The first cold dab of mehndi as the paste hit my skin always tickled. As the following swirls continued to be drawn across my palm, I drew in heavy breaths filled with the aroma of bitter henna. I was never a huge fan of the smell — very few people are, really; and some, like my mom, barely handle the odor enough to take part in this tradition during their weddings.
As much as I loved the floral designs and intricate patterns of the temporary henna tattoo on my hand each Eid or family wedding, however, the smell always turned out to be the least of my worries. Whether it was a new kid at school or some stranger on my soccer team, I was invariably met with some sort of scoffing, “What’s that?,” or, “Do you have a skin problem?,” or, “That’s weird.”
During these times in elementary school — which, I must add, occurred well within this century — facing ridicule was common before “henna tattoos” were a normal, check-out counter impulse buy at Urban Outfitters. They were the days before hot yoga was a pit stop after the PTA meeting.
They were the days before progress in technology and the rise of globalization created a large platform that has allowed previously unknown cultures to receive mass exposure for huge swaths of the international public, especially in developed countries in the West — a movement that has both fostered appreciation, as well as generated cultural appropriation.
[Coldplay’s music video] has betrayed South Asian and non-South Asian fans around the world by reducing a rich and complicated culture to cheap exoticism, and its portrayal of Southeast Asian culture as a simplistic hodgepodge of eroticized artifacts perpetuating offensive stereotypes.
It is only fair to acknowledge that a genuine appreciation for Southeast Asian culture grew in conjunction with cultural appropriation — and it has helped foster tolerance and acceptance of different cultures in American society to allow for a more global understanding of disparate peoples. However, its mutant evil twin of “appropriation” still lurks profusely.
And that is exactly what we are seeing embedded in the recently released Coldplay music video, “Hymn for the Weekend.”
Featuring the usually beloved Beyoncé, this piece has betrayed South Asian and non-South Asian fans around the world by reducing a rich and complicated culture to cheap exoticism, and its portrayal of Southeast Asian culture as a simplistic hodgepodge of eroticized artifacts perpetuate offensive stereotypes.
Let me be clear; this video is not cultural appreciation. Appreciation is not (especially if its produced by wealthy white men hoping to capitalize on it) spewing lyrics about getting drunk and high while adventuring in this “mystically exotic land” of supposed India to find yourself or lose yourself, depending on which way you want to skew it.
South Asia, specifically India, is highly fascinating to Westerners, specifically Americans. But this interest usually morphs into some sort of fantasy that’s commoditized and rooted in the “otherness” of India. Indian culture is often “cool” as an accessory in some diluted (read: whitewashed) forms.
Coachella with bindis, chic bangles with boho dresses, chicken tikka masala (which is basically the orange chicken of Indian cuisine; in fact, a Western-adapted concoction), wraps with dollops of yogurt sauce, etc. It all sounds good and humanizing, with increasing knowledge, tolerance and acceptance of outside cultures — until you realize that the more authentic forms of these cultural elements are the bait that bullies (and not just 7-year-olds on the playground) latch onto when ridiculing culture.
It took years for me to outgrow the shame in bringing food I actually liked for lunch to school. I spent years eating boring turkey on dry bread before mustering up the courage to open a container of biryani or kabobs and trying to ignore the sound of disgusted classmates asking, “What’s that?” or, “That’s weird.”
Many are quick to point to “Indian weddings!” and how “it was okay for me to wear a sari there, so I don’t get it?” The difference is that, hopefully, that was done in accordance with the wishes of your South Asian bride/groom friend/family. To take part in the celebration in the way they find respectful is usually the way to go, especially when it is something as intimate and personal as a wedding.
Beyond just the personal experience for multicultural kids, the music video is an overall example of orientalism, whose issues are rooted in historical exploitation and enduring damage. The subcontinent may have infrastructure built during colonialism — but it reeks of the side effects that have amplified racism and trickled down into sexism, classism, caste, beauty and more.
Finally, it perpetuates the most monolithic stereotypes of India that simply are not universal truths: Poor children just run around on the streets to welcome the white people visiting in rickshaws; street men just ogle women in any video they see; North Indians and South Indians are the exact same by placing two of these very separate kinds of dancers in the same scene and that every day is apparently Holi, evidenced by children playing with colored powder.
Some non-South Asian in a Facebook comment I read defended the video as a “cool peek into the streets of India,” when, in fact, that’s exactly what it wasn’t. And for that sentiment to be spread and normalized while, even in the days of Urban Outfitters impulse buys, we are told Southeast Asian culture is “weird,” even if it’s now couched in more concealed terminology through exoticised commodification — is exactly what is wrong.
Image: Screengrab from Youtube