East vs. West

Stereotypes are terrible and the plural of anecdote is not data. Individuals from any culture should be judged as individuals. But there are cultural differences in attitudes and behaviors. I give below two anecdotes that I think illustrate some broad differences between East and West.

Anecdote 1: A day or so after our arrival  in Israel I entered the common room of our guesthouse. I found the guesthouse owner and his wife taking apart the protective wire mesh enclosing the fan blades of some portable fans and cleaning dust off the fan blades. My East vs. West alarm goes off and I realize that I am back in the West. In the East, the guesthouse owners would not be cleaning anything, they would have people to do the cleaning for them. And it is unlikely that fan blades would be cleaned in the East until the actual functioning of the fan was effected and then it would be sent to a repairman. Of course, in the West these days there are no repairmen.

There is a logic behind this, at least to a point. There seems to be more people available more cheaply in the East and so it makes financial sense for those who have some money to hire those who have less to do jobs we in the West would do for ourselves. It is even a generous and compassionate thing to do, to spread the wealth, so to speak. Labor costs have also made repair of all but the highest price items we in the West own uneconomical, thus rendering most of our possessions effectively disposable.

But we also observed in the East a denigration of cleaning. This may stem from the traditional caste system where someone who cleaned was of low caste and hence denigrated. A corollary to this was our observation that those who cleaned were seldom given efficient tools to do their work. Cleaners worked with worn out, manual,  and outdated equipment and without appropriate chemicals to do the job well. I saw one extreme in India. A man was using an ordinary broom to sweep a Delhi street, very early in the morning when traffic was almost nonexistent. He swept the dust to a pile on the median of the street. This man had a truly Sisyphean task as, of course, the next day’s traffic would simply redistribute the dust and debris back into the street. In another example, I watched four women sitting on a lawn at the Jantar Mantar (Jai Singh’s ancient observatory) in Jaipur, their children running and playing among the observatory’s instruments. I thought they were having a family picnic in this park-like setting until I realized they were weeding the lawn, by hand.

Anecdote 2:  Our car had been stored in a rented storage unit all year. We went to retrieve it in the afternoon on the day after we arrived. The battery, well past its expected life anyway, was completely discharged. I removed it from the car and we took it to a local auto shop. I asked the supervisor if he would sell me a new battery and would he please have someone install it at the storage locker, a five minute drive away. Well, he checked his inventory and announced that he did have one in stock that would fit my car. Then he looked at the clock and saw that it was 4:45 PM. This became the stumbling block. The job would take maybe one half hour and that would mean one of his employees would have to work maybe 15 minutes past the 5 PM closing time. He had four men, all idle, visible from the front of his business lounging in the shop. There was no discussion of whether I might pay a bit more to cover the overtime, no discussion with the slouching young men whether they might be willing to help someone out, nothing. The 5 PM closing time brooked no exceptions. My money remained in my pocket and I was asked to return the next day. For reasons I cannot explain, I foolishly did, effectively encouraging his foolish behavior. After all, I could have gone to WalMart and been done with it.

This would never have happened in the East. A customer with money in hand that has chosen your shop to spend the money is a precious thing, not to be wasted. Businesses in Sri Lanka often have posted closing times of 7:30 PM or later.  And we were never asked to leave a shop or even given subtle hints to leave even when we later realized that we were in a shop after its posted closing time. Kris made a number of visits to a jeweler whose shop was inside a hotel in Kandy. The jeweler gave the bartender his phone number and when Kris arrived one day when the shop was closed, the bartender asked Kris to wait and then called the jeweler who immediately arrived to open up the shop just for her. If there was an exception it was with Muslim owned shops that closed for a couple of hours for Friday prayers. But even then many Muslim shop owners had non-Muslim friends in neighboring shops who watched the business until prayers were complete. Now sometimes this eagerness to make a sale went too far. We had any number of instances where a shopkeeper would misrepresent his goods in order to make a sale. Shopping in the East is  caveat emptor at its extreme.

As befitting anecdotal evidence, there is no real conclusion to be drawn from these observations, just illustrations of our experiences with East vs. West.