If I had to choose, I would choose the safety of the uniform because, of course, the whole piece, the whole little essay begins with the memory of being a child and being traumatized by having to dress myself. Because it just churned up so many problems and was a source of true anguish for me, as a child, to have to choose clothes and put them on — and this has economic ramifications, this has cultural ramifications, this has all sorts of ramifications, because clothes are things we buy in stores, etc., etc.
I had this crazy envy, admiration, obsession with my cousins’ school uniforms in Kolkata because they were all the same. They just put on what they had to wear to school every day and it was the same thing. And I dreamed about that. I dreamed of being able to wake up in the United States and just put on my blue skirt and my white shirt and my black shoes, and going to school, and nobody commenting on what I was wearing. I was always so terrified because people were always commenting on what I was wearing. And they were teasing me or whatever.
I think there’s this: Where do you stand between wanting to express yourself and be free and being afraid of that freedom, being actually vulnerable to that freedom? I think America represents Freedom with a big capital F. And it always has, and we hope it always will for the good. But there’s also the danger of that, even as a young girl in the ’70s, as a kid, a child of immigrants, I knew what it meant to shop in one store versus another store.
I saw what the girls in my class were wearing: the kinds of shoes, the kinds of purses. I knew that my parents weren’t taking me to those stores, that they thought that was a waste of money and that we’re not going to pay $40 for Nike sneakers, or whatever it is, because it’s a waste and you’re going to grow out of them in six months. Whereas my schoolmates had these things, and suddenly there was the gap between me and them, reinforced by these things. For a child, at least for me, these things were traumatizing. And I imagine for others as well.