* Pottu: A pottu, or bindi is a adhesive dot, or powder (usually red) that is worn in between the eyebrows on women and sometimes men in South-Asian cultures. The pottu has many different significances. Spiritually, a pottu is worn to activate the Ajna Chakra, or the third eye. The pottu covers this chakra to contain the energy that moves up the spine during meditation. It activates the eye that is responsible for spiritual guidance. In some traditions, red pottus are worn to signify marriage, like a wedding ring. These days, pottus are used for aesthetic reasons because they CUTE. When I asked my Ava (dad’s mom) why she wore a pottu, she said she wore in in lieu of lipstick…interesting, right?
While I write this post, I am sitting at a coffee shop in Seattle feeling a little bit nervous. I have changed something about my regular, everyday appearance - today is different. Today, I am wearing a pottu* in broad daylight, accompanied with western clothes for the first time. No, I am not going to the temple later, or to a traditional pooja (religious ritual) at a family friend’s house. I am wearing a pottu today because I am training myself to feel comfortable expressing myself through my South Asian culture, something I felt the need to compartmentalize for so long.
‘Why do I feel nervous?’ I ask myself. When I start thinking about it, not one specific thing comes to mind. A mixture of feelings from past experiences boil to the surface. These aren’t positive experiences, but experiences that one-by-one taught me that my South-Asian culture is something to be hidden in the Western world, something that should not be shown off. In middle school I felt emotionally crushed and betrayed when the henna on my hands was made fun of for looking like an waffle maker burn. When I was in India I felt so good about it, but after I got back from school that day, I went straight to the bathroom and vigorously tried to scrub the henna away. When I was planning my 10th birthday party sleepover, I told my mom I wanted to rent a Tamil movie (with subtitles) to watch with my friends (mostly white). My mom shut me down telling me that no one would enjoy it, and that I should pick a Hollywood movie to watch instead. After that comment, I stopped watching Bollywood movies all together, losing a hobby that I used to enjoy with my family all the time. When I went to school one day with coconut oil in my hair, one classmate told me that I was greasy and needed a shower. I stopped asking for coconut oil head massages after this incident. My hair will never forgive me.
Other than the fact that all of the things I was teased for are now ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ (henna, foreign films, and coconut oil), these incidents have two other things in common. First of all, I don’t think any of these comments were fueled by hate. They were fueled by ignorance, fear, and a maybe even a little bit of curiosity in disguise. I don’t think any of the people who made these comments realized that they would still affect me 10, 15 years later. Secondly, these comments made me dig myself deeper and deeper into the hole that I had created for myself. In this hole, I stored aspects of my South-Asian culture that I felt needed to be hidden. I felt unsafe bringing my culture out of that hole. It would mean risking being made fun of for the person that I was, being made fun of for my existence.
Today, I am taking one step out of that hole. I am doing that by wearing my pottu. Although I do feel a little bit nervous, I feel confident. I feel confident in my culture, in my customs, in my religion, in my traditions. I feel proud of all of these things, and nothing feels better than overcoming this fear, a fear created by colonization and western beauty standards. I am prepared to educate those who feel the need to make fun of me for wearing my pottu. Instead of viewing it as hate, I am using it as an opportunity to teach people why I wear my pottu, and what it stands for.
I wear my pottu because when I was a kid, I had a treasure trove of pottus, each set unique, full of different designs and colors. I loved picking which one I would wear - Did I want to flex on them or keep it casual? I am realizing how much I miss that - expressing myself with my pottu. I recently came back from a trip to India where I was wearing a pottu routinely, everyday. I felt foreign when I forgot to put one on. It felt normal to me. Why did I feel like I had to change my beauty routine, just because I was in a different country? After asking myself this question, I realized that it was time to work on merging both my South Asian and American identities. I needed to work towards finding a cultural balance that worked for me. I feel a little strange, but I am excited for the next stage in my identity journey. I know that each day I wear my pottu, I will feel stronger and prouder of my cultural diversity.
If you are thinking about wearing a pottu at the next hottest music festival (FYRE amirite?), hopefully you will try to understand the cultural and personal significance of a pottu. You can do this by asking your pottu-wearing friends, your aunties, me, why we wear our pottus. Hopefully, you will realize that wearing a pottu as someone who has never felt ashamed of their culture is a privilege. For some people like me, it is not something that can be thrown away right after a music festival.
Why do you wear your pottu? How do you balance your cultural identities? Questions or comments? Please share!