Saturday, November 17, 2012

Being Judged By Foreigners

Another thing that came to mind during last Sunday's service was how people judge each other. Once again this isn't just a white, brown or black issue.

Many times I've felt like I needed to be on my best behavior around foreigners so as not to damage their view of my nation, other people of my color, my state, etc. I think many of us feel out of place when we visit other nations (or even other parts of our own nation). We feel a need to fit in. It's basic human nature but, because we weren't brought up in that environment we usually feel out of place or left out. We don't know what to do and what not to do.

Unfortunately most people are judged by a tv or internet standard. By this I mean Indians think all white women act like the dramatists they see on western tv shows. Westerners think all Indians dress up in colorful clothing, sing and dance and run through green pastures/fields. More often than not, this just isn't true. Even reality shows are heavily dramatized and not nearly as real as their genre would suggest. Just look at Big Boss and Big Brother. They purposely look for the most dramatic, extreme people and try to pair them up with other personalities that they won't get along with. This is how they make money.

While I was in India, I became keenly aware of how others looked at me in different styles of dress. I broke this down even further into patterns. Not surprisingly, I got the most favorable reaction in striped western wear. Second to that was when I wore pajami leggings and a matching kameez (suit top) or kurta.

Thus I learned a little about Punjabi fashion trends. I also learned about fabrics the same way. When I wore simple cotton suits I got more compliments than when I wore silk or other flashy fabrics. It's simply not done to try and dress in party wear or more formal clothing on a daily basis. Yes, most Punjabi women dress up in nice suits to go to the mall on Sunday but it's still not the fancier fabrics. Usually the designs were more elaborate.

Please keep in mind I am absolutely not a Punjabi fashion expert, I'm barely above a novice! But, I know how to pick out a suit for an event. Of course, as my local suit man says - my taste in clothes is very different from anyone else who shops at his store. I had my own tastes and that wasn't something I was willing to let go of just to fit into a society where I would always stand out. Plus I had to feel comfortable in the clothes and I'm sorry, but many of the prints I saw were things I could only envision my grandmother wearing and I'm just too young for that kind of feeling!

Anyway, I think I'm swaying off point. I don't think it was unusual at all to feel like I was constantly being judged in India. It was noticeable that some people (mostly young men) were waiting for me to take on the typical American persona they had seen on tv and start flirting or making eyes at them. Aunties verbalized things they thought I would do. And I've written several times about people we didn't even know visiting our home to comment on my looks or activities (thankfully all positive).

This same thing happens to me in the US. Possibly just as much as or more than while I was in India. See, in India I had the benefit of not speaking the language and not knowing what may have been said that was negative. Here in the US I distinctly remember checking myself out after dressing every day to make sure I looked okay. Was I wearing the right clothes, did they match right, did they fit right, how did I look in them, etc.

When I walked past people I often wondered what they thought when they looked at me. When I met people and we chatted I would wonder if they thought I was normal, crazy, stupid, etc. This is our self-consciousness and really has nothing to do with anyone else. But still I felt it. It affected me. It affected how I walked, talked (as well as how much I talked), who I spoke to, etc.

When I was addressing my Nigerian friends, I knew not to talk about my Liberian friends. When I talked to my German friends I didn't discuss Nazi's. This IS cultural sensitivity. Out of respect for their cultures and their histories, I avoided topics that may upset them. This is not much different than the Hindu concept of ahimsa and it has nothing to do with me being white and not wanting to offend them or avoid guilt from American historical events.

Another issue I face personally is clothing and this has considerable implications both in my culture and foreign or other religious cultures. I'm a large chested woman. This makes it difficult to find clothing in US branded stores that isn't low cut. (I can't wear turtle necks or other high neck shirts for health reasons.) So even if I find some that don't seemingly show cleavage, I still have to be careful when I'm around others not to lean over the wrong way, etc. or they may see down my shirt.

In India, this was even more critical. Don't let anyone fool you. I had the exact same issue with kameez necklines whether store bought or tailor made. And I can only assume (because I have no experience) that in the Muslim cultures in India this would be offensive. It's offensive in some Christian circles in the US as well. I had to make sure my butt was covered while riding the motorcycle. In some areas of town I had to cover my face completely. I had to be keenly aware of everything about myself at all times.

Still, it wasn't much different than life for people every day in the US. We are all still judged by current fashion trends and how well we keep up. We're judge by the cars we drive, the jobs we have, the money we spend, the activities we engage in, etc.

Have any of you ever felt a more keen sense of awareness about your clothes, actions, etc. while talking with a foreigner? Or while in the presence of foreigners?
Do you think this is a self-esteem issue or one of historical precedent? Is it sometimes both and other times neither one?
Tell me your thoughts.


  1. I used to worry a lot about what people thought of me, particularly in a cross-cultural Indian/American setting in the US (before I went to India). Yes, all those questions of appropriation and appreciation were on my mind even before I read these things on the internet. I didn't want people to judge me poorly for doing the things I did, wearing the things I wore, etc. I have mentioned before I never wore a bindi until a lady was offended BY MY NOT WEARING ONE and stuck it on me at a singing engagement.

    I never had a feeling of "I must be on my best behavior around foreigners lest they think worse of my country." I have never had much of a feeling of being a representative of America while I was in the US. Anyone new to the country would be so immersed that no one is going to base their ideas of the country solely on my personal actions. I worked with grad students on a regular basis, and my modus operandi was just to be welcoming, open-minded, and helpful. I knew that this place would fail them in many ways and so I wanted to not be part of that problem, but be part of the good experiences they had.

    When in India, I was indeed treated as "the token American" who knew EVERYTHING about America and could answer ALL of their questions. Of course, I don't know everything, never will, and couldn't answer many of them except with "ok, well that's complicated." I found it easier to start with the stereotypes and deconstruct from there rather than trying to be defensive of the US or its culture.

    As far as individuals judging me, I am sure it happens, but I hardly ever notice. And when I notice, I usually don't care. And when I care, I usually make efforts to not be around that person or at least not talk about sensitive subjects. Takes a lot to make me care, though.

  2. The only place I ever observed my own behavior more closely was in Israel. Understandable given our history with the Jews. But as much as I tried to behave appropiate it didn´t help. While people who survived the Holocaust liked me and were happy to have me around the younger generation was very rigid towards me. Also that is understandable since they didn´t have the opportunity to meet the so-called "Good German". I personally would feel deeply offended if someone would shy away discussing with me our history and the National Socialism. Since this wouldn´t be sign of cultural sensitivity but sign of doubting my ability to discuss difficult and even painful events.

  3. Interesting perspective. I imagine that subject is sensitive for many people and for a variety of reasons as well. I'm glad you shared your experience. Thank you!

  4. I think two things play a role here: 1. the way things are addressed and 2. the familiarity between the individuals involved. But frankly, there is no tiptoeing around a death toll of 53 Mio. Also the second world war is still affecting Germany´s politics of today. We might not be too happy about Greeks holding up signs calling Merkel Hitler and a Nazi Cow (which is funny, wouldn´t be the situation of Greece so desperate) but this is our history and our weakest spot. So people go for that when they want to offend us. Seriously, there is nothing we didn´t hear before:) And I am sure every German loves to tell that story how granny "saved" some Jews (be it true or not!). But I digress:D Intellectually I understand why you are careful around Germans. But since we are usually not very careful around other cultures ourselves and known for being blunt we deserve some name-calling.