When I first heard it I truly did take it as an insult. Back in Spain or California we only use Ma’am (or Señora in Spanish) for older ladies. I mean, I know very well that 40 is not super young anymore but I don’t think I look like an old lady so why the hell was everyone calling me Ma’am? First it was the driver who collected me from the airport, then the guys at the hotel, waiters, shop workers and then – eventually – co-workers.
It really did a little damage to my ego every time I heard it. Like tiny little stabs piercing me! Well, eventually I asked a colleague what the hell was going on and WHY everyone was calling me Ma’am. Basically what he told me was that it is a respect thing, not a backwards slam to make me feel old. The caste system is still very much alive and well here in India, so basically if someone decides that I am higher up on the evolutionary food chain than they are, then chances are that I am going to be Ma’am’d. This is especially true within the hospitality sector, with junior colleagues, while shopping, etc, etc, etc… it’s a sign of respect and in no way is meant as anything else. Glad I learned that quite quickly because I was considering to head out for my first Botox to try to fix it that way!
And there isn’t a thing that I can do to change this. I actually tried to stop it with my driver Shiva. He and I have a great relationship, we are the same age, I spend more time with him than virtually anyone else here in Bangalore. We talk about tons of different things and he basically knows everything that is going on in my life because he’s typically there too in some capacity. Shiva also helps me with my blog by giving me tips on extra facts about India that I could add to improve them before I publish. And he makes it possible, for example, for me to go cook masala dosas for an afternoon at one of his friends’ restaurants.
So at times it feels really strange to me that he calls me Ma’am. I mean, he feels more like a trusted friend than an employee. I asked him once to please start calling me Angela. He said he would but he was a huge liar and never did, haha. I guess he said what he thought I wanted to hear (a very common sweet yet simultaneously annoying Indian trait that is still taking me time to understand). I brought it up one more time but again he still didn’t do it so I have given up. I know that it’s simply not gonna happen. It’s a tradition for respect that dates back so far that I have zero possibility of changing it. And now there is a part of me that has grown to like it.
Most of the time, I insist on opening my own door because it’s pretty embarrassing when Shiva opens it and people see. I always sit in the back of the car, which I prefer because I have a super setup back there complete with my laptop, USB internet and a charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter so I can keep all of my devices charged up, work, write or catch up on mail whenever we are in the car. In fact, I’m just missing leather upholstery and a mini-bar and it would be like my own little limousine!! However, as much as I insist that I open my own door, Shiva puts his foot down and insists that he open it at certain places because he says that it is the correct thing and if I want to generate more respect that he should open my door. I know he is only looking out for my best interest so I will always say yes and thank him. It’s odd to me that something like a door being opened for me might improve how someone perceives me.
Our maid goes even beyond anything that Shiva does, I suppose because Shiva is a businessman (I employ both him AND his vehicle) so there is less difference in our social standing. Our maid is sooo sweet and so cute and always has a smile, but she sort of bends over and almost bows, which is too much and definitely feels strange to me. If she catches me doing something that she could do for me she’ll shoo me away and insist of taking care of it personally. And not a single sentence will fall from her lips without a Ma’am at the end. It’s quite sweet when it comes from her.
Life here in India is shaping up to be so massively different from anywhere else I have lived. The difference between southern California and Barcelona wasn’t that extreme with respect to our social standing and lifestyle. My daughter and I always had a housekeeper in the U.S. and in Spain but the housekeeper only came once a week. That was okay for cleaning but I am sooo lazy when it comes to dishes and laundry that there would be massive accumulation mid-week! I’m not proud of it but “es lo que hay” (it is what it is)! It would have been nice to have someone come more often, especially when I had massive projects and was working 12 hours a day on some new technology product launch. But here in Bangalore it is the opposite scenario to L.A. or Barcelona. For less than what I paid our housekeeper for 1 day per week in Cali or Spain, I have a super hard-working maid who comes 6 days a week and clean, run errands, and make sure that the flat is 100% in order every day. At Rs. 5,500 I pay her more than what an Indian family would pay her (I know this because my Indian mates say I am paying too much but I don’t care). On top of that, I am sure she must love us because we only ask her to work 2-3 hours a day and it’s just two females and we aren’t messy.
The first summer, I didn’t want the maid around on the weekends and she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that she didn’t need to come on Saturday. Here in India there is a 6-day work week for domestic staff and they work on Saturdays — always. So the first Saturday came around and I was happily asleep when all of a sudden the doorbell started ringing. She has her own quarters with bathroom and a private entrance and I had purposely double bolted her door. You know, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was going to come anyway and thought that the locked door might deter her. But that little spit-fire just rang my door! I dragged myself out of bed, opened the door in my Betty Boop pajamas, pulling my earplugs out (yeah, obviously they weren’t super earplugs if I heard her!) and yawning…I basically shoo’d her away as sweetly and quickly as I could. Then I made her promise that next week that she would stay home and not come to work. Eventually she started coming 6 days a week and I have to admit I love it. It’s probably spoiled me for life and outside of India I will not be able to afford full-time domestic staff so I am basically screwed in the future!
On a completely — 100% — unrelated note: her family has avocado tress on their property and she is now keeping me super stocked with the freshest, biggest avocados EVER, I’m never letting her go!
Right or wrong, the salary that international executives earn here in India – like mine – coupled with the low cost-of-living afford me and my daughter to easily enjoy certain things that we couldn’t back home in Barcelona or L.A. Some things are actually more expensive here, like our rent for some odd reason. That 10-month security deposit was a bitch too…I’ve never seen that anywhere else in the world! And private school isn’t any cheaper here than it was in Barcelona, it’s around $1,000 per month. But, having a driver and a full-time maid for us is affordable and it definitely improves our quality of life and makes the day-to-day much more relaxed.
It’s always easier to live with a pay rise over a reduction. And it’s nicer to have “more” than to have to do without something you need or want. Well it’s started me thinking…what the hell am I going to do if I ever leave India? I’ve heard people who’ve moved away say that they had a really tough time moving back to their own country with regards to actually missing the luxuries of India like the maid and driver. Generally speaking, only the wealthy can afford this type of domestic help in Europe or the U.S.
I can imagine the shock for my daughter in two years when she heads off to university and has to start doing her own laundry, ironing and picking up after herself…oh dear! Haha As for me…well, maybe I will just never leave India 🙂
XOXO from Bangalore
© Angela Carson 2011