February 8, 2011

How Anger Turned to Shame in Qatar

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Last August, I sat in a plush conference room at Weill Cornell Medical College’s Qatar campus. Human resources associates were delivering a standard orientation to me and other recently-hired T.A.s: register with the U.S. Embassy, be mindful that it’s Ramadan and don’t hook up with your students. Partway through this meeting, an Asian man — who was dressed like an English butler but in Cornell colors — served me a bottle of mineral water wrapped in an ornately-folded napkin. Noting my surprise and pleasure, an HR associate said,  “We really are spoiled here … the tea boys are wonderful and will make you any tea or coffee you fancy.”

It struck me as bizarre and degrading that a middle-aged migrant laborer trying to support his family back home would be colloquially referred to as a “tea boy.” But after living in a dilapidated frat house and Collegetown apartment, I took full advantage of the benefits of WCMC-Q. During my daily commute, I’d call Bernie — the “tea boy” for my department — and ask that Turkish Coffee be ready by the time I arrived, which it always was. Bernie would enthusiastically mail out my postcards and letters, and he’d gleefully sing a Filipino song while hauling textbooks for me. I was a T.A. with my own assistant.

But the joy of self-indulgence was tempered when I learned of the abuses migrant workers face in Qatar, ranging from inadequate pay to seized passports to physical abuse. I highly doubt Cornell perpetrates these abuses or will do so in the future, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people like Bernie are free from harm. In America, Cornell directly hires its Bernie equivalents (e.g., custodial staff). But in Qatar, the Bernies are under contract not with Cornell, but with the Qatar Foundation (QF), a well-intentioned government entity that seeks to make Qatar into a more knowledge-based society. QF brought Cornell to Qatar, paying for nearly everything, and even today, WCMC-Q is financially supported largely through QF.

Given the seemingly delicate political relationship between Cornell and QF and my doubts that I could do anything about the situation, I accepted things and simply felt bad whenever I saw a Bernie. But feeling bad turned soon turned to shame.

One day, two other Asian males and I were denied entry at a shopping mall. After our rejection, one of us began a tirade filled with expletives and accusations of racism. He said if we were white, we’d be allowed inside. I wondered if this bold statement was actually true, so we called two white male T.A.s and asked them if they could enter the mall. They could.

I later learned that we three Asian males were rejected because the day we tried to enter the mall was Family Day. Family Day occurs once a week so that women and families can enjoy the mall without feeling threatened by loitering bachelors, who, on occasion, have been known to ogle, make unwanted advances and sexually harass women. So if men are to enter the malls on Family Day, they have to be with a female. However, this policy is applied unevenly across men of different races; Asians can’t get in, but white and Arab men can.  Apparently at Qatari malls, men are less sexually threatening when they’re with women, and white and Arab men are less sexually threatening than Asian men.

I was outraged for being racially discriminated against, and feeling some camaraderie with Bernie, I broached the subject of Family Day when I next saw him. The conversation that ensued both shamed and humbled me. For an Asian American like myself, the affront was exclusively a violation of principle. On any non-Family Day, I could easily go to the mall in my Cornell-provided rental car and spend a decently fat Cornell paycheck. But for Asian migrant workers, the offense was more consequential. Family Day happens to be the one day of each week workers have off and can thus easily travel by bus from their shantytown homes to the ritzy downtown malls. It’s crucial that workers make it to a mall so they can wire their few hard-earned monies home to their families. Nearly all money wiring services, or at least the convenient ones, are at the mall. What’s more is that the air conditioning everyone in Qatar finds absolutely necessary is hard for workers to find on Family Day, except at the malls they can’t enter.

I’ll never forget Bernie’s crestfallen face and dejected voice as he said this. It pained me even more when he mused about how great it would be to hold an American passport. At this point, I wondered if anyone besides himself was holding his passport, potentially preventing his return home to his family if he failed to ingratiate his employer. I felt horrible, but before I could respond, he had to leave. Someone else at WCMC-Q wanted a beverage.

Jack Cao ’10 graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences and can be reached at jc623@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.

Original Author: Jack Cao