Hands together, head bowed – that’s the standard greeting in India. It’s a sign of politeness. Likewise, to show respect to someone higher than you, a hand to the right foot, then to your head and heart will do. These greetings, along with terms like “Ji,” which translates to “Sir” or “Ma’am,” or “Ap,” which is the respectful form of you, are completely normal and expected. To me, this deference feels unnatural.
It isn’t that I don’t want to show respect. It’s just that my progressive/Quaker school background has taught me to respect everyone equally, with no distinctions made for seniority or rank. Take something as straightforward as honorific terms. When explaining the term “Ji” a few weeks ago, Sarah explained that it is similar to saying “Mr.” or “Ms.”. Perhaps that should make perfect sense to someone who grew up using those terms, but the last time I referred to someone as “Mr.” or “Ms.” was kindergarten. During my elementary school years, I called my teachers by their first names. For middle school and high school, I added the term “Teacher” before their first names, but even that was often dropped with teachers I knew well.
This familiarity with adults in my life was reinforced by boarding school. I walked dogs with my English teacher, discussed lipstick colors with my chemistry teacher, and ate breakfast with my Latin teacher. This sort of school experience led me to think of teachers as friends rather than authority figures. Clearly there was no head bowing going on.
My lack of comfort with deference also traces to my Quaker background. One of the core tenets of Quakerism is equality. This tenet is so important that when my school was founded, students went to school on Christmas day, because, even though Quakers are Christians, they believed all days should be treated as equal. While my school eventually added a holiday break to the calendar (thank goodness!), the principle of equality still informs all aspects of the school’s culture. The notion that people older or of a higher rank should be treated differently is antithetical to everything I’ve learned as a student in Quaker school.
Last week, we started Hindi lessons. While we were instructed about the obvious and subtle differences between “Tu,” (intimate) “Tum,” (familiar) and “Ap,”(respectful), it was during our chai break that I appreciated how these terms reflect fundamental differences in status in this culture. Sarah Ji whispered to us at the first break that it would be a good thing to prepare a cup of chai for our teacher. The next day, she quietly told me that when the teacher enters the room, I should immediately stop what I’m doing and stand up to greet him. My first thought was that it would be rude to interrupt the conversation I was having, but I quashed that idea and agreed.
For the most part, I have adopted the values and worldview shared by my family and my educational community. In India, I am constantly with people whose perspectives are fundamentally different from mine. During these nine months, I’ve got to look at my values and decide which I hold dear, and which I simply inherited. I will hold on tightly to the former, and let the latter grow and evolve. As for Indian terms and gestures of respect, I haven’t totally adjusted to them, but I’ll make a concerted effort to get them right. As I practice them, I might even decide that showing special respect to some fosters humility without undermining my commitment to equality. I’ll keep all this in mind the next time my hands dutifully offer a cup of chai.