Friday, February 18, 2011

two stories and a question

I am looking for advice.  

A few weeks back, I was lectured by someone only a few minutes after we had met.  She was a neighbor, sort of.  Actually, she lives abroad and had come back to visit her parents and her hometown.  Her kids and mine were busy playing in the sand and we had a lot of time to talk.  I mentioned that my kids attract a lot of, um, enthusiasm when we go out.  People pinch their cheeks, hug them, clutch at them and drag them into photo shoots where they have no business being.  I told her that I expect my kids to be polite, but they are exhausted by all the unwanted attention.  I understand that here it is culturally appropriate, but she must know, from living in the West, how contrary to our practices this is...

She interrupted me.  Why was I doing this?  Why was I compromising my values?  Was I trying to confuse my children?  To teach them that it was okay to compromise for the sake of being so-called culturally appropriate?  She was outraged.  It was inconsistent and worse: unsafe.  No one should be allowed to come up and touch my kid.  I am the parent and I set the rules.  Who cares if it came across as rude?  Who cares if it was rude!  They're my kids, after all!

Well, she had a point.  We stopped telling the kids to smile and endure, and we started moving them away from people before they could get too close, and saying "No" very forcefully when someone wanted to photograph them. 


For the first time this past Sunday, I took all three kids out on my own to church and then to lunch.  That means: three cab rides.  Which means, giving directions and negotiating a price (if necessary) in English/the three words I speak in Hindi.  The first ride was very smooth and the driver voluntarily used the meter.  I tipped him well to show my appreciation. 

The second ride was pretty bad.  We agreed on a price and I told him the location and asked, just to make sure, if he knew it.  Yes and yes.  As soon as we got in and took off, he changed the price (almost doubled it) and then went the wrong way.  I was frustrated and I felt badgered into paying his price.  I left the cab quietly, but frustrated and humiliated, and he laughed.  

Cab ride #3: very horrifically bad, but at least no one got hurt.  The guy ran the meter by going the wrong way on purpose I'm pretty sure and then got us stuck in the middle of a political rally with a bunch of closed-off streets and it took about three times as long as it should have.  At one point, we were about 2 blocks from our original starting point after having been in the cab 20 minutes already.  THAT'S how ridiculous it was.  

I told Jeremy later that I understand that cabbies are trying to make a living but I don't think we should encourage this sort of thing. I said, "It's probably okay to pay a bit less than the metered price when someone is so obviously cheating you out of a fair ride.  Then again, we are guests here and in a place like India it is hard to complain about injustice.  I don't think it's ever right to be rude to cabbies or anyone else, but it's okay to let them know you're not happy.  It's a fine balance between behaving yourself properly as an outsider and standing up for yourself when someone is taking advantage.  At the end of the day, if that is the worst wrong I suffer, I'm still probably better off than most."  Something like that.

But then later, while thinking about it, I wondered if this is the wrong attitude.  Obviously, this issue is not as serious as the first one.  Only money is at stake (and a bit of wounded dignity).  Still, I would never stand by quietly if a cab driver in New York City or Chicago tried to pull a stunt like that.  I would insist on a fair, metered rate, and I would insist on the shortest route.  I would at least complain if they didn't try to get me somewhere as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I might even accuse them of going the wrong way on purpose, if I was sure they had (although it's really hard to know if someone just made a mistake and could it be that cab ride #2 had set me up to be extra suspicious...?).  I might confront them and I would consider reporting them.

So here's my question: Should I (or any other tourist) insist on professionalism and not worry so much about so-called cultural sensitivity?  Am I just making excuses for not standing up for my rights as a consumer?  Is my nationality irrelevant?  There are plenty of cabbies here who DO use the meter and try to do their jobs well, regardless of the origin (or gender) of their customer.  Isn't it disrespectful to them to play this game at all?

And does any of this actually matter considering that I don't have a common language and I couldn't explain anything anyway!?!  (sigh)


and, just for fun, here is a view of Kolkata roads, from the backseat of a cab:


  1. i like your neighbor. i don't have advice. except so many of the new testament parables are about confronting injustice creatively. the cabbies may (best case scenario) believe they're confronting injustice through their sneaky and manipulative practices, but are becoming suboppressors in the process. worst case scenario, they're greedy and see a sucker. i don't know. how to stop the cycle and not just participate...

  2. Is your new friend Native Indian? Then I would take her advice! It's all well and good to be kind and to try and be culturally aware, but not if your children are suffering for it. I know they are an interesting oddity with their blond hair and fair skin, but being culturally aware also means looking around and seeing what Indians allow in regards to their own children. Do they allow their kids to be pulled into pictures? To be touched and pinched and handled? You can teach your kids to smile and wave as they walk away from whomever wants them in a picture, but you do not have to throw them to the masses.

    We had less of that in Mexico. My brother was very fair haired and everyone wanted to touch his head and give him little hugs. My parents were very, very concerned with our politeness and kindness, but they never stopped him from shrugging off those hands with a grimace and stomping away. Sensitivity must go both ways, and if the people are acting in a way that is unacceptable for their culture then you are "off the hook" as it were.

    In terms of the taxi cabs it's kind of a vicious cycle, isn't it? I mean, they are taking advantage and doing what is wrong. Yet you,as an american, have so much more and are able to pay their fair (I'm assuming) without feeling the monetary loss. So who is wrong? Who is the oppressor? Maybe when you go out, just decide what you think is a reasonable price hike, and stick to it? If they get too high with a fair, then fight it? In Hindi/English and hand signals, of course! And please take a video.

  3. I have kind of resolved to handle this on a case by case basis. When someone switches on the meter and doesn't ask for more (or too much more) than the fare, I tip them well.

    As to whether it is culturally appropriate to pinch my kids' cheeks, it seems to be. I have seen Indian parents dragging their poor terrified child into the photoshoot and smiling the whole time. The child's feelings seem to be completely irrelevant!
    I don't know what to think. Maybe people all over the world just do weird stuff, even if the majority disapprove. And i keep running into them, or something! :)