Revelers with shirts streaked green and blue, faces smudged red and orange swarm the city block. The laughter is raucous as the not-quick-enough are doused with colored powder and water. It takes a moment for me to comprehend that this isn’t an Indian crowd celebrating the traditional spring festival of Holi. Instead, it’s a crowd of happy Americans celebrating the end of their 5K run. The jumble of limbs and color makes me grin.
As I walk away, though, I wonder: was the “color run” I’d just witnessed — one of many similar events in recent years — indeed inspired by the Holi celebrations of India? Later, a Google search produced varying opinions, and I was struck by the emotions dominating the discussions: indignation, resentment, anger.
Some argued this was yet another instance of cultural appropriation — taking the shell of a deeply rooted custom or ritual and using it as desired, without attribution or explanation. On the other side of the spectrum was Get over it — America is a melting pot. I don’t ask for credit when you cook Hungarian goulash.
Even putting aside the comparison between apples and oranges (or more accurately, the comparison between a thousands-year-old tradition and a stew), I felt as I always do: confused, seeing both sides, meandering the middle.
Growing up, I knew one sure thing about my father: he was unabashedly proud to be Indian, proud of the bounty of philosophy and knowledge from his country of birth. Did you know, he asked me, Indians knew the speed of light, performed eye surgery, had citywide drainage systems and disease prevention long before Europe did? As I listened, I felt that pride, too — at times, even awe.
I leaned on that pride when my American textbooks listed only crushing poverty and a discriminatory caste system as India’s defining attributes. And I clung to it when I, a student at a small Midwestern school in the ’80s, endured whispered comments, embarrassing questions, and aggressive bullying at school.
But the armor of pride sometimes wore thin. There were days I longed to blend into the surrounding crowd for just 24 hours, to not explain (again) why Indian women wear a dot on their foreheads.
My desire to, just once, merge into the American mainstream filled me with guilt. Why couldn’t I be like my dad: an unfailing, unflappable advocate for his heritage, impervious to ignorance and insults?
A term was coined and used in formal discussions about us Indian children growing up in the U.S.: ABCD or American-born Confused Desi. The label asserted that we children of immigrants, whether born in India or, like me, in America, didn’t truly belong to either country. Despite being desis (literally, expatriates from the homeland), we had no pride in our heritage and no peace with our identities.
I adamantly rejected this label, which did not acknowledge the complexity and challenges of occupying the space between two cultures. And I loved being Indian as much as I loved growing up in America.
Deep down, though, I knew the label was a little bit true, a little bit of the time.
About ten years ago, while I sat reading at home, I suddenly heard drum beats from the end of the hall — very particular beats that herald classical Indian dance. When I followed the sound, I found that someone had left the TV on, and the distinctive beats came from, of all things, a lotion commercial.
How cool is this? The commercial was well done, even tasteful in my opinion, showing multiple (very moisturized) fingers in motion, displaying the traditional mudras (hand postures) of Bharath Natyam.
I turned off the TV and began to ponder the number of Indian concepts and customs that had seeped steadily into American life as I left adolescence and entered adulthood. I remember feeling a moment of membership in America’s mosaic — one in which I could finally see my face and my heritage, distinctive and recognizable and even accepted.
The child in me, the one desperate for belonging long ago, smiled that day.
I began to enjoy it, finding the little bits of India that popped up in everyday life, just as my parents used to point out Indian people we encountered while we were out and about (“Look, Indians, Indians!”), thereby prompting me, of course, to roll my eyes. Now, though, I understood their feelings of affirmation as I witnessed proliferating yoga studios, Bollywood dances in the background of American movies, Indian actors on TV, “Jai Ho” piping through the overhead music system at Kohls.
But a sense of unease grew alongside that affirmation, a feeling that something was amiss. At first, I chuckled when a perfume shop clerk showed me an array of scented oils designed to stimulate the chakra of my choice. And I laughed out loud when I saw a sign for upcoming yoga classes for pets.
Many instances, however, were more disrespectful — faces of Hindu deities stamped on women’s shoes, a brand line of “jiva” underwear, an attempted patent application for neem leaves, used in India for centuries as a fungicide. One day, I sat and stared at a page in a women’s magazine with a drawing of Nataraja, the “patron saint,” if you will, of classical Indian dance, whose quintessential posture depicts the eternal circles of life and death, stillness and energy. In the magazine’s caricatured version, Nataraja held a trendy purse in each of his hands.
Had India become an unmined treasure trove of words and concepts, an endless source of exotica for corporate marketing purposes, tapped merely for the sense of the mystical conjured? Yoga, jiva, chakras . . . to me, the troublesome part was not that such concepts were taken, but that they were taken so lightly, without even cursory understanding of the rich and nuanced concepts they contained.
As I digested the examples over time, I couldn’t help but feel a similarity between these cultural “riches” and India’s material riches — gold, diamonds, spices — stolen by colonial powers over the course of centuries. I’ll admit to fuming and writing frustrated (unpublished) letters to the editor and angry (unpublished) essays.
Gradually, though, black and white have blurred for me, revealing the complexity of the cultural melding that both irks and delights me. I have come to meet and know more people than not who are genuinely curious, receptive — even fascinated — by the bounty my father described as I grew up. I have come to understand that ignorance is profoundly different from disrespect.
I recognize the benefits of hybrid vigor, the inescapability of cultural fusion — and the inevitable dilutions that result. I wonder at my own acts of appropriation — the names and words and songs that are part of my daily life, that I wouldn’t even think to question or research. I think of the foods, including Hungarian goulash, for which I invent vegetarian versions. How much has been lost in the cultural soup, and how much has been gained in its creation?
There is an ancient Hindu philosophy concerning acts of giving and receiving. When one gives a gift, it is done with hands open, sending one’s own prana (life energy) along with that gift — making it a profoundly personal gesture. The recipient has an obligation to receive also with open hands, with understanding and gratitude for the magnitude of that gesture.
As I contemplate the consequences and ramifications of cultural interaction and blending — as I attempt to make peace with the inevitable inaccuracies and misapplications of that which I value dearly — I picture those hands. Some might question whether my cultural heritage is mine to give, but I nevertheless do choose to give it, as my gift.
Please, receive it in the same spirit.
I ask you to be curious, to question and inquire. Enjoy pet yoga, while also understanding that yoga, introduced to the earth thousands of years ago, is uniquely calibrated to the human system. Chakra, jiva, prana — please receive these treasures and view the multi-faceted understanding of the universe that lies within each.
I will try to do the same, to be aware of what I am taking from the melded heritage of this magnificent country in which I’ve been privileged to grow up and live. I hope I can do so with honor and a sense of responsibility that will reduce the chance of misuse.
Let us do this together, hands open.
Notes: These days, discussions about cultural appropriation seem to devolve rapidly into anger and resentment. This essay shares my thoughts on finding a new paradigm for treating traditional legacies with honor and integrity, while acknowledging the realities of cultural blending.