People have all kinds of elaborate theories on fitting in while abroad. How not to call attention to yourself and advice on the same has filled magazines, occupied dinner conversations and brought otherwise sane people to exhaustively question their choice of footwear.
Depending on where you go and what you look like, there may be a point at which you decide to just give up. Wear your ugly shoes, carry your camera in your hand, wear a visor, hold a waterbottle, be six-foot-two in a town of all five-foot-twoers. Whatever, just be comfortable. So people will know you’re not from there, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay. It happens to me daily.
Even if you do fit in in terms of phenotype, your body language may still set you apart. Several Indian friends of mine who grew up in farflung parts of the states have imitated for me the “Indian head bobble,” (used to indicate that you’re listening to someone and which defies either an up-and-down or side-to-side motion, indicating neither agreement nor disagreement) and then they laugh, saying, “I’ll never get it right.”
A long time ago I read a fabulous book called Red China Blues. In 1972, the author, Jan Wong, a Candian student of Chinese ancestry, travels to China at the height of the cultural revolution.. The book is wrenching and complex and really engaging, but at the moment what I’m remembering is that Wong bought all her clothes upon her arrival in China. Perfect, I thought. This is the thing to do. Go to a place and buy your clothes there.
But revisiting the Punjabi and Gujurati friends again, we learn that this does not always work to help you blend in. Take the case where the local clothes are really different from the ones you grew up in. Sari-wearing for the uninitiated, for example, presents a particular challenge. From a mile off, you can be spotted, the person who is uncomfortable in her multicolored flowing material, whose right shoulder creeps infintesimally upward to try to keep the scarf right there, when really the whole “whoops, my scarf slipped, time to flip it over my shoulder again” is part of what makes sari-wearing so alluring.
But maybe the clothes do not present any unique challenges. There are no scarves to flip, no abdominal muscles to be tensed. You decide to follow Wong’s example, buying only local clothes, and wearing them proudly.
Not so quick! A couple of words of caution first. 1. Observe the locals. Just because something is sold in a town doesn’t mean everyone’s wearing it. 2. Don’t wear the same thing as your travelmates. Nobody wears matching clothes unless they’re in uniform or two years old.
Do you think I’m preaching to the choir here? Consider these (presumably European) lovelies trotting out their best típica (“homespun”) clothes, sold in the craft markets in Chile. Problem is, unless they’re drummers or a pajamas-outside-wearers, Chileans would never be caught dead on the street in these pants. And if someone did feel inspired to wear his pajamas outside? He’d be damn sure not to dress in a matching ensemble with his buddies.
I present to you Mr. and Mr. and Mrs. Stripeypants. Please notice the waterbottle and camera in Mr. Blue Stripeypants’ hands.
But you know what? I bet they had a great day, and were very comfortable, to boot.