The Hierarchy of Uniforms

If you’ve been to any kind of service establishment lately, restaurant, hotel, shop, then you may have noticed that not everyone working there was wearing the same thing.
 
This is particularly true of hotels, where the various service people are designated by their uniforms.
Case in point: the latest hotel we stayed in at Masai Mara, Kenya. It was a tented safari; granted “luxury” since there were bathrooms inside the tents with running water. But even in this semi-casual environment it’s clear who does what.
 
The khaki pants and animal print blouse (red and white stripes) work the bar and the restaurant.
 
The all over green are the night watch men (which makes them blend into the camp’s lush foliage).
 
The all over khaki are the camp’s rangers who take you out in the jeep everyday on game drives.
 
It’s almost like we are conditioning ourselves and others to see the service instead of the person; the women in white blouses and black pants were the managers of the whole operation.
 
There is a practical purpose to this: when you are a guest it’s easier to see who does what so you know what to ask for.

But at the same time there is something… reductive about it. Granted, the custodian is probably okay with is dull brown uniform because he doesn’t have to get his normal clothes dirty. But at some point it becomes “us” against “them”, doesn’t it? Perhaps I was really aware of this because in our last two trips we have been the only non-white vacationers at both our destinations (Kenya and the Maldives).

It’s a little disconcerting being at these luxury playgrounds of Europe, where families with four children come for a week, when the price is at least $350 a head. Then there are the couples (do they always seem to be from Germany? Best vacation days in Europe!) who have been where we are at least a week before us and staying at least a week after.
 
None of these people have been overly friendly; this past week I nearly confronted a woman who looked me up and down, literally, all the way to my shoes! Perhaps this is the irony: since we weren’t wearing the uniforms, it was clear we were not there to work but to vacation. And this turned countless heads.
 
The reaction from staff is always the opposite. In the Maldives, being so close to the coast of India, there were countless Indian and Sri Lankan employees who were happy to serve us and looked after us with an added level of care. As if to say, “we’re happy one of us made it to this place.”
 
So it’s part guilt and part pride that we take these vacations and try to even out the class and race issues in our own small way. After all, what would you do if you saw an Indian and a “Chinese” looking guy, holding hands, speaking English with American accents?

You can speak Indian with him?

A common question: can I speak Indian?
 Variations on this theme are: Can I speak Hindu? 

The most recent time this happened was this morning, as the rental car place was bringing a Mercedes to our house. Pause – this is a rental for my husband for our year anniversary – we are not keeping it (yet, after my darling drives it for ten days, I think we’ll be in the market for one).

In any case, they were delivering this beautiful machine, to an address I had already written out for them. Granted, there are no references to street signs in Qatar, so this might be difficult IF we weren’t only one turn away from the rental site. About five minutes, tops. 

The guys were lost. 

Apparently there were four of them: one driving the Mercedes, one driving the follow car, and the manager, and an extra.

The manager is the one who said to me on the phone when I called to see where they were, “Can you speak Indian with the driver?”

The Mercedes was a “surprise” for my husband who was an unheard of fifteen minutes past his normal departure time for work, pacing the entry way, wanting to know what was so important he couldn’t leave. Between his restlessness and the manager’s cultural obtuseness needless to say, I had no mercy on the poor lost manager.

“First of all, there is no language called “Indian” so, no, I can’t speak it. Second of all…” and then my tirade on how they were late despite the fact we are only one turn away from the rental facility.

India is a now a democracy but for centuries it was a land mass populated by individual rules. Kings – maharajas – were lords of their own countries. The British came and changed all of that: pitted weaker kings against each other, bribed powerful ones to allow them to trade within the country. So a very disparate people came together under the Empire.

India is like the United States – the North and the South are completely different – regional influences are particularly strong. Dress, clothing, food, all of this depends on what state you’re in. Many of the stereotypes are the same. The South is the center of religious identity with more temples than any other part of the country. The North is the seat of fashion and that harbinger of modern culture, Bollywood.

But the incident this morning reminds me of another conversation I had in graduate school (remember: this person was educated and becoming more so).
“I’m from the south of India,” I explained, “a state called Tamil Nadu.”

My friend digested this. Then, very honestly she said, “I didn’t know that India had states.”

I blinked at her. Was this just a monopoly of the U.S. in her mind? Or was this just another version of all-brown-people-are-the-same, why would they need smaller governing bodies?

“I mean, why didn’t they ever tell us this in school?” My friend continued.

I contemplated her question then and now see another round of it in the manager’s this morning. If it’s India, and everyone’s Indian, what’s the big deal? Well, the deal is that those two assumptions override the complexity and richness of life not only in India, but also another entity which is ever more haphazardly lumped together: Africa. We talk about “Africa” like it is one country, not an entire continent, one that is massive if you look at maps printed to proportion. North America suddenly seems tiny in comparison. People talk about Africa as though it were India: a federation of states. The fact is, Africa is even more diverse than India because it is not a country-continent, but rather a land mass that houses many people who look alike to the casual eye.

Lets stay with India: There are sixteen official languages in Indian and many more unofficial dialects. There are twenty-eight states and some non-states called union territories, but let’s keep it simple. State pride is taken very seriously. This is why although I speak Tamil (the language of Tamil Nadu), I don’t speak Hindi, as it’s rarely used in the south.

It’s not uncommon for people to speak a variety of similar languages – although they might share a few features, each of the 16 are in fact separate syntactical structures – people from Tamil Nadu, for example, often speak Malayalam which is spoken in the neighboring state of Kerala and vice versa. Same with Telugu and Karnataka which are also southwestern languages and bordering states.

These are communities of people who have their own language films, and movie stars they follow, martial rituals and communities within which they prefer to choose partners for their children, and in essence strong local identities.

The irony is that the manager was from the Middle East – Lebanon I would guess – a region just as collapsed in terms of differentiated understanding of individual identity. The ME is like Africa in this sense: a place, not a country, that is homogenized based on religion.


But, after visiting Oman, Dubai, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, I can tell you, no two of these are that similar. 

It is the human experience to be different and unique. With a little more effort, we could understand and appreciate these nuances. And perhaps become more aware of our own?

Someone else in this neighborhood….

likes chocolate doughnut munchkins from Dunkin’ Doughnuts! This is why there are none left for me when I get there. I wonder who it could be – the overweight, impatient teenager, his cheeks showing stretch marks – with his petulant “Give me that one”? Or the rude mother who lets her children deliberate for fifteen minutes on their choice of ice cream, only to come up with, “vanilla”? Or the polite man who steps aside when I walk into the shop and lets me order before him?

The doughnut workers don’t want to be overly friendly in a society where men and women do not mix; particularly in public. But they are mystified by my pursuit of this one and only flavor, in the face of all the pink, and white, and yes, chocolate glaze. They look away on the days when the tray is empty and I bit down onto my lip to avoid flying into a rage. 

Why can’t they order more? 
Who is the *#@ who takes them all? 
Do I want to the distinction of being a regular in a doughnut shop? Calling is the only alternative – am I that dismayed by their absence – to avoid driving over and being disappointed.

On days when someone else beats me to it, I get back into the car and try to breathe all the way home. But when I’m home, nothing subsitutes for the soft goodness of the munchkin. 

My daily trips got me through the rough transition of my second year in this city, when suddenly nothing seemed interesting or worthwhile. The warmth and delight of biting into one after a day of being beaten into the ground by the system packed pounds onto my waist and just under my chin. I didn’t realize this was the price of comfort; the slow disapperance of my body’s angular parts into the growing folds of flesh. Goodbye chin, see you later collarbone.

Then, suddenly, as if I’ve crossed an imaginary, unseen line, life is better. The system starts bending. I am making headway. Every day is not a battle for self-respect and dignity; no longer am I holding together by a frayed thread. The emotional distance traveled in one day is no a struggle for a modicum of control but rather up, up, up.  All of this without drugs and without chocolate.

I don’t notice but my visits to the doughnut shop grow infrequent. 
My clothes fit better. 
I feel happier.

I am six pounds lighter. 

Okay – five – because I still like to eat them, every now and then, just for fun. Instead of ten in my bag, there are only three or four. It’s easy to get the taste without taking as many bites. It’s silly to head all the way to the store, because now I’ve moved and it isn’t directly infront of me any more on the way home, come into the crowded tiny parking lot, where impatient drivers of SUVs jostle for petrol, car washes, the ATM machine and sugar.

On the rare afternoon I make the trip, I push one into my mouth while reaching for another, I reflect on those melancholy days when the world was conspiring against me, just to find my tipping point. 
I didn’t tip.

Is my one handed U turn back onto the main road, away from the doughnut shop, onto the main artery, back to my house, proof that I am free from the pull of alternating pink and purple sign: Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Baskin Robbins?

Even though I’m not coming as regularly; someone else still is. Someone else in this neighborhood loves the munchkins as much as I do, because no matter day or night, afternoon or morning, the tray where those delights cluster can still be empty: it’s 50/50. 

Someone else loves them. 
Is she as sad as I was? 

Someone else buys all of them at once, so there are none left for me.
I’ve stopped doing this, now that I no longer eat all of them within the first two days of bringing home the wax paper bag. They even go a bit stale in the middle when I’ve forgotten about them during nights out or under the influence of my own happy meter. The urge for chocolate never appears, so I no longer forage in the kitchen.

Someone else in the neighborhood knows what it is to need a chocolate doughnut. 
Is he now as happy as I am?