Yesterday, I went into an "Indian fashion shop" (not actual name) to search for outfits for my girls. We're going to a gigantus Indian wedding in a week and it's the first one my girls will attend. They are thrilled and excited. All of it enthralls them: the mayaan, or "henna evening" with the women, the colorful, glittering fabrics, the bindis, the food, the music, the gathering of family and community . . .
Me? Not so much. Don't get me wrong. I love Indian weddings. Not so crazy about the drama. Anyway. We walk into the store and my girls go nuts looking through the racks and the bangles and the earrings and such. The store clerk smiles and begins to show them outfits she thinks they'll like. I veer them toward the outfits I know are more affordable.
All is well until one of my daughters holds an outfit against herself and admires it in the mirror. She beams. The outfit is dazzling. It has a long skirt and is in her favourite colour--fuschia. "Do I look like a princess, Mommy?"
The store clerk turns to one of her colleagues and, in Punjabi, says, "that colour doesn't work with the child's dark skin."
Before I can think about it I fire out, in Punjabi, "Oh, that colour works just fine on the child. What doesn't work on dark skin are your blue contact lenses."
She has the decency to be embarrassed. "Oh--you speak Punjabi! You . . . you don't look like you're Indian."
Okay. This, I've heard plenty in my life. But rarely has it come from another Indian, Punjabi, Sikh woman*. A woman who sees Indian, Punjabi, Sikh people all day long, who goes to various parts of South Asia to shop for the outfits that hang on her racks. I've been to India. I know that Indian, Punjabi, Sikh people vary in skin shade from very European-looking to very African-looking. In fact, in my own family, my mother often passes for Italian or Spanish, while my father has been called many derogatory names used for those who are of the darker persuasion in India. So . . . what exactly was this woman referring to when she said I didn't "look Indian"? It was my turn to be stunned.
The experience made me think a lot about family--both chosen and biological. This upcoming wedding is bringing up a lot of issues for me about belonging and family and community. Much like Sharan, the main character's mother, in SHINE, COCONUT MOON, I had a bit of a rocky path with both family and community. Most of my life choices did not sit well with either.
And then this store clerk -- making a quick judgement about me and my daughter both, in one fell swoop. On the one hand, I was grateful that my daughter doesn't speak the language and, therefore, didn't understand what the clerk said. I know how painful it was to hear things like that as I was growing up. It definitely leaves a lasting imprint.
But on the other hand, the language, the culture, the traditions, the spirit of the ancestors . . . these are her birthright. And regardless of what some ignoramuses say or think, she is entitled to them. As am I.
As I walked out of that store (and went into another where we bought our outfits), I was full of gratitude. I thanked whoever or whatever watches over us for helping me find like-minded souls in the world who eventually became my family and community. Like-minded souls who came in all colours, all genders**, and with varying life experiences. But I only found them when I stepped away. Made the decision to follow my own truth and my own path. Some things are just non-negotiable, you know? Sometimes you have to walk away to save yourself.
I hope for the same for my children: that they search for the light and love first, and everything else second.
*I knew she was Sikh because of the various symbols used to identify Sikhs. The "five K's," as detailed in SHINE, for instance.
** Yes, "all." I prescribe to the belief that gender is fluid and part of a continuum.