Dispatch from Jaipur: Playing Dress Up

So this little khargosh managed to hop across the pond and...um...Eurasia for the summer for the AIIS Hindi program in Jaipur.  So far I can't recommend the program enough.  Jaipur is gorgeous, my home stay family is wonderful, and my professors are a dream come true (and that is no small compliment coming from a highly critical doctoral student in education and former public school teacher).

Unlike many of my fellow diasporic desis, I haven't spent much time in India, and my family was never the type to spend summers here.  Part of the reason for this trip was to transform my relationship with this country from theoretical to practical: while I have always loved the culture, I have never felt particularly comfortable talking about it or living it.  If I learn Hindi, well, that's a bonus.

As for the other people on my program... well... let's just say it's been interesting. 

So I seem to be surrounded by white Americans who are "fascinated" (ahem) by India.  Of course, as I learned long ago, the India that is in books is not the India that is in India.  Upon arrival, many of my classmates seem at loose ends about how to integrate themselves into the culture.  And so, they turn to that greatest of American coping mechanisms: consumption.

Most of the girls and some of the boys have spent serious times in shops like Fab India pimping themselves out in salwar kameez.  The program actually aids and abets this mentality - they say in orientation materials that women should be prepared to wear traditional clothes upon arrival.  However, regardless of what we're told, a simple look around makes me (an Indian) feel pathetic in my pajamas.  Pretty much all the middle class women here where exactly what I wear in the states: kurtas and jeans.  I don't really mind wearing salwars - they're much cooler than jeans - but the site of a bunch of white Americans wearing them kind of makes me want to shop for halter tops and Levis.  I think I might actually fit in better if I did.

Everywhere we go as a group - which I hope will stop happening now that orientation is over - Indians have asked me what the story is about my classmates.  Not about me - they seem to be okay with me wearing salwars, even if most of my clothes are hand-me-downs from approximately 1984.  It's kind of flattering, but it also kind of weirds me out, especially when I think about the Indian-on-the-street perspective.  The thing is, wearing salwar kameez doesn't magically turn you brown.  You're still white.  You're just...a white person wearing ethnic clothes.

This phenomenon amuses me more than it bothers me - it's the accessories that actually make me mad.  The women on my program keep putting on bindis and kumkum, both of which are things that I wear in America to mark myself as Hindu when I'm going to temple or a function or whatever.  I mean, it's cool if you want to wear a bindi and you're not Hindu, as long as you understand that it's more than just something else to buy and wear.  Same thing with the glass bangles - I understand that people wear them in America, but my glass bangles were gifts from my aunts, which, in South India, is a traditional exchange that means kind of a lot.  To the people on my program, glass bangles seem to be nothing more than kitsch, and when I try to explain that they mark you as something - an unmarried woman - nobody seems to want to listen.

And so, dear readers, please to be responding.  I personally am at a loss as to how to react, and am wondering if my anger and mortification are justified.  What's so bad about playing dress-up, especially in a foreign country?  Should I put away my hoity-toity-desiness and just let Amrikans be Amrikans?  Or am I actually allowed to be semi-horrified at watching my culture be commodified in its country of origin?  This little khargosh is eagerly awaiting your response.

(If you're interested, more dispatches from Jaipur appear on my own blog, www.fourluckyfeet.blogspot.com)

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Comments

Us crazy white folk, what

Us crazy white folk, what will you do with us?

Why can’t we just make life easier by knowing our place and staying there?

Listen girly, as much as I love saris and as much as Indian “traditional” clothing can be beautiful, there were times in India (like now, the summer) when I would have preferred to wear my native Californian shorts and bikini top.

But because of people with attitudes similar to your’s, I did not, not even on the beach. (And that’s not even touching upon the attitudes of the men).

Sometimes we white folks in India are wearing Indian clothing, not because we want to, but because we feel we have to.

Aren't your feelings about this more related to gender than race? It's a sincere question, because a lot of these issues get intertangled and it's good to separate the strands to understand what's actually going on.

Desi Italiana: It's not a

Desi Italiana:

It's not a matter of being allowed or whether the people there are particularly devout, it's a question of belief and respect for that belief. Certain faiths have very specific rituals that are communions both with God and with a community of fellow-believers... such as namaaz in Islam or puja in Hinduism. No one would stop me if I took Holy Communion in a RC Church, or did puja at a mandir -- but I wouldn't do either because I'm not Hindu or Catholic. I would visit a Mandir or even go to Mass, but the line that I draw is between inclusion in / sharing of a spiritual space and active participation as member of that community. I know Hindusm is more inclusive and less doctrinal than other religions, but for me taking puja as a non-Hindu is not right because it denigrates the exceptionalism of faith and makes it just another empty cultural practice. Like wearing bindi.

But anyway, that's my issue and a line that I draw, probably coming from having two very religious parents. It just makes me uncomfortable, that's all.

I'm a white American (as if

I'm a white American (as if my color matters, but since you made it an issue in your writing...) who frequently travels to India.

Your comments about us are self-righteous, pompous and patronizing at best.

Not all of us are "fascinated" by India, but find ourselves there for various reasons, some personal, some professional.

Aside from the initial excitement that takes place at the beginning of any new adventure, the realities of life soon sink in afterwards for many of us who travel.

Let me tell you, as a woman particularly, India is NOT just fascinating but can be downright nerve-racking and unsafe.

Bindis - no you should not be bothered by westerners wearing them because, newsflash, they don't mean anything.

Those flashy little stickies are worn by children, married and unmarried women in India simply as decoration.

There are a few particular types of bindi that signify marriage. Most of the colorful sticky ones sold in the bazaars are simply for decoration.

Kumkum in the middle part of one's hair signifies marriage in some parts of India. Even then, if single women are wearing it, it just means they have the independence to claim something as their own and wear what they want. Gotta love the spirit!

Glass bangles? Again, children and married and non-married women in India wear glass bangles.

As far as westerners in salwar-kameez and saris, most of the time we look damn good in them, oftentimes much better than Indian women.

So you say seeing all this makes you wanna wear "halter" with your jeans in Jaipur? So what's stopping you, madam?

Don't worry, I won't accuse you of "fascination" with "ethnic dressing" if you choose to wear something other than sari or salwar-kameez.

I think "brown" women look hot in halters, and I'm sure the local chai-walla does too!

Fascinating Womanhood, it's

Fascinating Womanhood, it's not clear to me why you are in/ever went to India since you don't appear to like it very much. Or understand it. Or both.

When the systematic

When the systematic racialization of people is gone in different ways in different places in the world, coming from a common origin in European civilization

Racism was invented in Europe?

Don't even go there.

Read the Vedas, or Manu Samhita at the very least.

Indians are just following a long and ancient tradition when they behave in racist manners.

Not saying it's right, but it's definetly there in their old texts, customs and folklores.

Racism was invented in

Racism was invented in Europe?

Don’t even go there.

Read the Vedas, or Manu Samhita at the very least.

Indians are just following a long and ancient tradition when they behave in racist manners.

Not saying it’s right, but it’s definetly there in their old texts, customs and folklores.

I wrote specific words and you ignored them, and that makes me feel annoyed. Here is what I wrote:

Racism was invented in Europe?

Don’t even go there.

Read the Vedas, or Manu Samhita at the very least.

Indians are just following a long and ancient tradition when they behave in racist manners.

Not saying it’s right, but it’s definetly there in their old texts, customs and folklores.

Judging people or groups by specific ideas may or may not have been invented in Europe (I don't know), but the contemporary system of race was invented (or refashioned) in Europe and its interaction with its colonies (formal or informal) and its what provides content to the worldviews of anyone who is "educated" today--whether formally or by television. I'll put up a post about it.

FW, i love how you're trying

FW, i love how you're trying to argue that racism is a free-for-all that goes in every direction in the attempt to veil global white supremacy and neo-imperialism.

"what do you mean i can't buy your identity? you're beneath me! i own you!"

lol. fun times.

What’s so bad about playing

What’s so bad about playing dress-up, especially in a foreign country? Should I put away my hoity-toity-desiness and just let Amrikans be Amrikans? Or am I actually allowed to be semi-horrified at watching my culture be commodified in its country of origin?

They're annoying (see above ;), particularly abroad, and in my experience, tend to go nuts. But what's more interesting to me is the manner in which NRIs like me and you choose to position themselves between White Americans and Indians. You go with a much more "I'm Indian" approach than I did until recently, and when I lived in India, I think I overcompensated some and undercompensated in other ways. It was uncomfortable all the way around, though an interesting experience.

The other really interesting thing is the time lag - because my parents moved to the U.S. in the late 60s and most of their friends were around the same age or older, there was a particular variant of language, of beliefs, of attitudes that I got that doesn't exist among people my age in calcutta. Though it still might in the adjoining town my dad grew up in.

Also, I really liked Jaipur as a tourist.

I personally am at a loss as to how to react, and am wondering if my anger and mortification are justified.

Well, you feel how you feel. The more important part is being honest, processing it, and communicating it effectively.

Don't even tell me that desis

Don't even tell me that desis who travel to foreign countries don't try on the local wear and what not. Come on!

On second thought, knowing the desis I know, they probably don't. Too much into their own routines to live abundantly.

Clothes are clothes and we can wear whatever the hell we want.

Her attitude is a joke, especially since she's American. It's not as if she grew up in India, now is it?

She's just like the rest of us but thinks she's not.

Ooooh I'm special now coz I'm brown in a brown country and can act like I'm clued in, in front of my white friends.

How quaint.

Her attitude is why diasporic Indians have such a bad rep worldwide.

"Hoity-toity", her terminology about her own self was spot on!

How conceited to think that non-Indians would want to be Indians, and that is the attitude I've come across when living and travelling in India. They think because I look good in saris that I want to be Indian. What a joke.

Okay, you've made your point

Okay, you've made your point in doublespace, now move on.

Anyway, wearing local styles

Anyway, wearing local styles and getting "into the culture" is what people do when they travel to foreign countries. We do it in Greece, Spain, China, Brazil. India is not an exception and the attitude that it is, well, that is what irks me.

There is nothing inherently special or superior about India.

I certainly don't see

I certainly don't see anything wrong with white people or desis wearing kurtas or shalwar kameez, up to a point. Aesthetically, there's a difference by gender. Most white men look quite ridiculous in a full kameez/shervani-pajama, but that does look out of place as most men in North India wear shirt-pant in the public sphere. There is really nothing wrong with white men wearing kurtas, though. For women, shalwar-kameez, at least for me, is an international standard... it seriously doesn't surprise me when white women, or black women, wear shalwar kameez (not to mention kurta-jeans), even in the Bay Area. Saris are a different story, of course.

But there are two other considerations with a place like Jaipur. First, it's in the middle of the f**king desert, and thus subject to baking heat a lot the time. Simple cotton apparel is by far the best, when you can't exactly strip down. Second, Jaipur is a very conservative town and friends who know it well have told me -- borne out in the newspaper -- that there is a great deal of sexual harassment, especially for white women. I absolutely hate that aspect on North India, particularly in the smaller towns, but it seems best to try and avoid it in the two months that one is there, studying Hindi. In Bombay, no one cares what you wear.

Again, this is small-town North India, but often when 'Indian middle-class' women wear jeans and such (or anything more revealing), they have their own cars and drivers and thus are not subject to riding around in rickshaws or walking by the side of the road. In Delhi, women friends of different ethnicities have complained that they get denied admission to nightclubs because they were wearing shalwar-kameez, and yet they came to the club in a rickshaw rather than the family SUV. It's particularly difficult if you're only in India or in that city for a short while.

As for bindis, kumkum, etc -- I have no idea as I'm male, it seems possible that bindis and bangles in particular have lost the meaning in Indian consumer life that you have, in your life, subscribed to them. The phenomenon to which I really object, again from my Hindi language experience, is non-Hindus doing puja and taking prasad... I think the line that I want drawn exists between visiting a mandir or a mosque and actually taking part. Hard to endow generic and widely available consumer items with that much magic.

I actually do not like Jaipur, not because of the place itself but because it deliberately encourages cultural fetishisation, at the centre of the political project of Rajputana to declare themselves ideal India while getting the tourist dollars, rupees, euros and yen. See, for example, the mind-f**k of a place where they had the Fulbright conference this spring (http://www.chokhidhani.com, an 'ethnic 5-star resort') and the Rajput Sabha's objections to the entirely innocuous, even vapid, 'Jodhaa Akbar'.

Something about this post

Something about this post makes me feel quite uncomfortable, but I haven't quite pinpointed it yet. I have been irritated at people sporting various accessories, etc without ever making an effort about knowing anything about that place (or even worse, posh, white ladies wearing 'fashionable' Desi items but give denigrating looks to Desi women who wear Desi clothes on a daily basis.) On the other hand, I have adapted certain styles in a certain country. But that's to blend it. For example, when I was in Turkey, I wore a scarf over my head in some instances. All in all, I would feel uncomfortable wearing something that is clearly completely foreign to me, or when it's obvious that I am really not from there. The latter is more embarrassing.

But this part caught my eye:

"The thing is, wearing salwar kameez doesn’t magically turn you brown. You’re still white. You’re just…a white person wearing ethnic clothes."

Yes, but an American "brown" person wearing a salwaar kameez doesn't automatically make him/her "Indian", either. Just because we can 'pass' for Indian (or Pakistani, or Nepali) doesn't mean we are completely Indian...

BTW, the one thing I love about living in Nepal is that I can wear salwaar kameezes everyday with no problems, in contrast to say, Orange County. Wish offices in America would think salwaar kameezes were acceptable work clothes.

Kawaa: "The phenomenon to

Kawaa:

"The phenomenon to which I really object, again from my Hindi language experience, is non-Hindus doing puja and taking prasad…"

Why is this wrong? I'm from a Hindu upbringing, and I don't have any problems with this. And if others had followed this kind of objection, then I would have never been allowed to take prashad at the gurdwara for years as a non Sikhni.

If your objection stems from "Well, they don't understand the meaning of the pujas," or "They've fetishized it," "Or they just like the rituals without having any of the feelings" or other similar arguments, I can tell you that there are plenty of Hindus who partake in the pujas and whatever else just because they are rituals and out of habit, not any particular 'feeling' or 'respect'. Many don't even know what the meaning of the mantras they are chanting mean.

"The women on my program keep

"The women on my program keep putting on bindis and kumkum, both of which are things that I wear in America to mark myself as Hindu when I’m going to temple or a function or whatever."

But bindis are now non-religious accessories for all the Desi ladies, both in India and in America.

"Or am I actually allowed to

"Or am I actually allowed to be semi-horrified at watching my culture be commodified in its country of origin?"

I don't know if I'm incorrect in saying this, but 'culture' has been commodified for a long damn time; it just seems that we get irritated when the gore people co-opt it or partake in it (not to take away from the massive commodification on a global scale of all things kitsch, like people wearing T-Shirts with Shiva on them, wearing OM necklaces, or whatever).

DI: just procedurally, can

DI: just procedurally, can you consolidate your comments? It's helpful to anyone following a thread.

“The thing is, wearing salwar

“The thing is, wearing salwar kameez doesn’t magically turn you brown. You’re still white. You’re just…a white person wearing ethnic clothes.”

That comment is hilarious. As if white women in salwars would willingly exchange places with Indian women if given the chance...... not a chance!

"just" a white person?

Well, geez thanks. At least you consider us people.

Get off your high horse girl. We all don't want to be you.

BTW, the one thing I love

BTW, the one thing I love about living in Nepal is that I can wear salwaar kameezes everyday with no problems, in contrast to say, Orange County. Wish offices in America would think salwaar kameezes were acceptable work clothes.

I had the opposite problem with long kurtas and chappals; totally fine in the (ngo) work environments i was in in the u.s., frowned upon in (neoliberal) delhi.

The program actually aids and

The program actually aids and abets this mentality - they say in orientation materials that women should be prepared to wear traditional clothes upon arrival.

Yep, and we women are damned if we do, damned if we don't.

We get damned by Ms. Rabbit for making lemons into lemonade by having some actual good-ol-fashioned fun shopping for "traditional clothes", and if we were to dress normally, in weather appropriate clothing - shorts and tank tops - we would get damned even more for not "respecting local traditions".

Us crazy white folk, what will you do with us?

Why can't we just make life easier by knowing our place and staying there?

Listen girly, as much as I love saris and as much as Indian "traditional" clothing can be beautiful, there were times in India (like now, the summer) when I would have preferred to wear my native Californian shorts and bikini top.

But because of people with attitudes similar to your's, I did not, not even on the beach. (And that's not even touching upon the attitudes of the men).

Sometimes we white folks in India are wearing Indian clothing, not because we want to, but because we feel we have to.

I hope your white friends with you over there get to read your condescending post.

Aren’t your feelings about

Aren’t your feelings about this more related to gender than race? It’s a sincere question, because a lot of these issues get intertangled and it’s good to separate the strands to understand what’s actually going on.

She made it a race issue, but yeah, I also have serious issues with the fact that an educational program is so bold and brazen as to request women to wear "traditional" clothing and make no clothing requirements of the men involved in same program.

Unbelievable.

As far as Kawaa's opinions, I see where she is coming from, but my experience in India is that Indians want you to participate in their religious practices. I was forced to go to Mandir and Mosque countless times. Churches too.

But given the mentality of Indians, I'm not surprised.

In the above, But given the

In the above,

But given the mentality of Indians, I’m not surprised.

was supposed to go below

Unbelievable.

But I guess it makes sense in either place.

Kawaa #15: I definitely see

Kawaa #15:

I definitely see your point of view, and now that I think about it, since I come from an eclectic upbringing by Hindu parents and I have extended families and friends of various faiths, and I grew up participating in these rituals. By now, they come naturally to me; it's not like I actively sought out going to the gurdwara, etc. I have not participated in any Islamic rituals like doing Namaz, because I didn't grow up with a great deal of intimate exposure through family or friends, frequenting masjids, etc so if I were to do it now, it would feel very unnatural and forced. I guess for me the line is drawn between what I've absorbed through osmosis via my clans and what I'd actively seek out. And I have never really done the latter in terms of rituals, like sitting down and learning Gregorian chants or anything like that, doing Communion, etc(though I will definitely go to see other places of worship, like the masjid, if 1) I am allowed to in the first place, and 2) I follow the expected dress code, be respectful, etc).

"it’s a question of belief and respect for that belief. Certain faiths have very specific rituals that are communions both with God and with a community of fellow-believers… such as namaaz in Islam or puja in Hinduism."

I do not think it is disrespectful for me to go to the gurdwara and take prashad, even though I am not a Sikh; or to visit a Buddhist temple (which I also grew up doing) was denigrating Buddhism and its followers; likewise, when I visit Roman Catholic churches and dot water on my forehead, chest, and eyes, light votives, and offer prayers (which I have for years), I don't think I am disrespecting the community of fellow-believers. If anything, I've been embraced by folks who know full well that I am from a Hindu upbringing but that I can find myself at peace in these other places.

"I know Hindusm is more inclusive and less doctrinal than other religions, but for me taking puja as a non-Hindu is not right because it denigrates the exceptionalism of faith and makes it just another empty cultural practice."

Isn't one of the tenets of almost every major faith out there universalism and not exceptionalism?

Arguably, even religion in an itself can be seen as an 'empty cultural practice'; also, people who perform rituals in their affiliated faiths may do it as 'empty cultural practice.'

Dr Anon: "I had the opposite

Dr Anon:

"I had the opposite problem with long kurtas and chappals; totally fine in the (ngo) work environments i was in in the u.s., frowned upon in (neoliberal) delhi."

Really? Hmmm...maybe Delhites want to be 'modern' and NGO's think that it's great to be 'ethnic'?

Here in Kathmandu, stereotypes of the quality, pattern, and print of salwaar kamezzes in the workplace lend assumptions of title and rank. Floral and synthetic material connote poverty, village-ness, or that you are the Didi that brings the chai and coffee to peeps in the office. Intricate designs, expensive fabric, and salwaar kameezes that are not 'gaudy' but 'decorated' come to mean: fairly well place Nepali female employee.

And then, of course, people also wear 'Western' clothes. With the kumkum smeared on their foreheads as well, which screams, "Hey everyone, I did my morning puja before heading off to work to make paisa!"

Kawaa, another point is

Kawaa, another point is oftentimes, people who are not born into certain religions, but are curious, often are searching for a religion to convert to and call their own.

Thus they attend various functions.

This is all within their rights.

Freedom of religion, we can pick and choose.

Really? Hmmm…maybe Delhites

Really? Hmmm…maybe Delhites want to be ‘modern’ and NGO’s think that it’s great to be ‘ethnic’?

I agree that it has to do with attitudes towards race and class though I don't think it's "Delhiites" as a whole - it's upper class Delhi separating itself from the rest. chappals at a club is unacceptable (unless you're with women). Of coures the guy in the swastika shirt was perfectly acceptable (not the hindu swastika - the nazi swastika). The clothing also has to do with politics - long kurta and chappals is old India - leftist stereotype.

In the U.S., at least where I was, I think overt questioning of your racial choices is forbidden, at least in the "progressive" world and the consumer-capitalist world (i.e. bars), as long as you don't transgress. I think the analogy in the U.S. would be "no shoes, no shirt, no service," but even so, I would guess there's more give. You can be Obama as long as you don't support Jeremiah Wright ;)

Here in Kathmandu, stereotypes of the quality, pattern, and print of salwaar kamezzes in the workplace lend assumptions of title and rank. Floral and synthetic material connote poverty, village-ness, or that you are the Didi that brings the chai and coffee to peeps in the office. Intricate designs, expensive fabric, and salwaar kameezes that are not ‘gaudy’ but ‘decorated’ come to mean: fairly well place Nepali female employee.

And then, of course, people also wear ‘Western’ clothes. With the kumkum smeared on their foreheads as well, which screams, “Hey everyone, I did my morning puja before heading off to work to make paisa!”

This is really intresting.

She made it a race issue, but

She made it a race issue, but yeah, I also have serious issues with the fact that an educational program is so bold and brazen as to request women to wear “traditional” clothing and make no clothing requirements of the men involved in same program.

So instead of continuing along as a race issue, if you don't think it is, why don't you unmake it one? People often have to respond to people with different beliefs and outlooks from them. If, on the other hand, you're going to try to argue in this space that White people are victims on the basis of race, you're not going to get very far.

Just a tip.

So instead of continuing

So instead of continuing along as a race issue, if you don’t think it is, why don’t you unmake it one?

Because dear, that is the whole premise of her post, and she is asking us to respond along those lines. I am responding to this particular post, the one by Ms. Rabbit about how white people "going native" in India annoy her, not someone else's post on gender dynamics in India.

White people can be victims on the basis of race, no doubt, but that is also not a point in her post, so I did not bring that up, however you did, for some reason.

Even as annoying as her attitude is, it doesn't victimize me one bit. In fact, it just reinforces how lucky I am to be free of such a burdensome attitude myself.

I don't give a rat's ass what anybody wears, anywhere in the world!

White people can be victims

White people can be victims on the basis of race, no doubt, but that is also not a point in her post, so I did not bring that up, however you did, for some reason.

whatever.

I think I can understand what

I think I can understand what some of the poster is talking about. It's an uncomfortable relationship we bicultural Indian-Americans (or canadian or whatever) feel with our white peers while we're in India. Each of us has a story about how some part of our identity has been commodified or exoticised here in our country of birth, but we generally know how to respond to it (indignation, reflection)...it's a whole different story in India because for the most part we are as much of a stranger there as our white peers. But that doesn't mean that we don't take issue or feel uncomfortable when we feel that others are superficially involving themselves in a part of identity that we are usually trying to work out for ourselves. I don't know, maybe it just reminds us too much of modern day colonialism-- with a european presence helping themselves to what they want from a culture that has been ravaged like that for too long. Maybe it just further reinforces our differences from our white peers in our country of origin or reminds us that we don't know ourselves or our cultural identity as well as we wish we did. Either way, it's feels a little awkward to see white people immersing themselves in Indian culture when it is done without understanding or with a sense of entitlement (note that not all white people do this. only white people who lack understanding but assume entitlement).

The group that's done this most and the most egregiously, of course, are the individuals my friend calls "bliss ninnies"-- people who are constantly chasing nirvana or enlightenment. I've had far too many run-ins with people named rainbow or snowball or whatever to be comfortable with the brand of Indian identity they choose to assume.

Dr. Anon #22: In the US, it's

Dr. Anon #22:

In the US, it's different wearing a salwaar kameez outside of 'family functions' or going to mandhir/gurdwara because I'm automatically tokenized, like "Oh, there's a brown woman wearing her 'ethnic clothes'". I am sure that if I turned up to my office in SF donning a salwaar kameez, people would think I was 'in touch with my roots', or that I was a hippy, a radical, or some shit like that. In KATH, it's obviously not like that.

Neetu:

"it’s a whole different story in India because for the most part we are as much of a stranger there as our white peers."

In India, Nepal, or other South Asian countries, I almost feel like saying, "Who cares?" in terms of gore people wearing desi clothes. I mean, there are plenty of white ladies here who wear salwaar kameezes here, and it doesn't bother me. First, because salwaar kameezes are way more comfortable to move around in, etc rather than like jeans or something, and two, it's too effing hot and muggy, so you might as well wear a salwaar kameez.

"I don’t know, maybe it just reminds us too much of modern day colonialism– with a european presence helping themselves to what they want from a culture that has been ravaged like that for too long."

Yeah, whoever thinks this w/r/t gore people wearing salwaar kameezes is blowing things out of proportion, I think.

"Maybe it just further reinforces our differences from our white peers in our country of origin or reminds us that we don’t know ourselves or our cultural identity as well as we wish we did."

I think it is a sense to make ourselves feel superior to our white peers through a sense of 'ownership', by feeling like, "Yeah, I'm the real Desi here, I can wear these clothes because I am brown; but you? You're just a poser!"

"because for the most part we are as much of a stranger there as our white peers."

Nail on the head; that was what I was wearing to when I said earlier that an American Desi wearing a salwaar kameez doesn't automatically make them "Indian". I do think that are some American Desis who are more familiar with the Desh than others, but there are also those who are not. Desi family, friends, frequenting Artesia or Fremont, and going to mandhir/gurdwara/masjid/church/blah blah in America is not the same as being in India :)

I'm out to buy some salwaar

I'm out to buy some salwaar kameezes now.

Actually, over the past year,

Actually, over the past year, the most annoying people I interacted with in Delhi -- this is not regard to clothing, but to cultural fetishisation -- were ABCDs, in India to get in touch with their roots. One was very much the 'bliss ninny' of Neetu's description, going on and on about Buddhism and yoga and yet still holding down a very well-paying expat job. The other was just unwilling to just shut up and listen, pay attention to one's surroundings, etc. So living in South Delhi for eight months (or eight years) gives you some sort of privileged access?

Ethnicity is not an issue in this instance. I get as annoyed at these ABCDs as I do with white people, for exactly the same reasons.

Moreover, I get annoyed at *anyone* who actually sees culture in the sub-continent of constituent state units as unitary, cohesive, primordial, spiritual, etc etc etc. When I look anywhere in India or Pakistan, I see conflict that is either open or sublimated, I see clashes between world-views every time I cross a street or get into a rickshaw. That matters, it's real, it's serious and it's ignored by trippy Western tourists, culture vultures (I like the ones at the Towers of Silence better) *and* the very Indian middle classes.

Culture is fascinating and powerful and it masks the violence of everyday. But it needs to be studied critically, rather than gazed at.

So, ethnicity and gender don't matter, clothing doesn't matter, but this orientalising affect does get to me.

Personally, I'm good with

Personally, I'm good with kurtas and kameez, but I don't care for shalwar because I *need* belt-loops, a back pocket for my wallet, front pockets for pens, mints and keys.

How's that for unhealthy obsession with the tools of the West? :)

I don't have the legs for either pajamas or a lungi / dhoti.

Hey Everybody - Thanks for

Hey Everybody - Thanks for all the comments. First of all, I'm sorry to have offended anyone (fascinating womanhood, for example - thanks for your comments both here and on my blog). I didn't mean to make this into a "race" issue - I think it's pretty cool that people who are not Indian want to study India. The purpose of this post was to talk about how confusing it is for me, and for the other Indian-Americans on my program. As someone who has spent her whole life feeling not-Indian-enough, it's weird for me to come here and have people a) regard me as an expert and b) act like buying Indian clothes is the key to blending in. This last point, by the way, is perpetuated NOT by the people who are here, but by program administrators who encourage this mentality (not most of the professors - like I said, I can't recommend this program enough; the professors are great). Frankly, I feel kind of stupid for bringing a suitcase full of salwars and no jeans. And yes, I agree that cotton is the most comfortable way to go.

My reaction to the bindi thing is symptomatic of my disconnection with India. To me, bindis mean being Hindu. Period. This is how it is in my family and, as far as I can tell, how it is in Chennai, which is pretty much the only place I've been in India. And, you're right, now that I've been in Jaipur more than a few days I'm realizing that both bangles and bindis are fashion accessories here, and are not loaded with meaning the way they are in my family in my town in the US. So on that point, I stand corrected. I do not, however, retract my point that Americans often try to experience cultures by buying things. In fact, I've done this in South America and Africa, and I now cringe thinking of the souvenirs I have bought to prove that I've had an "authentic" experience.

I don't have a problem with most non-Indians who come to study. I'm talking about a specific group of people in my program, not everyone in my program. In fact, most people in my program are pretty awesome and thoughtful. Some are not. It is these people that I'm talking about.

Again, sorry to have offended anyone, but I do stand by the points I was trying to make, and apologize if they were unclear in the post. (Since I rarely have email access here, this may be my last response, so please comment away.)

“because for the most part we

“because for the most part we are as much of a stranger there as our white peers.”

Nail on the head; that was what I was wearing to when I said earlier that an American Desi wearing a salwaar kameez doesn’t automatically make them “Indian”. I do think that are some American Desis who are more familiar with the Desh than others, but there are also those who are not. Desi family, friends, frequenting Artesia or Fremont, and going to mandhir/gurdwara/masjid/church/blah blah in America is not the same as being in India :)

I generally agree with this assessment (please don't ignore this phrase), but I have some caveats. Yeah we're the same, except we're not. We are blind, we are foolish, we are orientalist, we are carrying the baggage of the television and media we read in our own countries and more generally how we've been raised, and we are looking for answers to questions that are profoundly self-involved, but we also have been instructed from before birth to want to feel connected to this country or this place, we are inhabiting a different space from people who have come to South Asia for different reasons, etc. In this sense, there are some things that we have more in common with the Indian upper classes (who are normally called the middle class) than with the tourists who come from the places we comme from.

To put it more specifically - I am in London right now. This is "a year in London." I think an ABCD (i prefer the less pejorative ABD, but whatever) is less likely to do "a year in India" than an American tourist, though there are always exceptions to each (please don't ignore this last phrase either :).

Additionally locality is really important - "India" is not a place - it is a legal fiction or an idea, just like the "United States" is. Cities are places, villages are places, even states can sort of be places. It's always interesting to me that the same person (including me) will say "I'm living in London" but "I was living in India." I was NOT living in India - I was living in South Delhi and working in CP.

So I had "a year in Delhi" and I had some life there; I also visited Manali and Bangalore for very short stays; I went as a tourist to Jaipur for a few days; but I have been to Calcutta more than 10 times from before i can remember, negotiated relationships with family; there is no need for me to do a "homestay" in Kolkata because all my visits are homestays. I have struggled for such basic things from my family as the right to ride a bus. I have grown up, to some extent, with some of my cousins, and watched other events happen. I have seen the aftermath of sexual abuse (not to me, thankfully), independent choices by women, old women, young women, old calcutta, new calcutta, a changing city. I have been to funerals and been to weddings, been to youth drawing events, and been to massive cultural extragavanzas. I have been with my immediate family, with just my mother, on my own; I have placed my father's ashes in the hooghly and visited my elderly aunts. This does not make me indian, but the mere fact that I've been to calcutta for more than 2 days gives me a bit more substance to think about and talk about than a random dude who shows up in Delhi for two days, and of course, gallingly, less substance than someone who grew up there (please don't ignore the last phrase).

So I think there are at least two forms of angst that an ABCD like me might feel towards surface level interactions - One is, "I have no connection to this place either, I am in a cultural limbo, I need to find a place, I need to understand, I am SO American and at the same time I don't necessarily want to be, which can easily lead to "let's blame the goras" to separate ourselves." That would be a bit part of my Delhi experience.

The other is "I have put in ALL this work, I have had some experiences, and thought I'm not Indian, I have a bit more sense of it all than someone who comes in and talk shits about it." And that applies to anyone who does it, as Kawaa pointed out, not just to White Americans or Europeans. They just happen to manage to say the most obnoxious and egregious things monst of the time because they're not necessarily dealing with the same kind of angst, or aren't equipped by it. But, that's with the caveat that I've met Americans and Europeans who fit RIGHT in to Delhi and the mentality that you need to survive there - and others who got so frustrated that even if they weren't racist to begin with, it brought out something ugly. I've never met an ABCD who had the slightest intent of hiring an elephant for their child's birthday party in "India" ;)

So just a nod to complication with the general assessment agreed upon.

and on the other end of this

and on the other end of this schizophrenic thread - anyone have thoughts on the death of the sari? good, bad, ugly?

Moreover, I get annoyed at

Moreover, I get annoyed at *anyone* who actually sees culture in the sub-continent of constituent state units as unitary, cohesive, primordial, spiritual, etc etc etc. When I look anywhere in India or Pakistan, I see conflict that is either open or sublimated, I see clashes between world-views every time I cross a street or get into a rickshaw. That matters, it’s real, it’s serious and it’s ignored by trippy Western tourists, culture vultures (I like the ones at the Towers of Silence better) *and* the very Indian middle classes.

Thank, you kawaa, for bringing attention to the class conflict :) There's an Indian scholar (Satyamurthy) who argues that NRIs are part of the Indian "middle classes" (and what is "middle" about them anyway, ask Bardhan and M. Khan and Sarita Ray). Whether you watn to talk about it as Bharat vs. India or the 80% vs. the 1-2% there are serious serious gaps in conversation, wealth, income, power, etc. The only way to paper this over, as has been the case throughout, are prominses of a "socialistic pattern of society" or promises of Islam. And of course the other two methods of keeping the peace - violence and buying people off. I suppose electoral politics might provide a safety valve as the accumulation continues forward to the great utopian state of industrialized nation/world power!

India Zindabad! Jai Pakistan!

Ooof. These issues make it much harder to quit smoking :)

Fascinating Womanhood, it’s

Fascinating Womanhood, it’s not clear to me why you are in/ever went to India since you don’t appear to like it very much. Or understand it. Or both.

And if I waxed eloquant about the bliss, the nirvana, the culture, the romance of India, just like the spiritual tourists you disdain, you would disdain me as well, right?

But when I express a grass roots understanding and appreciation of India, one that is mixed with both likes AND serious dislikes, well, you don't know what to make of that, right?

I don't fit into any of your categories - I'm not a white neo-hippie in search of ananda, nor am I an "ethnic fashionista" who is awed by the wide variety of clothing styles in India who just has to try them all, nor am I a nuclear family fall-out just dying for the extended/joint family experience, putting down the individualism of my own country/culture and praising the "tribal bonds" of South Asia.

I am a normal human being who has gone to India for my own personal and professional reasons, liked some of it, hated some of it, and am not ashamed or afriad to express any of it.

So what do you want? A cultural sycophant or a bigoted culturalist? You don't seem to know what to do with all the rest of us who are in the grey area between.

My point to Indians in general is.... you're not all that, so stop thinking we all want to be like you. Your shit stinks just like the rest of our's does. Be okay with people who are "so so" about India.

We are not obliged to love it OR hate it.

But when I express a grass

But when I express a grass roots understanding and appreciation of India, one that is mixed with both likes AND serious dislikes, well, you don’t know what to make of that, right?

It would be great if you would do this, but from my reading, you haven't. There's nothing that I, as a person, at least, appreciate more than someone who can look at a situation critically and wryly and appreciate the nuances and the subtleties of it. But I know exactly what to make of your comments; they're bigoted, annoying, and most of all, overly defensive and polarizing. I can understand why the initial framing of the post might have put you in that posture, but you don't seem to want to get beyond it. I also didn't note any appreciation of "India" or any particular places in it - not that you're obliged to, but you're saying that you do.

You're also overstating how informed you are. If your understanding was so "grassroots" you might know that this statement:

Kumkum in the middle part of one’s hair signifies marriage in some parts of India. Even then, if single women are wearing it, it just means they have the independence to claim something as their own and wear what they want. Gotta love the spirit!

is pretty groundless, given that a local custom can be recognized as the courts as grounds for a legal marriage (with attendant responsibilities, divorce laws, etc.). The statement shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the role that social significance can play in people's real lives.

Then you have comments like this:

but my experience in India is that Indians want you to participate in their religious practices. I was forced to go to Mandir and Mosque countless times. Churches too.

But given the mentality of Indians, I’m not surprised.

Granted, you start out talking about your personal experiences. But then you move on to "the mentality of Indians"????? That's basically racist AND a logical fallacy, so stop. And "forced"? That needs some explanation. I was basically "forced" to say the pledge of allegiance in the United States, "under God", etc., but that doesn't mean really cover the whole issue or speak to why it really doesn't matter all that much to me.

We all understand at this point that the post made you angry; you have communicated that. So in moving forward, why not show us some of that understanding you claim to have, some of your own flaws, some of your criticisms, less defensive hostility, and more openness. Otherwise, you're only reinforcing the stereotypes that you claim to be against.

I have fairly well-adjusted American non-desi women friends--White, Taiwanese, etc.--who have lived in India for extende periods of time. They don't talk like you do. They're funny, and have some humility, and, yes, express frustrations with their lives as well. I don't dismiss their perspectives, and I wouldn't dismiss yours either if you weren't being such a d@#k about it that I'm wondering if you're not just some random person who has made up a backstory to play a joke on all of us.

So play nice...

Totally agreed Dr. Anon! FW,

Totally agreed Dr. Anon! FW, you're exactly the type of fellow traveler I would avoid like the plague if I were to encounter you while traveling-- your statements paint you as loud, boorish, and uanable to appreciate your surroundings. You claim that you have a balanced viewpoint that we just can't handle, I say that blatant racism is never a balanced viewpoint. Just misinformed, much like the rest of your comments.

Granted, you start out

Granted, you start out talking about your personal experiences. But then you move on to “the mentality of Indians”????? That’s basically racist AND a logical fallacy, so stop.

So I make a stereotypical statement about Indians and it's racist, while almost every other comment here, and including the original post, makes stereotypical statements about white Americans, and that's not racist?

By being "forced" to go to religious and other functions, I meant that, as I was staying as a guest in peoples homes, I felt obliged to reciprocate their hospitality in the form of doing what they asked of me. The few times that I insisted that I was NOT in a mood to go, that caused a serious rift in relations, resulting in hurt feelings on both sides as well as very high stress levels. Therefore, since then, I simply went wherever I was asked to go.

I also ate whatever was offered to me, at any time of the day, which resulted in a big weight gain.

These are sacrifices I made to keep the peace and have good relationships. The alternative was not an option - high stress levels.

I like India and Indian people, but I don't see them or their culture as any more interesting, special or superior than any other culture. And for the most part, most of the tourists or non-nationals I meet there feel the same way, despite being quite enthusiastic about Indian food, clothing and various cultural elements.

If you cared to exchange a little deeper with the "Snowballs" and "Rainbows" and "Bliss Bootys" you might find that they have some pretty intense and involved stories about their stays in India. Stories that include near death experiences due to illness, danger due to travelling 2nd or lower class on trains, and for the women, ALOT of sexual harrassment.

But you will only see the bindis and the bangles and assume that Snowball's view of India is one big airy fairy fantasy from 1001 NIGHTS.

Believe me, the romantic India of our dreams soon gives way to the harsh realities of life in a developing country.

I get annoyed at *anyone* who actually sees culture in the sub-continent of constituent state units as unitary, cohesive, primordial, spiritual, etc etc etc

I've not met a single soul who thinks of India as "cohesive".

Chaotic is more like it.

When I look anywhere in India or Pakistan, I see conflict that is either open or sublimated, I see clashes between world-views every time I cross a street or get into a rickshaw.

I see the same thing.

And as a woman, crossing the street or getting into a rickshaw just means more "eve teasing".

Sorry to burst your bubble but we hippy dippy trippy western tourists see India for what it is as well. We are often too polite to say so in India while we are being hosted by Indian families.

And I think I do have a pretty good understanding of the country, I speak more than one of it's languages and have spent several years there.

Thank you for engaging what I

Thank you for engaging what I said FW. It's ideal if we can all treat each other like people here.

So I make a stereotypical statement about Indians and it’s racist, while almost every other comment here, and including the original post, makes stereotypical statements about white Americans, and that’s not racist?

if you think it is wrong, if you can pleased to be pointing out what you see is wrong with what people say rather than repeat an error that has very deep roots (essentializing India) and causes a lot of problems.

By being “forced” to go to religious and other functions, I meant that, as I was staying as a guest in peoples homes, I felt obliged to reciprocate their hospitality in the form of doing what they asked of me. The few times that I insisted that I was NOT in a mood to go, that caused a serious rift in relations, resulting in hurt feelings on both sides as well as very high stress levels. Therefore, since then, I simply went wherever I was asked to go.

I also ate whatever was offered to me, at any time of the day, which resulted in a big weight gain.

These are sacrifices I made to keep the peace and have good relationships. The alternative was not an option - high stress levels.

Now imagine a lifetime of this, and you'll get a sense of some of the complications that ABDs (and other South Asians) have. We all have to learn to negotiate these relationships-- I didn't even know wtf my mother was talking about in certain important respects until I took a class in college on Hinduism; do you know how f@#ked up that feels for all concerned and what kind of f@#ked up history that betrays? I do.

If I were you, I would consider avoiding family settings for a while, since you don't actually have to deal with them (lucky bastard).

I like India and Indian people, but I don’t see them or their culture as any more interesting, special or superior than any other culture. And for the most part, most of the tourists or non-nationals I meet there feel the same way, despite being quite enthusiastic about Indian food, clothing and various cultural elements.

If you cared to exchange a little deeper with the “Snowballs” and “Rainbows” and “Bliss Bootys” you might find that they have some pretty intense and involved stories about their stays in India. Stories that include near death experiences due to illness, danger due to travelling 2nd or lower class on trains, and for the women, ALOT of sexual harrassment.

But you will only see the bindis and the bangles and assume that Snowball’s view of India is one big airy fairy fantasy from 1001 NIGHTS.

Believe me, the romantic India of our dreams soon gives way to the harsh realities of life in a developing country.

Which again, is pretty similar to the experience that a lot of ABDs (to say nothing of ordinary Indians) have about it. I also worked with and knew a lot of White people from the U.S. while i was in Delhi - some of them were annoying or a$$holes, a few were quite sharp, and a lot of them simply went nuts. And I know nonwhite nondesi people who lived in parts of India as well-- they tended to be a bit less obnoxious about it all - no racist rants or attempts to hire elephants for their child's birthday on Yuninet.

But, anyway, why should anyone sympathize with the bubble of "romantic India" popping? That vision is a legacy of colonialism and elite rule in the Indian state today and causes all kinds of problems both in understanding and in real people's lives. Popped for me, popped for you, ideally would pop for everyone so we can actually talk about real places as real places and not the product of a 18th and 19h and 20th and 21st century conditions of power and the imaginations of those who were in power.

We all focus on our own problems most frequently, but why not talk a little more about the problems of the 80% that you say you've seen. Is stereotyping of White people really the biggest problem in India and its diaspora today? :)

And I think I do have a pretty good understanding of the country, I speak more than one of it’s languages and have spent several years there.

India's own scholars complain about the lack of language to adequately describe it and some despair that it might be impossible, so "pretty good understanding" is a pretty relative term. But whatever your level of understanding of different places in India, just talk to us about them. If you think it's annoying to put up with 'this race bs' while you do it, well, imagine some of our lives in the U.S....or a Black person in Delhi ;)

I didn’t even know wtf my

I didn’t even know wtf my mother was talking about in certain important respects until I took a class in college on Hinduism; do you know how f@#ked up that feels for all concerned and what kind of f@#ked up history that betrays? I do.

And who is responsible for that?

If you think it’s annoying to put up with ‘this race bs’ while you do it, well, imagine some of our lives in the U.S….or a Black person in Delhi

Delhi is hell for black people.

Which again, is pretty similar to the experience that a lot of ABDs (to say nothing of ordinary Indians) have about it. I also worked with and knew a lot of White people from the U.S. while i was in Delhi - some of them were annoying or a$$holes, a few were quite sharp, and a lot of them simply went nuts. And I know nonwhite nondesi people who lived in parts of India as well– they tended to be a bit less obnoxious about it all - no racist rants or attempts to hire elephants for their child’s birthday on Yuninet.

When in the world will we ever, as a species, be able to stop qualifying white, non, un-non, non-non, naan and naaniji and just be able to say "people"?

People have experiences in India. PEOPLE.

When in the world will we

When in the world will we ever, as a species, be able to stop qualifying white, non, un-non, non-non, naan and naaniji and just be able to say “people”?

When the systematic racialization of people is gone in different ways in different places in the world, coming from a common origin in European civilization as it interacted with other parts of the world. yes it involves work towards this in practice (as you're suggesting, I'm assuming), but it's also important to acknowledge that it has and probably will continue to exist for a long time to come. And, as noted above, you can and should tie it into other things like how capitalism operates, imperialism, sexism, etc. But if you deny it or the specific places that specific 'types' of people occupy in it, including me and you-- well, you're probably never going to get very far into the conversation.

I didn’t even know wtf my mother was talking about in certain important respects until I took a class in college on Hinduism; do you know how f@#ked up that feels for all concerned and what kind of f@#ked up history that betrays? I do.

And who is responsible for that?

Well your implication seems to be: me and my mother. But people don't exist in vacuums. Some of the writing on British, South Asian, and American racial, economic and political history and attitudes might help you come to your own answer this question, as it has for me. This isn't a bad place to start. Or, you might just read some of the other posts on this blog for less academicky stuff.

Dr. Anon: "and on the other

Dr. Anon:

"and on the other end of this schizophrenic thread - anyone have thoughts on the death of the sari? good, bad, ugly?"

Death of the sari? Hell no. In KATH, equal numbers of women wear saris and salwaar kameezes. The sari is alive and kicking.

And oh god, the sari should not die. It's elegant and beautiful, and if I weren't a short munchkin, I'd totally wear it. Gujarati style.

Kawaa #31: Missed this

Kawaa #31:

Missed this comment earlier:

"Personally, I’m good with kurtas and kameez, but I don’t care for shalwar because I *need* belt-loops, a back pocket for my wallet, front pockets for pens, mints and keys."

You can carry a gentleman's bag.

"I don’t have the legs for either pajamas or a lungi / dhoti."

Oh, stop it. Every man looks sexy in a dhoti.

Judging people or groups by

Judging people or groups by specific ideas may or may not have been invented in Europe

I would hope that judging people or groups by specific ideas (their minds) and not the color of their skin or race (which I guess means "ethnic background"), prevails, regardless of where it was invented.

FW, i love how you’re trying

FW, i love how you’re trying to argue that racism is a free-for-all that goes in every direction in the attempt to veil global white supremacy and neo-imperialism.

Wrong. Why would I ever want or need to veil global white supremacy and neo-imperialism???

It is what it is.

Nevertheless. That India is a racist and casteist culture/country and has been since ancient times cannot be denied.

That also is what it is.

I am an American in love with

I am an American in love with India, not because of elephants and fetishized mystical b.s., but because I feel drawn to the history, language, culture, food, dress, and study of the Hindu religion. I find interest in the different ways *all* people live; some places I feel more drawn to than others. However, I would never throw on a sari and a disposable bindi to play dress-up or act like India is a theme park. I, too, am disgusted by people who act that way.
I think you are justified in feeling the way you do, but I also know that not all people are disrespectful or materialistic. Unfortunately it is often hard to tell the difference.

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