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The fine line between the cultural appropriation and appreciation of my Indian culture

By:
Tasheal Gill (@tashealgill)

From a very young age, I was made aware of how different I looked from the people around me, simply by virtue of being the token "Brown friend". 

I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, a place that prides itself on its diverse culture. Yet, while diversity does exist, pockets of suburbia are also sure to remind you of your "otherness", like being the only Indian family within a one-mile radius, depending on which neighbourhood you occupy.

Around me, the residents' appetite for all things Indian (or ambiguously South Asian) is so desirable, it's almost humorous. 

I can't walk through a single neighbourhood in my city without passing at least one yoga studio, where teachers more often than not cherry-pick their knowledge of yoga and then propagate it to spiritually hungry students. 

It took me many years of classes at various studios around the city, before I, too, learned how to ignore the flagrant inaccuracies in these Western yoga classes and take away just what I need: a guided session through the physical practice. Nothing more, nothing less.

My first ever yoga teacher was my grandfather, but he never taught me a posture. 

We read the Bhagavad Gita together. I learned about Hindu tradition, cultural history, and the deities and their symbolism, rather than skipping right to the physical practises. 

By contrast, walking into a minimalistic yoga studio in East Vancouver felt a tad insincere to me. I couldn’t help but be cognizant of how there is very little acknowledgement of the cultural roots of the practise. 

Western yoga often focuses so much on one branch of yoga, rather than breath work or meditation. 

While the practice and its teachings are fluid, the study of asana (body posture yoga) is helpful in terms of anxiety and stress, and I recognize the benefits. 

At the same time, however, Western yoga is glamorized, and often represented in mainstream culture by thin, white, able-bodied women. 

In order to move from a relationship of appropriation to appreciation, instructors can instead create a safer space by acknowledging the origins of the teachings they echo to their classes, and listening to those with lived experience.

Western yoga classes may rise and fall to the sound of an om, and Sanskrit words may be used throughout, but instructors can also verbally acknowledge their gratitude for the ancient traditions that inform their practice while teaching a class.

Much like the profited pursuit of yoga throughout the world, I'm privy to various other parts of Indian culture that get cherry-picked into the land of the West. 

One of them being hair. Yes, hair.

The heavily ingrained idea of long, waist-caressing locks amongst women, and the long-kept turbaned tresses of Sikhs called kes, have remained unchanged to a great extent in Indian culture. 

For 17 years of my life, I didn't cut my hair (much to my dismay, and more to keep my grandmother pleased). 

I experienced the main thing you would expect with past-waist-length hair: people imploring to touch it, whether they knew me or not.

My hair became a distraction in high school classes and the product of multiple questions a day. Many asked why I opt to keep my hair uncut, if it's my choice, and the conversation usually spiralled quickly into why my culture is oppressive and fails to give women the ability to make their own choices about their body. 

Sigh.

This marker of differentiation became more apparent to me once I opened my eyes to how many blonde-haired beauties I would see with the same length hair as me, who received none of the cultural interrogation. 

Events like Coachella made it more clear how culturally derived the conversation was, as it was deemed "cool", and "hip", for white women to sport waist length hair without becoming the target of appearing oppressed. 

Meanwhile, long hair and other Eastern traditions like wearing a bindi (a coloured dot worn on the centre of the forehead) gained popularity in the West after Madonna sported a henna "tattoo" in her Frozen music video, and Gwen Stefani set fire to a new, quirky fashion trend by donning bejewelled stickers on her third eye. I

It wasn't long before henna tattoos were all the rage in mall kiosks and carnivals, and in time, more girls - white girls - were stocking up on their bindi "body jewelry" from the local Claire's for the upcoming music festivals. 

It took me a while to understand the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

During my formative years, I was certain that if it didn't have a white person's stamp of approval, it must be full of shit. 

Now, accompanied with a more critical lens, I see the discrepancy between parts of Indian culture I was "othered" for having, and the profit white people earn from securing careers and lifestyles that benefit them. 

I also know that not every om-chanting yoga teacher is oblivious to their responsibility as a steward of the ancient practice, or that every non-Indian girl is unaware of the cultural connotation that comes with having waist-length hair. 

I've learned to see the bright side of things, but my childhood experiences still leave me bitter at times. It's a reminder that there's still so much work to do in educating the masses about where cultural appreciation ends and cultural appropriation begins -- and sometimes, deconstructing this fine line can start with something as simple as a conversation, in order to start finding a middle ground.

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