Saturday, January 8, 2011

That Lady Who Brings The Chai

You know her. She's the one who serves the tea in your friend's house, or in the office where you work or the office where you are visiting.

She keeps her head down and seldom makes eye contact, though she might smile shyly if you happen to notice her in an encouraging way.

You probably won't, though. No offense. I'm no different.

When I first came to India at the age of 23, the whole idea of servants creeped me out. I was a self-help American girl and though I had once been a waitress myself, I couldn't bear the idea of anyone waiting on ME. Toast? Thanks so much! I'll make it myself. Tea? Thank you, no really.  I'm fine. I'll get my own later.

Over time, I got used to the idea. Learned how to reach out for the cup while continuing to listen attentively to the other people in the room. Later, I could even go right on talking while picking it up, continuing with my important train of thought as if that lady with the tray wasn't even there.

Because she wasn't.

She was in her world; I was in mine. This went on for years. Then slowly, the walls began to come down. My friend Gloria - in her gentle, inimitable fashion - showed me another way, a way which acknowledged the humanity of the person holding the tray without stooping to condescension or pity. My friend and house guest Angie - with her fiercely democratic and egalitarian presence - taught me how much more fun it could be to engage with the person holding the tray.

And then it was off to the races.

Because now, every person serving tea - whether in my home or in some dreary government office - has suddenly leapt to life. There they stand, holding the tray, yet full of a hectic, inspired life the depths of which I cannot begin to fathom.

She's all dressed up. She's got a dream for her son - the bright one, the one who can imitate anyone. She loves the deeper shades of red. She's wearing pearls this afternoon.

She brings the tea in on a tray, but she's thinking about her village. She's remembering the bus journey that brought her here. She's calculating the days until her sister's son's wedding. She's hoping it will rain so her crops back home will flourish.

She's alive. She is not just that woman holding the tray. She's got a life, and a story and a dream of a common language. We owe it to her to look into her eyes and acknowledge her existence.


Anonymous said...

Oh Jo - please don't tell me that this doesn't happen in America? Have you looked around at all the Mexican help? Heck! it even happens to me at work if I walked into my director's office to drop off a file or something!

Jo Chopra McGowan said...

I'm sure it does - just not in my experience. I've lived in India for so long now it's hard to compare what I see here with what happens in the US nowadays.

That said, I don't know anyone in the US who has "help" except for the odd weekly cleaning lady, and they are professionals who are respected and a little bit feared (most of my friends/relatives who employ cleaning ladies clean their houses before she arrives so as not to look bad!).

Among wealthy families, yes, I think it's probably true that the invisibility happens in the US too.

But who gets tea served at their desk in the US? This is a developing country phenomenon, and is so widespread in India that we all get a chance to prove how awful we are!

Derik said...

Nice writeup. All the same, such things (I think) were left behind by the british in their empire of colonies. It is now adopted by those whose forefathers would cringe at such a situation. Either way, we are rapidly getting there in the US anyhow.

Anonymous said...

Jo, Thanks for postimg my comment and appreciate an open platform to discuss this.

"That said, I don't know anyone in the US who has "help" except for the odd weekly cleaning lady, and they are professionals who are respected and a little bit feared (most of my friends/relatives who employ cleaning ladies clean their houses before she arrives so as not to look bad!)."

That's only because domestic help, labor in general isn't cheap enough in America. There isn't a large poor population that is willing to accept these jobs for a lower pay. It isnt for any social-moralistic reason like your article implies or can be interpreted as.The other mundane reason,due to lack of public infrastructure and civic sense in India, you HAVE to get your house cleaned everyday. I am sure you know that living in India? You dont clean your house one day and the dust just accumulates, unlike in the US.

"But who gets tea served at their desk in the US? This is a developing country phenomenon, and is so widespread in India that we all get a chance to prove how awful we are!"

There was a time in the US where everybody mowed there own lawns and worked on their own homes. I barely know anybody now that does this by themselves and this Mexican help gets treated exactly the same way. Unfortunately, all poor and powerless people all over the world get treated exactly the same way!

At the cost of repeating myself "It isnt for any social-moralistic reason like your article implies or can be interpreted as."

Jo Chopra McGowan said...

I think we are arguing a bit at cross-purposes. I wrote about the situation in India because that's where I am and that's what I know. I'm just describing what I see, not trying to say Indians are worse than Americans. People everywhere are pretty much the same. But I do think the system here allows us to descend lower than MOST people in the US can simply because the poor are more powerless here. Yes, undocumented aliens are just as powerless and no doubt treated just as badly there, but it is not in every single middle-class family's experience to do it. It is here.

Anonymous said...

The US lucked out into being able to create a system where the divide between the poor and the middle class isn't as much because of lower population and more wealth. Globalization, the depolorization of wealth to other nations is changing that and the whole world will be looking to American to see if it can sustain the same system.
So, my point was that the system wasn't created due to some social values or moral reasons in America. However, your article, specifically the third paragraphs reads that way and urges the same of India.

As far as thee rest of the article, I don't think anybody at our Starbuks here even knows the name of their barista, let along their life story. How does it any way imply that we are disrespecting them? The same goes with the once a week help that comes into a lot of middle class homes now in America. It's a professional relationship, isn't it?

Jo Chopra McGowan said...

Starbucks isn't a good comparison. There it IS a professional relationship, and the same applies here at Barista or Cafe Coffee Day.

I'm talking about a more intimate relationship where a person is there in your life every day but you often don't know his or her last name or where she lives or anything at all about her/him because in your world, that person doesn't exist.

I'm not sure why this is so hard for you to accept. It's reality here. I know it's true because I see the INSTANT difference it makes to acknowledge the person's humanity.

Anonymous said...

That is absolutely not true! I grew up in India all my life and reversely moved to the US when I was 23. We knew our maid way more in India than the once a week middle class help that comes into American homes these days. We just hand them the keys and leave.However in India, we chatted with our maid, we bought her and her family gifts for Diwali, we gave her food, toys and tutored her kids. I can vouch that most of my neighbors were the same way too. We did speak to our maid:), because we heard most of the gossip of the neighborhood from her!:)That kind of gossip is common placce and much appreciated in India!:)

And, I guess the government office example would be similar to Coffee Day?

I would most certainly not hesitate to agree to it, if it were indeed the reality.

Jo Chopra McGowan said...

Every family is different. And I'm not talking only about domestic workers in people's homes (though they too are often de-personalized, or spoken of as "they" or "these people" as if all servants are the same); I was speaking also of office staff who are NEVER introduced though others in the office are, whose last names are not familiar to many if not all of their colleagues and who are often referred to as "the boy," even when they are clearly grown up men. I have been to hundreds of offices and I have almost never seen anything but what I describe in the article.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll give you that! We don't have peons in the US or an excess of "un-skilled labor" help that you see in India these days. So, it would be hard to say how it may be different if the same existed here.

However, I do completely agree that there is way more dignity of labor in developed nations than the developing world, but to say they are invisible and its inhuman is a bit too much I think.

It would be insanely inhuman if somebody came into my home everyday and I completely ignored them. At work, not that it should be, but it is a bit different.

I do see your point though, but don't agree that anywhere else with the same parameters would be any different and not to condone it of course!

Anonymous said...

I did want to add that the depersonalization of the poor happens everywhere. A person who's name isn't asked in India is as depersonalized as a person who's name you know in the US, but decided not to go to lunch with them or build a relationship further, etc. Effectively, you've shown them their "place." It is cultural to address people by their names and ask them how their day was going almost mechanically in the US. That doesn't mean you're making anybody feel any better or less prejudiced.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jo,

Great Blog, going through it first time. I think you can be a damn good writer.Have you thought about it. I will take the rights.

God bless you for your great work.


Jo Chopra McGowan said...

Thanks, Mark. Actually, I think I already AM a pretty good writer! Though there is always scope for improvement.

Entropy said...

Dear Jo

Once again, I beseech you to consider publishing your thoughts and work ..

You are a gifted story teller..