One strange struggle I have definitely had is with the clothing. Both mine and theirs. Although I have some western girlfriends here in India who love wearing traditional Indian clothes regularly and look fabulous in them…that’s just not me. I have never felt more feminine than when I wore a sari to a wedding and I look forward to my next occasion to wear one – but obviously I am not going to wear a sari to work. And I personally think that wearing Indian clothes just makes us white girls stand out even more and for me it would seem like I’m trying too hard to fit in and become Indian. I don’t know, maybe I should give it a try but so far I haven’t. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it? Hmm, maybe! So far I’ve stuck to my own style, which is typically a dress with heels…just now I wear a scarf over my shoulders or wear a little cardigan over it. But I do show my legs quite a bit by Indian standards, well from the knee down. I know that this makes people stare a bit more and it’s really a no-no for Indians but luckily as a westerner I am able to get away with it (thank goodness or I would have to go buy a whole new wardrobe). The plunging neckline so popular in the U.S. and Europe is also a big no-no here so I have had to chuck out a few dresses or wear scarves to cover myself up. This really isn’t a negotiable factor like the legs unfortunately because the couple of times I’ve tried it people seemed to forget where my eyes were located when they looked at me.
With respect to Indian women at work, fashions are still very traditional. The breakdown goes something like this:
- 75% wear salwar kameez (the traditional Indian matching trousers/blouse/scarf combos)
- 20% wear a sari
- 5% international fashions
I have had trouble trying to sort out the role that someone has in the company if I don’t actually know them. From a purely physical standpoint, it’s typically impossible to tell how high up someone is on the food chain simply by the clothing they wear. This is something new and can be tough on a westerner given that things are so different in our world. Back home we have much clearer lines in wardrobe. The women in higher positions will dress up much more in a suit or fashionable business attire whereas the women starting out in their career or in entry-level positions are able to keep a more casual appearance.
So how can I tell who is who and their status in the company when 95% of the women traditional Indian clothes to work? The simple answer is I can’t. This is India and in the workplace attire plays a much smaller role at work than in other countries. Like so many other superficial things…clothing simply isn’t given that much power. Sure, after living here so many months I can now tell by the jewellery or perhaps the fabric and shoes that a woman wears who might have a better salary but the power suit (or power sari) doesn’t make the woman here in the workplace – they differentiate themselves through their performance and other qualities. And I really like that.
There is hierarchy here that doesn’t exist in western cultures – with very clear lines. I am addressed as Ma’am or Madam by many of my fellow female colleagues in junior positions. I am used to it now but it still feels strange to me and I really wish they would just call me Angela. Okay, in all fairness a couple of them do but then they might add Miss to it so I’m Miss Angela. Another thing with hierarchy is that there are typically no questions asked if someone senior asks someone more junior to do something, even if it is not typically their job or pulls them away from some other deadline. For me, I don’t always see this as a good thing but … this is India and that’s how we roll here.
I am now working for my 2nd Indian company here in Bangalore and so far in my experience receptionists and front office ladies are always truly diplomatic and lovely. I have never seen a single bitchy or rude or uncaring receptionist or “first face” in any company since my arrival, which is quite commonplace in Europe and the U.S. and I’ve certainly run across a ton of bitchy receptionists while living in Spain over the past decade. So this is quite refreshing, let me tell you.
In both companies I’ve worked I am the only ‘white girl’ at the office and here in India I’ve been approached and engaged in conversation by my female colleagues more than in any other country I’ve lived in or travelled to. Indian women are as curious about me and my culture as I am about them and they go out of their way to ask questions and also to make me feel at home. They want to know where I’m from and ask lots of sweet questions. I really appreciate how willing the women are to patiently explain cultural differences and activities that are going on – or holidays – so I understand and appreciate what I am experiencing. And the women always have a big, genuine smile.
My two favourite out-of-the-blue ‘bonding’ moments with someone at work have both taken place recently in the restroom at work. The first time, I was going directly to dinner after work to a very swish restaurant so I had brought a change of clothes and I was frantically trying to glam up my hair and makeup after my day at work when a junior colleague walked in. We had never met before and she asked my “good name” and introduced herself. She was really charismatic and asked me some questions but after a minute or two I was done getting ready. She sort of looked me and up and down and then said, “you know, I have the perfect thing for you! I can go back to my desk and get a bindi for you to wear because it would make you look even prettier.” I thought that was the sweetest offer I had heard in so long. Of course, to me, the bindi didn’t quite go with my knee-high boots, slim black skirt and black top so I said no but I loved that she saw me that way and had offered.
The second ‘bonding’ moment took place in that same restroom at work. I had just stepped out of the toilet and there was someone waiting to enter who I had never met before. We said hello and she stepped into the toilet but then re-emerged about 10 seconds later, popped her head out and asked, “how are you finding the toilets with no paper?” hehe! She is the very first person to ever ask me this and I loved her for it! I admitted that I always smuggle in a napkin or tissue with me because the water-only system is still a bit of a mystery to me. The conversation went on and now I better understand the system thanks to my sweet and very open colleague.
Language can definitely be an issue here. Although we both speak English, I still don’t always understand their accent and the other way around, which does make for some funny misunderstandings at times. But I have found this in every part of my life so it is not really exclusive to the workplace.
When I was a little girl, I used to tell people that I wanted to be a truck driver or work on telephone poles because I never saw a single “grown up girl” doing those jobs. I have very strong opinions about equality, apparently formed from a really young age. It rubs me wrong that I’ve never seen a single female taxi driver or auto rickshaw driver or hospitality worker outside of the fast-food chains or family run businesses. Women are forbidden by law to be bartenders in Bangalore which I also find difficult to stomach. I know that these norms and rules or laws are in place for the safety of the women but it still upsets that part of me that believes that everyone is equal and that women can do just about anything that a man can.
Powerful female executives are on the rise in India and the workplace is becoming more and more accepting of women so rock on, India!!! As for me, I’m going to take it all in stride, try to learn as much as I can and just enjoy the fact that I get to be surrounded every day by “power girls” in saris and traditional Indian attire, which I could never experience anywhere but India.
Photo credit: Harpreet Singh