Made in Gold
August 10, 2020 / Farah Merchant
Refusing to wear gold is grabbing the culture your family brought across multiple oceans and spitting in its face. It’s insulting your family. It’s ignoring your history and identity. Hating gold is throwing culture in the trash after you beat it to a pulp. It’s breaking the hearts of your ancestors. It’s erasing your entire life. It’s an unacceptable disgrace.
When a child is born, her name is carved in 14 K gold. When a child is older, her ears are adorned in gold. When a woman gets engaged, her marriage is solidified by gold.
Yet growing up, I hated gold.
I lived in a neighborhood that viewed it as gaudy, unnecessary, and classless. But that didn’t stop the Indian community from wearing it like a medal of honor. Women walked outside to pick up mail dressed in gold. Children ran around in parks with their ears weighed down by the glistening metal. It was everywhere: grocery stores, school plays, and recreational centers.
I saw delicate gold hoops. Studs. Long, dangly earrings. Nose rings. Anklets. Bracelets. Necklaces. Clothes with gold embroidery. The world never dimmed as hundreds of pounds of gold were worn within the two-mile radius of my neighborhood.
And while Indian students and parents acted obliviously, I always heard the whispers from teachers and administrative leaders. It wasn’t just judgment: They urged parents to be conscious of how much gold they dressed their kids in. They didn’t want to be accountable for the lost accessories.
Their hostile tone didn’t affect the parents who continued to send students in with blinding studs. The parents saw nothing wrong with cultural expression. They trusted their kids' ability to safe keep their jewels.
Yet, as a child, I was frustrated. It was more than jewelry. It was a need to rebel against the current system.
The school teachers and staff were attempting to direct these parents and children in the right direction. So why were these parents refusing to cooperate? We participated in a society known to be dominated by white thoughts and rules. We lived in a nation known to bomb other people of color. We attended a white institution that hoped to create students who looked, acted, and dressed the same. Instead, the Indian community forged its own rules.
Due to the discrimination and harassment my family faced post 9/11, my parents conformed to the sentiments expressed by teachers and administrators. They confined religious practices and forms of cultural expression to our home. However, being young and ignorant, I perceived their fear for my safety as their support for assimilation. It spurred my dislike for gold. I began to hate how pervasive this cultural symbol was. I didn’t understand the need to have a material item define you.
In third grade, my hands were covered with henna designs. In fourth grade, my hands were blank. My mom sat me down, ready to paint my skin with flowers, vines, and checkered designs when my dad walked in and said, “What would her teacher say?” After that, the cold, earthy paste never touched me. I understood why my parents did not want me to wear gold. It was a distraction. It was expensive. It was loud. But why not henna? It’s pretty, intricate, and it wasn’t gold. I thought assimilation was an adjustment, about learning to fit into a new place and knowing the new rules. I didn’t think it was an erasure of culture.
I finally learned that it wasn’t about safekeeping our expensive gold but about my culture. The teachers and racists who felt the need to dictate what could or could not be worn didn’t have any honest intentions. They supported this unspoken agreement that my family and I would tip-toe around our identity for their comfort. I withdrew my support of assimilation. I saw the need to become a part of the bigoted institution that raised me as a means of survival. But in reality, individual expression is a founding principle in America. It creates unique individuals who retain their culture and heritage.
Yet, I never wore gold. I couldn’t forget the looks, the comments, the false concern. I couldn’t believe how easily I had been manipulated to support the suppression of my own culture. I also couldn’t help but wonder if people would have these same perceptions if I wore it again.
I changed my mind when I traveled to Pakistan and Dubai to visit my family. They handed me bracelets made of gold, shawls with gold detailing, shalwar kurtas with gold embroidery. Rather than seeing it is a gaudy, overbearing, overzealous metal, I saw it as a symbol of unity. A color of happiness. A symbol of brightness.
Dubai had an enclosed area dedicated to gold with shops that exclusively sold it. Seeing a space devoted to this object I once hated showed me how powerful this chunk of metal was. This element could gather people from around the world to a six-block market with unreasonable prices and a language barrier. Neither could hold people back from dropping thousands more on the jewelry that already covered their arms, ears, and neck. It didn’t just bring my family closer, but humanity.
Seeing people comfortable enough to express themselves warmed my heart. It reminded me that my connection to my culture is more important than people’s perception of me. In elementary school, the harassment from teachers never deterred any parents from sending their kids to school in gold. They were entitled to express themselves, and they knew it. Gold is more than a cultural symbol. It is rebellion, perseverance, and commitment. Every time I wear gold now, I will wear it proudly, knowing the significance it held. I was born in America, but I was made in gold. ■
Story by Farah Merchant
Layout Sydney Bui
Photographer Thao Nguyen
Stylist Zaha Khawaja
HMUA Mariam Ali
Model Mana Singri & Tehreem Siddiqui
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.