Cultural differences

Appropriation of another culture

12:47 PM

I was about to write on my Sunday, but my fellow blogger at American Punjabi PI wrote this very interesting blog post where she links back to me about Pardesi Appropriating themselves some element of the desi culture

It’s a very interesting topic, I wrote about it in indirect ways in the past, more recently wrote about how certain women married to Indians just seem to go overboard in their appropriation in my post titled “Where a line is crossed”. The debate is still raging in the gori community about what’s right or wrong. But APPI this time pointed out that while some Indians seem to mind the western women appropriating some elements of their culture, mostly through wearing sarees and salwaar suits find it offensive, people in the west have less of an issue with outsider wearing Jeans and t-shirt.

A good topic indeed, because I know many people back home who think it is sad that people in Africa dress western style in their home countries instead of their traditional attire, but are going hissy pissy at young girls going to school wearing a head scarf in the west, so clearly some of my fellow westerners operate under a double standard of some kind too. And while we are at it, they find sad to see African ladies no longer in traditional outfits, but are appalled that Women in Saudi Arabia are still wearing the abaya quickly calling a culture they probably know little about sadistic against their own women. (but this article is not about the condition of women of Saudi Arabia so I’ll leave it there).
So where does wearing an outfit become offensive to the culture it originated from? If some Indians are offended seeing sarees on western women, why shouldn’t we as Westerner be offended if Indians wear jeans? Or is it ok to have a paisley print on a shirt, or a zardosi border on a t-shirt? Shall I as a Westerner wear symbols of another culture simply because I find them cute without having an attachment to it?
it’s a very difficult question, we all did it at one point, if you are from the West you must remember that trend in the 90’s to have t-shirts with Chinese Characters on them and the fact they didn’t necessary have an appropriate meaning too.  But On the other side of the world I have seen picture of young Japanese having some really discussable English writing on their outfits such as a baseball cap embroidered with the word Vomit. In all fairness if the word “toilet” written in Chinese is considered cute looking by people in the West why not the word for Vomit in a culture where they use a different writing system? In both case it is hilarious to have the party that can read the word and makes for many joke. Would I call it offensive? Not sure, I sure just find it funny to see that Vomit is considered cool enough to wear on your clothes in Japan, but I come from a culture were we are flexible enough on these things, would the Chinese be offended reading crazy stuff on people’s t-shirts? Thinking back on it, I have no idea.
Now when it comes to appropriate an entire dress code, things can be different. I think the context matters more than anything else. There are some region of the world where some outfits are still heavily tied to a culture and community and denote a sense of belonging to such culture. In the case of India it’s even more apparent where the locals discriminate heavily among themselves and where the chance of making a blunder as a foreigner is even higher if you aren’t completely in the know and that is probably what the local would find offensive to begin with.
Like anywhere else in the world, there are degrees of formality in the dress code in India, not all dress the same everywhere, and certain situation call for different dress code. Overdressing, might send a message that you think the locals aren’t as caring as you are about the Indian tradition…you can see where that is offensive right? Dressing too casual but wearing elaborate bindis and  heavy ethnic  jewellery will probably make people laugh behind your back the same way you might roll your eye at the word Vomit on a Japanese hat. Insisting on wearing bindi with western wear and having never been to India or having any tie to India simply because you think they are cute will probably have people wonder why, but is not offensive, the truth is that glittery bindis in India have started to be more of a special occasion thing than a symbol, and many women will wear them to look pretty regardless of their community, it’s one of these things that is starting to fall a bit more in the public domain. However, wearing sindoor simply because you think it is cute without being married to an Indian or married at all can be an offensive blunder for some, because it still has deep rooted cultural associations where the practice originated.

In all cases there is something true about the proverb “In Rome do as the Romans do”. I have Indian friends who when they went abroad for the first time years ago were feeling out of place in their ethnic wear but wondered if they should go all the way into the summer short skirts to fit in the very same way I went wondering if my jeans were appropriate to wear in 2003 Bangalore. They felt a bit odd wearing western wear back in the days the same way I found it a bit odd to wear salwaars suits, and like me they probably had moments of trying as hard as they could to fit in at the expense of their personal comfort of preferences. The fact is that the human specie is a social one, where each group and community have their own set of norm, and when you are an outsider you are left to wonder where to fit, how to fit and how far you can go in the dress code spectrum before offending someone, be it by going too close to what feels natural to your own culture or too far from it.
To make it even more difficult in India is that the country itself is in a developing phase caught between retaining age old practice and going all western, trying to find their own place in a world going global. In nearly 10 years in the country I have  seen tremendous change of mind-set in cities, and more traditional places that seem to be frozen in time. This it the country of fast paced cities with iPhone sporting young things and villages where people have water issues and little electricity, where fancy school goers brush with those too poor to even go to a government school. So as a westerner it becomes even trickier to go by the Roman adage, because which type of Roman are you to begin with?
Indians automatically place you at an upper middle class urban dweller rank, so dressing too traditional will not do, they will not expect you to wear a saree everyday, and you might end up looking weirder and even less fitting doing so in a big city, but not offensive, not yet. You might however become so if you were bragging about how you can wrap it in 2 minutes and you don’t understand why Indian women complain about when they say it’s daunting to put one on a daily basis. Or complain that more and more Indian women don’t wear a dupatta, or that is it sad to see Indian men wearing jeans and a shirt instead of a “pajama kurta” because they are so much more comfortable. I went there in my crossing a line post, it’s the trying to appear more Indians than the Indians themselves that is offensive. it’s giving the impression that you are doing it better than the local by consistently over dressing, and insisting it’s the best and more modest way to behave. It’s the spitting at your own cultural background and overpraising the “so colourful and rich and beautiful Indian culture”. You find wearing bright silk sarees colourful and all, but let me assure that Indians are as fascinated by your own culture than you are by theirs, and they don’t need a foreigner tell them all about the proper puja rituals when they would rather really learn more about how your own culture is in real life as opposed as what they hear from the medias.

And to be frank, if you had a person from another country come to your own, you would be eager to learn straight from the horse’s mouth how it is like over there rather than have them dress in your own' country’s ethnic garb and lecture you about how they know how to square dance better than the local, get offended that you are letting your own culture die because you haven’t mastered lace making, yodelling or let your local dialects die. If someone from afar came to me dressed in an edelweiss embroidered outfit with a lace bonnet and ask why people around here stopped wearing folk outfits and no longer tell tales by the fire at night but watch reality TV instead…I would be pissed let me tell you. On the other hand if said foreigner is open to a cultural exchange discussion and tell me I heard villages still carry traditional fairs in the Summer in your country, I would be totally happy that they read about such thing and tell them about it and even ask them if they want to go attend such an event and participate as the local do.

10 comments

  1. Cyn,

    Just which blog are these goris going overboard in Indian culture on?

    I keep seeing you & APPI mentioning them, but I've not really encountered them much lately.

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  2. I don't think they are bloggers, the gori community stretches far beyond the blogs :-) Mostly the ones going overboard with Indian culture are new to the community, and have never been to India or have only visited on holidays but never lived there.
    Most of the blogs out there are written by ladies who have been n a desi-pardesi relationship much longer, or have lived a significant amount of time in India.

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  3. You just gave me another idea for a blog post! Oh, I'm excited now. I'm going to write about how Americans react to this appropriation (outside of the pardesi community).

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  4. Oh yes, Cyn's right, this isn't coming from the blogs alone. I saw this personally in some pardesi's I've met in person and seen it in other online places. Mostly the blogs don't cover this but we see it behind the scenes.

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  5. Oh ok.

    Well, APPI hasn't even been in THE CULTURE that long, how's she supposed to know ALL about THE CULTURE?

    I've been living in India & Nepal for 15 yrs now & I am still learning about THE CULTURE!!!

    And I ain't wearing no sari, dupatta & bangles everyday EITHER! PFFFTTTT!!!

    It is funny, I've met some Goris married to Nepali men here in Nepal who get all bent & pissy when they find out I'm married to an INDIAN.

    Well excuse the heck out me, I didn't know marrying an Indian was lower on the karmic social scale of life than marrying a Nepali. La ti freakin' dah!

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  6. Andrea12:59 AM

    As if a sticker on your forehead erases the values you were raised with, the memories of your childhood, the things that make you who you are! If personality transplants were that easy, I'd become an investment banker tomorrow and make a million dollars.

    I have never understood the "indianer than thou" game. I wear sindoor, ok fine, but it doesn't make me better or worse than someone else. It is just what I do. Someone else's choices may be different. I had one of these girls get all up on her high horse once because I said I would not wear a mangalsutra. She thought I was betraying my husband. But Bengalis don't even wear them! Her knowledge of the culture was so shallow and superficial, and the context didn't even matter. I would be a "bad Indian wife" in her eyes. I cannot even imagine this happening if she had been Indian. It's mind-boggling.

    When this stuff happens, usually I take the tactic of "sit back and let them win." As in "Oh, you know so much about Indian culture, you're practically Indian yourself! Me, I'm happy in my sweatpants." They get to feel superior, my ego isn't harmed, and I know this is not someone that I can have a meaningful relationship with in the future.

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  7. There are so many communities in India that don't do the mangalsutra, DH's family included, the same way not all regions of India do karwa chauth or celebrate Diwali, so it's quite something to see these ladies going on their desi high horses having such a limited knowledge themselves.
    I'm happy in my sweatpants myself LOL, I'm Swiss not Indian, and I don't care much about what Indian perfection should be like, I have desi friends who are just as happy in their sweat pants as me anyway. I can only imagine how irritating it would be to them to have a gori lecture them about how it's horrible they aren;t wearing toe rings and mangalsutras since it's such a beautiful aspect of their culture they are letting go of or something.

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  8. mumbailicious10:12 PM

    For me personally the most important part within this discussion is the distinction between ´appropiation´ and ´assimilation´. While appropiation is an act which makes the (in this case) fashion of another culture to one´s own, changing it, melding it and giving it another perspective/meaning (which often is understood as offensive within the culture of origin). Assimilation is the attempt by individuals to fit into an (usually) majority culture while giving up their own cultural heritage. [Yeah, yeah I like to show off my Wikipedia knowledge!]

    I find it difficult to comment on appropiation since there is nothing I find offensive when it comes to clothing - besides clearly racist and offensive slogans. But then as a German there is no garment which has a certain meaning to me. Lederhosen & Dirndl are not part of my culture (even though I am partly Bavarian) and if anyone would use them I wouldn´t care - only wonder why people would want to dress up so uncomfortably. However, other groups have a harder time with cultural appropiation: just think about the outcry from Native American representatives against Target, GAP and latest Victoria Secret and No Doubt. Here, of course, the resentment lays deeper: Native Americans being a minority which at one point in time got slaughtered away and still has to deal with discrimination on a daily base. So the acceptance of cultural appropiation is majorly affected by the amount of power the appropiated cultural group helds.

    The women of the pardesi community (I really dislike this term!) you describe on the other hand seem to desperately try to assimilate themselves. Some of them seem to take it a little bit far and I understand your dismay. But actually they are just some "lost souls" who need the comparison and judging others to feel better about themselves. Telling others what they should do and should wear is very often a mere sign of lack of confidence and giving too much emphasis on actually pretty unimportant (if not boring) things. It also shows a good portion of inmaturity! And research shows that assimilation isn´t really healthy neither.

    Cheers!

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  9. Thank you for pointing ou the difference between assimilation and appropriation, I've been thinking about the topic just yesterday wondering if there wasn't a better term than appropriation to use but couldn;t put my finger on it.
    I definitely agree that they are lost souls, their behaviour usually also come with a cultural identity loss. While a person that suddenly go live in India might wonder how to fit in and not offend and might go through a transition phase of trying to dress the part, most revert to appreciating their own heritage after a few year. There are however no reason to completely dismiss where you come from when you still live in your home country simply because your spouse is from another culture, that is indeed a case of low self confidence and that isn't healthy.

    Oh and I had to smile at the lederhosen bit, because they do strike me as quite uncomfy too, there are some regions near the Austrian border in Switzerland where they are a folk costume, worn only during some village fair festival by some folk music or dance group. There are a reason why the world over certain fashion trends and tradition die. As my FIL says "There is no harm following a tradition as long as it makes sens to you personnally and it harms none, but once it becomes inpractical it's better to do without it"

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  10. mumbailicious10:48 PM

    I whole-heartedly agree. Also because I see intercultural couples as having the advantage of connecting different cultures and creating their own at the same time. It is a beautiful thing to be different - sometimes!
    And your FIL is spot on!

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