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.

Happy 10th birthday, my library branch.

Ten years ago, on this day, I walked into our palatial library with my husband and 2 young children in tow. As we drove in, we were astonished to see police officers directing traffic. The grand opening of my branch attracted a huge crowd, about 7000 community members – large enough for the county to send police officers to manage flow of people and cars. I remember walking around in awe, looking at the space, the gleaming stacks and columns, the terrace, the collection. Each book seemed new, smelled new. I remember thinking working at a library such as this would be a dream come true.

The dream did come true for me as I was hired as a Part Time Customer Service Specialist only seven months after the grand opening of the building. Within a year, I switched departments and joined the Research and Instructor team but remained part time to take care of the children. After a couple of years, I got a Full Time position in the same department and I work there still.

I have written before and write often how life affirming working at a public library can be. We get to interact with a microcosm of humanity almost on a daily basis and we realize 98% of the people, our customers, are kind. But apart from the sense of purpose that I find at my job, my work place has proved to be my anchor when I realized I was slowly sinking to a deep, dark place after both my parents died. I was told to take as much time as I needed. But after a few days of baba’s death, I felt I was succumbing in the quicksand of grief and I needed something to emerge from those depths of suffocating sorrow. I went back to the library. I wanted to be by myself, but needed to be busy. My colleagues gave me that space but remained close enough for support. I remember shelving cart after cart when I first came back. Shelving carts of materials kept me moving, and gave my mind a sense of numbness that it sorely needed. Between the stacks with only books for company, I found some semblance of peace. Public libraries are assets in the community. It comes to the aid of many as they look for opportunities to move ahead in life. It came to my aid by providing me with a job, a group of caring colleagues who have become family and my public library job saved me when I needed saving.

So happy birthday, my library. May your journey to enrich people’s lives continue, may you continue to promote equity and inclusion, may you continue to be a safe place for all and a cornerstone for the community. I am blessed to be part of that journey for a while.

Will wear the mask in a minute..

Our library has a mask mandate and as a library worker, one of my jobs is to remind customers to either pull up their masks over their noses from their chin or actually wear a mask if they plan to peruse our collection, use our computers or use our study space. I am a non confrontational person and a hard core introvert on top of that. So every time I see someone without mask, I groan inwardly, take a deep breath before I begin my diffident journey to ask that person to mask up. I have come a long way in these 10 years to politely assert myself in such situations but I still dread it.

Anyway, this morning as I was shelving in the poetry section, a lady came up to me and said in a soft whisper, “There is a man sitting out there with no mask on.” I assured her I will talk to him right away. After taking some deep breaths and groaning inwardly, I walked over to the gentleman.

“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to put your mask on since there is a mask mandate in the library.”

“Oh, sure mam, sure! I am just drinking my coffee.” He pointed to his disposable coffee cup and then also showed me his mask.

I thanked him and told him to put his mask on as soon as possible. And walked away. I continued shelving in other sections and then walked back to where he was working to clean up shelves. He looked at me with the corner of his eye and lifted his cup to his mouth. He was still mask less after 15 minutes. And I had a sneaky feeling that his coffee cup was empty. He was simply using that as a prop to continue to remain mask less. I chuckled at his ingenuity. I had to walk up and tell him to mask up now and if he needed to sip he could pull his mask down to sip and put it back on again. He was not as pleasant as he was during our first interaction but he did put his mask back on.

As I made my way back to the kiosk, I noticed a young man who did not have his mask on. I breathed, groaned and talked to him about doing the right thing (Could you please put your mask on, sir?). He did right away. I walked away. The next time I went near him, he had taken it off and put it on the table by his laptop. I just stood there next to him for a few seconds, staring at him. He looked at me, slowly retrieved his mask and put it on his nose.

Near the kiosk, I saw a very elderly woman walking towards me in hesitant shuffle, without mask. “What did I do wrong this morning to deserve this?” I asked the universe as I approached the woman and said my refrain – pull your mask up for crying out loud! (I worded my request differently, of course). She slowly pulled a mask from her pocket and put it on without acknowledging me or my polite request at all.

Then my shift ended and I walked away from the desk. I entered my cubicle and shook my head at humanity.