Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts on washing dishes

Moving to a different country and culture puts us in a context and space completely different from all that we've known. This shift in perspective gives us a new way of seeing - we can see how our self has been shaped by cultural beliefs. We become aware of the fact that these beliefs are, in fact, not who we are in essence. But if we are not them, then who are we? 

This is the point where we have the chance to delve deep.

One of the basic lifestyle differences between India and the States is the fact that household work needs to be done on your own. Unlike India, there is no help, or, more factually, very expensive help available. For the first time in my life, I have been washing dishes - washing big pots and pans by hand so they are ready for the next use, loading and unloading the dishwasher and sometimes, washing dishes by hand. How does that stack up as opposed to having a maid do all the work?

On the positive side, it removes the nagging guilt that I used to feel at the thought of hired help doing my work, for a very insignificant salary. Still, that was what I was used to, so that guilt usually lay dormant when I was in Delhi. Also, in India, the cultural message attached to so-called menial work was that it was "less than." As an H4 wife in the States, there were times in the beginning when I had to struggle to disconnect with that message. In my head, I believed that all work has value. In my emotional reactions, that didn't seem to be true.  

What also happened was that playing the role of a housewife showed me how invisible women's work really is. And I felt this, in spite of the fact that I have a lovely, progressive man as a husband. In my head, I was carrying an image, a projection of how being nurturing - cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry - should be part of my DNA as a woman. That it should feel natural, something I took to like fish to water. Only it didn't. I felt like I was the support staff and I didn't like it. My husband didn't ask me to do all this. It was me operating from a script. When I realized this difference between who I thought I was and who I really am, I felt angry about all the crazy things my culture had taught me to believe. And I felt a strange kinship with all the women who have gone before me - working inside the home,discounting that work as "not real work." 

And when I looked at some of the Indian families around me, I was disturbed by how some people adapt to life here in the States only to the extent that it takes them to succeed. So, while there is a lot of outer change, there is no real internal change. Even if the woman works, she still does all the household work. In fact, she seems to do a lot worse than she would in India, where there is help available. And it's not just Indians. It's pretty much everyone - Asians, Latinos, Americans. Gender roles are still very much in place in today's America.       

So, where does this leave me? Pulling back my attention to myself, I find that I am a little bit easier in the space I occupy. I don't hold myself to as high a standard of household perfection as I did in the first year and a half of my married life. As a friend told me recently, a clean house is the sign of a wasted life. I believe wholeheartedly in the essence of that message. Especially here in America, where labor is expensive, it is extremely important to internalize this belief. Household work needs to get done in a way that facilitates our lives. It shouldn't be the cross we carry as women - where our homes are barometers of who we are as people, where specks of dust carry shame-ridden messages. 

As someone in transition, I still like to have a clean, orderly home. It makes me feel in control of my environment and, in turn, a little more in control of my life. But I am working to put household chores in their proper place, disengaging from the psychic space they occupy, and the roles that women are supposed to play. I may choose to perform those functions, but I refuse to perform a role.


  1. You thought about all that while cleaning dishes???? wow!!!!

    P.S--- Since the work is 'invisible' we shouldn't talk about it.. huh?

    1. Yes, I did. I don't understand the P.S.

  2. na.. its just when i wash dishes.. its just... "Have i put too much liquid in it"???.. is it clean...

  3. it seems I found a long lost soul mate in you. I imagine you know how comforting it feels to know you are not the only one :) I feel you read my mind to the last detail.... thank you for sharing your thoughts. You brought me peace :)

    1. Thank you Marti ! I am glad you found your own experience reflected back. When I was writing this, I felt apprehensive about whether anyone would connect with it. Sometimes, we think we are the only ones thinking something and it's a relief to find that that's not true.