All desis living in North America, regardless of country of origin or current citizenship status, hold one truth to be self-evident. As soon as the prospect of visiting relatives in South Asia begins to materialize, we begin the long-winded process of squirreling away trinkets which will be used for gifting purposes. It is as self-evident as paying federal taxes and trying to use dubious means to get the largest return possible. A percentage of any salary must be put aside for purchasing gifts for friends and family.
For desis on temporary tourist, student, or work visas in the United States, the process of collecting items for gifting purposes begins on the flight itself. In fact, many desis have been know to stuff the small barrels of sharp Swiss cheddar or British toffees served during in-flight meals into their carry-on backpacks.
Once past the immigration officers, one of the top priorities of any desi with plans of returning is to create a list of friends and relatives who will be given gifts from America. In the past, paper notebooks were used, but nowadays the use of electronic spreadsheets has become more common. The list must then be cross-checked with advertisement mailings for clearance sales so that large vats of face cream, discount mp3 players, digital camcorders, and bags of American chocolates (preferably with small individually-wrapped pieces for easy distribution) can be purchased at a pittance.
In more innocent times, a visitor could easily get away with fakes. A Ralph Naren Pollo shirt with a chicken embroidered on the chest could be passed off as the more expensive counterpart to unsuspecting bumpkins who were just dying to get their hands on anything phoren.
Not any more. Due to the proliferation of cable television, onsite projects, and the internet, folks are more knowledgeable these days. As a friend boasted, “India is very advanced now. We wear Abercrombie and Tommy Hilfiger. Often genuine too.” I did not have the heart to tell him that the two brands he mentioned had been fingered for racist advertising tendencies. Had I told him, it would probably have made him an even more loyal customer.
In my case, with a multi-city trip to India planned for later this year, I needed to do what any person genetically identifiable as desi would be compelled to do. Toward that goal, I went to the nearest shopping mall to try to find gifting items.
A word about the North American shopping malls to those who are unfamiliar: they are ginormous. In India, it is advisable for family members to have a unique identifiable family song which the children can learn at an early age in case they are separated during melas. In the United States, such songs might be required prior to visits to malls, which in many cases are larger than small towns.
I entered the first department store inside the shopping mall with the goal of buying clothes for friends and family back home. After winding through the gargantuan maze of clothes on offering there, the plan was to next visit the Banana Republic, Gap, Guess, and Benetton stores in the shopping mall.
It seemed like an easy enough task to accomplish, right?
Wrong. I spent over an hour getting progressively frustrated. The problem wasn’t that there was a lack of acceptable clothing. The problem was that none of the clothing that I could find could be purchased.
I started by looking through the Nautica section. I am told by kids these days, that Nautica, which sounds like a raunchy proposition in Bhojpuri, is acceptable for gifting purposes. Every article of clothing that I liked bore the Nautica tag “Made in India” or “Made in Pakistan” or “Made in Bangladesh”. Things got worse when I rummaged through Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, and Tommy Hilfiger. The country of origin of the clothing didn’t vary with the brand at all.
Now, every desi knows that there is no greater crime than purchasing clothes made back home or in neighboring countries. It is a fine thing for white people to do. They drive nice German cars and eat real Italian food. They can afford to contribute to South Asian economies by providing much-needed foreign currency. We do not have that luxury. We need to buy clothes made elsewhere to be better than the poor people in our crowded countries.
I left the department store disgusted, but with a new plan for the Gap store, which I visited next.
I approached a customer service agent. “Hi. Can you please help me find a couple of shirts in ‘Size Large’?” I asked.
“Sure,” said the customer service agent cheerfully, “did you have any color or fit in mind?”
“No, not really” I replied. “In fact, I don’t really care about the cut or design. I just need to buy a couple shirts that aren’t made in India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.”
The service agent scanned my face expecting me to break out laughing. When it didn’t, he raised his eyebrows. I imagine he must have thought that I was joking. Then he must have thought that I was racist before realizing that I was brown myself. Then he probably gave up and asked again. To which I repeated the request.
After searching through the store for what must have been close to 10 minutes and finding only clothes made in South Asia, there were encouraging signs. “I found a shirt made in Lesotho. I don’t know where that is though…” he said, while looking at me again searching for signs of lunacy.
“Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa,” I interrupted. “It is an African country. We’re making progress but Lesotho’s GDP isn’t that great. Let’s keep looking if there are other countries.”
After searching for another five minutes, we found some shirts made in China and Indonesia. I was hesitant to look at those made in China because the Chinese are known back in India primarily for making cheap Wing-Sun fountain pens, umbrellas, and DVD players.
With Indonesia we had a viable option. “ It isn’t a European country, but Indonesia probably has a higher per capita income than India. Even with the Asian Recession, they must be doing well, “ I thought to myself.
I had spent hours and had made very little progress so I found Indonesia to be an acceptable option. I bought a couple of the shirts made there.
Today I failed, but tomorrow, I will return with my shopping list to resume the search for the remaining gifts. It isn’t easy buying in America for desis.
Text: © Anirban