Friday, March 23, 2012

Beneath the jazz, we are all the same.

I was reading President Obama’s response to the Trayvon Martin murder, and couldn’t help wonder at how similar all the people in the world are, once you cut through the jazz of lifestyle, region and developed versus developing economies.
While  reading the articles (I hope there aren’t many who don’t know what I’m talking about, but if you are one of them, I do hope you have clicked on the link by now) I was reminded of this one instance where I was having a particularly tough day in college, and poor mom called at the wrong time.
Well, Bengalis have a bit of racial snobbishness ingrained in them, and I had just been exposed to new levels of inanity – a Gucci wearing classmate who had just said something to the tune of Thomas Hardy being one of the Hardy boys—I kid you not.  And she was my partner for an assignment which I obviously was doing all by myself, not trusting her film evaluating capabilities after that statement.
Now the mother is a riddle.  She is your average middle-class Indian parent with middle-class values that are constantly having head-on collisions with the urban, global platform the kid brother and I find ourselves operating in.
 And yet, from time to time, she will say or do things that will totally overwhelm us with the “modern” approach (“of course your daughter should get out of your house and live by herself. She is 19. How else will she learn to be independent?”) and make us thank our collective stars.
For those of you who are a little lost, it is not very average for kids in middle-class India to be on their own. Hell, we have 40 year old men living with their parents. Some families resist the move on excuses of safety, others do not even think of it as an option, especially if it is a girl, and yet others don’t just accept the fact that there are things in life that you never learn unless you are on your own, paying your own bills.
So while I went on a tirade on how I could lose my culturally rich Bengali mind if I was exposed to such intellectual stimulus for 2 years, my mom stopped me, and said, “You have to learn to deal with everyone and learn that beneath all the jazz, we are all the same. You are a Bengali and you like your books and music, but she is from the class that makes the money.  Each people have their own skills and that does not make anyone good or bad. She might drop dead if she finds out about your great mathematical skills.”
Despite that reality check (yeah ok, I suck at math), I still can’t wrap my head around Thomas Hardy being Fenton Hardy’s fictitious son.  But the bit about ‘everyone being basically the same” stuck on, and has helped me appreciate a lot of people in life.
What does this have to do with Martin?  A lot, I think. I am not going to get into a discourse on the unfairness or the unbelievable outrageousness of the entire episode. That will take 100 pages. But to my non-American eyes, it did bring out one basic problem in the American society that most of us are only too happy to ignore, or overlook.
People in the “emerging world” celebrated with absolute gusto when Obama was made the President. Office chatter revolved predominantly around how “only in America can you break free of the slave trading history and have a Black president”, college kids wore “yes you can” T shirts and bags, and people sang praises of the great democracy.
No conflicts of opinion there— it is, in many ways, a great country with great people.
 But the image most Indians or South Asians have of this country is kind of airbrushed.  
And as the Martin murder shows, the problems here are not only about distant issues of Ponzi schemers and rich, irate ex bankers.
We deal with our cross of caste and creed, and Americans deal with their baggage of apartheid.  And it is a dangerous baggage. Most people (needless to keep reminding everyone, most in this blog is most of those I met or have interacted with) in the country that has a black President still largely sees “blacks” as a group to be avoided when you are a minority in numbers, categorizes fashion in terms of “this is very black, I am not sure I can wear it”, and advises you not live in areas dominated by them. My through and through American familiarization guide categorically told me this and this block is more black and so unsafe and my rental agent told me she would not set up viewings in those areas at all, even if there were good or cheap apartments. Not that I had any particular liking for any of the off-limits places or that I am challenging their judgment. These women have been doing it for more than 15 years and they know their job.
But that is pretty much like we treat Muslims in India, I thought. Most of us have Muslim friends, respect the fact that there are many erudite Muslims who are a blessing to the society, and know that there is no reason for any educated and rational being to feel any bit threatened by them, and yet we treat Muslims pretty much like how black men and women are here. Avoid in large groups, steer clear of areas dominated by them especially after dark, discard fashion that is associated with them, and go on in our fake erudite lives without accepting that this is a problem.
Now I know from experience that there is some valid argument to this. At least in India, it is true that many Muslim neighbourhoods tend to have high crime rates, and from what I hear, such is the case here too.  As a Muslim friend says, “it is true that all of us are not terrorists, but it is also true that 99 percent of terrorists are Muslims.”  So ok, no smoke without fire, agreed.
But India is a backward, developing nation that is still struggling with basics like clean drinking water everywhere (which is not available everywhere in the US either by the way), female infanticide and general discrimination against girls (which I would love my American friends to give my Indian friends a lesson in), and so on and so forth. So on that level, I still grudgingly accept the fact that the large lot of Indians will have these illogical biases. But how does this persist in one of the most developed nations in the world? What is their excuse?
There need be none, because like my mother in her non English speaking wisdom realized, basic human nature tends to stay the same despite the differences of how and where you grow up. More so in its fallacies and biases. 

PS: did you know apartheid is still a huge problem in South Africa, as vouched for by my South African friend on a project here? "If I date a black guy no white guy will ever date me again." Her words, not mine. And judging from the fact that this is a 30-something working individual who has traveled quite a bit of  the world, I would bet it is not a "certain section of the society" there that we are talking about. I mean if the urban, working crowd says this, it can't be any better in the really rural, orthodox parts of the country. So all in all, it is the story of the pot calling the kettle black. 
Oh, pun was not intended. Maybe we should change that idiom and make it "dirty" or "sooty". 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mind your Ps and Qs

    Of the many things that Indians have to adjust to in this country, one of the most difficult is understanding and maintaining the standards of propriety in daily living.
    I said in my last post that there is great respect for people and their work in this country.
    I have noticed almost without exception, tenants talk to the building boy the same way they talk to their neighbours and all human labor-- from your carpenter, to house cleaning, to whatyoumayhave is extremely expensive.
    A simple translation is: "you are using my skill set, so you had better appreciate it. No one is stopping you from cleaning your house yourself, or mending your bathroom sink, but if you want my help, you pay. And that does not make me a lesser person than you."
    (most)People in this country think like that, so the regular cleaner is often asked to join for a drink after work, and also tipped while at work.
    However, years of practising this has extended this well measured cordiality to such extremes that one has to be blind not to notice the plasticity in the entire scheme of things.
    Commuters on a bus at 6 in the morning wish and greet the bus driver on the way out. I know, because I take that bus everyday (yes, I wake up that early.) Sounds good, but before long, I was forced to wonder if every single person in the bus is actually grateful that the bus driver is doing her duty, or it is just a reaction mechanism?
    I took a closer look at those people, and realised that none of them were even looking at the driver when they said thanks, and neither did the driver. People just go through the mechanism because that is the way they have grown up.
    Just like people in India do not even think of greeting the bus driver on the way out because that is the way they have known.
    It IS a reaction mechanism. I don't blame anyone. No one can be that bright and cheery everyday so early in the morning, but then the natural question is, why make yourself to do it?
    And I will preempt you and say this here. A fake greeting is probably better than the stand offishness drivers and other blue collar job holders get from the rest of us back home, but what gets to me at times is when that falseness creeps into all aspects of life, and somehow makes it difficult for people to interact.
    People here may be friends, but they formally check with each other every single time they make any small decision or move. For example, my Indian friends would think nothing of taking a bottle of water from my desk for themselves if they need it, or sharing my food.
    My American friends will. Actually, most won't even ask, because they do not think it is nice or courteous to ask me to share something I bought with my money.
   Now when it comes to my pricey stilettos, makeup or even wine, I appreciate that mentality like every other urban, educated, working friend or acquaintance back home.
   But I doubt people can take it beyond that to everyday living without some kind of a hit. Manners practiced in extremes does have a way of draining you out.
    In this case, it is easily noticeable that it is more difficult for a person here to let others in than in India.
    There are so many "rules" to follow, that natural interaction is almost always stunted, because you are busy keeping a mental tab of the dos and don'ts.
    A friend who has lived in this country for some six odd years, had a date the other day and was describing it to me.
    "You have to keep note of all the rules, especially if it is a first date, because otherwise you will be cast as a 'type'."
    This is so well ingrained in society here that people practice it subconsciously-- you are a cat person or a dog person, you are an icecream person or a chocolate person, you are a trousers person or a skirt person.
    Difficult for someone like me, who dislikes both cats and dogs and wears trousers or skirts depending on what ironed top is avaliable to go with it.
    True, I like chocolates and have no great love for icecreams, but I dare you to stereotype me for it!
    Rules were always meant to help people, not turn them into zombies. A Delhi and a Calcutta can probably do well with following the rules of the road, which say bus stops are the places where the bus should actually stop.
    But if it is an emergency, sure, go ahead and stop it at the first convenient spot.
    Not so easy here. I had gone out for dinner one day when on the way back, it started snowing. We saw an empty bus in an empty street waiting at the light, and a friend asked if we could be taken in and saved from the snow. The driver said no, waited for the lights to turn green, and then stopped at the bus stop that was less than 3 feet away.
   Sure, me caught without a hat and gloves in the snow may not exactly make it as an "emergency" (I will give in to that argument, thought trust me, it felt very much like an emergency to me), but that somehow mirrors society here in its obsession with rules.
   There is this other anecdote that comes to mind. Someone I know had to recently call NYPD after he found a fellow student and roommate in such a state of waste it was difficult to figure what he had taken.
    In his words: "the guy is unconscious and retching, but because NYPD cannot touch him physically without a fair warning, they keep asking XYZ,  to please cooperate."
    Apparently after 3 such questions which were obviously met with no answers, my friend and his other pals butted in to assure the cops/paramedics that it was ok to lift him and do what it takes to take him to the hospital.
   You see what I mean?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Customer service, professionalism and efficiency: what we can learn from the US of A

Yesterday, I went into the Nike store on Michigan Avenue to buy running shoes. A pronounced cat, I left the ones I owned behind when I moved, quite confident I would never ever need another pair. As a friend once pointed out, it is a wonder I don't get along with those feline furry domestic animals. I think it has to do with the fact that we are too alike, at least when it comes to curling up on the couch and enjoying some cheese.
But I digress from what I set out to discuss.
So I walked into Nike Town, fell in love with a pair, over paid, and came home. And because I had to justify the money I spent on them, I went for a jog (I don't/can't/won't run).
But when the great wise men came up with idioms, they must have put a lot of thought into it. A leopard, you see, never really changes its spots.
The initial euphoria of the purchase over, I went on a guilt trip on how much I spent for shoes that I could not even motivate myself to use regularly. I'm not telling you how much, it is much too embarrassing, but let's just say I paid more than double of what I could really afford. So I looked up Nike's return policy.
Now I was more or less familiar with such policies thanks to my job, but even so, was completely bowled over by how efficiently stores here run themselves.
The entire process can be described in less than 10 words. I went, returned, got my money back. Just like that, no questions other than the necessary asked. (Do you have the receipt? Do you have the card you paid with?)
When that happens, it is but impossible not to compare similar Indian experiences. I am not your poster starry-eyed-over-Umreeka kind of person-- there are things about this country that totally get my goat-- but inefficiency is not something I can fault this land with.
I remember when I had to exchange (not even return) a pair of shoes at a Metro store on Bangalore's 100 feet road. I had to wait for about 15-20 minutes before a store personnel could tend to me. He took the pair from me, asked me edgily about when I had purchased them even though I had handed him the receipt, and then vanished into the interiors for another 15 minutes.
When he came out, I was told they do not have the size I wanted, so I had to check with them next week. Could they call me to let me know? No. Note here, stores in India do not have a refund policy-- shoppers can only get store credit.
And it is not just pricey Nike. Shop at Ikea, the mecca of everything affordable for home furnishing, and one sees the same kind of efficiency. Sure, you won't have two store people waiting on you when you shop at Ikea, but then they never promised you that. What they promised is cheap and efficient furniture, and that you will get.
On a budget, I bought lamps that were towards the lower end of their price range. When I set them up at home, the bases were wobbly. I told myself that cheaper products will come with some defects, until the Ikea person fixed them for me. And I realised what India lacks in its "shining" and why so may foreigners have some genuine problems adjusting to the ways of the country.
We make too many false promises, and take too much for granted.
A shopkeeper can be cocky with his client there because they know they can get away with it, especially if the client is younger. (We still try to stick to a strange code of respect towards elders that is getting more and more irrelevant, but more on that later.)
Shoppers deal with the fact that the ready to eat dinner they bought will not taste/feel like what is on the box, because "waisa hi hain."
Here, Trader Joes, a grocery chain, will take back an open pack of dip/sauce/food if the buyer is not happy with it. Almost no questions asked.
And I won't hear of the argument that there are too many people in India who would resort to cheap tricks like using the merchandise and then returning them. There are people who do that here too, and anyway, I don't see the lower income group shopping at Nike, Spar or Shoppers Stop in India either.
Respect begets respect, and I realised that all other points I talked about : customer care, efficiency, professionalism, are natural derivatives of that.
I respect the fact that you are taking time out to meet me, so I will be on time. I appreciate that you are not happy with the purchase you made and don't want to spend money on something you won't use, so I will accommodate you without making you feel cheap.
I understand that the boy waiting on me at the store is probably doing it to save up for his college funds, so I won't be snooty to him and talk to him like an equal.
India as a country has a long way to go to cover these basics, to say the least.

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..