When I was eighteen years old, I visited India for the first time. It was the climax of a cliche gap year story: an American teen saves money from shifts at a supermarket and rents an apartment in his father’s homeland in order to “find his roots” and “discover himself.” Days after landing in Delhi, I learned that a distant cousin of mine was about to be married. I’d never met the bride and would need to travel five hours outside the capital to reach her ceremony. Nevertheless, this was a family wedding in the same continent as me, which, in Desi culture, is known as a mandatory event.
The invitation excited me because I’d come prepared. Another relative — a verified first cousin from Britain — had made her nuptial vows two years earlier and I’d bought an intricately embroidered “Kurta” for the occasion. The traditional knee-length shirt proved to be a compliment magnet at its London debut but had languished in my closet ever since. Now, on my way to a real Indian wedding, I had the chance to showcase my costume in its natural habitat. I spent the car ride flipping through Hindi vocab flashcards and rehearsing my script for whenever someone new approached me. Of course, with an American accent and unfamiliar face, I would never blend in completely. But there’s no one more cringeworthy than the obscure relative who barges into a wedding and becomes the center of attention. By embracing the culture, I could at least avoid standing out and stealing the spotlight.
That night, the universe was in the mood for irony. Instead of stepping into a sea of Nehru jackets and flowing silk pyjama, I found what looked like a Model UN conference. Every man obeyed a strict dress code: dark suit, white shirt and a brightly colored tie. I shuffled toward the other guests and mumbled in Hindi, “My name is Mahesh. I’m Radikas’s cousin from America.” The newly discovered relative then pinched my kurta, laughed for roughly ten seconds and replied in English, “ I see you are representing Indian attire! Very good, my brother, this is beautiful.”
Although most male college students are reluctant to admit it, deciding what to wear is kind of complicated. Dressing in a way that’s appropriate without looking boring or pretentious requires knowing just how much to adapt. As overachieving first years learn every fall, it’s embarrassing to show up to a YPU debate in a t-shirt. But you also don’t want to be the rower who dresses identically with everyone else on the crew team and you certainly don’t want to be that quiz bowl nerd who spent his entire life collecting Asics but suddenly starts wearing boat shoes in order to fit in at frats. Miscalculating how much we need to adapt can lead to disaster; that’s what happened when I assumed that my cousin’s wedding in India would be just like the diaspora celebrations I’d attended before.
I haven’t experienced that level of sartorial alienation since coming to Yale. My wardrobe is dominated by the same earth-toned chinos and waffle-knit sweaters that I wore in high school. It’s the mark of a student who wants to appear moderately well-dressed without taking any risks — the style of a J.Crew model in a hurry and on a budget. But I sometimes wonder if my gap-year wedding trauma pushed me too far. During that same trip to Delhi, I bought an entire set of tops that combine the color palette and band collar of an Indian kurta with the length of a Western dress shirt. The plan was to wear them to class and add a pinch of flavor to my style. Instead of making an appearance in Directed Studies seminars, however, the shirts have remained in my suitcase. Will they ever emerge? I’m not sure. Finding the Goldilocks level of conformity requires understanding the culture of a group and one’s place within it.