Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Screw the Queue

A few months back, I broke my shoulder in an accident on a train heading toward Rishikesh. I've been seeing a doctor at Sitaram Bhartia Clinic every few days for physical therapy and the like.

One my biggest pet peeves here in this country is personal space. As an American, I feel VERY uncomfortable if a person comes within three feet of my body. It's just the way Americans are. You can always spot the Yanks at international conferences because they'll be the ones with their backs up against the walls from stepping backward away from people they perceive as being too close to them. Funny really...

When I stand in a line, I leave enough space between me and the person in front of me for my personal comfort. I can feel the breath of the person standing behind me. People don't actually line up, it's more of a mob of people around the window all shouting for attention. The queue is merely a suggestion. Women typically don't wait in line and just simply walk right up to the front and interrupt whatever is going on. This happened while I was paying my bill at the clinic.

Me: "Hi, I'd like to pay my bill?"

Customer Rep: Certainly, Madam." We exchanged information and he began entering the information into the computer. An older lady approached the desk and started asking him questions, while he was processing my payment.

Me: "Do you mind? He's working with me right now."

Auntie: "I'm just asking him a question." And then she continued to talk with him.

Me: "I DO mind. Wait your turn."

Auntie: "Who do you think you are?"

Me: Who do you think YOU are?"

Auntie: "I'm an Indian."

Me: "Congratulations. You want fries with that? I was STILL here first. Wait your turn."

Auntie: "My mother in law is having x-rays..."

Me: "I don't care. You can still wait your god damned turn."

At this point, everyone else in the building had arrived at the front desk to watch this including a few of the doctors.

Auntie: "You think you can talk to me like that? Shit! Shit! Go back to your own country."

Me: "This is my country. I live here. I pay taxes. I have every right to pay my bill without your interruptions. Wait your fucking turn."

Everyone's eyes were on me now. The pain I was experiencing made me more susceptible to any additional discomfort from dealing with her crap. I had no patience with her and wasn't going to let her force her way in front of me. Sure, it was a small thing, but this was just the last straw. She shut up and waited.

The Customer Service rep was clearly uncomfortable, but he hurried up with the bill and processed my payment quickly and we left. I can imagine the conversation that followed.

Look. I'm in India because of what it does right and it does a lot of things right. The bullshit I vent about on this blog are not exclusively Indian nor an attack on their culture - just look at the nightmare we call the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Unemployment Office in the States. I'm just as much of a bitch at home as I am here. I stick up for my rights, I do my best to ensure that I'm not cheated, and I demand that people I'm working with, be them doctors, accountants, or my coworkers try to respect my time just as much as I try to respect theirs (that means not being late for meetings or appointments). Cultural issues ARE difficult. My language, the tone of my voice, the way I speak, even my body language can seem like an attack to many people here and makes them defensive. I don't mean to come off like that. Even people in my own country call me intimidating (including my 6'6", 250 lb. ex-business partner). I am direct to a fault. It's something I need to work on, but the truth is, there are a lot of people, both back home and here, that value my honesty and directness. They are fiercely loyal to me (and me to them) and everyone else who wants to just sit back for an hour sipping tea and chatting before getting to the point, can bite me.

My method for streamlining my personal waiting in a queue process is simple. People trying to cut in line here get body blocked first. Then a comment, like, "I'm next," in a very firm voice accompanied by what has come to be known as the "Heydecker Death Glare". :-) This works remarkably well in train stations. I actually wait in the lines, instead of being pushed ahead because I'm a foreigner. I don't see myself that way. I'm not a rich tourist and I don't deserve special attention just because of the color of my skin. I do, however, expect the country I'm living in to understand that I'm not from this culture. I may make mistakes, but miscommunication works both ways. A "yes" most of the time doesn't really mean yes here, because confrontation is not socially acceptable. Demanding a commitment on, say a delivery or a repair, should be honored and most times, it's not. I think these things are unreasonable and should be in any culture.

Lately I've been questioning whether my personality is simply unsuitable for India. I'm wondering if I should just pack it all in and head elsewhere, where people will understand or accept me better. The issue, though, is that in some of the companies I've worked at here in India, the bosses that have given me a free hand to make change received huge benefits from my "different" perspective. Other bosses, that have wanted me to fit in to the Indian culture have had a much poorer experience with me. My fierce determination to do the best work possible in the most efficient manner and at the lowest possible cost is diametrically opposed to my personal experience dealing with the bureaucratic minutiae, backtracking and passive aggression I experience in Indian companies from those who feel threatened or disrespected by me.

And this respect thing is a BIG deal here. Layers of management don't mingle. Your boss is Mr. Somebody, not Bob. You use a more formal, subservient Hindi when talking to him (and it's 99.9% a him, BTW - I'm typically the only woman in an executive level or leading a group). American's don't play this game. Not at all. In fact, I'll say "Sir" to my driver, who gets a big kick out of it, just because to him, it's so wrong for me to do so.

I'm heading to Barcelona tomorrow, another culture with it's own idiosyncracies. At least I'll just a visitor there...

-- Jeanne

1 comment:

  1. I am Indian too and I appreciate your reaction for that lady. It's just that different kinds of people are there everywhere. It has little to do with country and more to do with the individual personality itself. You are welcome here :)