Sunday, September 17, 2006

The People Around You

Edit: Brad has a really good comment to this. So if you usually ignore the comment section, you should read the one that accompanies this post.

For as much of my life as I can remember, I've done my best to be a friendly person. Not just to the people that I love and call my friend, but also to people who I don't know at all. This group of people has always included service staff. When I was working at JPMorgan, I would smile at the cleaning ladies. I would pick up the garbage cans near me and hand them to the women. I say hello and thank you to the people whose job it is to hold my door or clean my table. I'm not trying to imply that I'm some magnanimous individual who deserves praise. I've just always tried to make an effort to notice the people who make my day easier.

This behavior has become habit with me. When I see someone working in my flat or tending to the gardens at the lab, I do my best to make eye contact, smile and either say hello or thank you. In the US, the reaction was always a smile in return, perhaps a few words of polite conversation. I would get something in return. But here in India, I've found that the women and men I try to engage, more often than not, just look at me. While it feels like they're snarling at me, in reality it's probably just a lack of reaction.

When I'm on the receiving end of a smile, I do my best to smile back. If nothing else, it makes me smile to have someone smile at me. It means I've been noticed and acknowledged. That's a wonderful feeling! Someone thinks enough of me to expend energy and use their muscles to send a bit of happiness in my direction. If that doesn't make you smile, I don't know what would! So when I smile at someone, and they keep eye contact without smiling back, I get upset.

I've asked Brad about it, and his educated guess is that the people at whom I'm smiling aren't used to people outside of their "caste" smiling at them. Now, I'm outside of the caste system anyway, obviously. But these women and men work for people who deliberately don't acknowledge them. At least that's our working theory.

We have a woman who works for us. It's a little embarrassing for me to admit, because there is a part of me that feels as if I'm falling into the "white oppressor" stereotype. She does the cooking and cleaning and in return we give her $2.50/day. She works for 3 other families, so she most likely makes close to $10/day, which is enough to survive off of here. And in thinking about how poorly "the help" seems to be treated here, I've thought about how I treat Shyla. I leave Brad out of this because his behavior is vastly different than mine.

Most of the time, when Shyla comes over, I shuffle into another part of the flat. I try to make polite conversation for a few minutes, but most of the time, I'm so overwhelmed with guilt and shame that I find it hard to be in the same room with her. It is just so unfair that I would have so much in life, and she so little. I know that she doesn't look at it that way. Her religious beliefs are such that she feels she's fulfilling her duty. But it's really hard for me to have someone think that their duty is cleaning my underwear.

But all of this thinking has brought me to the point where I've realized that I'm not treating her like a human being, and this is just plain wrong. I can't do anything about my fantastic wealth in comparison to her situation. I can't help that I am the boss while she the employee. But what I can do is try to listen to her. Try to talk to her. And do my best to never, ever let her feel like my shame is her fault.


Brad said...

I feel quite awkward about Elizabeth's post and when I talked to her about it, she said I should post a response here. First, I don't think that Elizabeth's behavior is inappropriate and I don't think that Shyla feels that way, either. Since Elizabeth has made the posting, though, she has made an even greater effort to bond with Shyla and I think everyone is happy with the results. Second, and much more importantly, it concerns me that some of the folks that might read her comments may not understand the situation in the same way that we do, particularly her phrase "white oppressor" which I certainly disagree with. By hiring Shyla to cook, we are able to learn how to cook Indian food in the most authentic manner and she is very happy to have the work and the respect that we give to her. It is also far too easy to live in a clandestine world with TV and internet and forget that we are surrounded by real people in dire situations. I think that adding Shyla to our family here ensures that we are not able to forgetful and complacent about our "fortunate birth." As for cleaning, I just don't think it would make sense to buy a washing machine and dryer which would add additional strain to an already overburdened power grid while there are so many wonderful people here like Shyla who desperately need jobs. Now, I know that Elizabeth knows all of this and I think know where she is coming from and why she wrote what she did, but it does worry me that some people might misinterpret some of what she has written. I definitely think it would be difficult for anyone who has not spent much time outside of Europe/US to truly understand the challenges and complications of depressed economies. There are two Indias which are widely and rapidly diverging between the rich and the very poor. The poor are not just economically poor, they are also poorly treated and cared for. There are no easy solutions (and perhaps no hard solutions, either).
As for Elizabeth's early comments about the staff outside our flat and at our respective campuses, it is shocking to smile at people and receive no response or, more often, a confused response. Classism and casteism are quite unlike racism and classism in the US or many other places. In many ways, it is important for us to adapt our own behavior to conform to society and culture here. In other ways, it is important for us to be proud of our own culture and identity. In still other ways, it is important for us to be a voice of opposition and critics of cultural practices we consider to be injust or immoral. Navigating between these three ways and knowing which is the right step and what is the right time is extremely difficult and it is impossible not to misstep here and there. All we can ask of ourselves is to keep trying and to remain sincere in our efforts to walk the right path. I am grateful to everyone who reads this blog and who shares in our experiences with us, both good and bad. I am especially grateful for the responses, comments, an criticisms. All I ask is that people remember that we are in a radically different social, cultural and economic world from wha we are accustomed to and what might seem innapropriate from far away is not necessarily so a little closer in. In her previous blog, Elizabeth wrote about an "uh oh moment" that she had. In fact, though, the only difference between an "uh oh moment" and every other moment is that in the former you actually slip up and say what you are thinking as opposed to just thinking it.

Anonymous said...

You are not oppressing Shyla. I am sure work is very hard to find for her and having employment gives her more than money, although that is most helpful to her family, but it most likely gives her a sense of purpose. I do not know her, but an employed person tends to have a better self image than an unemployed one. You two are very nice people and she could certainly do worse. I have a question about all this, but I am not sure yet how to phrase it, so I will be back later.

Kathrin Biemann-Monfette said...

Shyla looks very sweet and friendly, and I can't wait to try her food. Your kitchen looks very nice also! Trust me to respond to that rather than the issue in the blog! I'm sure she is interested in your culture as well as you are getting used to hers, I think those feelings are understandable, but it's not like she's working for free for Indian standards, you could give her a monthly bonus if you feel really bad? ! Just a suggestion. So she washes your clothes by hand? I'm interested!?
Just keep smiling, even if they are not used to it, atleast you were raised like that, and that's just a likeable quality...I think.

Mom (Bannon) said...

This particular blog is quite interesting and certainly makes one think...Work with me here...(I am picturing a man and wife from India, having moved to NY, say about the middle of June, I wonder how they would be feeling about the people they pass on the streets of NY...Would they be writing back home that "all the citizens of the US are so friendly and always smile at me, even before I smile at them!" or would they be feeling very lonely and like outcasts...would even one person have smiled at them by now?
Would they have been spoken to? or would people assume they would not understand them if they tried to start a conversation, thereby, just not starting one? Would we, in our busy lives not even notice the couple from India?) Next time you are walking down a street in NY, NJ, or even Spartanburg, SC look around and see how it is working...Are we mostly alone in a crowd, or do we just naturally 'reach out" and touch someone (if only with a smile)? I pretty much smile at everything that breathes and often talk to telephone poles, but I could be an exception to the rule :) will be fun to actually 'pretend' I am the foreign visitor and not reach out, and see if people reach out to me...I will report back after a fair amount of time to let you know what happened...(I so enjoyed visiting with Shyla this morning, and look forward to visiting again.) Elizabeth and Brad, I am glad you are touching on the culture there and discussing the way it affects or impresses each of you. I admire that you have chosen to be there, and I have no idea how it would feel to me to live move there and know no one the day you arrived...I am looking forward to hearing more about this subject as you are there longer...