The problem with servants

Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Recently I moved houses again. From crashing the couch on the 16th floor of a high building filled with tiny apartments in the heart of Hong Kong I am now in the guest room of an incredibly luxurious house with a swimming pool, a gym and a maid, all to myself. The owners, friends of mine, are on a short holiday and I get to house sit.

Last Friday my previous host came back from work sick. It was a bummer because I was looking forward to go out with him. I had spent the whole week in his apartment while he was working in the factory of his employer in China and I felt it would be nice if we could spend time together. It did not go that way. On Saturday I made soup and we watched a documentary (a very good one, by the way: The Interrupters. About former gang members who prevent violence to happen). Yesterday I fell ill myself. I was cold and sweaty with a head ache and a sore body. I spend about 10-11 hours in bed and I am still not 100% physically. So I am not having my best day but I still feel I should write something.

I just strolled outside for the first time today. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to write about or – better – what wants to be written so I check in and ask. First funny thing is that my energy shifts the moment I take place behind my laptop: things seem to fall in place and I feel quiet and calm while my mood was not that exuberant today. Second funny thing is that while looking for inspiration by taking a 40 second walk (just a few steps outside the door) a little scene unfolded before my eyes that is worth mentioning. In short: I have received a topic.

The complex is guarded and has underground parking spaces. That means that the inner space is communal and children friendly, it is paved but it is not a road if you know what I mean. I was a little surprised to see a shiny BMW approaching me. I realized it must be one of the neighbors and I was more or less ready to shake hands and introduce myself. The car drove all the way to the front door, the driver opened the door for the Chinese lady in the back seat and a maid came outside hastily to welcome her. I was witnessing the daily ritual and how the staff was required to behave in the company of their employer. Without speaking a word or making eye contact with anyone, including me, the lady walked into the house. It was as if the driver, the maid and me did not exist.

To me, to treat people who are holding the door open for you as if they are not there, ignoring them completely, seems quite unhealthy. I think we can safely assume that the lady would notice immediately if one day the driver and the maid are not there to open the doors for her. I would not be surprised if there will be some kind of punishment or at least a reprimand for that.

During my travels I have seen a lot of versions of staff and servants in households. In countries with a big gap between rich and poor having staff is quite normal for wealthy people. It is just not very expensive. I don’t think that it is wrong to have staff but I do think it creates problems on a human level.

The lady had her car driven all the way to the front door, even if this means that the car was steered over pavement that was not meant for cars. I know the feeling. We once rented a limo for New Years Eve and went from party to party, having the limo go passed the long lines of waiting people and drop us off right in front of the guest list entrance. Privileged treatment makes us feel special and a lot of privileged treatment makes us believe we are entitled to behave accordingly: the rules and laws of the mortal souls no longer apply to us. The problem starts when we begin believing that this is true and we start treating other humans with less respect or dignity.

When I left Lembongan to take a plane from Bali to Bangkok somebody offered me his driver to take me to the airport because my schedule was a bit tight. When I arrived on the Balinese beach after the boat ride my driver found me and rushed me to his car. There were two middle aged Indian ladies shouting at him and humiliating him for being late, apparently they were offered the same car. The difference between them and me was that they felt free to humiliate and boss the driver just because he was just a driver. When I entered the scene they changed like leaves in the wind: of course you cannot treat the big white man with the same disrespect as the lower class Balinese driver whose only fault was that he had been waiting for me. It was interesting because the Balinese are humble and polite but not as submissive as the Indians are used to. The driver was pissed off too. I must admit that I told the ladies to shut their mouths and proceeded to chat with the driver about his music. I purposely made them feel inferior and treated with the same contempt as they did the driver.

From what I have seen it seems to me that especially life long exposure to (very) unequal relationships is unhealthy, and I am primarily talking about the position of the employer or people who have had staff all their lives. It feeds helplessness, arrogance, laziness and contempt. I have seen very kind and generous people treat their housekeepers in a distasteful way and not being aware of it. To be able to live with somebody who is not your friend or relative and who is depending on you for food, shelter and a small income seems to require an inner justification of the unequal situation. It turns out to be difficult to make it ‘right’ that there is always somebody else who does all your dirty work for very little money. The ego has to make a u turn somewhere.

We all want to be seen, heard and appreciated for who we really are, not just for what we seem or pretend to be. To create a situation where we must justify inequality because tradition, culture or local customs tell us it is appropriate we not only violate the other, we also violate ourselves. When we learn or choose not to fully see the other we can never really see ourselves. You can treat your driver or your house keeper as if they do not exist or if they are less than human but it will not make you feel good about yourself.

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