Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yet Another Work Vignette

When I got my first job in refugee work, I remember thinking that the clients would be visibly shell-shocked, wide-eyed at the abundance of American life. I pictured them being awestruck by computers and photocopy machines and other marvels, bewildered by telephones and traffic. That was na├»ve of me. For one thing, I was imagining that refugees would come from a world of places untouched by modern technology, a world that has not really existed for at least 50 years. For another, even those refugees who really do come from places of extreme material scarcity – southern Sudan, rural Afghanistan, post-war Somalia – are normal human adults. They don’t want to look stupid. They aren’t going to wear confusion on their sleeves. They’re going to go with the flow.

So, refugees don’t gape at computers. They don’t jump when the phone rings. In fact, there is only one item of technology, so far as I’ve noticed, that they consistently find baffling. That item? Motion-activated light switches.

I was following a young woman down the hall yesterday. Decked out in jeans, a fleece, big winter boots, and a fuzzy scarf, she could have been any American high school senior. From the context and from some of her mannerisms, though, I could peg her as being from northern Burma, a remote, rural, troubled part of Southeast Asia. She looks like she’s fitting in well enough, but she is likely experiencing a whole lot that is brand new to her.

She finds the door she is looking for and, as newcomers will, carefully triple-checks the sign on the wall against her mental list of important words and symbols. Yes, it is the women’s bathroom. She opens the door, and sees that the interior is…. pitch black.

With the Chin language equivalent of a “what the hell?” she stands there stymied for a second. I’m thinking that I’ll try to clarify the situation for her, but as I get closer she takes a tentative stop into the room, flailing around for the missing light switch. Just as I walk by behind her, she gets far enough into the room to trigger the motion detector, and the lights come on.

Since the problem is solved, I don’t say anything, I just continue down the hall. But after a few seconds, I hear her behind me. “Oh!” she says, to get my attention. I stop and turn. She’s looking at me with a big smile. “Thank you!” she says.

What can I do? She’s clearly still operating on just a small handful of English words, so there’s no easy way to explain that I haven’t done anything for her, let alone how motion-activated light switches work. For now, all I have to offer is a graceful end to the situation, and a reassurance that she has said what she intended to. “You’re welcome,” I say, and we both go on with our days.


Chance said...

...She, to go about her bathroom ritual, you to strut down the hall like Michael Jackson in "Billie Jean," touching everything in your wake to illuminate it.

Rebel said...

LOL! You know... it's not just refugees. I just found out about the motion sensor lights in our new research building and spent a good hour discussing it with people. You just walk in and the lights turn on - that's COOOL!!!

BTW - Don't get me anywhere near a refrigerator with a crushed ice & water dispenser in the door ;)

Rebel said...

Oh wait... you don't have those motion sensored sinks do you??? I still can't work those half the time!

fingerstothebone said...

And what about those motion sensor toilets?! #$%@&*! They don't work about 90% of the time and I have to find the manual push button anyhow.

Anonymous said...

The notion that kids have about our foreign exchange students is similar. They were stunned when they find out that the Brazilian boy has a blog and can use more software than they can.

Motion detectors still catch me off guard as well. The ones in the freezer section of the grocery are kind of reminiscent of Billie Jean.

Your job is fascinating with all the different perspectives going on.