The housewife and the eternal guest

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Only a week into my study abroad program in India, I experienced the most intense moment of culture shock I have ever felt. When an elderly couple whom I call Auntie and Uncle invited my host family over for lunch, I felt like I had teleported suddenly, like the scenes in Monsters, Inc when each door opens to a random setting around the world. I had turned the knob and stumbled into an alternate universe located in a tiny apartment in Jaipur.

Behind this door, the family did not eat all together. Instead, the men dined first, while my host mother attended to their needs. The women ate later, almost as an afterthought. As a guest and foreigner, I occupied a grey area on this occasion: although I am a woman, I ate with the men so that I was not kept waiting. I suppose my American status exempted me from the traditional role of women here for an afternoon, even in a society so steeped in hierarchy.

A week later, a discussion with my host father about why men should not do housework illuminated the reason for the lunch’s setup. In India, the home is the woman’s domain. This is not a novel concept; societies around the world have ascribed to this view in varying degrees throughout history. What struck me about my host father’s perspective was his rationale: that men are guests in the home.

Combined with India’s deeply rooted sense of hospitality, this way of thinking explains why men often do not clean, cook or even clear their own dishes from the dinner table. My host father explained that men are away from the home most of the day, while women spend all their time there. Therefore, men perpetually occupy the role of guest.

Throughout this explanation, my host mother rolled her eyes but did not protest. She takes pride in the work she does as a housewife, and emphasized when we first met how busy she is. She has probably been exposed to mindsets like my host father’s since she was very young.

My host family is lucky to be upper-middle class, with a nice home to keep up, and seem to live a content and fulfilling life. But the problem arises when the household work that my host mother does, which takes an immense amount of time and effort, is undervalued throughout society as a whole compared to my host father’s job at a pharmaceutical office. Keeping a neutral expression when I observe these inequalities is not always necessarily easy.

Situations like the lunch at Auntie and Uncle’s place raise ethical questions about the way women are treated, the way people interact and the expectations of different people. These are all topics I will be pondering in my time in India, and that I hope to share with the Occidental campus through this blog.