Thursday, 12 November 2009


I work in a job where I deal with many different people throughout the day - usually by telephone as the staff I'm responsible for work overseas. It's a daily occurrence to ring my colleagues in India, to e-mail the office in Nairobi, send some money to the man in Sri Lanka and make sure the man in Iran orders his new uniform each winter. In Israel the staff are a mixture of Arab Christians, Muslims, modern men and the odd Bedouin. They're a varied group and we get along well. But dealing with them has so much complexity attached. In Israel we can only locally employ a Christian Arab on our administrative staff. If we employ a Jew, the Muslim staff will not be happy and they will not deal directly with them. In Jakarta if we employ Christians they are in danger. In India the managers speak and write fluent English, but some of the gardeners are illiterate. It's not unusual for us to send translated documents to them that have to be read out and to then receive their acknowledgement of receipt back in the form of a fingerprint.

In Northern India, a very tribal and at times hostile environment, the managers are much more in tune with modern thinking. To them I'm Karen. In the south the Regional Manager is quite westernised and to him I'm Karen too. To the other managers my salutations range from Respected Madam to Mrs Karen. Similarly, I respect their salutation preferences and they range from first name basis to being addressed as Mr ....x.... Again, in Northern India, tribal dominance is incredibly important. In the areas we operate the powerful Angami tribe are influential in all areas of business. Anyone employed in the region must belong to this tribe or one approved and on good relations with them, such as the Lotha tribe. All men who work there must have Naga citizenship. If we advertise outside their region such as Delhi, Kolkata, Madras or Kirkee, we must state they should have a Nagaland work permit - to omit this would be foolish and ignorant on our part. It is their culture and their heritage and we have to respect that.

In Japan our manager is learning English. It's a standing joke in the office that when he calls he addresses our colleague Hilary as 'Hairy'. But in our laughter we respect the fact that his English is far superior to our Japanese. Sometimes on the phone it's great to hear him and Hairy laughing over some of the items he's written on his accounts.

In Cannakale our manager is a French guy. We've never quite worked out why he applied to work there - but he's loving it. The staff have welcomed him with open arms and he's making welcome changes to the way they work. We have a Welshman in Israel overseeing Arabs, Christians and Muslims. Last year I retired our man in Singapore who returned to his native home in Malaysia.

In Nairobi, our office administrator has had to take days off work due to local riots along the main road she takes to the office. I ring her occasionally, just to see how she's doing. Sometimes, again due to language barrier we can spend quite a while sorting out accounts as we can't always understand each other. In Gaza we keep a special eye on our men out there when hostilities rise up. At times we've had to pay them salaries months in advance due to blocks on currencies imposed by the government. Last year we sighed sighs of relief when the bomb that landed in the cemetery didn't harm anyone. We marvelled at the humanity of their neighbouring colleagues in Israel who clubbed together to buy sweets for the children and supplies for their colleagues and arranged for the Defence Attaché to take stuff across the border for them as they knew times were hard. Their nations were at war - they weren't.

With my job I feel very privileged. I feel honoured to be able to participate in the lives of so many people across the world who experience different faiths, whose skins are all different colours, who speak various languages (some of them four or five even!) Some who can read and write, some who can't. Some who are single and some who have ten or more children. Some who live in relative luxury, others who report to us that their mud hut home has been washed away in the monsoon. We have staff who are young and fit and others who are getting elderly and not so fit.

In the office we have two men in wheelchairs. One who has never walked - one who has succumbed to the ravages of MS. They're not treated any differently. When the non-smoking ban was introduced, one of them had to wheel himself outside in the cold and rain just like his walking colleagues - he didn't expect to be treated any differently. But in this, we're still mindful that when the lift only has room for one more, he gets to go in it and us lazy lot have to take the stairs.

I remember a few years back at work going on a Diversity course and the woman running it had wild hair with streaks of purple running through it. Dressed like a warlock and really rather zany. Imagine somebody like that running a course encouraging everyone to accept each other and engage with one another when the directorship is made up of over 400 combined years of civil servitude that has generated from the origins of a military set up!

But I digress. On this course we discussed issues such as race, religion, gender, sexuality, tattoos, body piercing etc and we were shown a series of images. From these images we had to say whether we thought the person was nice, friendly, warm, hostile, criminal etc. Then the images were enlarged to show the whole picture. The one that stuck with me most was a picture of a fierce, huge bald man with tattoos all over him looking menacingly at the camera. To me he looked like a naked Hell's Angel. On panning the picture out he was cradling a newborn baby in his arms. How wrong was I?!

At church we're just entering a series on Diversity. I missed the first one but I'm looking forward to the rest. I'll be honest when I first heard what the series was - I sighed and thought, oh for goodness sake, it's rammed down our throats by the media, we're constantly told to be pc about this and that, I'm faced with thinking about it every day at work, the children have it stuffed in their faces about fairness, bullying, don't pack nuts in lunch items - I don't need five weeks of this.

But I do.

It's not right for me to be complacent about it just because I work in an environment where it's normal to deal with different people. I shouldn't look for a cosy escape outside the office. I worship in a church that has all manner of people and each one, created by God, LOVED by God and cherished by Him. Is it too much to ask that I stand in line with my black friends, take time to talk to the blind couple as they can't seek me out, to stand in front of my deaf friend so she can read my lips, to rejoice in the numerous multi-cultural marriages? I love it when my white English friend turns up to church wearing a Ghanian outfit, sharing the cultural dress of his wife. I adore seeing the little girl in church with Down's Syndrome eagerly tottering her way to creche along with all her other knee high friends, holding her Daddy's hand all the way. Then I feel bad that I haven't even bothered to find out her name.

It's fantastic. So I stand humbled now and a little ashamed that I had a grumble and I look forward to hearing more about how I can be open to change, to grow in my love for people different to me, to break down my barriers of ignorance and be a part of a united church just as Jesus intended it to be.


Gretchen said...

I think your job is wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing a bit more about it.

Richard Walker said...