When I was in seminary, we had an annual “Global Fashion Day,” where people would wear outfits either from their home country or places they had traveled. There were always Norwegian sweaters, glittering saris and brightly colored African caftans. I showed up in a kuspuk and blue jeans, and was startled that I was bombarded by questions that were hostile, not curious. “Why are you wearing jeans with a dress?” “What kind of a thing is that?” When I explained that it was Alaskan, and traditionally worn with pants, things got even more uncomfortable…”Well, it looks wrong, and today is about global fashion, not American fashion.” This wasn’t a comment from just one nincompoop, but from a surprising range of people across the whole day. I was blessed by having a classmate who was also from Alaska, who was willing to affirm for people that a kuspuk was a real Alaskan garment, that I was wearing it correctly, and that Alaska really was part of the globe.
That experience helped me to realize that “different” is welcomed and accepted, as long as it fits into some expected framework. People were familiar with saris and sweaters and head wraps, but a kuspuk was unknown, and it made people uncomfortable. We put a lot of expectation into frameworks, boxes and categories. When things, events, or people don’t fit into what we expect, we get a little squirmy, edgy — even hostile. If that can happen over something as simple as a kuspuk on Global Fashion Day, a day, by the way, meant to celebrate difference and diversity, then is it any wonder that it too often seems we are living in a world of suspicion and mistrust?
The reality is no one ever neatly fits into any box. The reality is that every person you meet is bigger than your expectation. That grandma may enjoy boxing night at Marlintini’s Lounge. Or maybe she’s an old crank, but got that way by being a waitress who had to be polite to everyone to get tips, and her feet still hurt, and one time she waited on the President’s nephew and what a cool story that is if only anyone would think to ask her. That kid zoned out on her iPod might be listening to a Tchaikovsky piece they’re playing in orchestra. It’s possible that guy in line at the food pantry is working two jobs, but a trip to the hospital has overwhelmed him with medical bills. Maybe that gal with the tattoo sleeve is a hospice volunteer whose little brother died from cancer. Maybe right now you’re thinking I have too much imagination, that I am better at imagining lives for people than the people actually living them. Believe me, there is a world of stories and surprises out there, if you’re willing to see beyond what you expect. Chances are, though, if you see a woman wearing a kuspuk, she’s probably from Alaska.
• Bahleda is the pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
Only a portion of Bahleda’s column was run in print Oct. 7, printed here is the full column.