Practicing care: An everyday storyI make a good cup of tea. It’s one of my redeeming qualities. My Nepali friends from college would come over to my apartment expecting tea and jokingly call me sauni. Every evening,
I make a good cup of tea. It’s one of my redeeming qualities. My Nepali friends from college would come over to my apartment expecting tea and jokingly call me sauni. Every evening, I would make tea and had gotten into a habit of offering it to my American roommate, a move I quickly regretted. My relationship with making tea for others or doing any small thing in general, is one of oppression. It used to bother me, the inability to give freely. While growing up I had to make tea for the entire family. They are heavy tea drinkers, so even when the task was split among the womenfolk, it was a constant nag. Also back then, I had not developed a taste for tea. Sherpa people got sweet tea so wrong; it’s basically too milky with a pitiful hint of tea. No wonder we call it ngarmu, which literally means white.
While in college, another thing that I realised about myself was that my friends were way nicer people. I mean genuinely nice, not the ‘be nice, smile more’ variety of emotional service women are expected to provide. A friend of mine used to send care packages to her friend from high school, something I would never consider. She was no more financially secure than I, but she had grown up in a hostel and had developed very close friendships. Maybe my meanness comes from growing up in a large family with many siblings, maybe it’s a boundary of sorts, or it could be innate, not that I care too much at this point.
She carried the culture on her back
My mother was not nice either, except perhaps on Losar when everyone has to be nice to each other. But then memories can be faulty. When my siblings and I were growing up she had a lot of responsibilities and did not have much time for us. Apart from the day-to-day householding, a lot of her time was spent on going to social functions like funerals, weddings, and sick visits. In the 80s and 90s, Sherpas from various districts started settling in Kathmandu and since we are such a tight-knit community (read insular), there are always a lot of social functions and much of the cultural burden is shouldered by women.
Mom usually didn’t take us to these social functions when we were young. There was, however, one gathering I remember going to with my mom: Her cousin’s daughter’s wedding. I was in my teens and I had never met the bride or been to their house before; such was the nature of my relationship to this family. As in all weddings, there was a lot of hustle and bustle, and as usual it was the women doing most of it, with the men’s tasks being limited to lifting heavy loads. Soon upon arriving, I found myself running up and down to do this and that as directed by my mother; like her secret arsenal doing her proud, a good marriage prospect when the time came.
A striking feature of any Sherpa function is that women of the host family and their nearby relatives are always on their feet, ready for action. We have to do a lot more shey, jyu (eat, sit) which is an exaggerated courteousness towards the guests. To be in the company of these women, it has felt exhilarating sometimes. Usually it’s the same group, my close relatives and the domestic workers from each household who are brought in to help. We are all working together towards a common goal, like indispensable parts of a service chain, making sure that everyone is well fed and supplied with beverages at all times in order of seniority and gender. The air is filled with camaraderie.
Occasionally, someone laments about how easy it must be for the Bahun-Chhetris—the guests come, eat and go, on their own volition. However, despite the frustration one might feel, and we do feel it, to not do an appropriate amount of shey, jyu is social suicide. Once, at the end of one of these functions, which had taken place at my house, I was lazing around weary from a day full of labouring and my father sympathised with me by stating the obvious. All I could manage was a mental eye roll. My father, who does not even lift his own dinner plates to the sink.
Rejecting unpaid care work
Once when I was unemployed and out of desperation to seek work, I had gone to see a family acquaintance. One of the first things he remarked on was how hardworking I was. He had witnessed me in action in some of the social functions. He must have said it as a compliment, but I remember feeling so ashamed. It is one thing to do it; you do it because you have to do it. But to be acknowledged, for him to bring that up, especially in a somewhat professional setting, I found it disempowering.
I wasn’t much concerned about gender disparity in unpaid care work while growing up. It didn’t register much. I have never seen my father and uncles lift a finger around the house and so it was largely the norm. And although I have a brother, he was always off to “boarders” through much of his school life. We were a family of four daughters, followed by a son. It was funny because we went to the same school; we girls left for home each evening, leaving our brother at the school. None of us envied him; but sometimes I would teasingly and somewhat dramatically berate my mom for discriminating against her daughters. The counter-argument would always be how it is much harder to manage boys.
It was only after returning from college that I experienced home living with my brother for an extended period. It was then I started rebelling against care work. It got to me; the difference in the expectation my parents had for my brother and I, in terms of household work and how we managed our social life. While growing up, our mother would often tell us about the kinds of responsibilities she had to take on since quite young and the kind of deference and care she showed to her parents. Those talks that begin with ‘When I was your age...’ Although she did not expect the same from us, her expectations from us and our brother were quite skewed. That hurt. I felt nauseated by the amount of babying my father, and to some extent my brother, required and how they felt entitled to women’s attention, even though it was usually my mother and the housemaid who had to provide it. It was discomforting to see the never-ending demands we made of the housemaid, for the amount she was paid, under the guise of treating her as a family member.
I asked a friend how she managed these expectations and she said that she gave in if that made her parents happy, that at this point there was no changing them. I thought that was a cop-out. Feminist scholars teach us how happiness is oriented towards certain objects and ideals and that the imperative to be happy is used to justify social norms as social goods. I did otherwise, I complained, got angry, refused to work and talk. It happened gradually. Eventually, I did the bare minimum and limited myself to my room for the most part. I regretted coming back home. In her anger and disappointment, mom would shout that I had lost all shame and fear, her go-to rebuke, from the other side of the locked door. Father never said a thing, as per usual. He does not dabble in the “emotional”.
Where we stand
A while ago, I was talking to my cousin who was worried about her son. He had enrolled in a large university in America and was having a hard time adjusting. As a way to understand why he was not doing well, we got into a comparison of all of the kids in the extended family and I questioned if gender roles mattered, that we women were better trained to handle life from early on. My cousin is much more progressive than my family, although she too sent her son to the hostel and kept her daughter home. She argued that she made her son work in the kitchen and clean his room as much as her daughter. But I can see the differences in their behaviours, in the way my nephew would order his younger sister around and to my utter rage she would comply, but I have hardly ever seen it being reciprocated. It is so easy for kids to learn these things, the ways of being in this world, no effort required at all, like it’s in the air we breathe.
Of course, in my nephew’s case it could have been a whole range of other things that led to his adjustment issues, but for the first time, I found myself reflecting on how care work has benefitted me. It has taught me about team spirit and the importance of seeing and reciprocating people’s un-paid labour: Physical, mental and especially emotional. The latter makes a huge difference in our inter-personal relationships at a personal and professional level. Unfortunately, very less of this happens. I would say that it has also taught me something about being of service to others, which the world needs more of. It’s a shame that I have been thinking of it as servitude my whole life and I would like to change that. I am hyper aware of it now, which is mentally tiring. However, for this shift to happen within me there also needs to be a systemic change in who serves and who is served.
These unequal gender relations are not limited to the household; in fact they are the foundations of inequalities in other arenas of women’s lives, from wage inequality to how the state relates to us through its outdated policies and mindsets. In the workplace and also in one’s social circle, women have to do a greater share of the unpaid emotional and care work. It largely falls on women to be more solicitous of other people’s feelings, be the sympathetic listener to people’s woes, and remember and plan birthdays and other gatherings. Reflecting on gender roles and relations at the workplace, I think of all the times I have ended up having to do a larger share of the planning, the grunt work, and the thankless task of taking meeting notes and making copies, making everyone’s lives a little better, straddling the fine line between opportunity and exploitation. On the contrary, I feel like a majority of my male co-workers are better at setting their boundaries and not being a pushover.
All of this just brings you down, bit by bit. And there is hardly any space to talk about these things openly, either at home or at work, without the fear of being penalised, especially if you are not in a position of power. Plus, there are so few women in powerful positions. Even when they are there, they are untouched by these concerns. So you vent with your friends, and some of your inner balance is restored, but there is hardly any real change.
The gendered nature of unpaid care work is infuriating to say the least. Although putting my foot down and disassociating from it was one way of doing my politics, it was not very effective in terms of restoring peace of mind. By refusing to do unpaid care work you are further devaluing it and the people who do it, and relegating it to a burden that nobody wants to undertake. But then, there is always someone else doing it, if not you—it is essential work. So now, I am embracing care work, valuing it and the people who do it, contributing to it and demanding that others reciprocate. I am trying to be nice; most of all to the people I care about, on my own terms. Serenity now!