Hi guys, I felt like I should really share this experience with you. Recently I decided to conduct something of a…social experiment.
The first photo is of me in casual wear. It’s pretty mismatched. I was wearing my pajama top over my tee and had black pants on. My hairs messed up and everything. I look unprofessional, and it’s intended.
I took a walk through an inner city neighbourhood of Brisbane. I asked the police for directions to the library. I bought a krispy kreme doughnut from the 7 11. I went inside the mall and was asked to try free samples several times. I bought the first volume from SnK from Angus and Robert’s. I wasn’t treated any differently, the reactions were warm and friendly. My outfit didn’t effect anything at all.
The second image is me in a salwaar. The hair took effort to get into curls. (Sorry, the mirror was foggy) I had a bit of make up on. I looked good. The outfit was ironed and it looked much better than the previous one. I went to the same shops an hour later. Asked the same guard where the library was. Bought another krispy kreme.
The reactions were totally different. There were no thank you’s. No one asked me to try a sample. The guard was annoyed. When I went into the bookstore the lady at the register followed me around the whole time. When I bought a copy of ‘The storyteller’ by Jodi Picoult, she asked me if I had enough money with me before she scanned it.
I am a fourteen year old girl who has lived overseas for three years. Never have I faced such blatant discrimination.
What is this supposed to mean? You’re good to go as long as you don’t embrace your traditional values? Is this why south Asian girls are embarrassed to wear their saris and salwaars in the open? Is this why we refuse to wear our bindi and play the harmonium? Is this why we think it’s better to be well spoken in English that Bangla, Urdu, or Hindi.
When white people embrace my traditional values, they’re open minded. When I do it, I’m suddenly a nuisance. I’m automatically expected to not be well spoken. I’m automatically a suspect for shop lifting.
The first time I felt like a real person, I was having a beer and listening to Canadian poet Rajinder S. Pal read from his book Pulse. Both were new experiences — I was in my mid-twenties and had only recently started drinking, as well as going to poetry readings — but it was Pal’s words that were most revelatory. He spoke of watching his mother makechapattis, the rustling sounds of her chiffon salwaar kameez, her hands and sleeves stained with flour, a scene as mundane as it was intimate. A commonplace moment from my own life, watching my mother do the same hundreds of times, felt hidden from most of the culture I lived in. But in a pub in the southeast corner of downtown Toronto, I felt those two, disparate halves of my life — the Western and the Indian, a pint of amber lager and South Asian poetry — briefly fused.
It wasn’t until many years later that I felt a similar rush of recognition, but this time, it was while watching Lilly Singh’s video “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say.” Singh, better known as Superwoman, is of course the wildly popular YouTube star who rose to fame makingcomedy shorts and rap videos. From an Indian family in the sprawling, diverse Toronto municipality of Scarborough, Singh has become known for her gregarious, upbeat persona and humour that derives much of its pull from her status as a child of South Asian immigrants. Now, with more than 9 million YouTube subscribers, she’s made the inevitable move from Toronto to Los Angeles and has landed parts in the upcoming Bad Moms and Ice Age: Collision Course, in addition to appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Her first book will be published next March.
“Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say” is still one of Singh’s more popular videos, with around 6.2 million views. She plays a cartoonish version of her own mother, going through the clichés familiar to many Punjabis: idle threats of violence, the relentless questioning, all delivered in that particular Punjabi idiom. On its own it isn’t much, just an acting out of common phrases. But it resonated for the same reason Pal’s delicate verse cut so deeply: A feature of my own life missing from public view was suddenly made visible, the hidden intimacy of immigrant life now splashed onto the canvas of the world. When you are a minority, it is no small thing to finally see yourself.
when i was 4 i begged my mom to let me change my name to something “normal” like samantha or anna. when i was 6 i came to school in my salwaar kameez for my birthday and the kids in my class made fun of me to the point of tears. when i was 8 i asked my mom to stop packing me lunch so i could eat what all the other kids were eating. when i was 11 i almost got sent home because of my mendhi because the school thought i was promoting tattoo art. when I was 14 one of my friends told me all of my accomplishments up until then we’re just the doing of me being indian. when i was 18 i got catcalled by a stranger that wanted “to be with an exotic girl”
the same kids that made fun of me for my bindi are now wearing it to music festivals as “rhinestones.” the same girls that taunted me for my thick brows are now spending money to fill theirs in. the same people that made fun of my religion am, these years are now taking pictures of themselves smoking in front of my gods. they’re getting om tattoos bc they think it’s hip. they’re writing their name in Hindi bc they think it’s pretty.
do you see the problem here?
I’ve never been a “good” desi girl. I abhor most Bollywood movies, have never learned classical dance, and do not partake in any cultural or religious rituals that I do not understand or find meaning in. This picture is from 2012 because that was the last time I went to an event that required Indian clothing. But this is still my culture. Embracing it does not mean I’ve changed who I am to fit some box or stereotype, it means I acknowledge things seemingly far removed that made me myself. I was born to immigrant parents who are still trying to get rid of their accents after twenty years because automated phone services do not understand them. We only speak English at home, because my parents thought it was important for me to speak in the most American way possible. I was born between two cultures, and though I do not wholly fit into either, I cannot erase my background. When I was younger, I treated Indian dress as a costume; I made myself a “desi princess” every Halloween and my parents laughed. They were proud that I liked my traditional clothes, but pained that I did not see them as part of my identity. Now I know what salwaar kameez, gold bangles, and bindis mean to my parents. They are things they set aside so that I could grow up in a safer and more comfortable place. My culture is not a costume. My family’s traditions were never exchanged for anything. They are not the spoils of your imperial culture war.
Payal Singhal’s ‘Char Bagh’ Winter Festive Collection is an edgy and modern take on classic silhouettes. Flowing fabrics combined with geometric patterns in soft black silks with blush and gold accents exemplify the modern indian woman: fierce and feminine. I think I might make an appearance in the Bahar Suit at the next wedding <3
Celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali today! My colourful Salwaar Kameez was stitched from my grandma’s sari. The punjabi style pink salwaar and dupatta are from Bombay. Completed the Indian look with some gold bangles.