Wednesday, September 10, 2008

US Chamber of Commerce: Ambassadors of --something

Recently, I saw a political ad for Oregon's junior senator, (spineless) Gordon Smith. This ad touted Gordie as a friend of the Oregon Health Plan and is part of a $20 million campaign by the US Chamber of Commerce aimed at helping to protect or elect politicians whom the Chamber deems "pro-business." Well, any advertisement that paints Gordon Smith as anything other than a craven supporter of rich, white oligarchs is, by definition, misleading. But when I saw that the ad was put forth by the Chamber of Commerce, I hearkened back to my own brief, but revealing experience with that less-than-august body.

December, 2001, found me in Delhi, India on a business trip. I was staying at a 5-star hotel: luxurious when compared to my usual travel accommodations. I generally dislike being so isolated from the local people as I was in this walled hotel compound where the only Indians I saw were serving me food and cleaning my room, but it was on the company dime, so what the hell?

The staff at the hotel was overly attentive, to the point of being obsequious, and I learned on that trip that I'm not comfortable with the idea of having servants. I literally could not open a door for myself or pour myself a glass of water at the dining table without some liveried servant rushing to do it for me. When I was in my room during waking hours, there was a knock on my door nearly every hour, inquiring whether I required anything. I found it burdensome and it didn't jibe well with my egalitarian notions.

Anyway, after two weeks, the business part of my trip was over. I had arranged to stay an extra week to take in some sights around India before going back to the States and, although I didn't change my hotel, I reverted to my normal travel mode in other ways: I dressed very casually, I toted my guitar around with me, and I spent time just walking around the city.

Wandering around Delhi
In those days, my hair was very long and I was sometimes mistaken for (or perhaps recognized as, I don't know) a hippie. I definitely did not fit the image that one normally associates with a business traveler.

One morning, as I was riding the elevator down to the main floor to get breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I encountered another American. He was a young man, perhaps in his late twenties, dressed in American business apparel, including tie and jacket. He was immaculately groomed. I could tell he was an American because he was holding an issue of USA Today, along with his briefcase, in one hand.

When one is traveling abroad, it is usually reassuring to run into one's countrymen. There is often a bond of friendship, even between people who would not normally associate with one another. But this fellow's body language, the purposeful, but vaguely harried expression he wore on his face, and his absolute refusal to let his eyes stray in my direction did not invite conversation. I got the sense that he was uncomfortable.

Eventually, the elevator door opened to the main floor, no doubt to the relief of both of us. I went to the hotel restaurant, was greeted warmly by the restaurant manager, and was led to an empty table. The young man from the elevator came in shortly thereafter, and when the hostess approached him, he preempted her with a brusque "Coffee and bagel to go."

Well, I was admittedly a tad miffed at being ignored in the elevator, but his arrogant attitude cemented my resentment toward him. Nonetheless, I went about my breakfast and tried to let it pass.

As the impatient young man was waiting for his coffee and bagel, another pair of Americans entered the restaurant. The first was a paunchy older man, probably in his early fifties, dressed in a dark blue business suit. He seemed hurried and purposeful and carried himself with an air of authority. Following behind him was an attractive young woman, immaculate in her business skirt and jacket, holding a notepad and a cell phone. She was obviously the older man's assistant, speaking to him as he strode forward: "At 10 o'clock you have a meeting with the finance officer, and then at 12:30 you're scheduled for lunch with the sales reps." The young woman contributed to the air of importance that surrounded the older man. This was a very important person, indeed.

Marketplace in Delhi
Upon seeing them, the young man that I had encountered in the elevator changed his demeanor immediately. He suddenly became open and jocular, with just a hint of submissiveness in the way he bent his head downwards, in the set of his shoulders. His face contorted into something approximating a smile, and when the new pair sat down at a table, he joined them. About this time, the hostess returned with a box containing the previously-ordered bagel and coffee, but the young man waved her off. "I'm eating here," he said, loudly. "The big boss is here now."

The three of them settled into their seats and began jabbering about all the important things they were going to accomplish while they were in Delhi. While I listened to them talk and watched their interactions, I had the feeling that they were maintaining a certain facade, as if, at some level, they were aware of the inanity of their behavior but were striving with all their might to ignore it. I found the whole thing delicious. While they went about their "business" they studiously ignored the people around them. Apparently, their affairs were too important to be interrupted by the sights and people of another culture, even in the relatively sterile environment of a 5-star hotel lobby.

When I had finished my meal, I got up and started to leave. I saw the older man glance up at me, and then look away quickly. "Aha," I thought. And, I just couldn't resist. I approached their table and stood directly in front of them, forcing their acknowledgment. At first, they ignored me, but when I showed no sign of wandering off, their conversation faltered, and they turned to stare at me.

"You're Americans?" I asked.

"Yeah," the older fellow said. He managed a weak smile.

"Business trip?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said.

"Who ya with?" I asked. I was enjoying the moment immensely.

"US Chamber of Commerce," the older man muttered.

"I see," I said. "Well, have a good trip." I turned and walked out to catch the bus that would take me around to the various sights of Delhi and the surrounding area.

"Chamber of Commerce," I thought as the liveried servant ran to hold open the main door of the hotel. "That explains everything."

Gandhi's tomb


Ridwan said...

Excellent re-telling Dade. I felt like I was there sitting next to you and feeling my sweat boil.

I know the 'types' of important people you describe.

Here in SAfrica they usually take a safari before returning to their all-important lives.

You can find them dressed immaculately in neo-colonial khakis and that on-safari demeanour.

I like to stare at these memo types wondering if they see the nonsense that they are part of.

Still I wonder.

Keep writing brother!

Ps. I lived in Delhi for 7 months and did not make it to Gandhi's tomb ... gotta go back!

Eclectic Dilettante said...

Great story. It's fun giving a little poke to the jerk in the room. :-) There's always a jerk or two.

I had a run in with an American in a restaurant in Amsterdam. He heckled us about our cigarettes from two tables over. He called us names and belittled us loudly enough for anyone to hear...oh it was bad. Odd thing though, we were in the smoking section and so was he.

Then it dawned on me, his hatred and intolerance was going to net him a very bad trip indeed. Then I told him as much.