Should having a cleaning lady make me feel awkward?
We like to take trips to far-flung places for encounters with the new-and-different. We love to take in natural wonders and stare in amazement at architectural feats, while we shudder at the thought of fried insects as a delicacy or the amount of chillis that smile at you when food is served. You don’t even have to go far. On the other side of your country’s border you can already stumble upon the most unexpected situations.
You not only learn about the place you are visiting when traipsing about. You learn as much -if not more- about yourself. How cool & collected you are. How far you have and are able to stretch your creativity, stamina, and patience. To recognize all the things you take for granted can both be humbling and sobering. Sometimes it is outright confronting.
Before I moved to Southeast Asia I worked as a civil servant in a country where a 36-40 hour workweek was the norm. Employment contracts allowed flexible approaches: mine paid me for 36 hours and gave me 4 hours per week of additional holidays for every 40 hours worked. That meant a whopping 9.5 weeks of paid holidays every year. (Why again did I quit this job?) I knew things were not always this way: workers of the late 19th and 20th centuries had to put up a long and hard fight for this.
Here in Southeast Asia no such conditions exist for the majority of the people; I seem to have travelled back in time in that respect. They rise early, often beating the sun to the start of a new day, and sleep well before midnight. They work all day every day. And earn a decent living if lucky. They take a day off only when there’s a religious holiday (‘holy day’). Health insurance or saving for pension: c’est quoi ça?
Today is the first time I am having a cleaning lady over. First time ever. She works at an NGO during the week and on weekends at my friend’s. While my friend is away over the summer this lady will help me out. I am truly grateful: I am not good at household chores in general -nor do I have the true desire to become good at it- but even less so when it involves wielding a local broom rather than navigating a vacuum cleaner. I do look forward to my small abode being spic & span.
I do feel somewhat uncomfortable though: I’m sitting on my couch ruling my iGadgets while she is working her magic. She took on the bathroom and kitchen first and now meticulously chases dust away from even the smallest nook & cranny. She addresses me with “ma’am”. And will do whatever I, lady of the house, will ask her to do.
I’m not sure what it is that makes me uncomfortable. Does it perhaps say something about how I see the job of cleaning lady? When asked, I’d never reply I’d think of it as a lesser job: maybe I need to rethink myself on this one? Do I see her calling me ‘ma’am’ as an illustration of the explicit hierarchy in society or even an illustration of intrinsic inequality depending on one’s position in society? This conflicts with how I grew up, in a much more egalitarian society (at least on the surface).
Do I perhaps misunderstand today’s use of ‘ma’am’ as my only points of reference are films and TV series set in stately manors in previous centuries? Am I reading inequality into it where it doesn’t exist? Maybe she sees herself as someone paid for a service –to clean the house of that lazy bum on the couch. And if there were to be inequality, who am I to judge: the universality of human rights by some is said to be a western concept. Then again, signs on every corner tell us that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. (Btw, everyone called them ‘maids’, which I find somewhat derogatory and I do believe it gives an indication of how people see them.)
I hope it is a ‘simple case’ of me realizing that I’m fortunate that I don’t have to earn a living by working 7 days a week in a job that in no way meets my “21st century Western job satisfaction & professional development” requirements. And that I wish that for everyone, to like what they do. At the same time I realize that not everyone thinks about work in this way and that there are cultures where serving others is a source of pride.
“It is my duty!” my colleague said in response to my thanking him a thousand times after he’d managed to get me a SIM card, involving numerous phone calls, going round to phone shops on his Saturdays and his sister finally having to taxi 2 hours to Yangon to deliver it. (This is a whole other story, one that has former dictatorship red tape written all over it.) He sees duties as opportunities of merit making, not as commitments that interfere with his daily life. “It is my pleasure!” He flashed his smile and said, “I’ll see you Monday.”