I Am The “Other”
I Am The “Other”

A  few weeks ago when I went to my local hair salon I heard complaints about how the Indian-Americans visiting the neighboring grocery store created problems for those using the services of other businesses in the mall. I saw what they meant because I, too, had always noticed clients of the local Indian grocery store loading their bags into their vehicles after which they simply let their grocery cart dodder around where their cars once stood.

I realized it was time to put together a list of common complaints about our community along the lines of The Spectator, an 18th century periodical published daily by two politicians, that carried news and observations on the mores and morals of the day.

Put That Cart Back
I’ve noticed how Indian-Americans put back their carts back outside Safeway; around their own kinds of stores in their mini-India enclaves, they often do not. The last time I was at my local Indian store, some carts languished near Vanity Beauty Salon a few doors away where women pampered themselves for hours, feet in warm water and head under steamers. Some carts lolled around outside Saratoga Plumbing Supply, an upscale store where salesmen looked high and mightily from behind their Toto low flushes.

I remembered my late father whenever I returned, weekly, to this charade. “Put back the cart exactly where it belongs,” he would say if I failed to push the cart back into its home outside a store. “You wait ten minutes at the counter but you don’t have half a minute of practicing discipline to put something back.” It was the principle of the thing, he said, to be considerate towards the store as well as the next customer.

Don’t Cut In Line
Don’t behave like the passenger at Delhi airport who yelled back at me when I pointed out that I was next in line and that she had cut in line. I see this congenital need to cut in line—inside airplanes, at India’s museums, at fast food places, at the swankiest malls, and always, of course, at the gold standard, “ISO certified” airports. While airports in India’s big cities are splashed with glass, metal and polished floors and serve gourmet meals along with haute couture and luxury services, they are hardly the best in the world. An airport is only as good as its passengers.
For me, a woman in a red kurta underlined my experience in red last January. As I placed my bag on the conveyor at security check at Bengaluru airport, she sneaked her black handbag in to my left and pressed it onto the conveyor.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Mind waiting until I’m done?” The woman in the red kurta started. Perhaps no one had called her out on this before. “It’s just one small bag, after all,” she said. “What’s your problem?”

The Shoe, The Hair, The Fare Not So Fair
One late morning in Paris in the summer of 1998, I asked a vendor at the local farmer’s market which of the cheeses she would recommend. In turn, she asked me if it were for me or for my “dame.” Based on my attire, she had decided that I was a maid who lived with a wealthy French dowager, surviving on crumbs while I exercised the pale limbs of my employer and her pretty Yorkie in the morning sun at a park.

I concede that even though there were many days in my thirties when I felt, both like a maid and a nanny, the humiliation I suffered in the hands of that vendor taught me that good grooming in an individual reflected on the whole community. I know also thanks to children who have long conversations with me about the attitudes of our community—that the younger generation of Indian Americans feel that few Indian-Americans give equal weightage to decent western attire, shoes, hair and other grooming, even as they invest in the most expensive of traditional Indian silks and gold.

Don’t Be Cheap. Here’s A Tip.
It’s well-known that Indian-Americans are some of the poorest tippers. Most of our tipping habits stem from our cultural background; they’ve been shipped from India where a tip is often five percent of the bill in low-end restaurants and typically included and billed as a 15 percent service charge in high-end restaurants.

In the United States, custom dictates that tips are calculated pre-tax, although it’s easier to use the total bill for the sake of simplicity or to be more generous. According the US News’ Ultimate Tipping Guide, “if you’re really pleased with your service, most experts will tell you to tip 20 percent.” The courtesy shown to a restaurateur must be extended also at a beauty salon where barbers, beauticians, manicurists and masseurs are owed between 15 to 20 percent of the bill.

Let Others Get Some Okra
The last time a friend went to a grocery store, she told a woman to not test the okra by bending the fragile end of it. The okra tester shrugged. “But I put them into my bag, anyway. What’s wrong with that?” she asked. My friend reminded her that those that she flexed and did not like, she put back into the bin in the store. Why couldn’t she see the unfairness of that action? Most of our behavior with commercial and social transactions can be boiled down to this innate Indian need “to chase the best okra.” That eye on the ball to the exclusion of everything and everyone else—the best flight tickets, the cheapest deals on cars, that Costco membership—has plagued us years after we’ve made successful lives both in India and in the diasporas.

At my local famer’s market, I notice that many of those from South east Asia tended to select and grab okra, beans, kiwi, and other produce in this same manner, with a grim, stressful mien.
“Relax, this isn’t admission to the Ivy Leagues,” I’d like to tell them. “This is a race to nowhere. Why can’t we let others get good produce too?”

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com

Kalpana Mohan writes from California's Silicon valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com