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Culture Behind Closed Doors

By: The cousins behind RebelRanis on Instagram, Divia and Niki Meka

 

“Why do you smell like curry?” Are you going to have to get an arranged marriage?” Don’t you like worship cows or something?”

Fielding ignorant questions like these was just an average day in the life of growing up in South Georgia. It’s not a new story, the plight of the first generation immigrant child surrounded by no one who looked liked them or shared in their culture, but it is an important one. It’s important because it completely affected how we viewed our culture growing up. An experience that felt much like a secret romance.

 

This “secret romance” led us to love our culture, but quietly. We would do things like rush home from school to pick up where we left off on Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham from the day before, while simultaneously asking Mom not to cook Indian food that day because a school friend was coming over later and they might not like the smell. This paradox of loving our culture while wanting to hide it reared its confusing head many times through the smallest things. Like when we would feel like absolute royalty on the way to a Desi function, dressed in our favorite lehenga, only to have the moment ruined by Mom asking us to get out of the car and pick up a greeting card at Walgreens. Oh the dreaded stares and comments that were awaiting us inside. It wasn’t always bad, some people would tell us that we looked like Jasmine from Aladdin (even though Jasmine never wore a lehenga, but it’s the only example they had and we’ll take it), while others would meet us with awkward stares or unwanted comments. We went from feeling like we were on top of the world to feeling like an out of place freak in a matter of minutes. We loved where we came from, but only behind closed doors and as long as it didn’t make our lives harder.

This paradox of loving our culture while wanting to hide it reared its confusing head many times through the smallest things

After living through enough of these scenarios, we got pretty good at navigating our double lives. Code switching is an art, and we were pros. Seamlessly weaving in and out of one culture to the other, and although it was a natural response to surviving in a community of people that didn’t look like us, it only hurt us in the end. We weren’t able to experience either culture to its fullest. As a result of trying to be the sanskari daughter, we were a little more sheltered than our peers – like believing dating to be this horrible thing meant only for the promiscuous as presented by our parents. Simultaneously, we tried so hard to assimilate that we never got to fully enjoy our Desi culture either. If only we could have now all those home-cooked meals that we skipped out on, while foolishly begging for Pizza hut instead.

As a result of trying to be the sanskari daughter, we were more sheltered than our peers

This obviously doesn’t reflect every South Asian-American’s experience. There are definitely communities in the states that are much more diverse and where culture and differences are more appreciated. It would also be a lie to say that every person we met in our predominantly southern, white communities were ignorant and made us feel like outsiders. We were only able to have some of the incredible “All-American” experiences that we did, like true Thanksgiving feasts and learning to ride dirt bikes, because of wonderful people who weren’t threatened by someone who looked different from them. However, growing up in the South during a time when the world wasn’t as small still led to a lot of ignorance, occasional bullying, and some “polite racism.” You know the type. “You’re pretty…for an Indian girl.” Uh, thanks?

 

As we’ve grown up, we’ve grown more confident in ourselves. We’ve expanded our horizons, gotten older, surrounded ourselves with open minded people, and moved to more progressive areas. We’ve learned about the cultures of others, and taught others about ours. We’re determined to take those negative feelings we grew up with and turn them into a motivation for educating others and spreading our culture forward in a positive light.

 


“Beta, you should be a doctor or engineer only.” “You need to get married soon, or you will be too old.” “You can’t wear that! What will people think?”

Being misunderstood by our peers and non-Desis was only half of the problem. One of the greatest ironies of growing up a first generation immigrant is that our parents generation, the ones most in touch with the culture, didn’t understand us either. The ideals and expectations that our parents grew up with and have tried to pass down to us have often felt too antiquated, conservative, and just not conducive to our lives here and who we were becoming. Some of those ideals and expectations made wanting something different make us feel like we were wrong or inadequate for doing so. Like feeling unaccomplished for going into a creative field instead of medicine, or feeling like we were bad daughters for not being married by the age of 25 and not wanting to be married either.

 

The ideals and expectations that our parents grew up with felt too antiquated


This phenomenon has left us in a cultural no-man’s land. We fit neither here nor there. We’re a unique generation struggling to figure out how we can have it all, and there is no precedent. This struggle is what inspired us to create Rebel Ranis, our fusion style blog. We were tired of feeling like we had to choose, and fashion has always been one of our favorite ways of expressing ourselves. Since we were little girls, we were always enamored by the colors, fabrics, and intricate details of Desi attire. We would watch as our mothers carefully draped themselves in colorful silk sarees and look more beautiful than ever. We would also be completely transfixed watching Bollywood heroines dance across our screen wearing the most beautiful lehengas and mesmerizing billions. That beautiful, confident feeling we got when we would put on our own lehengas and dance through our room to Sheila Ki Jawani shouldn’t be one of limited supply.

We were tired of feeling like we had to choose

As we’ve gotten older we’ve realized that it’s a shame to let these clothes, that make us feel so beautiful when we wear them, sit in a closet only to be worn once or twice a year in an “appropriate” setting. Why should they just sit there? Because someone told us they look “weird?” While we’re busy being concerned with not wanting to look out of place, other western brands are profiting off of the same culture that we are trying to hide and calling it “bohemian” (we’re looking at you Anthropologie).

 

That time Gucci decided turbans were “on-trend” in their 2018 runway show, yet there wasn’t a Sikh person in sight.

Nothing says spiritual like a swimsuit wearing white women with the greeting “namaste” splattered across her chest.

Rebel Ranis has been an incredible medium for us to explore and experience our culture in a way that makes sense to us, and creating content for our blog has allowed us to explore our love for fashion and our culture like never before. We love giving girls fusion style tips, but we see that as just a small part. We strive to use our platform to support any young Desis that are pushing the boundaries as well as pushing the culture forward, whatever medium that may be through. We also hope for it to be a place where people can be free to experience all sides of themselves, whether that’s their love for Bollywood, obsession with Hip-Hop culture, or anywhere outside of this or in between. It doesn’t have to be either or and we’re determined to help people see that. Our goal for our page is to inspire others to unapologetically blend their culture into their daily lives and to create a strong online community of young Desis who share in our vision. Our dream is that one day the term ‘“fusion” won’t exist, because it won’t need to. It will just be our normal lives.

Divia and Niki Meka are two cousins proving you don’t need western clothes to be fabulous, one Instagram post at a time.

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