By Moosa Imran
In early 2018, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a trip to India with his family. Though the trip was something of a political gag reel, there were still some light-hearted moments. Sadly, not everyone was able to see the light in these moments.
In a video shared on Twitter, before giving a speech at the Canada House in New Delhi in February, our Trudeau walked up to the podium dressed in traditional Indian clothing, which consisted of what is called a “shalwar kurta”. The “shalwar” is a really thin pair of pants with a puffed-out look to allow for airflow, while the “kurta” is a long shirt that extends past the knees. It is easily one of the most commonly worn outfits in South Asian culture and even reaches out into the Middle East.
Trudeau started his speech off with a little dance, known as the “bhangra”, a traditional Punjabi dance that is often combined with drums or “dhols”. Trudeau was, in fact, the first prime minister to go out of his way to dress in cultural attire. The two prime ministers that came before him, Stephen Harper and Paul Martin, typically donned traditional western suits during their stately visits. Even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair never attempted to wear cultural clothes in India.
Despite the rather unsightly execution of the dance, Trudeau looked dashing in his outfit, considering dancing the bhangra isn't a daily routine for him. The audience seemed to love and appreciate his short performance, but social media audiences were less than happy with what they saw.
Though many people on Twitter were upset with Trudeau for the overall political turmoil caused by his trip, the Huffington Post called his dance an attempt “to take back the narrative”, and there were many who had a different issue: the prime minister was engaging in cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation has become a buzzword in today’s socio-political cliamte. It is a term used to describe a dominant group using the art, cultural or religious symbols from a marginalized group for its own benefit or enrichment.
Interestingly enough, most of the people throwing around accusations of cultural appropriation weren’t people from India to begin with. To put it simply, what Trudeau did was far from cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation carries the implication that some cultural hallmark is being stolen, be it in dance, fashion, language or otherwise. However, in this particular scenario, Trudeau stole nothing. Like anyone else who visits an entirely different part of the world, he is a guest. Based on my personal experiences in South Asia, guests are often welcomed and encouraged to indulge and engage in local culture. This engagement is also seen as a form of blessing in many countries. It is a sign of respect that someone wants to visit. It is an even higher return of respect when you greet them with love and care. You expect to share your living space, your food, and if need be, even your clothes.
That is the purpose of travel; to experience the different ways of life around the world. The stateliness of Trudeau’s visit probably should have outshined his wardrobe, but wearing Indian clothing and bhangra dancing there were means for him to connect with the locals and extend a hand of curiosity and appreciation.
It’s really no different than people visiting the Caribbean each year and getting their hair braided or wearing a Lei while vacationing in Hawaii. These are all ways that people can connect with others around the world and appreciate the bits and pieces that make their cultures unique, all the while acknowledging our differences and learning from them.
So when you’re travelling, don’t be afraid to experience things out of fear of hurting people’s feelings, especially the people who aren’t from that part of the world. It is likely that if you do end up doing something disrespectful, the locals will let you know, and if that is the case, the respectful thing to do would be to stop, apologize and learn from the mistake for future reference. Let us leave our darling Trudeau to peacefully Tru-dance the night away! Because this trip is going to be hard to forget for many other reasons.
The preceding is an opinion piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect any official policy or position of the publication.
This piece was edited by Aya Baradie.