My internal politics of dress

Of the many good qualities imbued in me by my father, one of my favorite ones is the love for fashion he inspired in me. I loved fashion even before my appearance reflected it, to the point that I seriously considered studying Political Science at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, because, “Can you imagine how perfect studying politics surrounding by fashion designers would be?!”

It behooves me to mention here that at this aforementioned point in my life, I also dreamt of being married and pregnant by  grad school. 1) I was so, so wrong, and 2) if any one tells my paternal grandmother this, I’m not above committing an imprisonable offense. She’s already waiting for me to get married as is, and I refuse to add fuel to the fire (read: her co-opting of my brother’s marriage in order to orchestrate mine).

Anyway. My father has always been an impeccably well-dressed man, for as long as I can remember. Most profoundly for me, my father dressed well even when circumstances allowed him – or at least excused him – to dress down. His father’s death, family problems, personal health: he was immaculate in every carefully ironed pleat. And this is not to say my mother isn’t beautiful herself. Each day begins with carefully choosing lipstick and applying the eyeliner-kajal combo that always rims her eyes. She too is immaculate in her signature sunglasses and every perfect wave of her hair.

We are not wealthy. The stereotype associated with how my family presents itself begets the image of a privileged international student from a privileged international family with no conception of financial troubles or the weight of loans. I beg your suspension of disbelief, and remind you that this is part and parcel of my love of and appreciation for my parents’ image.

I think I was in a crappy mood one day, sulking in that uniquely teenage way, when my mother told me to get up, take a shower, and put on my favorite clothes. She said it’s what she does when she wants to feel better than she is. So  I tried it. I never stopped.

Puberty took me for a wild ride and I hid it all under absurd ponchos I re-wore way too much. Needless to say, it took me a few years to figure out my style, but I did, and now unless I’m really, really, horrendously late for something, I need to have a full face of make up on. Sure, there’s a lot there to unpack regarding my own well-documented struggles with self-loathing, but dressing up is my time as much as reading, writing, drawing are.

As long as I’m dressed the part, I can play the part I need to play – I can be the human being I need to be. No matter the internal state of my mind, I know I can at least look put together, and if I can look it, I can feel it. Is it superficial? Well, yes and no. But I put a lot of myself in every outfit I wear. Every day I try to wear something from Pakistan, or an outfit that has a history; maybe I’ll remember that my father told me I looked beautiful in a specific dress; maybe someone will compliment me on my jewelry and I’ll say “It was my mother’s;” maybe I’ll wear bright blues and pinks and know I’m representing Pakistan in every stitch of my koti or kameez.

And, as ever with my blog posts, here’s where the self-critique comes in: am I misrepresenting who I am?

I’m an international student, and that’s reflected most keenly in the 100% tuition I have to pay to stay in college. Thing is, that tuition is carefully and nervously spaced out in a way that doesn’t bankrupt my family. Loans have been taken out – very painful, very large loans I will add – co-ops have been strategically placed, part-time jobs have been taken on, just so I can get a degree. That I’ll have to strengthen with another degree.

It’s hard not to be despondent and wonder if this was all worth it. Retrospect is 20/20: no one could have seen the sudden financial hardship that befell my family, least of all an 18-year-old that was as giddy and excited as I was to go to Boston and (without exaggeration) follow my dreams. My education is as much an opportunity as it is my cross to bear, and I bear it every single day as surely as I have a lick of concealer under my eyes on any given day. And it’s hard to admit this to myself because I feel like I’m breaking a taboo by doing it.

I fidget uncomfortably in my heavy, Pakistani earrings and bright lipstick. What do people think when they see me? More importantly, what do they think when they hear me speak and the soft but evident accept slips out, some days more than others?

Do I look like just another rich international student?

And that bothers me more than it should. It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter, because I know what I am and what I’m not. I’m the sum of my parents’ faith in me and their endless, hard work. I’m the sum of my stubbornness and my own hard work.

But what do I look like? Who do I look like?

I suppose the reason this is bothering me more than it usually does is because I’ve had to deal with a lot of ups and downs on my way to my dream co-op. The first one, unavoidable, was the visa issue – I had every thing in the bag, minus the bit where I couldn’t get a visa in time. So, I took out a loan to stay in school, readjusted my co-op cycle to the Fall instead of the Spring, and took a deep breath. In that order. And then I decided, you know what? I’m going to fund this co-op myself. Yeah, I’ll pay for the flights, the rent, everything! So I got a job on campus (which is not necessarily as reliable as I thought, but at least it’ll take care of grocery money?) and put my heart into applying for a scholarship to fund my co-op. I was guaranteed some money, up to $6000, and I was going to get that! Or at least $4000!

For a little while, I felt good. The whole Trump thing tripped me up quite a bit, and I didn’t (and don’t) know what the future holds regarding the Muslim ban, but at least co-op was certain?

So imagine my feelings when I got my scholarship back and realized I had been awarded a generous $2000 for my pain.

The worst part is, I was so resigned to being tripped up that I didn’t even have it in me to cry all that much. I set about emailing who I could to try and appeal it. It took me 3 weeks to see if I could appeal this, and I hid the fact from my mom for as long as I could. I know my parents, and I know their love for me, and I was assured that it would work out if they had any say in it.

I’m going to fund this co-op myself.

I started looking for another job. I talked to my future co-op employers about worst case scenarios. I started working on research proposals that I could use to supplement my living expenses while in the Netherlands. And I finally, finally got some kind of an answer about why my scholarship was so low despite the fact that I literally begged for enough money to keep me self-sufficient.

Remember that loan I took out? I got enough money so that I could fund this current Spring semester and the subsequent Summer semester, which I needed in order to graduate on time. The Spring loan was disbursed to Northeastern while the latter stayed in my account until it too needed to be disbursed. So, I have a tantalizing amount sitting in my student account that will go untouched until the Summer semester.

The person working on disbursing the loans assumed that very substantial amount was for my own recreation, and that clearly, my request for more money than the 2k I’d gotten was perplexing. Clearly, I could fund my co-op with a sum of money that is literally, cent for cent, the tuition cost for a Summer semester.

I can’t begin to describe my anger.

If I was an American student, that assumption would have never been made. I’m an international student, and therefore, it’s a 9/10 chance that I’m probably really wealthy. At the very least, wealthy enough to have multiple digits in my Northeastern University student account just sitting there for my recreation.

Take a look at my actual bank account and you’ll know that’s very clearly not the case.

My family has given an unjust amount of money to Northeastern, most of the time money that I’m still not sure how they managed to come up with. There were never any questions asked, but this time, I’m adamant about asking questions and I don’t like the kinds of answers I’ve been getting. I also really don’t like that it’s making me double-guess how I present myself. The person allocating scholarship money does not know what I look like, so why do my earrings feel heavier?

I think I’ve been tripped up so much over the past couple of years that I’m double, triple, quadruple-guessing who I am and who I’ve become as a person. It feels melodramatic, and maybe it is. But I’m tired of feeling like I’m constantly short-changed through little to no fault of my own, and I’ll have you know that I am very, very good at admitting when something is actually my fault.

This was hard to write, which means it’s important that I write it for some reason. All I know is, I’m working hard to remedy what seems to be a string of bad luck. I hope that will be enough to make me feel comfortable in my own clothes again.

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