Friday, July 17, 2015

Responding versus Reacting

I get roughly 20 emails from the department and the university every day. I delete all of them. Because every time, they are written in German.

I deleted a similar email one morning. However, I knew the content of the email. It was about a summer potluck party at the department. I knew that all my colleagues would go. However, my knee-jerk reaction was- “If they don't care about telling me things in a language I understand, I do not care to go.” I hit delete. I thought that I would forget about it. I did not.

Something just left me feeling sour. I am one of the very few international hires here, maybe one out of 2-3. My biggest frustration in Germany has been the language barrier. Although one of the main goals of my institute is to get noticed globally and go international, they do not make any effort to do so. People email in German. People speak in German. Meetings are in German. It is pointless for me to attend any meeting or social event. Isolation and loneliness have been my biggest concerns here. Quite contrary to my social nature, I see people, and I run in the opposite direction.

However, I wondered if there was anything I could do to change the situation. An hour after I had deleted the email, I retrieved it from the trash, and sent a polite reply, asking if the person could kindly translate the email for me. Within less than five minutes, I got a reply, apologizing to me about not remembering to do it, and promising that they would do it right away. The matter was resolved.

I realize that isolation is cyclic. People write emails in German, hence I delete them, do not go to these socializing events, and hence feel isolated. Since I do not show up, people do not notice me, and continue to communicate in German. This way, the chain of isolation never breaks. People are not bad by nature. They just tend to forget things they are not used to doing. I am a minority, and people forget about me. But instead of doing what I do every time (get mad, delete email, whine, get distressed, repeat behavior in a negative-feedback loop), I stopped reacting, and responded for a change. I became the change I wanted to see. I empowered myself. I realized that people are willing to help you, but you have to take the first step and ask for help. 

The summer party was excellent. I have never seen a more delicious spread. I am so glad that I went.  


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is this also sexism?

Recently, I got acquainted with a young gentleman through some common friends. A personable, soft-spoken, and affable gentleman who works abroad, drives, travels, and takes nice pictures. The photography-bit probably got me interested in prolonging the small talk. I realized that he was one of those who lived in the desi hubs of foreign land, hung out with desis, spent his weekends cooking desi food and traveling with more desis. Nothing wrong with that of course, so I chatted some more, asking about more personal information. Like, family.

He tells me that he has a younger brother, although the brother is a sister. I am clearly confused at this point, unable to understand, and ask him to explain. He beams, telling me that his younger sister grew up to be pretty independent, taking care of the family, their ageing parents and all since he left for foreign shores. She took responsibility for the bank, and sundry other such things back in India, and he was so impressed that he now calls her his younger brother.

Something didn’t sound right to me. I mean, he was all nice and warm and well-spoken, but something was really wrong with his values, with what he said. A sister becomes a brother when she turns out to be smart, independent, and responsible? I smelled sexism. Not sexism as in beating up a defenseless woman and looking down upon a woman and other such heinous crimes. This was more subtle, implicit, and innocuous. But it felt like sexism nevertheless.

I don’t know what you would have done if you were in my place. I mean, here, we were conversing effortlessly, with no undercurrents or looming tension. Confronting him, even most gently, would have made things uncomfortable. I shifted. I tried distracting myself, thinking of other things. But something did not feel right. I was convinced that if I did not confront him today, and told him why it sounded all wrong, I would be a hypocrite. A coward. I never participate in scathing Facebook conversations, where people fill up discussions with their strong, confrontational, opinionated views, provoking more confrontational views. I try to remain non-confrontational, not because I do not care, but because experience tells me that people are seldom willing to consider alternate viewpoints. But I had to say something here.

So I told him, that it sounded very wrong to me. I told him how my dad used to say the same thing, that his daughter is equivalent to a son, not realizing that what he thought was praise was actually demeaning me. Just because I had certain desirable attributes didn’t make me a man. I told him in the most genteel way possible. He was educated, he had traveled the world, and I assumed that he would understand. Perhaps he did. I don't know. 

He was clearly uncomfortable. And defensive. Embarrassed too. He repeatedly tried explaining that it was just a metaphor, a figure of speech, and I should not take it that seriously. Not once did he take responsibility. Not once did he say that I made him see something new, think of something in a new way. He did not own up to his views (“I see what you are saying. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I will reflect upon them”) He just kept asking me to not take things so seriously. He kept shifting responsibility to my side.

Which is fine. At least I did my part. Hopefully made a difference. And I hope that in some little way, I made him think.