Friday, March 18, 2011

The (In)Experience of Wearing a Sari to Work

On the 100th International Women's Day -- the day I was going to wear a sari to work for the first time ever -- I awoke early, anticipating not only numerous attempts at getting the sari to stay on me, but also last-minute alterations to tight-fitting blouses meant for slimmer days. Still, I managed to run late, and found that I had exactly 35 minutes to jump in the shower, wash my hair, squeeze into an elegantly-cut black blouse (that I hoped would make my shoulders look firm and shapely), and wrap the black Bengal cotton sari around myself (an effort that, past experience has taught me, requires a full 35 minutes). I then ran around frantically gathering a black shawl and a cardigan, before pulling on my fur-lined boots and jumping into my long, heavy winter coat. And as I jumped into the car where an impatient husband and three amused children with uncombed hair (mom's responsibility; enough said) were waiting, I knew that I was not the image I hoped to portray: an academic of Indian origin, displaying graceful dignity and demonstrating remarkable composure.

"But you never do, so why try? And why today?" chirped the reckless, individualistic twin from within.

"Alrighty then!" I braced myself. "Just let me manage to run into no one I know until I enter my office, God (if you are up there). Please give me a few minutes in the privacy of my office, and I'll pat down my wild hair, pin my sari in all the right places, and put on half a professional face for the rest of the day." Pin my sari? Oh no, I had forgotten my safety pins.

The first person I ran into, as soon as I entered my building, was the one person I would have most wanted to avoid. I am past worrying about her disdain for me or for others around me, but this was one day I could have done without her attitude. She looked impeccable--the good-looking, well-groomed young woman in her pencil skirt and black pumps. Every strand of hair, perfectly in place. I, on the other hand, had thrown my black Kashmiri shawl carelessly over the shoulders of my bulky coat. My scarf trailed behind me, while I clutched my cardigan and my numerous bags (note to self: throw junk in bag, downsize, fix strap). Angelina Jolie, meet the Bag Lady. My day hadn't even started yet. But why did it feel so disastrous? Ms. I-am-too-good-for-new-immigrants was curious enough that she forgot her personal policy of not looking me in the eye. In fact, it was an effort for her to not look me over. There was an incredulous look in her eye. I know she was making a mental note to never, ever wear a sari.

Inside my office wing, things were easier. Never one to withhold news or wait for the world to come and find me, I decided to go find the others and be done with the introductions between them and my sari. There were the whole gamut of reactions and emotions: staid, polite discomfort (not much of this) to open oohs and aahs (just enough to make a woman happy). One young South American wished I had let her in on the plan, as she too would have worn one after borrowing it from me. ("Next time", we promised each another.) The middle-ground -- measured response, some interest, genuine smiles -- was more common. Bruce, one of my dear, kindly bosses (I have more than one), exhibited the typical response: complete composure as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening in his line of vision, but the minute I acknowledged my out-of-character outfit and the reason for it ("It 's the 100th International Women's Day, you know, and some of us have decided to honour it"), he broke into a genuine smile and said, "Why! That's splendid!"

But there was more drama to be had along the way. I had forgotten my pumps at home, so I had to plod along in my boots all day, violating sari fashion rule # 1: no socks, no shoes, no boots. Unusually, there were cold-water troubles in our little kitchenette. No water, no coffee. While every cell in my body screamed for its daily overdose of caffeine, I could not gather the courage to go downstairs to the large, crowded foyer with the Tim Horton's. Perhaps, it was connected to the cold water problem, perhaps it was another of life's strange curve balls, but the washrooms on our section of the building were closed for the day, requiring us to use the ones on the other floors or other sections. I can't remember the last time I exerted so much control over my bladder, but when I came home that day, it was one mad dash to the bathroom.

By afternoon, I was less shy and awkward, and more comfortable with my sari. I went about my life matter-of-factly and did not allow myself to feel any qualms about having to walk through a crowded walkway to the library for a meeting. By now friendly questions such as "what's going on?" had died down and people hardly batted an eyelid. I was convinced that any reactions to my sari, or lack thereof, were triggered by my own sense of confidence and personal poise. I believed that if I acted like I belong or knew exactly who I was or what I was doing, the world would believe me and let me be. I have to add that Priya S., my new partner in risk-taking, may have slightly different opinions on this analysis. I should also add that this 'act like you belong and things will begin to fall in place' advice is just my old, trusted, generic philosophy wrapped in a new sari.

So the questions:

What did I achieve?

A sense of liberation. A feeling that I have attempted something new that for so long was not an option for me, whether by workplace conventions or by personal choice.

An understanding of what it must feel like for people who feel they are externally different from the majority in their surroundings.

A sense of connection with four other people (Rajee D., Priya S., Aamba, and zombiedrag) who went through the same new experience and shared the same feeling of exhilaration.

And the big one:

Will I do this again?

Yes, but no more than once or twice in a year. The most discouraging reason is that I don't find the sari a comfortable garment. At least not yet. The need of the day is for me to wear it more often at home first. The more I lounge in it at home, the more it will become my second skin, and the more I can actually look, feel and move around comfortably in it at work. How I am currently tackling this issue is fundamentally wrong. I can't bring out the sari from the closet annually or bi-annually, and expect it to mold itself onto me. That's like wanting to master surgery without any anatomy.

My advice to younger professionals on the wall: Don't wear a sari to work if you are uncomfortable or unsure. Trust your instinct about your surroundings and about yourself. The sari is yours to wear, or not to wear, on certain days, to certain occasions.

On the other hand, you have the success story of Indra Nooyi who wore a sari to her job interview in the U.S. Yes, she got that particular job and the rest, as they say, is history. But she is also a lot more than just her sari.

To read about the experiences of others who wore the sari to work for the first time, try these links:
What won't Aamba do?
It's on

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why I want to wear a sari (this 8th of March)

I am a career woman.

I am a career woman, originally from India, now living in the west. I don't wear power suits. At least not every day. I bring out my suits only for conference presentations and for teaching sessions. Otherwise, my colleagues see me wearing trousers mostly, and almost as often, skirts. And not just A-line or pencil skirts but frilly skirts, ethnic skirts, and for a short while, even a bright red, heavy, ankle-length tribal skirt that was picked up from Nepalese women selling wares on the streets of Delhi. When I was younger (and slimmer) I could make a pair of overalls look decent on me. I went through a phase where a tie, or a pair of suspenders, were my trademark accessories. Since my career has always been in academia, I have not had to worry about being stylish or fashionable in the typical sense of the words, nor have I had to follow any formal dress code. It had been sufficient for me to dress decently and comfortably--unwritten rules that seem fair and sensible to me. And so, over the years, without having to spend too much time or money, I managed to assert my own personal sense of style, which is neither catchy enough to land me in the pages of fashion magazines nor drab enough to give me the dubious honor of being the case-study for the 'What not to wear to work' club. In other words, I blended well.

Of late, as a mid-career, middle-aged, middle-class woman, I am beginning to have dress issues. I am at the stage when trousers and skirts, unless they are made by very clever (and very expensive) designers, have a tendency to make me look washed out.

Perhaps not every day. At least not yet.

But gone are the student days when I could turn up late at a lecture, having overslept, and having just hurriedly put on old faded jeans and sweatshirt, and still feel the admiring glance of a fellow student or two. Youth was enough of a guarantee for sartorial confidence; for being the sufficient accessory on 'dress-up' days amidst chronic thriftiness; for managing splendidly despite never heeding to the advice of conventional fashionistas in the west. But now, as I spend more unhappy minutes in front of my full-length mirror, and see, more often than not, my mother's silhouette reflected back at me, I am wondering why I am reluctant to follow the wisdom of Indian women: that there are days and occasions when a sari looks best on an ethnically-Indian body that is beginning to fall apart.

OK, maybe I am being too dramatic and too pessimistic, too soon. Still, of late, I have begun to wonder why I shun the sari in a work-place environment more than I shun any other piece of garment. In fact, the only time I wore a sari in an academic/career environment was when I defended my veterinary student thesis in Kiev, Ukraine. As all international students of the countries of the former Soviet Union know, defending your thesis in your national costume was an unwritten tradition that we proudly and gladly followed. But what changed between then and now for me? Why have I never worn a salwar kameez or a sari (or even a half-sari) to grad school, and later, to work?

To be fair, I have mixed and matched different pieces of ethnic garments. I have worn a kurta with jeans; a salwar or ghagra with a long T-shirt; a bright dupatta as a scarf to add color to a black suit; even a Ukrainian peasant blouse with jeans. But in this seemingly modern woman's mix-and-match wardrobe, the sari ensemble finds itself in a 'no win' situation. As the modern sari is paired with a short, tightly-fitting blouse, neither the blouse nor the sari seem to have a life without the other. (Unless the sari-blouse is part of Gwen Stefani's wardrobe. She can probably wear a sari-blouse with military fatigues and still manage to make a fashion statement.) But the point I am trying to make is that I have never worn an outfit that can be identified as 100% ethnic to work. It is as if I have always been careful about asserting that I have the right amounts of whatever mettle it takes to build a career in a man's world in the west. But am I truly being honest with myself? What is it that makes me uncomfortable and nervous about the idea of wearing a sari to work? There is no outright policy against the sari at our university. In fact, I know of at least one staff member who wears saris every day to work. It cannot be that uncomfortable. It is the default outfit of millions of women everyday, and 99% of them do some amount of work either at home or outside of home. At least tens of thousands of them are part of the diaspora. So what is stopping me from wearing this garment which is all my foremothers ever wore? The more I question myself, the more I have to face the fact that one thing is for sure: it is I, and only I, who has boxed myself into thinking that some clothes are more acceptable at work and others less acceptable.

I know of at least three extraordinary women who have chosen to think otherwise and have managed to leave long-lasting impressions on me.

  • During my first summer in the U.S., I met a Tamil Brahmin neurologist on the east coast. It was said that she attended med school after she came to the US as an arranged-marriage bride to an Indian green-card holder, and that she studied for the MCAT during her pregnancy and started med school while her baby was a wee one. Having become a renowned neurologist by the time I had a chance encounter with her, she was unapologetically true to her roots and to her own habits and comforts. She wore a sari to work, even while driving an SUV and having teen-aged girls who wore not-so-short shorts. And in response to some inane question from me, she announced in a no-nonsense voice that she never wore anything but a sari in all her life. At that point in my life, I could have sheepishly told her that I can count, on my fingers and toes, the number of times I actually wore a sari in my entire lifetime. (But I didn't.) Instead, I learnt an important lesson that day--that if you are really good at what you do, you can make your own rules about things that matter a lot to you.
  • In the fall of 1996, I went to do an internship at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. At the cafeteria, I would often see a woman dressed in the most beautiful saris--Pochampallis, Bengal cottons, Kashmiri silks--and looking extremely elegant and poised. Being in the U.N. building, she wasn't the only woman in a sari that I came across. But what set her apart from the other sari-clad women was the fact that she was of African descent. I was instantly impressed and curious! Who was she? How and why did the sari come to be part of her wardrobe? How did she learn to wear the sari with more grace than I can ever hope to? Did she not find the sari uncomfortable to work in? I do! I am afraid I never found the answers to those questions as I never attempted to converse with her. But like some proverbial mystery woman, she still occupies this pretty picture in my head every time people talk of 'the graceful sari.' That's right, no narrative of sari for me is complete without a mention of her. The lesson she taught me is this: you don't have to be South Asian to honour the sari. For that matter, you don't have to be from any particular culture to honour any and all aspects of that culture. (Just as there is no guarantee (or obligation) that being from a culture binds you to just that culture.)
  • The third woman who inspires sari-sized awe in me was neither a trailblazing professional in control of every aspect of her life nor a picture of poise and elegance. Yet I am connected to her in ways I can neither ignore nor underplay. The woman is my great-grandmother -- a non-Brahmin daughter of peasants and wage-earners in the weaving communities around Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. The simple maroon or brown 'nool pudavais' (cotton saris) she wore were rendered soft by the scorching sun--the same sun that made her skin dark and leathery as she planted peanuts, tended to the family cows and dried large spools of dyed thread in the streets and alleys around her home. She wore a blouse-less sari that made her bare right shoulder neither attractive nor unattractive. Her daughters and daughters-in-law, having married men who no longer found petty-farming viable and who tried their hand at petty-merchandising in big city Chennai, would never wear saris without blouses. One of her granddaughters (i.e., my own mother), having climbed the socioeconomic ladder, would incorporate the salwar kameez into her wardrobe at around the same time she would try her hand at a second career (the first having been that of an unhappy, restless homemaker). Her career, for the most part, included selling saris -- colorful, glorious, choice selections of saris from around the country. The granddaughter of the woman who labored for most of her life in her humble, unassuming sari thought the garment to be beautiful but not necessarily practical.

And my mother is not alone.

In the districts of Kanchipuram or Kanyakumari nowadays, the salwar kameez is more ubiquitous as a daily-wear option among the younger generations of the better-off than the sari is. Perhaps it is the comfort factor; perhaps it is the fashion trend of the day. And maybe it is the pure liberty of having choices. I, of all people, have no right to judge.

So I bring this story back to me. Only I don't close the circle. I draw a line that extends further away from my great-grandmother. I am most unlike her than anyone else in her family--in thought, in my chosen geography, in the way I make my living. Mainly, in the amount of control I have over my life. I don't toil the dry, hard earth of any countryside. I hardly touch a cow anymore. I don't even have to follow a strict dress code. I research, crunch numbers, and write for a living. All at the computer desk, all in the comfort of my office. Yet I have regarded the sari as an outfit best reserved for evening celebrations, an outfit I would not consider wearing to work even one day in a year.

Until now.

Something has changed in me this year. Not suddenly. Not overnight. I have been toying with the idea of not discriminating against the sari ever since I came back from a trip to India last August. On a Google search, I came across others, in the U.S. and the U.K., who have had similar thoughts. Along with them, I hope to answer the question, 'Why a sari?,' with the answer, 'Well, why not a sari?' Maybe it will not be my chosen garment for every working day of the year, but maybe I can choose to wear it for at least one day a year.

So what better day to begin celebrating the garment of my great-grandmother than the 8th of March, the International Woman's Day?

For other stories of saris, visit writer Kalpana Mohan's Facebook page.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Humor: Why can't I have an Amy Chua day?

I thought I'll pull an Amy Chua today when I realized my girls are, on average, repeating each level of their swimming classes twice. Twice! On average! Which means sometimes it is as high as 4 or 5. So I threatened to drown their pillow pets and ordered them to stay in the pool for 10 hours or as long as it takes to get their hand-leg-breathing coordination, pronto! And no bathroom breaks! So first hour was easy. Second hour, not bad. Third hour they called Child & Family Services on me. And CFS refused to accept my explanation that I am tired of signing them up for the same class over and over again. Since I'm not at Yale, they said, I can afford to sign my Tuesday evenings away forever, watching my kids dog-paddle.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Amy Chua: Chinese (American) Mother Superior

Perhaps out of necessity, Amy Chua, in her Wall Street Journal article, 'Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,' argues for an extreme position when it comes to parenting. I can understand that her philosophy has a balancing role to play in the current North American environment that demands passivity from parents--take, for example, this advice column from Miss Lonelyhearts to a dad bewildered by his drunk teen son--but as a stand-alone position it leaves me sputtering. The exaggerations, bordering on lies -- since when do all Chinese kids get only 'A's? -- are unnecessary hyperboles that only served to irritate me, the reader. Her confidence that her demeaning methods work for all and that all children are inherently strong, mule-like and thick-skinned leaves me extremely troubled.

For all Chua's high credentials, she forgets, or is unaware of, the phenomenon that epidemiologists and social scientists know as ecological fallacy. What works at the population level is not guaranteed to work at the individual level. (This is the opposite of the mistake we tend to commit when we use anecdotal evidence to influence behavior at the population level. More about that later.) More precisely, Chua's children could be practicing-learning, practicing-achieving, practicing-thriving despite Chua's methods and not because of them, but Chua grabs the credit every single time it works (Other intrinsic and time/place-specific external factors may influence motivation and success). But for simplicity's sake, let us assume it is solely Chua's style of parenting that ensures her children are successful at every scheduled activity ordained by her. So, proportionately speaking, Chinese (and Indians) may be over-represented in the hallways of Yale, thanks to upper-middle class Chinese(or Chinese-American or Indian-American) style of mothering, but there is no guarantee that your Mandarin-speaking or my Tamil-speaking child will benefit from that appalling scene Chua describes with herself and her child Lulu at the piano. Woe is us if our child happens to be the one exception: the one resentful rebel in the neighbourhood who would rather self-destruct than put up with an overbearing parent. An academic and a policy analyst who advocates the finer points of democracy across the world, she never second-guesses her inability to practice democracy at home.

After committing the ecological inference fallacy (whether by intent, to drive home a point, or by blind convictions), Chua stomps on ahead and passes off anecdotal evidence as accepted methodology to sell more of her points. The anecdote: her undented self-esteem even when her father calls her 'garbage.' Yes, even garbage may sound as sweet as nectar if you are lucky enough to come from a solid, secure, loving environment. But try coming from a dysfunctional family, being insecure, and being called garbage and you will find it to be a whole new ball-game. In my opinion, dysfunctional families are the last to know about their own dysfunctionality. My point is that parents should stay away from name-calling and verbal taunting, however high an opinion they may have of themselves and their parenting skills. Words have this strange and powerful way of coming alive, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Between the two extremes posited in Chua's article ('Western parents' vs. 'Chinese mothers'; by the way, where are the Chinese fathers?), lie a sea of invisible European parents, specifically, Eastern European parents. Economic and academic successes achieved by Eastern Europeans and their progeny in North America is largely ignored by mainstream America. Their model of rearing the second generation is ignored. Unless, of course, we are talking of generations of Jewish families. Then we are all ears (as we should well be). But in my opinion, contemporary Russian or Ukrainian immigrants (with post-secondary education) bring with them the best of the values endorsed by the 'Western parents' and they balance those values with the respect and reverence for hard work and scholarship that the 'Chinese mothers' supposedly instill (I hate this dichotomy drummed up by Chua since every one of my professors have been Caucasian.) The Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian children I know actually stop to smell the roses without feeling compelled to write rose-inspired poetry, bottle and patent rose perfumes, and ship long-stemmed roses to Siberia at 10 bucks a piece. And yet, I will not be surprised if, in due course, one of them genetically engineers thorn-free rose bushes. Until then, they play (and why not? even animals encourage their young ones to play just for the fun of it), and work, in seemingly right amounts.

The Chuas and the Misses Lonelyhearts can flaunt all the tales the old and young wives in their cultures, respectively, spin, but it will be prudent of us to study and listen to our own individual child's need, style and quest for achievements. A small example from my life as a mother of young children: The 1-2-3 discipline rule works without a hitch, every time, with two of my three children. And it never works with one. Never. Strangely enough, this is the one child who is most like me in temperament. I am still trying to figure out what works or doesn't work with this child, and I am still making mistakes.

Chua never mentions what makes her daughters happy. We only get an idea of what makes her, the Mother Superior, happy. Disappointed, I went to back to a favorite article of mine. To remind myself that there is no guarantee that success is entwined with happiness. Or that success is even a pre-requisite for happiness. And Chua should probably pay attention to what is being said. After all, that body of happiness research comes from Yale's rival institution, Harvard. I don't care how much we achieve but I know that we are never going to be happy if we do not know how to love and accept people in all their weaknesses, fears and imperfections.

Here is a review by Elizabeth Chang of Amy Chua's book, 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.' Any lingering doubts I had about Chua possibly being self-deprecatingly funny have been dissipated.

Here are two scenarios that I have been mulling over as potential analogies and as fodder for further thought:
1) How do we react if a poor, black mom in the United States (or poor, Aboriginal mom in Canada) puts her to child to work for endless hours doing menial labour such as doing other people's laundry, ironing, folding just to make a little extra money? (My guess is that in the States, Geraldo will be in with his TV crew, ready to mock on air, and Child and Family Services will come to hear of it in Canada.) Is it fair that upper class and a Yale professorship (and musical accomplishments) confuses our understanding of reasonable expectations from a child?
2) Why is even Hollywood not allowed to work a child until breaking point (they have to respect the right of the child to reasonable work hours), but a mother, under the guise of parenting, can?

Kalyna's Song

Lisa Grekul's 'Kalyna's Song' is a beautiful and funny book about growing up Ukrainian-Canadian in a country where rules about when to be Ukrainian and when to be English are never to be bungled or broken. Canadian books, however deserving, are rarely as well-known around the world as American, and it breaks my heart when this order of world affairs defies my impulse to set things right. So here I am doing my little part: recommending you to pick it up if you ever come across a copy of it.

Here is a review by a librarian who is also a children's author. I disagree with this reviewer only when she she says Colleen is a character who is not entirely likeable. I find Colleen self-absorbed, yes, but which teenager isn't? I find her entirely sympatichnaya as they say in Russian.

There is a lot in the book about Ukrainian music--narodniye pecni, classicheskiye, etc. I had no idea how many Ukrainian composers' names were unknown to me until I read this book.

And finally, I have to link to Joe Wiebe's review here. His observation of a scene in Swaziland is spot-on.