Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Outsourced: Putting Hinduism’s Best Foot Forward

(Warning: Spoiler)
Todd Anderson, the typical monocultural American, comes to India to show the ignorant natives how it’s done – “this” in this case being how to run the call center to which the call center he has been running in Seattle is being outsourced. Attributing their inability to deliver a quality product on time to their ignorance, he tells them that they need to learn about America if they are to do the job right.
Soon he finds the shoe on the other foot and is told by one of his trainees, Asha – who, no surprise, turns out to be the romantic interest – that his success depends rather on his ability to learn about India. Bewildered by local customs and frustrated at his inability to get his trainees on track, he has a chance meeting with an American resident expatriate, who tells him that he can either choose to let India stand for “I’ll Never Do It Again” or learn to enjoy it as it is. He accepts the challenge and makes the change, symbolized by his self-baptism by immersion in the local bathing spot on the Day of Holi. (“Holy what?” he asks. “Just Holi. Change of seasons. Celebration of color,” comes the reply.)
Todd’s enlightenment includes a truly poignant scene in which the poor man to whom he has almost anonymously been giving alms invites him to his house for dinner. They wend their way through poverty unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t seen it firsthand (I suspect what I saw was heavily sanitized) to a hole in the wall where the family sits outdoors around a cloth and waits for the matriarch to dole out a small helping of rice, watery who-knows-what sauce, and some kind of pancake. Todd, of course, is given the lion’s share, which, now that he has learned not to eat with his left hand, we are to understand he eats in a way that compliments, rather than insults, his hosts.
Todd eventually comes close enough to mastering India that the call center exceeds performance standards and he gets to screw Asha. Yessir, learning India isn’t easy, but the rewards are fantastic.
Unfortunately for Todd, the rose has thorns.
The theme of deception is introduced early by Todd himself as he teaches his trainees to imitate American accents and to tell the callers that they are in Chicago. It is Asha who tells him,
“When I was hired to do this job, I was told I would be selling products to a customer on the telephone. I did not know we would have to be deceptive.”
“A lot of Americans are upset about outsourcing.”
“But sir, most of the products they are buying are made in China.”
“Uh, OK, … we’ll continue this tomorrow.”
His boss also encourages him to lie to the Indians, which he refuses to do, only to find that his boss has been lying to him: the operation in India is to be shut down and the work outsourced to China.
The Indians become adept at American accents, but not enough to fool some Americans. In an especially adept bit of diplomacy, Asha parries the anger of an American who had lost his job to outsourcing by offering him the same product made by Americans. The American is soundly defeated when she informs him that the American-made product costs significantly more than the Chinese product sold through the Indian call center.
Did such a product really exist? We do not know, and what we know of Asha at that point would lead us to believe not.
Earlier in the movie, after a bit of deception on the part of a stranger, Todd and Asha find themselves in the Kama Sutra Suite of a hotel in another city. Though it is cast as an answer to a prayer offered to Kali, the goddess of destruction, nature takes its course, and Todd finds himself the happy boyfriend of a girl whose beauty only he fully knows.
After they return to work, however, he finds out that not only can he not tell anyone about their tryst or show her any public affection, but also she has been engaged to be married. She goes on to explain that premarital affairs are not uncommon. How she expects her husband to think he is first in line with her when that marriage is consummated isn’t dealt with, but if premarital affairs are indeed common, the men who snack on others’ fiancées must be willing to take what they deal out.
Asha lies again in the final scene to arrange a farewell tryst before Todd’s return to Seattle, and we are led to believe in the epilogue that she has gotten out of the engagement and made her way back into Todd’s life.
Whether the film was intended to be a course in cross-cultural sensitivity or not, it does a such a good job of teaching it that at least one university has used it as part of a course on the subject. As I’ve said already, one of the big themes is that Americans have a lot to learn from India; India, Indus (the river), and Hindu are all derived from the same linguistic root. Outsourced seems to regard the overlap as pretty much total.
Americans have no corner on either truth or truthfulness, as the movie points out. Neither, for that matter, does the Quill Pig, nor does his alter ego. Humans are by nature liars, and to be otherwise requires a concerted effort over a lifetime. But it is striking to see deception praised as a virtue as it is in Outsourced.
The evangelical author Don Richardson made a name for himself in the 1970s with Peace Child, a book about a tribe of New Guineans who had also made deception into an art form: they considered earning the trust of an enemy and then betraying and killing him the crowning achievement of a lifetime. I would suggest that the reason Richardson records no efforts of self-betterment that involved more than a handful or two of people (e.g., building houses or canoes, etc.) is that no one could trust anyone else: foreign policy, in this case the deception of enemies, became domestic policy, relationships with less-favored members of one’s own clansmen.
We see the same thing in the US: the foreign policy of breaking down doors to find insurgents in Baghdad came home to Watertown, Massachussets, after the Boston Marathon bombing and is repeated over a hundred times per day throughout the US. To the degree that those SWAT raids are truly needed, I have to ask what it is that makes so many people “proud to be an American.” Needing storm troopers with jackboots and machine guns to keep us in line is something to be proud of?
Is the future of America the past of the Sawi?
But I digress.
Outsourced makes India and thus Hinduism warm and fuzzy, like Asha. Oh, she may have lied to win Todd, but that was all in good fun. To ask how he’s supposed to keep trusting her years later when the sheen has worn off their relationship is to be a stick in the mud.
I think the reality is more like Johnny Cash and June Carter sang in the 1960s:
We got married in a fever
Hotter than a pepper sprout
We’ve been talking ’bout Jackson
Ever since the fire went out.
I’m goin’ to Jackson,
I’m gonna mess around …
So what will keep a lying mess-around from lying and messing around after the fire goes out?
Well, I had a good friend awhile back who had a tool shop that he allowed anyone to come and use anytime. On one wall was a birdhouse façade with a door that took up most of the façade. On the door was written “Rules and Regulations.” When you opened the door you saw an artist’s rendition of Jesus.

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