What do you guys think of wearing Indian clothes to work?” I posed this question to my informal panel of three, over steaming cups of tea. The panel consisted of my 80 year old father and two friends, Seethal Viswanath and Shruti Rajan (who declined to give her real name). Seetal replied immediately with, “When in Rome, you have to be Roman. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable. If your presence is making them uncomfortable, then you shouldn’t do it. Shruti concurred, adding that when she wore a salwar kameez to work, it seemed as if a sheet of ice had come in between her co-workers and herself.
My father interjected with, “I don’t want to be Roman!” He has not been Roman since 1958. That was when he arrived from India as a Ph.D. student at Yale University. Since then, he has been staunchly non-Roman, and has made sure that all five of his kids were also non-Roman. Much to our dismay, we stuck out like sore thumbs in Memphis, Tennessee in the 70s. We grew up hearing, “We should be proud of our culture!” which we likened to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. I argued with my mother over my choice of clothing during the turbulent teen years. One particularly messy battle ended with my mom taking all my western clothes and throwing them in the shed in the backyard. That left me with no choice but to wear saris and salwar kameezes (along with the scowl on my face) until the first frost welcomed back my jeans.
But something funny happened between then and adulthood—we all came to embrace those very sore thumbs. As a fresh graduate looking for my first job in the Bay Area in the late 80s, my interview outfit of choice was a sari! It was elegant, comfortable, and it made me stand just a little taller.
I was known to wear brightly colored pavadais and dhavanis (half saris, if you will) to work. And of course it was well accessorized with hanging gold earrings and jingling anklets. I never got the feeling that I was making anyone uncomfortable, but then again, maybe Seetal was right. So I thought I’d ask a few people I’d worked with in the past. I messaged some of my coworkers on Facebook. (How else can you connect after a 20 year gap?) I asked if they’d noticed my attire. Katni Venkatasubramaniam, my manager at Cadence, replied immediately, “Did I notice? Someone has to be totally color blind to not notice the bright-green paavadai and red daavini outfits you used to sport in Cadence. It did not make me uncomfortable. But, yes, I certainly knew what your position was on this. Being a t-shirt/sneakers kinda person, I am not exactly a classic traditionalist but there is something to be said about dressing to fit in.” Then there was Greg Hutchings, my manager at Franklin Resources, who admitted initial astonishment, “You were the first person I met who wore traditional Indian clothing at work (at Frankin), where I generally wore suits. I was at first slightly surprised, since your clothing was so different. You wore it confidently and it was beautiful, and you looked great in it. I quickly came to love it! I never felt uncomfortable, but intrigued. I think your choice of clothes was refreshing and inspired openness and diversity and mutual appreciation in the team. I feel your clothes helped express who you are, and helped all of us think more about ideas, personal characteristics and less about appearance.” But it was Leslie Hayne, another co-worker on our team at Franklin, who put it most movingly, “I thought it made our workplace beautiful, like wearing a bouquet.”
Back at the dining table, I asked Seetal and Shruti, “How much of others reactions is your perception, and how much of it is your level of comfort in your skin?” “I am comfortable wearing American outfits at work,” Shruti answered, “I want to blend in instead of standing out.” This was the common thread in many of my later conversations with first generation Indian Americans and perhaps it explains why I cling to my saris.
When you grow up in a country, you don’t think about blending into it, because you’re diced, pureed and whisked into it. The challenge is redefined. It’s all about connecting to your heritage, and holding on to the parts that you want to pass on, because you know for sure that so much will be lost. My saris take me on this journey. They link me to my mother, the woman who’s worn saris every day of her adult life, even while earning a doctorate in mathematics, and later, teaching full-time at LeMoyne Owen College. It’s a part of who I am, the traditional rebel. It’s my way of telling my father that I heard him after all.
Matangi Rajamani is a clinical extrovert and aspring math teacher who continues to stick out like a sore thumb with her husband and three sons in Cupertino, CA.