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Why I Don’t Look Foreign-returned

Posted: April 22, 2015

We all have set ideas about how people should look and behave. Here’s a note about why this author does not look foreign-returned and how it empowers her. 

I am writing this, somewhere around the same time as the video for Vogue empower series, featuring Deepika Padukone, is finding its share of critics and admirers; more critics than admirers at least from the reactions I have witnessed in the cyberworld. As for me, except for some questionable ideas, I don’t in particularly think the video is as ‘silly’ and ‘fake’ as lot of men and women have found it to be, and I definitely don’t have a problem with Deepika Padukone being its face.

After all, we live in a country where Amitabh Bachchan had been the good-old ambassador for polio eradication, and Vidya Balan in a multitude of well-meaning get-ups has been preaching the importance of having a ‘shouchalaya inside one’s house. All forms of empowerment, in their own ways, make use of popular and well-regarded celebrities. Why then should Ms Padukone be targeted for doing her own ‘bit’? But, this piece is not about the video or Ms Padukone. This is not about feminism, or an attempt to say that women are inherently superior creatures than men. None of that. This is only about that one aspect of the word that makes up the title of the video, the word ‘choice’, and the other big word ’empower’.

I was 23 when I first went to a foreign country – the United States. It was a work trip, or an onsite deputation, as we techies call it. I ended up living in the US for two years at a stretch, before deciding my heart and my mind are better-suited to the chaos of my own country. I lived in two entirely different regions, the sleepy mid-western state of Iowa, and the bustling and more culturally diverse New Jersey. I have to admit my staple diet in these two years was roti and low-oil recipes of sabji, and the most adventurous I ever went with my attire was a knee-length skirt, or make that two knee-length skirts.
I did not feel the need to become a different person just because I happened to live in a different geography for a while.
My hair which has always been frizzy stayed frizzy, my lips never really got to adjust to the spectrum of lipstick shades and brands that would line up the cosmetic sections of those American stores. And, when I got back to India, I was all too happy to be back in my kurtas and pajamas and chudidaars, and dupattas, and the rest of that paraphernalia. Apart from the American slang with its fillers (you know, oh! really) and cuss-words that stayed with me for some weird reasons, I liked to keep those two years and all the wonderful friends I made there a happy memory, something I often fall back on fondly. I did not feel the need to become a different person just because I happened to live in a different geography for a while. Fair enough, right? Well, not really.
Every time, in large groups or with people who I am newly beginning to become friends with, I am greeted with the same incredulous expression, when any conversation leads on to my poor (as in becharaa) stay in that country. “You lived in the US? You don’t look like you have lived in the US.” Now, a response that I would find most appropriate for such a bizarre assertion is that first of all, US is just another country. One doesn’t have to ‘look’ like she has lived there. It’s like living in any other place. So, cut the crap. But, I am a sadist, so I smile and ask them to elaborate. I get reasons, and I am only reminded that sadly all the years of living in a big city, and then in a big country, I am still the same behenji who could do nothing to make herself a little more presentable. Sigh! But, this reaction is still better, for there is something to chew on. The ones that are more disturbing  are the ones where people give me a “Oh-darling-I-can-see-that-you-are-lying-I-mean-look-at-you-haa-haa-who-are-you-kidding-stayed-in-US-it-seems” look. Now, for the sake of the God of subtlety, how does one deal with that?
The ones that are more disturbing  are the ones where people give me a “Oh-darling-I-can-see-that-you-are-lying-I-mean-look-at-you-haa-haa-who-are-you-kidding-stayed-in-US-it-seems” look.
Over the years, and with the sadism acquiring new proportions, I have decided to take a backseat with this whole US thing. I maintain a monk-like disposition when I see people discussing their US travels, their road-trips, or their ‘awesome’ dinner at Olive Garden or how their entire family has somehow managed to be in US at the same time, and so all they need to do now is be in the same place. I politely nod, and periodically smile, for these people have finally proved themselves worthy of their time in the country. Their memories are not merely personal, but are etched out for a wider audience. Clearly, they look like they have lived in the US, and I have learnt it the hard way, that I don’t.
What is with our obsession to generalize and stereotype, to expect people to be of a certain kind, when they do a certain thing. Wearing a bindi because you are married. Having a child just because you are genetically capable of having one. Having to answer questions like,”what’s the occasion”, every time you-as-a-single-woman wear a saree on a non-‘ethnic’ day. Clearly people, I’d like to think I am empowered enough to make my kind of choices. That, to me is the real empowerment. Not being considered some style-less freak, or not having to explain all my preferences.
Clearly people, I’d like to think I am empowered enough to make my kind of choices.
If we cannot even understand this basic fabric, how do we expect to reach out to millions of less-privileged women who are struggling with even the most basic choice of being able to see the girl child they have given birth to, alive. The issue lies deep-rooted in how we perceive things, or how we think we should perceive things. And, that is not a choice. That is our fundamental duty. And performing it might just be a start.
Image of a lady in saree via Shutterstock

Writer and technologist currently based out of Bangalore

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  1. Deepa Damodaran -

    Wow! You have nailed our Indian mentality. Seriously!!! I too have faced the same questions. We tend to imitate others rather than knowing one self. When other nationals do not have any problem in accepting us the way we are, it’s our people who have problems in accepting us. It’s a good write up Prashila!

  2. Woow..u hv written about something am dealing with…i did my schooling abroad and after marriage and kids stayed in Swiss but as u said ….i have a behanji look still and not even interested in makeup at all..people do ask me whether I really stays abroad …may b because was merely brought up like tat and I do like our indian styles and culture so am comfortable in indian wear .but am happy .

  3. Heheheheh this wasn’t the problem I faced. Sadly When I returned from abroad, suddenly all the men I know felt I am “westernised” and would not have anymore problems with sleeping around. Even the ones I thought were decent !

  4. Very well written …on a practical note people in our nation do expect such things…I guess one should owe to the country…its quite hilarious when people expect someone who visit abroad for a certain period of time to be ‘westernised’.

  5. Absolutely resonates . It is not even foreign return, there is a stereotyping everywhere and certain expectation of how u should be

  6. Just to add to the supportive voices, Prashila – I have lived in England now for forty years or more, and for twenty five of those been married to an Englishman. I still don’t look ‘foreign returned’ – I still wear salwar and kurta when I go home to Kolkata, or a Sari. People still say that I look like a style-less villager – (no, not originally from any village). Has it mattered? Yes and no. Yes because whatever we say to ourselves, it is hurtful to hear criticism.

    No, because after they have made their judgments they go home, and I stay with my little family, and it all goes back to normal. Your strength lies in what you decide is your normal – what is important to you, how you dress, what you spend your time doing, how you react to situations, what work you choose to do, how you bring up your family – it all defines that ‘normal’. You are creating your own ‘normal’ – good for you !

    How are we supposed to change the world? One person at a time. If as a result of your actions one person admires what you do, and how you live, and changes one thing in their lives to reflect what they have learned from you, then consider yourself successful. One or two of my relatives say the opposite ‘look at her, just like she used to be, and married to an English boy’ ! As if that is remarkable in itself 🙂

    As many young women take up your position, feel empowered and ACT as if they are, other women will start to value their girl children in India, as people who are worth knowing as individuals…. it will take time, but the tide is turning. Stay yourself, and keep writing. And keep smiling – anger does not change hearts, but a smiling acceptance of life can be infectious.

  7. Hi, love ur writing! I’m an indonesian married to an Indian and I would say that this kind of mentality is not only for Indians…. but Asians in general. Its sad to see that we Asians thought that foreign countries are much better than ours. Having a british or American accent is better, having a ‘westernize’ clothing looks more ‘stylish’ than our own traditional dresses, etc.. etc…

    Its not easy to stand up against the social mindsets but to know that other women have the same way of thinking is surely relieving 🙂

  8. I have read so many articles on feminism, empowerment but at the end of the day this is what I believe in ,from deep inside. True empowerment is silent n complacent. Which I strive to practice. U do what u want to , n be fine with it becoz u know ur reasons n not worry abt opinions . This article though well worded , is a lot of noise n more seeking out validation that comes from insecurity abt oneself. Why sport ” US Return ” to begin with. Change is part of life and u accept it on your terms based on what’s at stake. Countries don’t do it.

  9. So true….i have heard comments like…oh you wearing a dress…I thought you will were this and that…

  10. When in India they expect heels, short hair, long nails to be forin, and in LA I am afraid to wear kurta pyjamas for being mistaken for a Moslem in my white neighbourhood. I just stick to my grey undyed hair, authentic kumkum and lovely desi sarees. It’s easy for me as I am a senior citizen and comfortable in my skin.

  11. I feel its the color issue again. May be you aren’t distempered enough to look western. The fault in us is we barely see that being modern and being western are two very different things. Unfortunately we see all as one and the same. Sad! But hey then you write this article and I feel there are people who think like me. I’ll dress as I wish . be it shorts or sari
    Thank you for being the new face of feminism. Being bold doesn’t always mean to retrace the west. We can strengthen our roots and still feel empowered.

  12. wow !
    You nailed it Prashila !

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