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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Great post. I laughed through

Great post. I laughed through most of it. I hope you classmates proove more amusing in intelligent ways if not later. And I love your light touch with invective. :D

"but the site of a bunch of

"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."

............... Yeah sure, halter tops and Levis to fit in with the locals in Jaipur.... in like 100 years maybe.  Many of the bahus there still don ghoonghat.

Kharghosh should've starred in the Namesake or something.  American Desi Existential Angst.  Otherwise known as "the brown woman's burden".



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