“What do you want to do when you grow up?” We were probably all asked this as children. For me, the answer was never the typical astronaut, firefighter, or movie star. No, I wanted to work at Colonial Williamsburg, because I would get to “dress up in old-fashioned clothes.” For those of you who are not familiar with it, Colonial Williamsburg is a “living” historical site in which employees portray the daily life of an American colonial-era (eighteenth-century) town in Virginia. Clad in the attire of the age, men ply traditional trades such as blacksmithing, and women run the household, sewing by hand and cooking over an open fire.
What does this have to do with Acara, or with this photograph? Through teaching others about ethnographic research and immersion, and coming here to India, I have realized that my dream was not about permanently renouncing electricity, fast food, and tennis shoes, though I did want to experience life without all of those things. I wanted to feel—as much as is possible—what it would be like to live in a different era, a different culture, a different world, and I still do. For me, nothing transforms your identity faster than a change of clothing. Much like an actor’s costume change, it is a superficial metamorphosis that reflects and encourages an internal one, and influences the way others see and interact with you.
And that is one of the reasons why, on my first night in India, I asked my Acara colleagues to take me to a shop where I could purchase some Indian-style clothes. (Incidentally, another reason is that I found out that much of the clothing I had brought wasn’t entirely appropriate for what we would be doing and the people with whom we would be interacting). The result is what you see here. You can probably tell that—even with the later addition of a bindi on my forehead—I still look like a foreigner. Although I did find fewer people staring at me than when I was wearing, say, a pair of shorts, the idea was not to become less conspicuous merely for the sake of not drawing attention, but rather to try to get a step closer to the Indian people.
Opening the dressing room door in my new outfit, I could see that my companions Sri and Manaswini were pleased with the transformation. Along the same lines, but on a more serious note, I think that a willingness to step out of the trappings of your own culture helps to build a rapport with your hosts. It shows a respect for the host’s culture—not exposing too much skin, for instance, was especially important in the rural areas we would visit later. Finally, from a subjective side, I got a literal feel for the trials and benefits of those particular garments: the thin cotton kept me cool in the hot sun, but the wide-legged trousers tended to get caught up under my feet.
In order for social entrepreneurs to solve social problems, we must understand the problem from the point of view of the customer. And in order to understand someone else’s point of view, you must first, as they say, walk a mile in his shoes. I would add that it helps to put on the rest of his clothing, as well.