More than Words

Rides Provide Cultural Growth through Conversation

Hilary Case | May 29, 2014, 10:41 a.m.
Jay, a retired Boeing employee, poses with a plane he once restored.

It’s easy to talk with Jay Surati, a volunteer driver with the Volunteer Transportation program. He is a wealth of knowledge in a variety of topics; he’s full of fascinating stories; and there’s a notable sense of sincerity, warmth, and spirit behind every statement he makes. Yet, since volunteering for the VT program in 1996, Jay’s discussions with clients have served as much more than just friendly banter. These important dialogues have fostered meaningful learning and provided for increased cultural understanding.

Jay is from India. This is just one layer of his multi-faceted identity, but it comes up very quickly in conversation with passengers -- “as soon as they hear my accent!” he notes. Typical exchanges usually include the following questions:

  • “Where are you from?” Jay says with a sly smile, ““I always make them guess. Some of them get it right, but I usually joke and tell them I’m from Italy!”
  • “Do you know of any good local Indian restaurants?” Jay knows of several.
  • “Do you know this other specific volunteer driver (the mathematician? The musician? The one with the GPS?” Jay usually can figure out who it is. In fact, Jay recruited several of the program’s other East Indian volunteer drivers!
  • “How do you speak English so well?” Jay laughs at this last one. He explains that Indian children begin speaking English at school at a very young age.

But then there are the conversations of a more memorable nature. He was once taken aback by a 90-year-old woman who was eager to hear his opinions about the current prime minister elections of his home country oh-so-far-away. With so many television viewing options, he was impressed that she had become engrossed in Indian politics and wanted to learn more from him.

Jay also recalls a particularly poignant moment shortly after September 11, 2001. In the climate of fear following the attacks, he drove a blind client who expressed true concern for him. She’d heard tales of dark-skinned men experiencing discrimination, and she wanted to help. Even though she could not see Jay, she was worried that his foreign origins would make him a target. He was deeply moved by her empathy and compassion.

Throughout each of these individual interactions, Jay knows that he is representing his cultural group and helping others to “know who we are.” He says, “Maybe someday, one of these clients will tell her grandchildren, ‘This kind fellow from India gave me a ride.’”

Jay believes that the program has “made my life very rich.” His volunteer work with Senior Services (first with Meals and Wheels and then the Volunteer Transportation Program) even inspired him to take on other outreach projects with the East Indian community, including a lunch program in Redmond. Furthermore, it has taught him about the process of “aging gracefully in American culture.”

Jay is evidence of the give-and-take nature volunteer driving. Even though he asserts that he “does more taking than giving,” it is clear that it is a mutual, reciprocal process.

Jay labels his work as “building bridges.” Person by person and word by word, he “talks” his way through differences and misconceptions to a place of powerful cross-cultural respect.

More volunteer drivers are needed! Seniors throughout King County need rides to get to appointments. Volunteer drivers of all backgrounds are welcome! If you enjoy listening and interacting with others and own a reliable vehicle, this is the volunteer job for you. Click here to submit an online application.

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