Of Patterns, Tea & Sandwiches

Today I learned that the phrase “make me a sandwich” is actually a thing! According to dictionary.com, “make me a sandwich is an internet meme that men employ to annoy, insult, or dismiss women. It makes reference to the stereotype that women belong only in domestic spaces, such as the kitchen.” One could be quick to laugh at the idea of such archaic stereotyping in this day and age, except I was hearing a woman had been told to do just that, just today, on the last day of August in the year 2020, by her husband and son, living in a fairly affluent suburb in the Bay Area.  

The conversation made me pause and reflect- is there an equivalent to a “sandwich” in my culture? How do women in my culture, the South Asian culture, to be precise, the Indian culture, get minimized, excluded and removed from rooms and conversations where authority may be gathering? How do we get put in our place? Does it even happen? And that’s when it came to me! Yes it does! And it happens through that most innocuous of offering that a multitude of Indian households enjoy, often multiple times a day: ek cup chai (one cup of tea). How many times have I seen guests arrive at a house and greet the male head of the household. And the male head turns to the women in attendance and nods subtly towards the kitchen to say “chai le aao” (get some tea). The women, generally wife and/or daughter-in-law, excuse themselves at once, bowing out dutifully to do the needful, smiling and gracious. I have witnessed women dismissed from family gatherings, celebrations, conversations, decision making forums and even heated arguments in the name of that one cup of tea. It is a clear signal our time is up, our opinions unneeded, our presence unnecessary. And off we go to the kitchen where agency and power cannot penetrate the smoke and spices curling up from that well-scrubbed stove. And what happens while we are gone? Does the world pause for us to catch up? Most times naught. By the time the cup of tea arrives with one of us behind it, the world has turned and the movers and shakers have slipped in just one more crack. There is really nothing much left to do but laugh and partake the final merrymaking or shake our head in compliant commiseration. 

This delicate yet obvious dismissal is an idea normalized and reinforced by countless commercials, textbooks,  movies, TV soaps, domestic rituals, family hierarchies and intimate expectations. It is incredibly hard to spot and even more difficult to object to. You are guaranteed to feel you are ‘‘overreacting’ and “uncaring.” Likely you will not get much support if the arrival of tea is demurred in the name of women’s rights! Yes, not easy at all. 

 I am filled with a sudden sense of bizarre incredulity to think about how little it takes to cut an entire population down to size. Be it women’s rights, racial inequities or class prejudices. There are countless microaggressions and practices embedded in our daily lives. Camouflaged by a vibrant overgrowth of culture, tradition, legacy and inheritance. Unnoticed, unnamed, unchallenged. In fact, preserved and protected, oftentimes by the very who are silenced by them the most.

As I close this rumination, I am reminded of a few poignant lines from the famous musical Hamilton:

Yes! We gotta be in the room where it happens and when it happens – even if it involves an unprecedented and catastrophic delay of tea and sandwiches. Or perhaps we simply change the room where it all happens. The possibilities to redesign are endless, once we spot the pattern.