Sunday, June 1, 2008

It's hip to be Asian... or just adopted

So my very white friend (she is indeed, a pale lass) is a nanny for a very wealthy Indian family for the last two years. As part of the family, she is taken along on their travels (Europe, India, Laguna Beach, etc) and learns much of their Indian culture. What pertains to this course is the gift she received from them while on their trip to India: a sari. A honest-to-god authentic sari that they even taught her how to wear, lest she walk around without the right pleating and look like a poseur. This reminds me of the gifts of salwaar-kameezes in the article by Parminder Bhachu in London. Unlike the subsequent commodification post-diaspora, her case is very much the real thing.

She came back from the trip in full-on sari/bindi gear. It became apparent that it is not a mere commodity for her because she has a reason to wear the sari. Then it occurred to me that it was easy to label it as such. It was because I've known this girl since high school that I can't immediately label her as some hack. So is this appropriation?

This is also the friend where I first experimented with henna. Sunaina Maira discusses henna and its prevalence in stores compared to pre-indochic times. When "white" people wear henna, it's trendy but when the "other" wears it, it becomes exotic at best. As an Asian-American person, I was wary of how I would be perceived with henna all over my hands. I am caught in both appearing "exotic" and blindly following trends. I have certainly not appropriated the culture and I did not want to waste $20 worth of henna to look plain. It would appear then that in the case of multicultural individuals, it is especially far more difficult to maintain identities in our melting pot.

As for this experiment, I already live a brandless life. By that, I certainly do not mean I don't buy by brand only - I do own brands. But the reason for that is not because I want the insignia to establish my status. Brands oft come with other guarantees like quality. It is why I pay more, falling to the thralls of corporations because corporations have the infrastructure (sometimes bad infrastructure) for good work to be done. There is too much unknown in lesser known brands, even in clothing. I will pay extra for a top that compliments my body but at the same time, I also shop at thrift stores for the occasional oddity. So my shopping mantra is in line with my life mantra - everything in moderation.

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