Thank you for asking for this post! It’s a reality I live everyday in many ways, and I am excited to hear your diverse perspectives on this issue. Also, this post took me like 5 drafts to write and got worser with each one. Gah, work-life was INSANE this week and I just wanted to sit down and focus on my nice thinky post! Stupid co-worker medical emergencies and burst sewage lines and blah blah blah.
Here’s a hard reality I’ve had to learn to accept: sometimes I know more about Indian cultural artifacts than people of Indian heritage who are talking to me. It’s a hard reality for me because I was raised to constantly question myself as a member of a privileged minority. Any time I thought anything, I had to slowly learn to question it. And any time I was told something, I had to learn to consider it seriously no matter how wrong it sounded to me. That was a lifetime of learning to consciously question my unconscious assumptions. And now I have to do the opposite sometimes, to consciously affirm my unconscious assumptions.
Every time, for example, someone corrects me to say “Mumbai” instead of “Bombay”, I have to struggle to hold firm in my own opinions, while still respecting theirs. It’s HARD!!!! It’s a lot easier to either blindly assume I am right in all ways, or to obediently agree to correct myself depending on whatever I am told. Being open minded and making decisions and sticking with them, that’s way way trickier.
I had to really sit down and think about what I strive for, and I came up with a whole series of rules I try to keep for myself. There are “internal” rules, while I police my own thoughts, and also “external” rules, where I decide how to act in a particular situation. You are welcome to borrow them, add to them, or suggest an edit for them:
- Do I sincerely like this particular cultural object just for itself not for it’s cultural meaning (a song, a movie, a dress, a painting, food, anything)?
There is a quote I used in my Master’s Thesis on non-desi Indian film fans, it’s from an older article written in the late 90s. It’s about that first burst of underground Indian film fans in America, the ones who found funky old VHS tapes in shops or shared little clips of songs. One of the subjects being interviewed said that now, with the start of the internet and DVDs and things, that thrill of discovery and specialness is gone. You have to “really like them”. That’s what I mean. Do you like this because it is special and unique to you? Because it is different from what you are used to? Or because you really like it, outside of any other consideration, no matter how common or rare or popular or unpopular it is?
- Am I sincerely trying to learn more about this cultural object in order to appreciate it more?
This goes hand in hand with the above question. If you are enjoying the “differentness” and the “specialness”, that goes away once you get context. And maybe that’s okay, I really enjoyed a couple of Korean TV shows I watched, but then I hit a wall where I realized I just wasn’t interested in watching more, or learning about the actors, or the culture, or anything. So I stopped watching them. The dishonest thing would have been to continue, to know I don’t really like this but I am still watching it because I think it is a “cool” “special” thing to do.
- Am I talking about it in a way that stays within my own particular lived experience?
The common recommendation is to use “I” statements. I would expand that to also use “Name” statements. If you say, “I was told that….” or “From what I have watched….”, that helps you stay within a safe space where you aren’t speaking for others. You can also say, “The scholar Rosie Thomas argues” or “Edward Said in Orientalism says”, or of course “This blogger Margaret that I read says”. But where I find myself getting into dangerous waters is when I am tempted to say “everyone agrees that…” or “This is how it is”. This builds on the above, if you weren’t interested enough to really experience more of whatever it is for yourself, to read more and learn more, that is okay. Just speak clearly and specifically about what you DO know.
- Am I open to asking questions and learning about other opinions and adding them to my knowledge base without resistance?
This is a REALLY hard one!!!! But again, it builds on the previous. If I am using “I” statements and specific references, and you are using “I” statements and specific references, I have to do you the courtesy and listening and respecting what you are saying. If you say “I met Shahrukh Khan and he was a total a–“, well, I can’t just ignore that. I can ask questions and get details and then make a decision for myself on what I believe based on what I hear, but I can’t just ignore it. By the way, I was told this. Back in maybe 2004? And then the context was, this was a story from a friend of a friend who had met him at a paid private dinner party appearance after a show where he didn’t talk much. Frankly, if I was paid to have dinner with a bunch of rich folks just so they could say they had dinner with me after I had performed for 4 hours, I wouldn’t talk much either!
Along with the internal, there are also external questions that go into my choice of when to share my interests. And that is truly MY choice, just as it is an individual choice for all of you. No one has a right to tell me what I should and should not say or do in any situation, I get to trust my gut and do what feels right to me in that moment.
- Do I feel like these are the kind of people who would understand why I might like this cultural object just for itself?
This is why I often don’t talk about Indian movies. It’s not that I think these are people who aren’t openminded and interested in other cultures and so on and so forth, it’s that these are people who aren’t into movies! Yes, sure, if I wanted to I could find some universal point of connection and so on and so forth, but sometimes I just don’t feel like putting in that much work. It’s okay to go with the flow of the conversation and just not bring it up.
- Do I feel like these are the kind of people who will understand and sympathize with my desire to learn more?
This is the other, far less common, reason. Some people like movies well enough, and like people well enough, but just aren’t interested in stuff outside their own experience. I’m not saying racist or zenophobic, I’m just saying not interested. We all know people who will quite happily talk to anyone from anywhere of any color creed or culture about, say, how to fix a car. But if the conversation turns to geography or languages or religion or history, their eyes glaze over. That’s fine, I’ll just talk to you about cars and houses and other things you know.
- Do I feel like these are the kind of people who will be able to listen and understand that I am staying within my own particular lived experience?
Ooooooo, this is tricky! And it comes up a lot among urban westernized youth. If you sit and listen to me in a calm open way, you will understand my very very particular story and experiences. But if you only hear the surface, it is easy to leap to a bad conclusion thanks to training on how to live in a multi-cultural world. And then it’s really hard to fight against it. Here’s a simple example, I was talking about the new season of Bridgerton to a friend who hadn’t seen it yet and I mentioned that the “plain” sister was darker skin toned than the “pretty” sister. She immediately assumed it was subconscious racism in casting and stuff. And then I had to wheel her back and say that no, it was CONSCIOUS racism, they were saying-without-saying that skin color is a cultural prejudice and in fact the “plain” sister is just as beautiful but people were wrong and blind to it. Luckily we were in a car together so she was trapped and had to listen to my longer explanation. And also, she is a good person who listens. But it is easy to just hear the surface, make your decision, and never consider anything else. Especially online, which is why this post is so extremely long so people have to think beyond the surface 🙂
- Do I feel like these are the kind of people who would be able to listen and understand that they need to stay within THEIR OWN lived experience? This is what I run into a lot on this blog.
We had a discussion at one point about brothers marrying their widowed sisters-in-law. There was a South Indian commentator who said “that would NEVER happen and is completely against Indian culture” and there was a North Indian commentator who said “that happens a lot and I have seen it”. They were both right, just within their own lived experience. And I was right in my lived experience of having seen it multiple times as a plot point in Hindi films, and not knowing nearly as much about southern films/culture where it does not happen. But we have to really listen to each other in order to understand that everyone can be right at the same time, and no one is necessarily trying to overstep their knowledge.
- Do I feel like I have the space to make clear that I am someone with all those marks in the first 4 points?
Finally, we get to the Indian clothes question! Which is so tricky for me and others of us. Because clothes are the first thing someone sees about you, and often the ONLY thing they see about you, there’s no space for you to provide greater context. If you wear clothes in a certain way, it can look like you are wearing a “costume”. I wear Indian clothes to the degree that it doesn’t feel like a “costume” to me. Big old Indian earrings, sure! Kurta over jeans, absolutely! Salwar around the house on a hot day with a t-shirt, 100%! But I’m not going to wear Kurta and Salwar and earrings and throw on a dupatta for good measure all at the same time. That makes me feel like I am dressing up like someone else, and that feels wrong. And occasionally, I know that someone else will see me from a distance and think I am being insulting (even if I am not), and I will have no chance to tell them any differently. Clothes are tricky that way.
- Do I think the group I am talking to might think/believe something that is simply wrong and I will not be able to convince them otherwise? This is the big BIG one!!!
If someone says to me, “All Hindi films are essentially Hindu”, well, that’s the end of the conversation. I am not going to say a peep about what I feel, about any of my experiences, about any of that. Ditto if someone says “Bollywood is terrible because it teaches women their only goal is marriage”. Nope! Not touching it! I am using my own personal power to just NOT SAY ANYTHING. Life is too short. The same goes, by the way, for a few comments here and there on the blog that I simply choose not to respond to.
The bottomline is, as someone who loves and spends a lot of time dealing with things from a culture not her own, I am going to have people constantly judging me for my interests. There is nothing I can do about that. The best response I can come up with is to make sure I am following my own personal standards as best I can, and to go forth with confidence.