Working Abroad: No ‘Typical Day’ at an Indian Office
11 months later and people still ask me, “You don’t take tea?”
Sorry to disappoint, but no. I didn’t want it with my biscuits on my 14-year-old trip to London with my insistent grandparents and I don’t want it as a self-destructively sleep-deprived young adult. I know I’m supposed to be all chai-crazy now that I’m living in India, but it just hasn’t happened. Everyone in my office has their sweet and milky tea twice a day, but exempting situations where it would be impolite to refuse, I’ve remained tea free. Still, I do enjoy watching the crowds gather around the street chai stalls, everyone sipping from tiny plastic cups that burn your fingers if held incorrectly or the clay cups that are actually meant to be smashed on the ground after they’re used.
One day we might have internet, the next day not.
I work at a grassroots NGO in Mumbai, and there really is no typical day at the office, for me or for anybody else. One day I could be plowing through a donor report and the next day I could be taking notes at a women’s self-help group meeting focusing on gynecological health and awareness as someone translates from Marathi to English. One day we might have internet, the next day not. There was one memorable afternoon where I spent nearly an hour thinking of the world’s most creative ways to rid a laptop of biting red ants. Most days, though, I can count on the following:
1. Everyone notices everything.
Painted my nails last night? Yep. New earrings? Definitely. Parted my hair differently? Count it. If I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, at least three people will tell me I look tired (a sweet way of telling me I look like someone ran over my face with a tractor). The office has definitely become very protective of me, including close monitoring of my weight to make sure that I’m feeling well. (“Are you feeling unwell today, Abigail? You look thinner,” or “You’re looking much fitter again, Abigail. I think it was the change in the weather.”) Before a recent trip, my boss sat me down and demanded I give her a thorough day-by-day rundown of my trip itinerary, which allowed for her to give me plenty of (very good) advice along the way.
2. I will misunderstand something.
My co-workers speak tons of different languages, most frequently Hindi, Marathi, and English. I do a lot of wide-eyed smiling during lunch when things switch to fast-talking Marathi and then nudge someone to tell me what’s going on. One woman who doesn’t speak English is clearly the office comic–she’ll be telling a story and everyone will be peeing themselves with laughter. When I ask what was so funny, someone will just say, “Oh, she was imitating [insert co- worker’s name],” at which point I know that the story just won’t translate.
3. Someone will hang up on me.
Let’s say I answer the phone three times a day in my perky yet obnoxiously American voice. At least one person will be confused as anything and hang up, and who can blame them? I would think I had reached a wrong number too.
As I’ve discovered in all facets of my life in Mumbai, there are very different notions of personal space than what I’m used to. My mom once sent a card to my office address since my home address is unreliable. My co-worker saw the card on my desk, picked it up, and read it in its entirety. She said, “That’s so nice!” and then as an afterthought, “Is it ok that I read it?” I couldn’t help but laugh.
One thing that drives other foreigners crazy that I love is the general cell phone etiquette here. If I’m having a meeting with my boss or just talking to a friend, the minute that person’s cell phone rings he/she will pick up the call and immediately begin a conversation on the phone, without so much as an “Excuse me” or a “Hold on, I have to take this.” I think it’s great because I know exactly where I stand. When we’re talking, I have that person’s full attention. Once the phone rings, I’ve been completely tuned out. There’s no pretending. In the U.S., everyone tries to pretend that they’re still paying attention to you while really they’re texting under the table or playing weird games on their smart phones.
If I’m having a meeting with my boss or just talking to a friend, the minute that person’s cell phone rings he/she will pick up the call and immediately begin a conversation on the phone, without so much as an “Excuse me” or a “Hold on, I have to take this.”
Another thing that confuses visitors in India is the “Indian head nod.” It’s tricky to explain, but it’s sort of a bobble that indicates that someone is listening. If my boss is dictating a new task to me and I’m sitting taking notes, my head will be bobbling non-stop to indicate that I’m hearing and understanding what she’s telling me. There’s also an almost imperceptible head motion, a slight tilt to the right, that means “yes,” even though a non-Indian would assume it means “no.” I’ve picked up the head tilt without meaning to and I suspect it’ll be awhile before I can shake the habit.
My co-workers are of course my best source of knowledge for all things related to Indian culture, although the phrase “Indian culture” is a complete misnomer given the immense religious, linguistic, ethnic, regional, and every other kind of diversity you could imagine. This could include the particulars of a festival like Janmashtami in which people make outrageously huge human pyramids to knock over clay pots of yogurt that are strung between buildings to honor the birth of Krishna, the nuanced political background of nearby riots or strikes, or the best way to make my “very nice” dal even better (by using more salt and curry leaves).
Lunchtime, where everywhere eats together and shares everyone else’s food, is the best place for me to ask all my silly questions. I really appreciate that showing respect for one’s elders is a central part of the culture here, in my office and in India more generally. I mean, my peers are in their mid-20’s. If there’s anyone as obnoxious and self-satisfied as a 23-year-old recent college graduate in his/her first “real” job, I can’t think of who it may be. (In case it isn’t clear, I fall into that 23-year-old self-satisfied category.) In our office we add a special suffix to the names of all the older staff members as a mark of respect, and sometimes when I meet someone older I will touch that person’s feet to acknowledge that same level of honor.
I really appreciate that showing respect for one’s elders is a central part of the culture here, in my office and in India more generally.
Another thing I appreciate and will miss upon returning to the U.S. is that it’s totally appropriate to be barefoot at the office. This is especially convenient now that all my shoes that managed to survive monsoon season are as nasty as nasty can be. The only problem is that between being barefoot and wearing the loose, pajama-comfy clothing that most Indians wear, sometimes I feel more like taking a nap than being a productive employee.
Working here and adapting to an Indian office culture has been a great experience, even though there have been some confusing and frustrating days. More than anything else, I’m going to miss my incredible co-workers and the warm, open, and silly culture at our office. And even though I won’t miss the tea, I will miss the fact that tea and samosa breaks with friends or strangers always guarantee laughter and a fun time.
Working Abroad: No ‘Typical Day’ at an Indian Office