Monday, November 07, 2005

Of cat eaters and the sexy Bill Gates

"Do you eat cats?" my Indian colleague asked the Filipino Art Director, R. We were traveling home together after work; I was nodding off in the front seat of the car, but the grisly vision of a mewling, skinned cat jerked me awake.

The usually genial and now, nonplussed R, queried, “Cats?? You mean catfish?”

“No, I mean cats,” persisted my Indian colleague with the subtlety of a marauding rhino. “I’ve heard you Filipinos eat cats.”

Torn between being affronted and laughing at his ignorance, R settled for a snort and a dismissive wave of hand.

“What about dogs then? Do you’ll eat dogs?” The Indian colleague was unstoppable. We might have gone through the entire animal kingdom, but fortunately for R, he’d reached his destination.

The exchange was amusing, no doubt, but to me, it also underlined the appealing aspect of a multicultural workplace. Apart from Indians, there are Pakistanis, Indonesians, Filipinos, Syrians, an Iraqi and a couple of Bangladeshis – just a handful of the 180 different nationalities that Dubai touts with pride. But add to this clutch, our clients and suppliers, and you have Lebanese, Japanese, Emiratis, Brits, French, Moroccans, Koreans, Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and more. A small effort at international integration.

Each interaction offers a tiny glimpse of a distant land and helps chip away at a few preconceived notions. There’s so much to learn and marvel at. Not only have my Hindi conversational skills improved a great deal, I’m told I do a mean Urdu as well – thanks to the influence of a Pakistani colleague and close friend, H. Our conversation lately revolves a lot around recipes – with me being the recipient mostly – and Pakistani cuisine. H, a firm believer in my latent cooking skills, generously plies me with recipes and cooked samples.

My Syrian colleague, Z, on the other hand, provides the much-needed humour. He was delighted when my desk was moved next to his, because he would finally be able to write love letters to his sweetheart in Syria, with correct spellings. All through the day I’m interrupted with, “How do you spell daily?” or “…appreciate” or “…impossible”. Finally, I told him in exasperation that I’d charge him 5 dirhams per spelling. I’ve lost count, but he easily owes me a few hundred bucks.

Z’s conversational English is much better though, and on occasion he comes up with a sparkling witticism. Sometimes, unintentionally as well. Like the time he told me, “You know, the Europeans are very sexyful.” I kept a stony face, silently groaning and thinking, spare me your conquests. He took my impassivity to mean incomprehension and launched forth with gesticulations, “You know sexyful… like Bill Gates?” Stone face gave way to shock face. You Syrians have strange ideas of sex appeal, I thought, until it hit me like a sledgehammer – he meant successful.

I’ve gotten pretty good at Syrian-English now. A week ago when he said, "I have to go to the quarter office,” I promptly corrected him, saying, “It’s called headquarters.” Or when he recently expressed his desire to see India, exclaiming, “I’ve heard it’s very beautiful. I want to see that… that… big house!” Without batting an eyelid I told him, “It’s called the Taj Mahal.” He smiled broadly and nodded.

R, the Filipino colleague, is similarly fascinated with India. “What’s tikke?” he asked me recently. For once, I was stumped. “You’ll keep saying it after every sentence…” he prompted. A bit of cranium scratching and the lightbulb shone. “Ohhhh…. You mean theek hai! It means ok.”

“Like sige in Tagalog,” (the Filipino language) he mused.

Now, all mails to me are signed off with tikke. Interestingly, I discovered that R is a Born Again Christian who’s also ‘been a Hindu’. Apparently, he joined the Hare Rama Hare Krishna movement in Manila, until he decided that the life of a monk didn’t suit him. Being a Born Again however hasn’t stopped him from fasting during Ramadan, ‘just to see what it feels like.’

If you thought mentally converting foreign currency to rupees was an irksome Indian trait only, think anew. The Germans do it too. “Getting a driving license is so cheap out here,” boomed T, my German flatmate, when we got chatting in the kitchen one evening. My eyes widened. Just signing up for the initial tests cost me an elbow and a knee. In Indian currency, of course. “In Germany, I paid…” he paused, punching the invisible calculator, “Yes, I paid 6000 dirhams*.” No meeting of the East and West on this issue.

We soon got talking about Bombay, and for a brief moment, I was tongue-tied when they asked me, “Is Bombay very crowded?” Loyalty battled with honesty and in the end, tact won. I just shot off the population figures and they both looked at me with awe. “In our town, there are only 80,000 people,” T exclaimed. They were equally surprised when I told them I didn’t understand or speak the language of the other Indian flatmates.

“So the only language you use to communicate with each other is English?” asked A. It did sound odd and funny when put that way.

On a personal level, I’ve enjoyed and felt enriched by my interactions with people from different cultures and countries. However, it’s not a common attitude, I’ve noticed. It’s bizarre how some people do their best to recreate the country they’ve left behind, and shut out all people and experiences that don’t fit in with that notion. I’ve met Indians who are prejudiced towards other Indians from a different state. The Letters to the Editor column of a well-known daily are filled with Emiratis denouncing expats and vice versa. Friends have cited racist experiences at some of the trendy nightclubs and hotels. When I was house-hunting recently, I was asked more than a couple of times which country I was from, and if it was an Indian landlord, I even had to specify which state and city; twice I was asked to state my religion.

It's such a pity. Such attitudes only cause ungainly lumps in the melting pot. People get richer without ever getting enriched. And some might just spend their entire lives not knowing that an ex-Hindu, Born Again, roza-upholding Filipino would never make a meal of cats.

(*1 dirham = approx. Rs. 12)

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