Wearing ethnic clothes in a foreign land


I have always worn colorful kurtis to work during the summer months here in USA. Every year I went home and bought inexpensive but beautiful cotton kurtis and brought them back with me. When I first opened my suitcase and held them up, I smelled the quintessential smell of Kolkata. The fragrance enveloped me the first few times I wore those shirts till the smell of detergent, after a few washes, erased the trace of home. I wore them because they were colorful, the cotton felt comfortable on my skin and they made me feel beautiful. They were meticulously chosen by both ma and baba, with some input from me sometimes.

Things have changed now. Instead of kurtis and dress pants (or jeans) to work, I often wear salwar kameez with custom jewelry from home along with a stick on bindi. Many of the outfits belonged to my ma. When I wear them, I feel wrapped in her love. It makes me feel close to her, and baba too, since he chose many of the fabric. I always fought with her growing up when she wanted to dress me up in her style. I lived my teens in t-shirt and jeans and rebelled against Indian outfits except an occasional saree for a special day. These days, though, as my bond to my country frays I cling on to the clothes.

I have noticed something when I wear salwars to work. The older South Asian (and South East Asian) men and women who come to visit their families over the summer look at me and give me a hesitant smile. We live in a diverse community. Our library sees customers from different parts of the world. During summer, their elderly parents come to visit them. And they come to the library accompanying their sons, daughters, grandchildren. I notice their hesitation, their uncertainty and discomfort in a foreign place. I recognize this as I have seen my parents feel this way, out of place, in a country where they did not understand the language very well. However, when these men and women, many of the women wearing sarees or salwars themselves, see my outfit, they make eye contact with me. They either stare or smile. I often smile (behind my mask these days) and with the smile I reassure them that they are welcome here. Not just me in my ethnic wear but all my colleagues, other public library workers, are happy that you came.

Representation matters.