Coming out in the South Asian community

Recently, I went to Gerrard Street in Toronto with a batch of bridesmaids to find saris for an upcoming wedding that we’re all attending. As we walked from store to store with the distinctive beat of Indian music trailing behind us, I noticed bindis of all shapes and sizes, reddish and black henna and of course the beautiful and exotic fabrics commonly used for saris.

As a South Asian, these sights and sounds are nothing new to me. But seeing them elsewhere is a bit of a surprise.

When I walk into Le Chateau, Costa Blanca or many other hip stores these days, I often see our fashions or hear our music. Suddenly saris, bindis and henna are the latest style, and popular songs, like Noreaga’s ‘Super Thug’, have an obvious South Asian beat.

Since I was a child, I have seen my mother and aunts dress up in saris and bindis and though I havn’t been too fond of our music, I am familiar with the sounds of the tabla beat and Hindi tunes.

The funny thing is that growing up in Canada, I did not once hear a classmate remark at how cool it was to decorate your forehead or wear a sari. As a matter of fact, these things were completely uncool, silly looking and something that only a “Paki” would wear.

Isn’t it odd how I don’t hear such things being murmured anymore when I see
girls of all different cultures walking by with their arms and ankles covered in henna, wearing skirts and dresses made from Indian-influenced style?

I can’t quite get over this fad, not because I don’t want to share my culture with the rest of the world. South Asians have always been wearing the saris, the bindis, the sarong, and henna, but no one thought it was too cool at that time.

It is a well-known tale of embarrassment for South Asian kids to have their
mothers pick them up from school in full cultural costume. We’ve heard it all before: Why is your mother wearing that?'' orEww, what’s that on her forehead?”

I wasn’t completely ashamed of being Sri Lankan when I was a child. Sure enough my parents dressed me up in little saris and, oh, wasn’t I the cutest thing? But that was at home.

The pictures they took of me were never the ones I took to school for show-and-tell. After all, what would my little classmates have thought had they known the other side of my Canadian self that played dress-up in beautiful fabrics rather than dresses, and pranced around to South Asian music rather than pop singers like Madonna?

Even Madonna, however, has picked up the South Asian vibe. The video for her song “Frozen” shows Madonna, her hands adorned with henna, moving in ways similar to Indian dance. Also, the song itself is distinctly influenced by South Asian musical traditions.

And Madonna does not stand alone. Artists such as Tatyana Ali and Shania Twain have sported bindis and saris in their videos. Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly” is yet another example of a popular song that draws freely on South Asian music.

When artists that are not South Asian use the culture to add flavour to either their songs or videos, it now tends to be a seller, but South Asian artists who
normally use traditional beats in their music are pretty much unknown.

Of course, Apache Indian came out with “Arranged Marriage,” a song that actually made it to hip radio stations. But I’m talking about artists such as Toronto’s own Punjabi-by-Nature that have put a modern twist into Indian music.

South Asian people are not nearly as popular as their culture is becoming, which is nothing new to me or my South Asian friends. We watch TV and read
magazines, and it is obvious to us that South Asian people are not well represented. As a culture, we are pretty much invisible in the entertainment media.

For example, given that fashion mags are displaying the latest South Asian inspired fashions, isn’t it ironic that there are never South Asians modeling this latest fad?

It’s not that I see anything wrong with people of other cultures wearing our clothes, but I do wonder why South Asian people are not also shown displaying styles that are originally from our own culture.

And where does this leave us? While the brown kids are begging their mothers to put away their bindis, other kids are begging their moms to buy them some.

Well, that’s what’s hot for the moment. Fads come and go, but South Asian people will continue to wear their traditional styles, as they always have.

Though I wish I could say that people will now be more accepting of our culture since they have tried it on for size and liked it, I have my doubts.

The embarrassment of having Mom pick you up at school will continue for South Asian kids simply because the henna is covering brown skin and the bindis rest in the middle of an Indian woman’s forehead.

Can anyone give me a justifiable answer as to why?

It is a question that neither my South Asian friends nor I could answer. In fact, I wanted to quote my South Asian friends on the subject but when I told them that their names would be used, they quickly refused.

They told me that it would be too embarrassing having their names associated with an article on South Asian culture.

It just isn’t cool.

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