My choice of clothing for working at the hospital was something that I was unsure about as I was packing. Our handbook recommended a regular business casual outfit, but even then I was hesitant about appearing disrespectful by underdressing. I prepared my suitcase with black dress shoes, a few different pairs of khakis and slacks, and a plethora of dress shirts.
All my worries were resolved when one of the hospital staff shared some gossip he overheard. Some other staff there had given me the nickname “Mr. Consistent”, due to the invariability of my outfit every day. Shirt always tucked in, sleeves never rolled up, while I even scrubbed the dirt from the street off my shoes about once a week. In contrast to the open-toed shoes prevalent in the hospital, I may have actually appeared overdressed for my task at hand. As the anxiety over my own dress started winding down, I began paying more attention to the dress code that many of the women at Aravind adhered to.
The majority of the women at Aravind didn’t have an opportunity to choose their clothing for work. Women who worked as medical personnel were given saris as uniforms which varied only by color based on the different work they do. This dress code was actually very helpful for the hospital. It told both patients and fellow employees the exact role that a hospital staff member had. This was similar to the white coats that doctors put on everywhere, including the Aravind hospital. A green sari meant that the wearer could counsel patients on their medical status, the same way that a white coat meant that the doctor could perform patient examinations.
Regardless, there was still a gray area of dress code for women at Aravind without a uniform. Our handbook gave an explanation for women’s dress at Aravind that was much more detailed than the two-word explanation of “business casual” given for men. In vague terms, it seemed that women were expected to cover their legs fully with clothing that isn’t too tight, while their entire upper body should be covered with particular attention on not exposing too much chest. For many female workers at Aravind, a scarf was normally worn over their shirt to give assurance that no upper torso skin is visible. Another intern from the U.S. was actually advised multiple times by other workers at Aravind to wear a scarf even if her shirt reached up to her neck.
In stark contrast to the U.S., the conservative dress of South India became the norm for me. So much so that seeing a woman’s shoulder blades from a low-cut sari felt like I was violating that woman’s privacy. You may be able to imagine my surprise when I saw crop tops and short shorts during our first night in Goa, a less reserved beach town in India. Going to a restaurant where a host was teaching salsa dancing incited a lot of culture shock.
However, what surprised me the most that night was seeing how people were dancing; I felt as though I hadn’t seen anyone truly free in the last eight weeks. Every dancer was moving entirely at their own will; completely unfazed and unburdened by any fear of shame or judgement. In the same vein, dancers were freely choosing their partners. The host who was leading the large group learning salsa commanded the men and women to switch partners regularly. For most of the night, I was actually in disbelief that I could see women dressing in whatever way they wished to, dancing as expressively as they wanted to, and choosing their dance partner with complete freedom.
This isn’t to say that my social experiences with residents of Madurai were non-existent or minimal; I actually ended up talking to a diverse range of people. I had one long conversation with a man training to be a paramedic, kept up with a dentist who went to the same gym as me, and maintained a friendship with an autorickshaw driver who donned a handsome mullet, among countless other experiences with doctors and other hospital personnel. But the one aspect lacking from these relationships was a female presence.
Most of the women in Madurai who I got to know were doctors at Aravind. I don’t think I ever spoke to a woman outside of the hospital for anything other than buying goods. In the same way, no woman initiated conversation with me the same way the training paramedic struck up conversation with me. My dialogue with female hospital staff didn’t extend beyond “Hello” and “How are you?” except for one occasion.
One day, I was intent on staying in the records department until I got all the patient information I needed. At first, the staff members in the records department (all women) strayed from conversation with me, but as more senior staff members went home, the younger ones stayed to finish the day. During downtime while I was waiting for a patient record, one woman asked me how old I was. My aura of seniority vanished after I answered, and I was bombarded by questions from the workers who were all shocked to be at least three years older than me. There are many other (valid) reasons for why someone would avoid talking to me, but that instance made me wonder to what extent the fear of judgment stopped hospitals workers from asking me about life in the U.S., or why I was working in the hospital.
That fear of judgment or fear of shame does add a layer of professionalism to the system that Aravind employs, and perhaps keeps workers from distracting themselves or taking unnecessary breaks. But while efficiency improves, there is a human quality that suffers as well. There’s a chance that a good amount of innate curiosity is stifled by the haunting presence of shame, and possible connections between diverse lives are blocked.
As with everything else in society, there is a trade-off that has to take place. The improved patient care at Aravind may benefit the hospital, while the atmosphere of judgement extends further into the nearby culture. This experience served as a reminder to me that there’s no black and white in culture; there’s only a balance where every positive come with a negative and every cost is tethered to an unsuspecting benefit. If I choose to only see new experiences through the lenses of “wrong” instead of “different”, then it’s impossible for me to learn from those experiences and apply what I learn in a productive way. That being said, I would encourage everyone to go salsa dancing once in a while, and forget about judgement, if just for an evening.