Dressing up in a foreign language

If you’ve been around me in the last few months, you might already have heard this story. It just keeps being relevant. But I feel that if I can save just one of you from the cultural misstep I have taken, then my work here is done.

I met Rashmi my first week of grad school. She’s the kind of person with whom you feel instant friendship. So when she invited me to her wedding in India, I agreed – after all, this was a moment to have my own sherpa to guide me. The plan was for me to fly to India then I would stay with her parents or her friends for three weeks.

The one thing I think I fear most in life, which I’m learning as I get older, is not spiders or a Republican president or any of those things – it’s being inappropriately dressed for an occasion. I tend to be at least slightly overdressed and that’s better – in my mind – than being under dressed. I blame my mother, for reasons that cannot be contained here, but warrant a story of their own.

Somehow though I decided that my uniform for this trip would be: long skirt, t-shirt, sandals/flip flops. Jewelry: the diamond and ruby ring I wore all the time and a silver ankle bracelet that my mom had just given me for my birthday. I wanted to blend it and I realized pretty quickly that this was not how you do that.

When I arrived in India, I went to Chennai, which used to be Madras. And in Madras I went sari-shopping with Rashmi and her best friend and her future mother in law, who bought me a starter sari.

In case you don’t know, a sari consists of 18 feet of fabric, a petticoat, and a blouse. Mrs. Udupa was concerned that I couldn’t “manage” a heavier silk sari so my starter sari was lightweight green cotton embroidered in gold. Very pretty.

I think, this is good, because they’re telling me what to wear and then I won’t be dressed improperly.

A few days before the wedding, Rashmi took me to buy some jewelry to go with my starter sari. Of course we went with a gaggle of women and they kept trying to get to buy a few more necklaces, a bigger pair of earrings. Indian woman I think are so gorgeous – the sari and the jewelry, it’s just beautiful. And here’s a pale western girl trying to pass and I did just that – I passed on the jewelry and the everything, but I did get a small pair of earrings, and a small necklace. Rashmi gave me a set of pretty green and gold glass bangles from her own collection.

Clothing and jewelry are incredibly important in Indian culture, especially during weddings. Rashmi was receiving gifts almost daily at the time – saris, necklaces, bangles. In this part of India, it was explained – when a woman is married, she has these glass bangles, and when she’s widowed they douse her in water, pull off her red wedding sari, break her glass bangles, then give her a white sari to wear. White is the color of the dead in India, as opposed to black as it is here.

In fact, Rashmi on her wedding day wore 26 gold necklaces, bangles from wrist to elbow, a matha patti – the decorated chain along the hair line, a nose ring, and a couple of ankle bracelets.

I have the sari. I have some jewelry.

I’m not fitting in. I’m the tallest, whitest person in town. I have a strange hair color. This was back before my hair became chemically dependent and it was lighter. People kept wanting to touch my hair.

The night before the wedding we were all sitting around Rashmi’s parents’ home. It’s the custom to have everyone over to visit and have snacks and catch up. I sat there just listening to everyone, watching, learning.

The groom’s grandmother, she was in her seventies or so, was sitting next to me and she kept looking at my legs. Then she’d say something to the person beside her. Then she looked at me.

Tiny panic bells are going off. Something’s wrong. I’m dressed wrong. I have the wrong shoes on. Wait, I don’t have ANY shoes on because that’s the custom in Indian homes.

Later, I asked Rashmi and she said, “She wanted to know where your other ankle braclet was. The only people who were just one here are prostitutes.”

Not only that, but the servants had politely been asking if they could help me find the other because they couldn’t believe the mistress of the house would bring an American whore to her wedding.

And that’s it. I tried so hard to be included, and to do in Rome, and I failed. I did not intend to be pointed out as a prostitute but… I bought pairs of ankle bracelets for all my lady friends.


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