It is that time again, the time when I sweat bullets and breathe deeply, trying to ward off panic attacks as I think about reentering the “Western World of Fashion.” Home assignment…furlough…vacation time…whatever you call it, it all means the same thing to me: a colossal cultural clash of clothes.

As I adjusted to my new culture, fashion was the last thing I embraced. I had always—in a modest and non-worldly way, of course—cared about what I wore, how it looked, and how I looked in it.

As I shopped at the fabric bazaar in my new culture, I would fumble through the gold, floral, swirled, polka-dotted, rayon, lacquer, and sequined fabrics that were all the local rage. These were to be transformed into the popular form of a long-sleeved dress with matching bottoms—think pajamas, electrified.

What on earth was I going to wear? I began gradually…choosing the most toned-down versions of fabric I could find. The men’s fabric really appealed to me: plain, solid colors, cotton blends. “Now we are talking,” I would think. My Afghan friends, however, thought my new clothes were hideous.

“Why do you wear such plain outfits?”

“Doesn’t your husband love you? He buys you such ugly clothes!”

“How come you don’t wear any jewelry?”

“Why don’t you put on make-up?”

Under their scrutinizing comments, I felt like a sub-woman. Prodded on by peer pressure and a desire to “fit in” in a culture where I glaringly did not, I began to dress more fashionably. I bought fancy wedding clothes, fabrics with sequins on them, and fabrics swirled with colors I had been taught never matched. I wore more jewelry and made an effort to wear make-up when visiting. I still refuse to wear three-inch stilettos on dusty, rocky roads, where the danger of twisting an ankle at every step lurks. I want to be able to run if necessary! I do, however, wear shoes with a modest heel on them.

Being at the height of fashion was not my goal. I did also want to be an example that God cares more about the heart than outward appearances, but it was important to become acceptable to the women I was befriending to even begin such a dialogue.

I have lived here almost eight years. Each time I exit Central Asia the same panicked feelings overwhelm me. I rediscover my arms and legs, and the fact that I might have to show parts of them to the world. When I think of t-shirts and jeans, my response now is, “How dull! Don’t Western women know how much gorgeous fabric exists? What is it with the plunging neck lines?”

Do not even get me started on swimming suits: “Breathe! Okay, breathe again.”

I do two things to transition myself back to a world where I cannot wear pink polka-dotted pajama sets with a matching head cover (which my husband loves, by the way).

Step 1: I email two of my best friends who continue to provide a fashion conscience for me.

“Help!” I cry. “What is in style? Not for teenagers, but for a woman in her mid-30s, striving for a youthful, functional, and stylish look.”

Everyone needs these types of friends. They painstakingly go through current fashion with me, giving me hints and links to websites to update myself on real-life fashion outside of Central Asia.

Step 2: I peruse the suggested websites for enlightening visuals. The other day I found myself huffing at them: “How am I supposed to know if women in their thirties wear these styles if ALL are modeled by 21-year-olds?!” and “What gorgeous dresses, but there is no way I am wearing them without pants!”

As my wardrobe adjustment looms near, I might still have miles to go.


© 2013 Thrive.


Question to consider:  How have you adjusted your wardrobe as a result of serving cross-culturally?