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UAE: A day in the life of a waitress in Dubai

Gulf News logo Gulf News 19/12/2019 Anupa Kurian Murshed, Social Media Editor

Waitress 4

Waitress 4
© Provided by Gulf News

She smiles and it reaches her eyes, as you connect. You cannot help but smile back. A willowy woman with sweeping trails of midnight hair and dark, almond eyes, she finds her way to my table and in a shy voice asks: “What would you like to have?”

Akshita waits tables at a top café in Dubai and has been doing this job for over five years. Always smiling, always on the move, I see her often. Her favourite refrain: “It is all fine… it’s good.”

Nothing is too much trouble for the 28-year-old, hospitality is in her essence but there are moments when memories of a life far away haunt.

“Tea… ginger tea, that’s’ what I miss the most about home. The aroma of crushed ginger in hot, sweet tea is my memory of my mother. If ginger is not there, it is disappointing! I would most probably not drink the tea.” There is a hint of vehemence in her tone.

Growing up, in my village I would hear of people travelling abroad. It seemed like a far-fetched dream, something that needed a lot of money to realise. We are caught in a time warp.

- Akshita

Where is home?

From a quiet hamlet near the historical city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, the millennial is a long way from all things familiar and family. So, perhaps the extreme reaction to ginger in tea is understood.

It is in Meerut that the first Indian independence uprising of 1857 started with the sepoy mutiny against the British. A place steeped in the past – both good and bad.

“Growing up, in my village I would hear of people travelling abroad. It seemed like a far-fetched dream, something that needed a lot of money to realise. We are caught in a time warp.

“I used to always think about going outside India and working. A different life. Even when doing my graduation, the economic environment at home was such that we could never ever go out of India, we would not be able to afford it.”

This does not mean she had an unhappy childhood. It was filled with living in different parts of India, as her father worked in the Indian army as a junior commander officer. The pay was not big but enough to just manage the family of six. So, nice things were only meant to be looked at.

“At that point life did not seem deprived or unhappy, I guess because you are a child. And I had a very limited perspective because of the limited exposure. Looking back, life was tough.

“We have buffaloes and a small farm, all of which we tended ourselves before going to school on a cycle, which was roughly at a distance of 8 kilometres. But, that’s how everybody lived, so didn’t seem strange or anything. And we were all very happy, I have an older sister and two younger brothers.

“I know there can be discrimination in India against the girl child sometimes but that was not the case with my parents. They did their best equally for all of us – the circumstances and options were the same.”

The desire to evolve and explore kept niggling Akshita, who did her entire schooling in Hindi. There was a burning desire to learn English. It was the key that would open up the world.

Learning English

So at the age of 18 years, when she finished her 12th grade exams and had summer holidays, the Uttar Pradesh resident decided to enroll in English-speaking classes. A bold move of independence.

”I would ride my cycle to class, which was really far away. My cycle was my lifeline, the only way to get anywhere. The initial few days in class were just spent staring fascinatedly at people speaking English fluently. We would wonder how it would be achieved. It seemed insurmountable for us.

“We would say, okay today we will learn 10 words and use them – feeling very proud. But, when we would actually attempt to speak, we would be flummoxed. Perseverance pays, so for six months I was at it and must have got reasonably good. When the teacher left, the class management asked me to take over, which was very stressful but also a boon in disguise. Teaching others helped me further discover the language while preparing lessons, etc.

“But, most importantly learning set me free! It was not just about learning a new language. At home I struggled – I had to help myself, I used to live in a village, work on the farm, milk buffaloes, and manage my studies. All the while I would try to speak in English. It was a bit hard, but it was about whether I could do something or not. Every step of the way in life, I have to take on a new challenge to survive – both for my sister and me. But, it’s all fine … it’s good.”

Her university degree that followed was Bachelor of Arts in political science, sociology and English literature, which she got through largely by rote learning.

“I would read, memorise and write. We did not know truly understand what we were writing in English. The story of so many people at my university. There was nobody at home to help or teach or talk to.”

But, most importantly learning set me free! It was not just about learning a new language. At home I struggled – I had to help myself, I used to live in a village, work on the farm, milk buffaloes, and manage my studies. All the while I would try to speak in English. It was a bit hard, but it was about whether I could do something or not. Every step of the way in life, I have to take on a new challenge to survive – both for my sister and me.

- Akshita

Finding a job

Economics dictated that she find work at the earliest. Akshita got a job at the front office of an airline at Delhi airport. “I felt that I gave it my best, but I got fired in a month’s time.”

But she did not lose hope. She found a job as a guest relations executive at a restaurant in Gurgaon, Delhi. From there she found a better job, again in the front office, at a four-star hotel.

“Moving to Delhi was a big thing for me, but my parents understood that both my sister and I needed to do that. There were not many jobs close to home. I was earning Rs15,000 (Dh775.46) per month and would send half of it home, using Rs7,000 (Dh361.88) for rent and food. I did not have any savings.

“One day a colleague told me about an agency interviewing people for jobs in the UAE. I decided to take a chance. And I got the job. It was exciting and scary at the same time. People told me about how sometimes agencies can fool and traffic women. But, I decided to come. It is all fine… it’s good.”

Akshita still remembers the day she landed in Dubai. “It was July 18, very hot. I remember as the flight took off from Delhi, I wondered how another country looks like. I thought it was a different world. We did not have internet at home, no money to afford it. I could only see pictures in magazines and use my imagination. Stepping on to that plane, was my first step towards a different land – I was excited. When we landed, it was exciting. Then I got out and saw the same kind of people around. And I thought… it is okay.”

Dubai, a new land, a new hope

She started working in Dubai for Dh3,500 per month, which included healthcare, and one meal a day. The toughest part was finding a place to stay, especially within a budget. She started with ‘bed space’ in an apartment in the Satwa area of Dubai that housed six people to a room.

“The toilets were broken, you were not allowed to switch on lights and had to speak in whispers at all times. And it was expensive, I had to pay about Dh1000 per month for this. Then there was a clampdown by the authorities, so we had to move – literally overnight. Another girl and I from the apartment frantically went on a hunt for a new place. We managed to get it, but this was even worse, there were several couples and single girls. And after 15 days the landlord threatened us with a rent rise. So, we were out, again, on the streets looking for a place to stay.

“This time it was an old shared villa with couples, and single people, mostly blue collar workers. The cooking gas was literally in the centre of the courtyard, so cooking anything was like a spectator sport with people staring and making rude remarks. Also it was very dirty. By now, I was so fed up. Both of us women moved again to an apartment with bunkbeds partitioned by thin wooden sheets. This was the absolute worst, as a man staying there started harassing me.

“I was close to breaking point. I did not want to live in Satwa. Colleagues recommended Bur Dubai. So, I would take a taxi each evening, despite the cost and look around. I finally found this place, which is good. We’ve been here from 2016, it is clean, some of the women fight but, it’s all good… it’s fine.”

Her rent has come down to Dh850. She spends Dh300 on transport and Dh300 on food. She saves about Dh1500 a month, which she collects and sends home as a lump sum every few months.

For a woman who started working at the age of 19, she has no money saved up, yet. But, that is not a concern, her focus is a better life for her family, a family that is unaware that she works as waiting staff.

For a woman who started working at the age of 19, she has no money saved up, yet. But, that is not a concern, her focus is a better life for her family, a family that is unaware that she works as waiting staff.

- Akshita

The truth of perspective

“My parents and family do not know I work as a waitress. They do not understand, there is a stigma in their minds attached to that job. They think I work in guest relations.”

But, does this lie not trouble her. Her perspective being what they do not know does not hurt them and the money is helping immensely. Recently she was able to help when her sister was married off.

Her day starts quite early, at 4.30am when she has a morning shift. The bus picks her up at 5.30am for a 7am to 4pm rota. A later shift starts at 3pm but she reaches her room well past midnight, around 1.30am. After nine hours on her feet, she is all but dead to the world.

“We’re busy constantly, can be really hard at times. We do not even get time to drink water. But, it’s okay. We have all accepted it. It only gets bad when we have rude customers. It is quite awful. For example you will have people ordering in a group, sometimes they are caught up in a conversation and forget to give the order or tell us what they want exactly. Then, when they discover that they have received a cappuccino with regular milk as opposed to soy milk, they will start shouting.

The customer is always right

“We are told a customer is always right, so we cannot respond. We just stand there and get yelled at, but it is heartbreaking as it is for no fault of ours. And then it also becomes a mess – it becomes the gossip of the shift, which spreads to other shifts. Then the manager and supervisor will come to give you a talking to on how not to mess up. So, if you have two or three tables like this in a day, it becomes a mess. Very stressful.

“Recently a woman came in with a large group, took 20 minutes to order and as she was busy talking, she just ordered a drink. After a while when others got their food, she started screaming about her ‘shrimp tartine’. Nobody told her that she had not ordered. So, a bit of kindness from customers is always welcome.

“I struggled when I first started, especially carrying several plates together, etc. There was a lot of pressure.”

Today, after five years and five months, Akshita loves the restaurant business so much that she dreams of opening one in the economic capital of India – Mumbai.

My family accepts my working, but they are conservative. They are putting immense pressure on me to go back and get married, and I will have to listen. For now, I am trying, I don’t know. Whatever it is - I am trying for it. I don’t know, anything can happen. It’s all good… it’s fine.

- Akshita

Dreams of a new tomorrow

“I dream of opening a vegan restaurant that showcases our traditional environmentally friendly Indian practices, such as handmade earthenware, etc. Every time I see something that I feel would look good in my restaurant, I add it to the concept.”

But, prior to that she hopes to be able to travel to Canada and study, preferably do an MBA. “I’ve heard education is good and cheaper in Canada. I want to study, I want to learn – it is a privilege. I could not do it when I was younger, when I wanted to. We didn’t have the money. It is my dream. Even now I’m checking for online courses on computer language. It makes me happy.”

Right now, she is clearing her father’s debts and hoping that in three years’ time she will be pursuing education in Canada. But, life has a way of interfering.

“My family accepts my working, but they are conservative. They are putting immense pressure on me to go back and get married, and I will have to listen. For now, I am trying, I don’t know. Whatever it is - I am trying for it. I don’t know, anything can happen. It’s all good… it’s fine.”

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