When I feel stupid

GURGAON, INIDA: Did I do the right thing? Why else am I an expat if not to learn from being in a foreign land? Why should I have these expectations that a driver need to speak a language that is foreign to him and not that of his country? Why couldn’t I just learn a few words in Hindi?

GURGAON, INIDA: Okay, maybe not stupid… that is just my cheap clickbait headline. I do feel silly, and sad… and actually, yes, I feel stupid.

Why? That’s a bit of a story, a story that begins prior to my landing in India.

So when I landed I had a driver pick me up… he was funny, youthful if not a bit overly confident, and well-spoken for a driver. When I say well-spoken, I mean he spoke very good English. I was skeptical because he insisted I remember his name and “make a good reference” about his driving and customer service to his employer, the vendor hired to provide car services to our growing Gurgaon based workforce.

This diver, no matter how charismatic, was not my permanent driver. My permanent driver, who I met two days later when he picked me up to take me to work spoke no English. He said (via translation much later with a co-worker) that he understood me if I spoke slowly but he could never speak to me in English, only shake his head in that nonchalant Indian way (I do think the population has learned a lot about mastering stress). The expectation was I would have an English speaking driver supplied to me by my office. It was meant for my safety and comfort. Funny how language becomes a measure for safety in a foreign land, as if words can prevent you from being harmed. The ole ‘sticks and stones’ seems to be turned on its head in foreign country where you are the minority.

I let the language barrier go the first week. I was new and still acclimating to my surroundings, overly busy with work and expat admin tasks. I had to focus on the work I was brought here to do. The arrangement felt uncomfortable but I was open to seeing how things went. The second week, following the caste “protests / riots” in Haryana (the state I live in) and a couple incidents I would classify as minor now took place, where if he spoke English or I Hindi it might have played out differently. Instead, I was spooked, a bit annoyed at my company for being so careless and apparently cheap with my well-being to not provide me what I felt I deserved. There were standards that as a female on her own we are made to expect. I could tell he genuinely was someone who wanted to do right by me – maybe he felt some sort of loyalty to me being new to India, and I tried to treat him fairly, picking up treats for him when he drove me to the shopping centres, bringing him ice creme when he had to wait in the heat (but I knew he had an air conditioned “drivers lounge” to hang out at when I was in the office each day). For the last four weeks we were in it together – trying to understand each other.

Anyway, in my second week I told the person in charge of our chauffeurs to assign an English speaking driver to me. I was scared that if a serious situation occurred he would not be able to explain to me, or I him, and that would not be good for either of us. I tried to justify it to myself that it was not fair to him any more than it was to me.

Apparently finding an English driver is not so easy (when you pay low rates). I interviewed a couple men the vendor sent over, it was apparent they did not understand English, and for some reason I scared a one of them. I tired to be very polite and overly empathetic, smiled, shook hands, offered a chair and beverage, treat each person I met as my equal (which they did not feel they were). Still no English – did you need me to make that determinaton? One guy was too nervous to say a word. He kept looking at his hands and would not speak a word. I felt as if I were torturing him.

Then the vendor found someone who speaks basic, very simple English. It is enough. He was eager  and prepared to please, putting on a show with his book of letters and referrals about his dedication and service to one expat or another. You could question if they were bonafide; who am I to ask? He smiled, really exerted himself to speak what little English he could muster. I made the decision to change drivers.

Somehow word got back to my original driver he was being replaced. It should not have but as it was explained to me, “in India everyone gossips”. In his own way I think he was sad. He couldn’t say that but he tried to ask me tonight (his last night) if he would be picking me up tomorrow, or on Monday. I said I would have to call him, using our funny sign language holding my phone to my head.

I wrote in my review it was not his performance, after all he was always on time, always there, drove cautiously and even did his best to get me out of traffic; and I was assured he will be reassigned to another client, not left without a job. Somehow I still feel incredibly guilty, sad and stupid. Did I do the right thing? Why else am I an expat if not to learn from being in a foreign land? Why should I have these expectations that a driver need to speak a language that is foreign to him and not that of his country? Why couldn’t I just learn a few words in Hindi? When you see the extreme poverty always around you, while you live in a bubble of privilege, I feel responsible for something. It’s difficult to shut a part of you off – I cannot provide for an entire country of poor people.

A friend of mine in New York shared a story of her own from when she lived in Delhi. Her housekeeper lived in the slums where she was raising a family. She came on time everyday to clean the flat, possibly do a bit of shopping my friend and her own growing family – she was here with her one year old and husband at the time. The arrangement worked, and is very typical in India. One day she discovered her housekeeper had been washing her menstrual rags in the family bathtub. This put my friend in the position of having to terminate the housekeeper. She felt bad, knew the woman did not have running water where she lived, but allowing her to bath in the family bath put her child at risk. There was no way around it.

Anyway, not the cheeriest of reflections. Good thing I brought that Scotch with me from London… I’m going to need it tonight – my one month anniversary in India.


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