Sunday, September 9, 2007

Holidays & Birthdays

Last week, three strangers showed up at my door while I was cooking dinner. They were requesting 400 rupees for the upcoming Durga Puja celebration, which is probably the biggest they have here in Kolkata. It turned out that they wanted a 400 rupee "donation" in order to host a celebration in the courtyard.

"Everyone must donate, Madam," one of the men said.

"So, it's not really a donation, then is it?" I replied.

"Everyone at Ekta Towers contributes, Madam," he said with his hand outstretched.

"What if I don't celebrate your holiday?" I asked. (Sort of checking out my options.)

"Everyone contributes." was the reply.

The woman who accompanied the two men asked where I was from.

"The U.S." I replied.

The other man then offered, "It is a minimum 400 rupees donation. You can give us more."

I asked, "So if I decide that I want to celebrate, oh I don't know, Yom Kippur or Buddha's birthday, I could just walk around and solicit 400 rupees from everyone?"

"No, maam. That would not be possible." the man replied, his hand outstretched again.

I sighed and got my purse. I had no problem with giving them 400 rupees. If they had asked for a donation with my choice of amount, I probably would have given them a 1,000 rupee bill as a gesture of honoring their culture and holidays. This was exactly like dealing with the condo police back in New Hampshire, those retired old people that had nothing better to do with their time than run around and tell everyone else what to do.


I turned 2 on Saturday. (My sister-in-law suggested I use the numerology base number for my age from now on.) An hour or so after I arrived at work, I had 30+ people crammed in my office, and I was given a huge bouquet of flowers, candy, and the largest card I've ever seen.

"Seriously, folks, couldn't you find a bigger card?" I asked. It was really nice.

Then they started singing "Happy Birthday" and when they came to that part in the song, where you sing "happy birthday dear so-and-so...", they hadn't really planned. It was really funny. Some people said Jeanne, some said Mada... oh no! and others just faded out. Here at the office, I am known as Madam. I can tell whenever someone is talking about me because "Madam" is the same in English, Hindi and Bangla.

It makes me uncomfortable to be called Madam because in the U.S.:
1. "Madam" is usually some old lady living alone in a house with w-a-a-a-a-y too many cats.
2. "Madam" (or "Ma'am" as it is usually used) is typically said by arrogant sales ladies at wildly expensive makeup counters in very pricey department stores accompanied by a sneer to indicate "You are not good enough for our products - go away". It is ALWAYS used when you ask for samples.
3. "Madam" is used by telephone customer service representatives instead of the word "B**tch". I think it actually says that in their training manuals: "No, I will NOT get my manager. I'm sorry, Madam, but the policy states..."
4. "Madam" is the title used by the proprietor of a brothel.
5. "Madam" just makes me feel old.

I made it pretty clear when having meetings with my staff to never call me "Madam", but it is so ingrained in the culture here, that it makes people uncomfortable to call me anything but. :-) I'm getting used to it, slowly, and I understand it REALLY IS a term of respect.

I was in a meeting with my Team Leaders when the one presenting called me Madam. I muttered something under my breath about calling me Madam, and it really disconcerted him. He became a little flustered and took a second to gain his composure. I've stopped doing that.

It was pretty funny to listen, though. The "Happy b-i-i-i-rthday dear Mada... oh,no!" was just priceless and made my day. :-)


Later that evening, Will asked if I had had a good birthday, I replied, "Of, course. I got to spend it in Calcutta, India, didn't I? Isn't that great?"


Tracy said...

Happy Belated Birhtday to you fellow Virgo!Oh...and I am right there with you on the Madame issue!!!

Palak said...

You really have nice Blog going on here Jeanne. Belated Happy Birthday to you and I hope you are enjoying your stay in India. Have Fun.

Kenneth said...

here's belated birthday wishes jeanne,looks as though you had an interesting office party "madam", but trust me, accept that"madam" is a form of respect,if someone junior to you or one of your employees starts calling you by your first name then expect that same someone to start taking undue advantage or liberties and slacking off, on the misunderstanding that common american courtesies are weaknesses not kindness.

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