Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 6

Angkor Wat (Cambodia) - Delhi (India)

This week The Amazing Race 13 went to India once again. In Delhi, they encounter, the “dhobi”, long an object of curiosity and sometimes amusement for tourists and other foreigners:


Our dhobi is a funny man;
He likes to take my socks,
And fill them full of water,
And bang them on the rocks.

He likes to grab my nicest shirts,
And pound them on a stone,
Reducing every button
To shattered bits of bone.

He likes to dip our dusters
In water black as ink,
And change the checked lines in them
From blue to palest pink.

He is a man of wondrous deeds;
He burns, and shrinks, and tears
Our towels, sheets, and tablecloths,
And all the clothes one wears.

I don’t know how he does it,
But I think his donkey knows,
For he smiles at me so slyly,
When they call each week for clothes.

[From Verses by F. Mowbray Velte (1893-1962)]

My maternal grandfather, who lived most of his life in India and Pakistan as a university professor of English literature, may have thought his dhobi “funny” when he wrote this doggerel in a letter to his daughter, my mother, in the USA sometime in the 1930’s or 1940’s. Attempts at humor aside, I’d like to think he realized that beating wet clothes on a stone slab all day, every day, is hard work.

That’s what the racers found out. Unlike most tourists, the racers didn’t just send their clothes out to be washed by a dhobi (for a charge of a few rupees per piece), or observe the scene at the “ghat” (river embankment) where the dhobis work. Instead, they had to join in the work, using flatirons heated over coals or a flame to press their share of clean laundry smooth and dry. The irons are red-hot and heavy, and the work proves not only hard but dangerous.

It’s a good lesson: Providing services that are inexpensive, and would be simple in our home country (throw the clothes with some detergent in the washing machine, and start the cycle), may involve back-breaking labor in a place where things are done a different way.

There’s also a lesson in this episode that when people do things differently, there’s usually a reason. “This is a different country, with a different culture”, while true, is only a partial explanation. Asking yourself, “Why?”, and thinking seriously about the possible answers, can go a long way towards helping you understand not only the behavior that at first seems “strange”, but the society in which it is practiced.

In the USA, only about 80% of homes have washing machines, with the percentage varying by income. But almost nobody in the USA washes all their laundry by hand. If you don’t have your own washing machine, you go to a laundromat, and pay by the load to use their machines.

So why is there a dhobi ghat in every Indian town?

The obvious answer would be that most Indian families are too poor to afford washing machines in their homes. That’s true, but it’s not a sufficient explanation. After all, dhobis aren’t washing their own clothes; they are washing other people’s clothes, for pay. Why can’t even the professional laundry-washers afford mechanical labor-saving devices?

Perhaps even full-time laundering doesn’t bring in enough money to pay for such expensive “professional tools”. But that still doesn’t explain why wealthy Indians who could afford a washing machine choose to send their clothes out to a dhobi instead.

Priorities for purchases of appliances and “consumer durables” vary greatly from country to country, depending on culture, climate, and other factors. Is someone more likely to buy a bicycle first, or a television, for example? By some reports in China more than 90% of all urban households now have some sort of washing machine (albeit perhaps only a tiny “semi-automatic” one), while even in rural areas twice as many have a washing machine as a refrigerator. For most people in India a refrigerator comes well before a washing machine, and only among the truly rich are home washing machines as common as they are for ordinary city-dwellers in the new China.

The question remains, “Why?” In part, the comparison with refrigerators simply reflects the difference in climate. Few places in China are as hot as most regions of India. But the penetration of washing machines is still so much lower among comparably-wealthy families in India, as compared with China, as to suggest the existence of additional explanatory factors.

My hypothesis is that one factor is the difference in modern Indian and Chinese attitudes towards servants: upper-class Indians take servants for granted, largely because of their attitudes about caste (I’ve read that dhobis actually are their own caste in parts of India), while vestiges of Maoism make some Chinese more comfortable spending money on machines to save their own labor than on the labor of other people as servants. Another factor might be different attitudes toward cleanliness, with Indians defining it more in terms of ritual and caste purity compared to more physical and biological Chinese standards of hygiene.

You may have different interpretations of these and other things you see as you travel. Whatever your answers, though, my point is that you can learn a lot by asking yourself “Why?”, and playing amateur anthropologist, at least occasionally. While on the scene, you may even be able to ask people for their own explanations of why they do things the way they do. If you can find a way to do so without seeming judgmental, it can be a good way to start a conversation about the local way of life and the culture that determines it. Whatever the reasons for people’s actions, it’s an anthropologist’s axiom that no matter how “strange” they seem to you, there’s an explanation for them that makes perfect sense, in its own terms, to the people who are doing them.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 2 November 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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