Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pretty Striped T-Shirt

I was going to write a longer post. Full of arguments, back and forth, on whether my wearing a salwar was appropriate... or appropriative. But then I remembered something. How could I forget -- I'd been working through the recipes in this book since Christmas.

Here it is. Taken from Madhur Jaffrey's Climbing the Mango Trees:

Kamal returned with suitcases full of fashionable gifts for all of us. I received a pair of pedal pushers and a black-and-white-striped T-shirt that practically became my uniform. She also presented me with a light tartan shawl and a sterling silver charm bracelet with the Eiffel Tower dangling from it. [...] I had yet to see the rest of the world, but, already armed with a pair of pedal pushers, the charm bracelet, and the Coke, I felt that phase of my life had to be just around the corner. (Jaffrey 237, 240)

That's exactly how I feel, and much more eloquently stated. It's interesting that Jaffrey chooses, for her book jacket image, a picture of her wearing the striped T-shirt and pedal pushers. Rather like my choosing the pretty blue salwar as the image for my blog. I have yet to see the rest of the world, but that phase of my life is just around the corner.

It doesn't completely solve the problem. That is, I still open myself up to criticism. I still find myself in a world that thinks this way (believe me, I would put up the YouTube clip directly if I could -- it's undergoing scheduled maintenance right now and I'll edit the post ASAP). I also... well, I also understand that there's a long history of cultural rape, exotification, forced assimilation, etc. behind this pretty blue salwar which wasn't necessarily behind Madhur Jaffrey's pair of pedal pushers.

But -- the salwar stays, for now. Here, at least, it stays. When I wear it in public, I'll let you know.

(Edit: Click here for part three.)

Why "pretty blue salwar?"

Or, more specifically, why title my blog something that references directly concepts of ethnicity, nationality, multiculturalism, and identity, and can provoke some fairly contentious response?

Or, even more specifically, why title the blog something which begs the question "can a white (non-desi) woman wear a blue salwar?"

Well, to start off, I can -- if one interprets it literally. That is, it goes on over my head (though technically the salwar part pulls on from the feet and is tied at the waist) and my body does not burst into flames a la Glauce.

That's the easy answer.

Can a white (non-desi) woman wear a blue salwar in Hyderabad? Yes. The tourist blogs claim I'll be taken more seriously that way. In the photos I've seen of the place I'm going to work, everyone's wearing salwars and kurtas, so my guess is that I will be following suit.

But I bought my blue salwar three months ago, as a birthday present to myself. I've never worn it in public.

So the real question is "can a white (non-desi) woman wear a blue salwar in America?" And if so, where?

To a Bollywood film showing at a local theatre?
To an Indian Student Association event?
To the Namaste Grocery?
To a classroom or rehearsal hall?
To Wal-Mart?

I feel like the answer is "no" and yet I don't like it.

There's another blog post I want to reference, in which an American (desi) blogger describes her experiences wearing salwar, and the various readings of this particular piece of clothing. It's a post about tension and misinterpretation, and passing judgment without understanding. And yet, in the comments, a white woman writes "may I wear salwar too? they are so beautiful and comfortable..." (Edit: The link is here.)

It's... I don't know. When I wear it (if I wear it) I want it to read "I am educating myself about India," but it's going to look like it reads "I am exotifying India." And that seems to be the inherent problem.

I'm going to keep puzzling through this, although right now I am out of time.

Here's the other half of the answer, in case you were wondering. It's called pretty blue salwar because that was the name of the actual thing, when I bought it on ebay. "Pretty pretty blue salwar," said the link. I clicked, and the rest is history.

(Edit: Click here for Part Two.)

Monday, January 29, 2007


This is why I started blogging.

Four months ago -- nearly five -- when I started planning my trip to India, I began looking on the magical internet for information that would help me understand the trip. I found a handful of websites, some of which, if you've found this blog through your interest in travel/tourism, you will definitely be familiar with. But they were all... well, they all approached the thing from the tourist's point of view: how to avoid "Delhi belly," how to deal with the heat, how to avoid getting harassed on the street, how to avoid getting eaten by Bengal tigers. And, of course, where to find "real silk saris only $8 USD!!!!"

Well, fine. I'd rather not get heatstroke, and if I don't leave Hyderabad with a real silk sari I will be sorely disappointed. But... these websites were not what I was looking for. I quickly grew tired of learning information on how to be a tourist. I wanted information on what India was really about -- not shopping tips and health warnings -- and what was actually going on within the country and the people.

Enter SepiaMutiny. It's a blog primarily run by American bloggers, but deals with information pertaining to both the American and Indian desi communities. I found it, starting with this post, and was instantly hooked. Here was where they kept the good stuff -- and stuff I had never thought of, never considered, but now am beginning to understand.

After four-odd months of lurking, I started commenting. But it seemed a little off. Many of the posts dealt with the reality of being desi and being "brown" in contemporary society, and, as I was neither, it felt strange for me to contribute. So I thought "this is a good place for me to watch and learn, but perhaps not a good place for me to play."

And thus I started my own blog, where I can puzzle out all the things I need to puzzle out before I get on the plane for Hyderabad (technically St. Louis-Frankfurt-Hyderabad).

But... if you're already here... click on over to SepiaMutiny. They know what they're talking about a lot more than I do.


Hi. I'm Blue. That's not my real name, of course, but it's what you can call me while we spend our time together.

I'm going to India in August. To Hyderabad, in Andhra Pradesh. I've never been to India before. I've been to Europe, in a whirlwind tour of twelve countries in fourteen days (a sadist's idea of a good time for high school choral students), and I've spent a summer in Toronto working for the Fringe Theatre festival. But I've never been to India.

So... this is my plan: to spend the next eight months writing, linking, connecting, and sharing everything I learn. If you jump on board now, you can follow me through the entire trip.

I should add a caveat: undoubtedly I will be seeing everything with new eyes, with tourist eyes, with little-white-girl-in-a-blue-salwar eyes. But that's not exactly what I want this blog to be about. I want to understand this trip, culturally and contextually, as well as I can. That's where I need your help. If you've traveled before, if you've been to India before (or are there right now), if you've wrestled through a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook before... let's talk.

Enough for now. Welcome!

A Namaste Story

At the counter at Namaste Grocery.

The man behind the counter: "Are you sure you are going to be able to understand that film?"

I looked down at the DVD I was renting. Chalte Chalte.

"Yes." I smiled. "I'm sure."