In Which I Take a Joke Too Seriously

In Which I Take a Joke Too Seriously July 5, 2013

In response to my post about why I am called the “white” Hindu, someone linked this hilarious skit about white people who take trying to be South Asian too far…

I had to laugh out loud even though, yeah, I do recognize myself in her (and I haven’t even got the excuse of an Indian husband!) After cringing and laughing, I started to think (as I often do) and I wondered what is it about this behavior that makes us all uncomfortable?

Let’s be honest, this is a satire and is meant to exaggerate, but it’s not really exaggerating that much. Non-Indians enamored with India do do this. I do it to some extent.

So if this woman were a real person, what are her big mistakes?

1) Being Out of Context

The people she’s meeting with are young people in the UK who are of Indian heritage. She is behaving like their grandmother (or rather, a cliche of their grandmother). I think it is advisable to temper one’s love of Indian culture/clothes/etc. to fit the situation you are in. At a family wedding, everyone is likely to be delighted that the white wife is fitting in culturally.

2) Being a Cliche

It seems like she’s taking stereotypes of Indian people and being that exaggerated, not authentic, person. It immediately comes across as something that she’s doing because she finds Indian culture “neat” rather than as an expression of her true and authentic self.

3) Being Outside Her Own Culture

There’s immediately a question of whether she knows the background or history of the behaviors that she’s imitating. I have to wonder how we would feel about a young American or British woman of Indian heritage behaving like this? Would that change something? Actually, it wouldn’t change the being out of context part. I have a feeling this group would be equally startled if someone like themselves chose to behave in this way.

And these three things are what makes it funny. It is exaggerated and inauthentic. But if you know someone in your life who has recently discovered Indian culture, absolutely fallen in love, and goes over the top in trying to be Indian (when they are not), I would advise going easy on them. People get super excited when they discover something new that speaks to them. They go too far. But eventually they usually settle into it.

I found that when I first started putting Hinduism together with Indian culture, I wanted to do it all, be part of it all, get every detail right (and sure, go back two or three generations to do it). These days I’m more even keeled. I do the things that feel right to me and expressing who I am. I temper my dress and behavior according to where I am and what is most appropriate there.

You know, I always find it interesting that in any other religion, everyone would expect you to take on the dress and culture. If I became Orthodox Jewish, I would be expected to wear long skirts and cover my hair. If I became Reform Jewish, no one would be startled if I wore a star of David necklace. If I became Muslim, it wouldn’t be surprising if I chose to wear hijab. If I became Christian, everyone would be comfortable with me wearing a cross necklace.

Yet not with Hinduism.

When you wear things associated with Hinduism, people feel weird about it. Why is that? Because Hinduism has no dress code. A sari is not a Hindu item of clothing, it is an Indian item of clothing. It has strong ties to Hinduism, but is not actually Hindu. Well, long skirts don’t belong only to Orthodox Jews either. But with Hinduism not having a set of rules about dress, it makes it different.

So yes, I appear pretty ridiculous to plenty of people I’m sure. But if the worst that can happen is people rolling their eyes and thinking I’m over the top, if that’s the price for being true to myself, I can live with that.


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