Maybe ten years ago, the project I worked for had a driver named Dima. Dima was a rockstar. He was exceptional in every way. Sure, he could pilot you unscathed through bad traffic and worse roads, but that was the least of his talents. Dima could jumpstart a car without cables.[i] Dima could courteously repel local police harassing our office for bribes. Dima could get our visas in record time, find the best rate to change money legally, and in a pinch, put on a suit and represent the project in coordination meetings.[ii] Dima could put together a powerpoint presentation and unclog the drain in the office kitchen.
And Dima could predict the weather. He always knew what kind of clothes we’d need the next day, if rain or snow or sleet was coming. Approximate temperature, cloud cover, the works. It was uncanny. He was almost always right.
One day, after discovering we were due for snow, I asked Dima what his secret was. Had he grown up on a farm? Did he have rheumatism? He grinned and told me. Yahoo Weather. He checked it every night so he could help the office make plans; he considered it to be part of his job as a driver.
People are people. We exoticize them to our peril – and their harm.
Dima was our driver. Orientalizing him didn’t do much harm. But what if he’d been a mom in a community we worked with? A doctor we were training? What damage would we have done by underestimating his computer skills?