Don’t take it personally

I was brought up with the habit of sharing. In school there were the textbooks, the bench we sat on, the pencils and erasers, teasing the teachers. At home I had to share the last piece of chicken.

As kids we rarely received gifts. On the ethnic new year’s day the oldest member of the family presented shiny coins. One Indian rupee. In the present day, it converted to 1/40th of the Canadian dollar. Once in two years a long lost uncle came flying down from a foreign land bearing gifts. There were always more children than gifts.

There were no personal belongings to speak about. I did not take anything personally. I got married. We took each other personally! I had a sense of belonging. By now I had this burning desire to take more things personally. I collected material things over the next couple of decades. I did not get any satisfaction. Then I came to this great country.

Incident I: I went downtown for an interview. I emerged from the subway and asked a passer-by for directions. He told me to go west two blocks, north another two blocks, and west one block. With that he hurried into the cloudy mid-November day. I looked up at the tall buildings around me. Did I take the subway exit to the west side or the east? Where was west? I craved for a glimpse of the sun.

To save time, I walked to the next street car stop. Closer to the stop I saw the streetcar coming and ran to the next stop. I showed the driver my transfer ticket. He told me I cannot use the transfer as I was supposed to catch the streetcar from where I got off the subway. I tried to explain that I am new to the country and that I am on my way for an interview. He told me that he had to let me off or I had to put in a new fare. I only had a $20 note on me. Since the driver will not touch the money or offer any change, I would have to drop the $20 into the till. A woman who was following my plight paid the fare [$2.25] on my behalf. I thanked her and offered her the $20. No one could break the denomination on the bus. I owed a stranger. [I paid it forward later. I suspect she may have been a drug addict. She wanted a toonie [$2] for her train fare.]

I narrated the incident to my interviewer and he told me, “Don’t take it personally.” [I did not get the job.]

Incident II: It was spring and life was in the air. The day before I completed eight years in the leisure company. I felt a sense of achievement that day. [I usually move on after five years.] An hour later, an announcement asked all employees to assemble in the meeting room. 150 employees crowded into the room set up in school room fashion; I guessed the new batch of customer service personnel was being trained. We squeezed in behind and around the computers, some sat down, some stood and some more leaned against the walls.

At 10 am the CEO walked in with the finance and HR directors. He looked like a genial face on a park bench entertaining grandchildren. He had the wisdom and patience to be a good mentor. He stood a head above other directors. Today he had shrunk. The finance director walked in. Some things in his life did not add up. He stood four feet four in his shoes. The HR lady was shorter than the finance guy. She wedged into the door.

The CEO began, “Please don’t take this personally”. I leaned against the wall, stomach sinking lower. I saw one of the managers wiping her tears. They knew. The 37-year old company was closing down. 150 odd employees in Toronto and some more spread over Canada and Caribbean holiday destinations were left scrambling for jobs and answers and prioritizing unpaid bills. The company offered a month’s salary as condolence.

I am still not sure what things I can take personally any more: the salary I wrest from the tax man at the end of every two weeks; the [mostly] unnecessary goods and services I buy with the money that was taxed once, and now again; the satisfaction I get from eating a south Indian meal; the pleasure in reading a P. G. Wodehouse. No one is bothered that their careless comments or gestures directed towards me wrapped in the words, “Don’t take it personally”, have begun to take its toll.

The other day, a very good friend, in a heated discussion on a cold evening said to this effect: immigrants who cannot obey the rules of the land should not migrate to Canada.

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