“Do you smell rice? I think I smell rice!” Chris, the most popular boy in class would say every time I entered the room. It would be followed by a chorus of laughter.
For a whole 2 weeks, I didn’t realize Chris was making fun of me. Americans are weird. Who doesn’t love rice?!
I can chuckle about it now, but at the time, it didn’t feel so funny …
Here I was, a gangly 12-year old plucked out of her beloved Mumbai and placed in Cleveland, Ohio in the dead of winter. Sure, I expected there to be culture shock and an adjustment period. But what I wasn’t prepared for was being bullied for the way I presented myself.
Needless to say, my middle school and high school years were a nightmare. Thankfully, I did eventually learn to become confident in my own skin, even if it took a few years or 20.
But I wish someone had sat me down in those initial days and given me the low-down on American culture. I would have given anything for a list of to-do’s and no-no’s around acceptable standards of beauty and hygiene (among other things). Not that I would have blindly followed them, but it might have saved me from being labeled “the smelly, hairy kid”.
Yes, people are jerks. But perception is everything. It’s sad but true. They say 93% of communication is non-verbal. That means no matter how many intelligent things come out of your mouth, people have already formed an opinion of you based on how you’re dressed, how you carry yourself, your body language, etc.
And sure, getting made fun of in school sucks. But the stakes are much higher in a professional setting. Here, being unaware of those unwritten rules may hurt your chances at getting that next promotion or building relationships with colleagues and bosses.
Thankfully, Pavi and I made all the mistakes so you don’t have to. Here’s a list of things we wish someone had told us when we were fresh off the boat — maybe you know someone who will benefit from the advice, so here goes …
Check the Food Smells at the Door
Indian cuisine is the best in the world, and I will fight you if you tell me otherwise, the ghost of Anthony Bourdain! That said, it does smell really strong and tends to get all over clothes and bags. You may be nose-blind to it, but others definitely take notice. So next time you’re cooking up a storm, stash your bags, coats, etc away from the kitchen and close all the bedroom and closet doors. Also, use a linen spray on your clothes to mask the smell before you head out.
The single biggest complaint people have about Indians at the workplace is their body odor. Even if you think you don’t need deodorant, believe me, you do! We all sweat! And when I say deodorant, I mean the roll-on kind. Don’t rely on that Ponds Deo Spray. It is not your friend!
Dress for Success
Jeans and sneakers are comfy and practical, but they make you look unprofessional. You may be the most talented person on your team. But coming into work or an interview looking frumpy and unkempt says something about you. Opt for well-tailored pieces, even if you only have a few to rotate through. And ditch the sneakers for some ballet flats, or dare I say it, a pair of heels!
Ditch the Fairness Creams
Ladies, it’s time to get over our post-colonial hangover (borrowing the phrase from the brilliant Srishti Dixit). I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Fair and Lovely is racist and stupid. Also, talcum powder is not a substitute for foundation. In an age where #LiveTinted and Fenty Beauty exist, there is absolutely no reason for us to conform to the unrealistic and insane beauty standards of yesteryear.
Be proud of your natural skin color! In fact, go over to Sephora and buy a foundation that actually matches your skin tone, not 10 shades lighter. And if some Aunty tells you that you’re too dark, smile and say thank you.
Alright, guys. We’ve already got the smarts. There’s no reason to let our appearance hold us back.
PS: Know someone who’s new to the country and still having trouble adjusting? Send them our way. Pavi and I, self-proclaimed “immigrant whisperers”, are here to help you feel a little less out of place. Give us a shout here.