“We live in a bubble,” a friend remarked when talking about living as a diplomatic family abroad. It is true. Regardless of the friends we make, the investment in community, and attempts to fit in, we do in-fact live a bubble and it is a bubble of privilege. But with that privilege comes responsibility. We bear the responsibility of representing our country and our values in a positive manner while we live in our host nation. We bear the responsibility of upholding the rules and abiding by the law. In some posts, that bubble is easy, pliant and almost transparent because our lives are not so different than the citizens of the country where we are living. Other times, the life inside the bubble is so markedly different from the lives lived by the general populace in the host country that it is almost impossible to comprehend.
Safely ensconced in my car with a driver navigating the vehicular insanity of the roads it is easy for me to become oblivious. That is until I hear it…tap, tap, tap — begging me to look at the novelty items they are selling. I look away, perhaps down at my phone. Is it the reality that I am trying to avoid? Tap, tap, tap, hand outstretched while the other holds a clearly hungry child on her hip. Is it so beyond my own understanding that in the 21st century people must resort to these measures? Tap, tap, tap, more insistent now, the light is about to change. Am I embarrassed or overwhelmed? The answer must truthfully be both. How is it this life affords me the luxury and safety of a car and driver when a thin layer of glass separates me from a body so wracked with poverty that the joints are over absurdly overemphasized. The traffic moves and it comes again, tap, tap tap. This time a child so grievously deformed, no hands, ropey scars smoothed over what must have been horrendous burns. Hands reach, tucking a few rupees here and few rupees there into a shirt pocket as the recipient has no palms to receive. The traffic moves on.
Inside the bubble my understanding of the world shatters. That anyone especially a child should be faced with such a life is this. I am a stranger here, but surely there are things I can do?? This question races through my mind and I begin to measure every encounter, every transaction against those images that in spite of my bubble remain — reminding me of the precariousness of survival here; reminding me not to think like an entitled idiot. I must not presume for one moment that I am above them — better than I have a right to believe I am. But I am fortunate and with that comes responsibility — to give back, to be kind, to be fair in my dealings — professionally, personally, socially, whatever they are. I never want to be thought of as the “ugly American,” either too oblivious or selfish to care about what is going on around me. I do not wish to be thought of as overindulgent, or boastful of how fortunate I am. Instead I want to be remembered as reasonable and fair.
This is India. Things work a little differently here. The average (nominal) annual income for the whole country is approximately $1,497. That’s $124.75 a month. A MONTH!! Takes your breath away doesn’t it? Now, to be fair there are other issues at play here. To really get a perspective of the economy you have examine the PPP or purchasing parity power. This is a system that seeks to put two country’s currencies on par to examine the purchasing power of each within their own country. I’m not an economics expert, so if you want to learn more about it, Google it.
But I am wandering away from the story.
I ventured out to the nearby fish market today. I had heard from various friends and acquaintances that good quality fresh seafood was readily available and inexpensive. I must say that the market, while small, did not disappoint. They offered a nice selection of shrimp, prawns, crabs, and several options of fish — some I knew immediately — some I did not. After making a mental note to brush up on local varieties of fish, I opted for the shrimp — they were fresh and beautiful and whole. After pulling the requested quantity from the cooler, the clerk asked, in Telegu, if I wanted them cleaned. Luckily Nawaz, our awesome driver had come along with me and played interpreter. While my shrimp were being cleaned I wandered around the shop and tried to commit to memory the local names of fish. Dutifully, the clerk reweighed my order of freshly cleaned shrimp and I paid my bill. Armed with my bounty, I headed for the door only to be stopped and addressed once again in Telegu. Apparently, local custom is to tip the fishmonger who cleans, filets or chops up your seafood. Yikes! Tipping to have my fish cleaned was not in my briefing info, nor had it been addressed in the myriad of traveler sites I had scoured upon learning of our new posting.
This person just performed a task I hate, it is a reasonable service and should have a reasonable tip. So I winged it. I tipped double what I have been told is a fair tip for the guys that carry your groceries to the car. I figured I had handled it correctly as the fishmonger smiled, Nawaz did not look alarmed and I was not receiving any “stupid American” looks.
Once in the car, I asked Nawaz if I had tipped correctly. He said, “tipping is entirely up to the individual.” Not satisfied with the answer I pressed further, “True, but did I tip fairly? Was the amount too little? Was it too much? Will they just chalk it off to a stupid foreigner who does not know better?” He chuckled and said, “No madam, you tipped fairly and they will remember.”
Tap, tap, tap.
Originally published at deidretravis.blogspot.com on September 25, 2016.