Balancing cultural appropriation and assimilation abroad

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I encountered more foreigners in one weekend at the Taj Mahal than I have in my entire time in Jaipur. The most obvious sign of a foreigner in India? Clothing choices. As fellow exchange students and I glowered at tourists’ short shorts, skimpy tank tops and—to our horror—a woman wearing a sari with only a bra underneath, we became more aware of our own attire.

Since arriving in India, all of the students on my program have bought kurtas (long shirts, essentially), churidaars (leggings bunched at the bottom) and salwaar kameez suits (loose, patterned pants and long shirts). But while we were judging them for their inappropriate clothing, did the other foreigners scoff at us equally for adopting the Indian style of dress? More importantly, what do Indians think when they see white girls traveling throughout the country, sporting their colorful fabrics? Are we appropriating Indian culture?

By the end of the weekend, my fears were assuaged: I was not appropriating Indian culture, but assimilating into my home for the next few months.

The treatment I received in one of India’s biggest tourist towns illuminated reasons why adopting a country’s style of dress is a good decision while studying abroad. On our first day in Agra, I wore jeans and a loose-fitting top, which looked like they could have been from a boutique in America. Street vendors endlessly harassed our group and auto rickshaw drivers offered us outrageous prices. By the end of the day, I was exhausted but prepared for round two the next day, when I planned to visit the Taj Mahal.

The next day, I wore a traditional salwar-kameez cotton suit consisting of baggy purple pants and a long, floral green top with a dupatta (light scarf). Perhaps because I had grown accustomed to all the hawkers, or because I had mastered my poker face as shopkeepers pestered me to buy their goods, but the attention was less incessant and more bearable that day. While I was wearing the traditional clothes, I was undeniably pestered less, could ward off hawkers more easily and got better prices from the rickshaw drivers. Although my skin and hair color made me stand out, I blended in more and was accepted at least as a student, the best label next to local.

Adopting an Indian style of dress does not count as appropriation, but rather assimilation. It represents an effort to understand and integrate oneself within the culture. It automatically ensures one is wearing appropriate clothing and respecting cultural standards of modesty. Finally, as a female, it helps to keep a low profile, which is downright essential for safety.

Donning a salwaar-kameez while studying in India is not appropriative for other reasons as well. The program instructors actually recommended that we purchase Indian clothing to avoid the excessive harassment that I experienced the first day in Agra—an invitation from within the culture to participate. Secondly, for excursions to more rural areas during the program, we are actually required to wear traditional Indian clothing as a sign of respect for the communities with which we are interacting.

Therein lies the distinction between appropriation and appreciation, between tourist and student: while studying in another country, one is open to learning the history and context behind the culture, rather than merely observing its superficial traits. So embrace the salwar-kameez in Jaipur, but put the bindis away in the States.