What are the words you’d use to describe these images? Mine are culture, redefined.
Banglez’s extravagant jewelry scattered over my face is both familiar and unfamiliar, which makes it all the more beautiful to me. To some, these images might seem like an inappropriate use of Indian jewelry traditionally worn on the nose and ears…a taboo against cultural norms. To me, they are a new interpretation of tradition and a representation of the South Asian diaspora. The culture of diaspora is complex in the ways it fits native sociocultural values into a Western framework, oftentimes with friction and dissent.
What is culture exactly? Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the characteristic features of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time,” which implies that culture is actually meant to be continually recontextualized as we move through time and space. Then why do we face resistance or judgment when trying to incorporate our culture into our existence instead of strictly adhering to norms that have been established in another time, and sometimes in another place? I think about my status as an immigrant, and the idea that culture is a “set of shared experiences”. Since immigrants are a living product of hybridization, the crosspollination of two places – shouldn’t we be exploring these intersections instead of being torn between the ideals of our homelands and our new homes?
Growing up as a first generation Indian American, I have questioned these concepts time and again while at war with my truth vs. my culture – fighting each battle, but rarely finding true satisfaction because of the inevitable compromise on either end. Regardless of which time or place we come from, too many of us face overwhelming pressures to conform to cultural expectations across the board – around careers, love and marriage, raising families, dress codes, notions of beauty, and more.
I think about my billions of brain cells wired to think freely, my heart destined to follow itself, my soul which is everlasting beyond the presence of any culture. I do not believe it is necessary to strictly confine ourselves to our native culture to pass down important ways of life to future generations. I believe in the importance of understanding and respecting our roots while exploring and embracing our lived realities to achieve a constant state of evolution.
Culture ties us to each other, our roots, and our descendants as strongly as our genetic code does – both encoded with information once important to survive and thrive. It is our duty to honor those before us and share the culture they have developed with future generations. At the same time, deconstructing racist, sexist, homophobic, casteist, and such divisional traditions are both beneficial on an individual level and within the bigger picture of societal evolution. It’s important to analyze the context in which a practice was established, and to consider whether it makes sense for us to relive or to rewrite it. For example, the world once operated with women as housewives and men as breadwinners. Gender norms continue to be deconstructed and neutralized and women now make up 47.7% of the workforce, yet the glass ceiling continues to be lifted. We must be willing and able to explore new ideas to evolve.
It’s only human to want to belong yet to also have free will. This is the inherent conflict I have faced adhering to culture in the South Asian immigrant community. Culture makes us rich – through its art and food, celebration and clothing – while trapping us in a cycle of emulation. I want to use the richness of my cultural capital as inspiration for a new journey, one that hasn’t been written yet. My journey thus far has involved many instances of choosing between my roots and pursuing opportunities in my new reality. These do not have to be at odds with one another because we should own all aspects of our being, from our ancestors to our future growth.
These images to me resemble the beauty of coloring outside the lines, an analogy to exploring the depths of our existence. As Charles Darwin, the father of evolution said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” The purpose of life on earth is to evolve, and evolution favors diversity. It calls us to use the tools of our culture and our higher consciousness to paint our beautiful, tragic, adventurous, unique lives and to make something original.