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Honor in the Machine
A water pipe in my apartment broke for the second timein my short stay here. Upon asking the property manager why this keeps happening, his tone shifted to that of a character doing exposition in a Christopher Nolan movie. Water expands and contracts he went on to say. I imagined him gesticulating with both hands on the other side of the phone as he continued to explain expansion and contraction of water using different words; like I had just prompted chat GPT to describe the properties of water in 10 sentences. After listening to him carefully, I politely enquired why water expands and contracts so much only in my apartment. Unfortunately, he refused to find the humor in this, and that likely delayed getting things fixed.
Being a property manager seems like a thankless job without much actual agency. He dispatches work orders and explains the properties of water to imbeciles like me. A useful function but not considered important by anyone, including himself. Back in India, they solved this problem with social technologies such as honor and status. For several years in my youth, my parents hassled me about finding a good bank job. "if you study hard in college, you could do a respectable bank job and get married," they told me. Sometimes I like to cope with this memory by imagining that they meant for me to find a good bank and stage a heist. A respectable bank job, not too greedy, but worth my time. In reality, they intended for me to work a clerical job in one of those physical buildings where people keep their money. It was not easy to get one of these. You had to write an exam with 400,000 other people and rank somewhere in the top 100, upon which you were conferred the title of bank manager. Matchmakers would then line up at your door the next day to find you a woman. You would have a steady job and finally, your parents would be proud. Money? What's that? We, the middle class, don't do jobs in India for that. We do them for status and finding a wife. Fortunately, I don't have a single competitive bone in my body, so when I heard the number of people undertaking the endeavor, I immediately gave up. I'm not a man of honor and status.
Navigating the intricacies of getting anything done in India usually requires a John McClane from Die Hard type character. Someone who can blow up walls and crawl through the vents of the bureaucratic infrastructure to get you your piece of signed paper or get that plumbing fixed. It makes sense that honor and status would come with it. Conversely, in the United States, such jobs are hidden from public view as much as possible. I can navigate the bureaucratic infrastructure by clicking a few buttons on my phone that unlocks a Rube Goldberg machine of human action a few miles away. But more often than not, I have to make a phone call, and the person on the other side finds it hard to hide their shame and disdain for their own job and forme. They never want to hear my quips.
Immigrants, particularly ones who grew up with the benefits of the caste system, find it depressing when they move to the US and encounter the invisible, indifferent bureaucracy without honor and status. They try to reenact old patterns. I recently heard a boisterous Indian uncle (not mine) boast about finding a good employee for his ranch in Houston. He had met this man by pure chance and, upon hearing his family name, realized they go back, way back. The man's family had been employed for several generations by the Indian Uncle's family in their farm in Kerala, India. Boisterous Indian uncle was excited to have found a way to keep the feudal system going in the 21st century. Before you sharpen your metaphorical pencils to write about generational trauma and feudalism, consider that both parties may now be happy. The boisterous Indian Uncle and his servant is glad to have found each other. They are not confused about their place in society anymore. There are no more invisible bureaucracies, just a couple of fellas vibing to a feudalistic beat. I imagine them frolicking on their ranch like a couple of characters from a PG Wodehouse book.
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