I pierced my nose because I liked the way my mother looked in her wedding photos, bracelet-sized nose ring glimmering, kept from weighing down her hooked nose by a chain slung over her ear. The sheer amount of effort dedicated to adornment was inspiring, a reminder that instead of aspiring to Parisian blasé, it’s okay to revel in beauty. My piercing was also a decision dripping with imposed symbolism, an attempt to embrace parts of my Indian background that I had spent years ignoring in an effort to assimilate into my very white suburban Pennsylvania setting.
When I showed my mom the piercing, she asked why I had chosen to pierce the “wrong” side of my face. Much to my chagrin, I had accidentally committed an Indian sartorial faux pas, a marker of my unfamiliarity with the identity I was explicitly trying to embrace.
"All of my attempts at performing “authentic” Indianness have felt like similar half-successes."
All of my attempts at performing “authentic” Indianness have felt like similar half-successes. I have a general familiarity with the aesthetic and culture I’m trying to imitate, but always feel like an observer rather than an active participant. The Hindi I speak is audibly accented, my saris are poorly draped, and my nose piercing is on the wrong side of my face.
My experience is not unique. In fact, the first-generation Indian immigrant community is often shaped, rather than just by shared cultural experiences, by a communal sense of loss- an unshakable feeling of being an imposter in any space one occupies, never fully seen as American, but unable to pass as Indian either.
Vrinda with her mother and grandmother.
It is unavoidable to be influenced by the environment in which one grows up. Therefore, it is perfectly normal as someone immersed in multiple cultures to access Indian culture differently from someone who grows up there. And, when people of color are pressured to forget their accents and spices and clothing in the name of a homogenized Euro-Western Americanness, it is no wonder that brown children growing up in the United States feel pressure to forget their difference. What’s more, every aspect of Indian fashion, food, and language is constantly evolving, fragmenting, and expanding, meaning that there is not even one monolithic “Indian culture” to perform. Still, I have found it impossible to avoid feeling guilty for being incompletely or “inauthentically” Indian.
It has been difficult but pivotal, then, for me to validate the ways in which I am influenced by, if not ever fully immersed into, Indian culture. Though, as with my nose ring, I often stumble when attempting to perform Indianness, I have also found that by accepting and adopting hybrid sartorial choices, I can visually and emotionally work towards self-acceptance. When I wear sari blouses as crop tops, when I put on bindis like I would wear eyeliner on a night out, I recognize these cultural signifiers of India. I am able to assert that I am Indian, American, feminine, and influenced by all of these factors simultaneously. I construct my Indianness as deeply personal rather than mass-produced, decided for me by television shows or movie posters.
I cannot gain back the time I spent telling my parents not to speak Hindi around my friends, or the years I feared being told I smelled like curry in class but through this process of sculpting an Indian-influenced wardrobe, I have unearthed and identified my tastes, what I think is beautiful, what reminds me of my mom or my best friend.
I have been able to see my own perspective as valid, and to speak to my mom in terms she is comfortable with. Rather than demanding that we relate only by talking about American culture, we have built a new language- visual and spoken- that combines our histories. Often, as we comb through her old clothing, she will say something like, “I bought this in a market for 20 rupees when I was in college! I spent my free time sewing cheap saris like this one into outfits and curtains for my friends.”
It is impossible for me to understand completely the life she had in India, as it was so entirely different from my own, but these snippets of memory, these tiny anecdotes prompted by shimmery swatches of 30-year-old fabric, give me clues. They break down the schism between her world and mine into references I can access. She liked shopping. She hung out with her friends. She sewed. These snapshots of her life, of Indian life, are like my own.
In fact, through this process, I have learned that saris have always been a way for mothers to relate to their daughters. Recently, when my mom was showing me her mother’s wedding sari, which had been passed down for many generations, she pointed out the gold embroidery. It was made of real gold, she told me, so that the bride who possessed it could, if she needed financial security, burn the sari and collect the gold. Here was physical proof of the ways in which clothing preserved histories and relayed unspoken emotions that transgressed time and space.
My great-great-grandmothers were saying, “I do not know what kind of cards you will be dealt in the future, I don’t know if I’ll be able to relate completely to it or if I’ll be there to help, but I know that I want to protect you in the ways that I can.” And while the terms on which I pursue romance and marriage and independence are completely different from those of my predecessors, it is comforting to know this emotion and consideration have been preserved, and are accessible to me in the ways I choose to accept it.
"Ultimately, by allowing each of my identities to intermingle, I make my body into a site of resistance, a space for my layered identity, each existing without invalidating the other."
Ultimately, by allowing each of my identities to intermingle, I make my body into a site of resistance, a space for my layered identity, each existing without invalidating the other. It is exciting to understand my presentation as purposeful rather than as incidental. With this understanding comes, too, a realization that I don’t need to give up one identity to fit neatly into another. Instead, I am able to complicate what it means to be American, fashionable, beautiful. I do not need to dress in a way that satisfies categories others attempt to impose upon me.
by Vrinda Jagota