been, and wanted to draw my confidence from being popular — which is a form of fool’s gold in and of itself.
For those who might be doubting how the Asians in my community were considered “less attractive,” I have two anecdotes. First, there were a few Asians who did make it to the top of the “social ladder”, but usually they were said to be “the prettiest Asians in the grade”. I myself have been told “you’re really pretty, for an Asian” before. This implies that there is a lower bar of attractiveness for Asian people. Second, I remember talking to a friend who had a crush on a white boy in school, but dismissed her affections because she wasn’t “pretty enough to date a white guy.”
These were the feelings that undergirded my and many others’ relationship with fashion. We felt limited in our abilities to socialize, in our abilities to be valued, and in our desires to chase after our affections. Dressing like those popular kids was a way for us to transcend our race, our lack of access to these groups, and finally just feel like everybody else, with the same opportunities for happiness. So we gave up the way our parents dressed us, hid our differences, and did our best to make it work.
To be honest, it never really worked though. I never felt true to who I was.
Of course, middle school is a horribly vicious time. As we grew older, everyone in my grade grew more comfortable with themselves, and less people fed the idea of popularity.
As I got older and busier, I found fashion to be a way to redefine myself. I still didn’t want to come off as a FOB or nerd, but I gave up on dressing like the status quo. Instead, I turned towards embracing my uniqueness. I looked for other inspiration, following the fashion footsteps of my creative heroes — and somehow found myself back in a place similar to the bright and overstated looks my mother used to dress me in.
I scattered bold statement necklaces, bright colors, and ostentatious patterns into my clothing. I stopped caring about whether the clothing came from a popular store or not. I admired how one could stand out and emulate art by the clothing they wore, and I felt truly empowered as I carefully curated my outfits. I even started my own fashion magazine at my high school.
Sometimes my clothing would be dismissed as too fancy for school, but I would just shrug in response. Dressing for myself and welcoming the idea of looking different were major milestones to embracing myself. The more I did it, the less I cared about how I fit into the social hierarchy of others, and the more I felt like I knew who I was.
“Dressing for myself and welcoming the idea of looking different were major milestones to embracing myself.”
Eventually, I even came around to owning my identity as a “nerd”, and began admiring the stereotypical FOB style that some people laugh at Chinese people for. This past summer, I went to work in Shanghai, and I was blown away by the creativity of Chinese fashion. Americans need a camp-themed party to dress like a work of art, but in Shanghai people have a natural inclination to the ostentatious and artistic side of fashion. Nobody needed an occasion to wear a tulle-filled outfit or a dress drenched in gold sequins. Every store sold a different extravagant look, and even the malls seemed more like art museums than actual stores.
If you ever go to Shanghai, you’ll see that the city is drenched in a dazzling array of colorful lights. And then you’ll notice how remarkably the peoples’ fashion suits their city. All fashion has a context.
Ironically enough, when I asked my Shanghainese boss how she felt about American fashion (meaning the style of an average American, not the creations of American designers), she chuckled and commented on how bland it was. “Everyone just wears T-shirts and jeans! How boring,” she grinned.
Personally, I couldn’t help but agree. The way my mother taught me to dress is so much more fun.