My “Envi”-ous expat life

I have about four blog topics half-written, half-conceived, half-baked in my brain or on my computer. Do I write about my carb-addicted chihuahua, the book I just read, or finally document our travels through Rajasthan and Kerala? Or maybe I should write about watermelon seeds? Yes, watermelon seeds. I cannot seem to settle down to write one. I have just returned from a spa treatment of hair and nails, and I need to get this one out before I turn my attentions elsewhere.

In the book that I just finished, Games Indians Play: Why We Are the Way We Are, V. Raghunathan tries to explain Indian economic behavior using game theory. Mr. Raghunathan is an Indian businessman and former academic. His perspective is not that of an outsider like John Kenneth Galbraith, whom he quotes at the beginning of chapter 8 as saying, “India is a functioning anarchy.” Rather, Mr. Raghunathan is a cultural insider seeking to make sense of behavior that does not appear to do so, especially to foreign eyes. Why are the streets so dirty? Why is the traffic a mess? Mr. Raghunathan’s primary hypothesis is that when it comes to playing games (in the economic sense) that Indians do not cooperate to reach a mutually beneficial end but rather defect to further their own self-interests. To oversimplify, Indians cheat. He argues that Indians can neither implement nor follow systems, that the moment a system (particularly a formalized administrative one) is put into place that someone finds an immediate workaround to circumvent the system, thus leading to the system’s ultimate failure. This behavior is why Indians can build the Taj Mahal, but can’t maintain it. Why one of the most impressive monuments ever built is choked by smog and surrounded by garbage. He further argues that the best systems in India are either informal (like the famous Mumbai dabbawallas) or illegal (like the ticketless travel “insurance” available on Mumbai trains).

Which brings me to my spa treatment…

Today, I went to my normal salon, Envi. Hence, my blog title. Envi is an Indian salon chain similar to Enrich, but cleaner with nicer staff. It is the third (or maybe fourth) salon that I have tried in India, and the first one that I have stuck with. Brian and I both go there to get our hair cut. I went today to get my hair done, including a Kerastase treatment, manicure, and pedicure. I made the appointment yesterday in person for 1 pm today. When I needed to change the appointment this morning, I called and rescheduled it to 3 pm. The receptionist said, “OK. Fine.” Then, at 1 pm, I received a phone call that I had an appointment at 1 pm. I explained that I had called to reschedule for 3 pm. “OK. Fine.” This exchange is typical. I have called to make appointments before only to show up and be convinced that no one knew I was coming. It is one of those things that gets lost in translation, as it were. When I first shifted here, I would have been fairly pissed and launched into “what do you mean you don’t have my appointment?” Now, I just shrug and laugh as I relay the confusion to Brian. I have a strong suspicion that the receptionist who answered the phone when I rescheduled my appointment is not as fluent in English as her counterparts and said “OK. Fine,” to placate me. The receptionist who called to remind me probably has better English. Nevertheless, when I arrived at 3 pm, they were ready for me. The system worked. Did it work as expected? Not exactly. But, did I get my hair and nails done? Yes. So, in the end, the system worked. Clearly, there was a communication breakdown along the way. Maybe the first receptionist did understand, but failed to notify anyone. She is the defector in our scenario. Ultimately, though, the salon played the cooperative role, and everyone went home happy. I got my hair done, the salon got paid, and the hair and nail guys made tips.

Another example of a working system in this scenario is the process by which everything was done. In the States, if I had the same appointment, it might have taken twice as long. I would have had my hair done and then my nails or vice versa, but here both processes occur simultaneously. The appointment started off as I would have expected in the States: with the color processing. I was then taken to the pedicure area where the pedicure and manicure were done simultaneously. When my color processing was complete, my stylist returned to tell me it was time for my shampoo and Kerastase treatment. The manicurist and pedicurist came to a stopping point, and I was ushered to the sink to rinse and then whisked off to the Kerastase treatment room. The stylist, manicurist, and pedicurist then all three worked simultaneously to get my treatments done. At one point, as I was wrapped in cellophane to finish the spa part of the mani-pedi, I had four men wrapping my extremities while the fifth continued the Kerastase treatment. Five. Grown. Men. All working together for the same objective. That is cooperation at its best. I tried really hard not to laugh as I realized the absurdity of this scenario. But, it made me smile to realize that it illustrates how incredibly adaptable people can be here and how cooperative. Then again, this system is an informal one, which is why the adaptation worked.

That very adaptation, however, is exactly what Mr. Raghunathan sees as defection. While I enjoyed the book a great deal, and it goes a long way toward explaining some really baffling behaviors, I am not sure that I agree with his final conclusion that the Indian way is defection. Don’t misunderstand. Defection happens a lot in India. I was shocked the other day when I filmed traffic in Nariman Point, and no one jumped the signal. I am still convinced there was a Mumbai police officer nearby.

Nevertheless, people still manage to get where they are going, even with the typical traffic defections, and no one seems bothered when you are late. Just blame the traffic, and you are forgiven.

3 thoughts on “My “Envi”-ous expat life

  1. Great post, and I can’t wait to read the book. Thanks for posting.

    I, for one, have to agree with the assessment that it was the five men that were defectors. You are seen as a high-paying, wealthy customer. Plus, you are American (or any other white expat). Therefore you tip. The conclusion is “if we give great service, we will get a tip.” If they didn’t think you would tip, they wouldn’t go the extra mile.

    There’s no economic reason to keep trash off the street. There is no punishment for litter, and there’s no reason why the 10 million Mumbaikers in slums need to have a clean space (the mentality, not the reality). Mumbai is not a tourist city, so there isn’t an economic incentive to keep things clean.

    Plus, with 1.3 billion people, and 80% of them in poverty, you understand why if the best way to get ahead of your neighbor (feed you kid, etc) is to defect from the system, you’d do it. I would too…

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    • So, the guys were defecting, but doing so cooperatively? I had not thought about it that way. Before reading the book, my only exposure to game theory was A Beautiful Mind. The author here does a good job of explaining the basics. But, economics was not my strong suit in college.

      I realize that my experience was tied to my status, but that did not make it any less absurd. Of course, by tipping, I am defecting from the system that says not to. So, really, this whole thing is all my fault. 🙂

      Unfortunately, I think you are right that there is not an economic incentive to keep Mumbai clean. At least not directly. I would argue that trash breeds disease, which should have a negative economic impact. But, with labor so cheap, if someone gets sick, another person is waiting to replace them. So, that incentive is not there.

      When we went to Rajasthan and Kerala, the cleanliness was an obvious and welcome change from Mumbai. But, in those places, tourism is king, so the incentive is there. Tourists won’t go to dirty places. It also sounded like Kerala had anti-littering laws that were enforced.

      Feeding children can be a strong motivator to defect. When the rules for getting government assistance are increasingly arbitrary and difficult to negotiate, I can certainly understand just throwing your hands in the air and circumventing the system completely.

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      • Totally agree about the indirect incentive to cleaning Mumbai – but I don’t think that the system can handle that kind of reward system. It really seems that everyone, even the wealthy, are in that survival model, where if there is not a direct, immediate incentive to do something, it isn’t worth thinking about.

        Rajasthan is a tourist destination and so reliant on tourism that slum/government leaders can point and say, “If you litter, tourists will not come, and you will not have a job/food.” The need can be tied directly to the behavior of the people. I don’t think that works in Mumbai. People come here seeking wealth or a future, and neither of those they can tie to an immediate clean-up of the city. Tourists come here for a day or two passing through. Expats and business leaders are shuffled through the system and have ways to avoid most of the worst Mumbai has to offer.

        Naturally, you COULD make the argument that if you clean the city, it will be safer, healthier, attract more investment, and ultimately grow wealthier, offering more opportunity for people. But I don’t think that this society as a whole is capable of grasping that kind of long-term intangibility.

        Your comment is totally correct about too many people in the system. If one gets sick, there are 10 others after them that can fill in. As a result, life has limited value. If you don’t value life, and certainly not THIS particular life (you can try again), valuing of land and space becomes even less important.

        Finally, there are so many reasons to defect here. Living in the slums, feeding children, a job that might pay Rs 500 more per month – thinking in those immediate terms when you are competing with 10 people for every action to sustain your life becomes more rationale than any alternative. And THAT is how it becomes ingrained in a culture – hence your comment about not trusting anyone. Always assume that you will be taken advantage of, and you’ll come out on top.

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