Regarding Servants (hint: it’s wonderful.)

There are still places in the world where an American of modest means — a teacher, for example — can have servants. We’ve lived in a few.

When we lived in Lahore, Pakistan, we had a cook, Mr. William. Ownership is embedded in the verb. It is insufficient to say we ‘hired’ a cook, because Mr. William was not simply an employee. He was a servant. Our servant. In the morning he had coffee ready, and if we wanted: fresh fruit, poached eggs, bacon, waffles, crepes, steak, fried potatoes, chapati, aloo daal. If we’d asked, he’d have risen earlier to bake fresh bread, but we were happy enough with the coffee. While we were at work and school (the 2 being the same, my wife and I international school teachers and our kids attending) Mr. William would make the beds, wash and iron the clothes, mop the floors, and prepare dinner. We returned home every afternoon to a hot meal, no clean up, and this special evening cardamom tea that only he could make. If we had company coming we’d inform Mr. William of our intentions in the morning. And then from beginning to end of the party we would do no work.

Mr William was old, and after a few months we added a niece to the staff to handle some of the domestic work. We also had a part time gardener (the yard was tiny), a house guard, and could have had — had we desired — a driver. Most of our colleagues had drivers, but I rather enjoyed navigating the chaos of Lahore.

Mr. William did go home on weekends, but he’d come back if we had a party. If it was a big party, his son or nephews would help.

It has an air of rudeness to say Mr. William was lucky, but it is — at least contextually — true. Mr. William was very lucky to be our servant. Mr. William was a Christian in a poor, conservative Muslim country, which left him with few options. The usual job for Christians in Lahore is street sweeper. He’d never learned to read, and he had 3 identification cards each with a different birthdate and year, impressed with his thumbprint. His last name was Lahori, after the city he was born, which was really no last name at all. He’d been hired at a young age by an American embassy woman, around 30 years ago, and from her had learned to cook. At some point he’d moved from working for American Consulate diplomats to American School teachers, and had risen with each new household until he was, for some years, the cook to the school’s Superintendent. While working for Americans in a servant culture is a pretty good gig, job security is tenuous, since Americans abroad rarely stay in one place for long. Teachers and diplomats move every three to five years, generally, so Mr. William was frequently interviewing for a new position. Somewhere in his past he’d not been hired by the incoming new Superintendent and so he’d ended up working again for mere teachers like my wife and me. (We left after 3 years. Mr. William now works for another teacher married to a Pakistani.)

Mr. William could make anything from taste. The first time he served us chicken soup I asked where he’d bought the can of Campbell’s. (Which was not available to my knowledge in Lahore and in any case, I had done the shopping.) ‘I make it, Sa’ab,’ he said. Do you have any idea how hard it is to perfectly imitate Campbell’s Chicken Soup — not only the exact taste, but the tiny squares of chicken breast, the cubes of carrot, the perfectly sized noodles? His salsa was Pace Picante, his pizza that old style box mix from Chef Boyardee — all from local ingredients. He used no preservatives, but damned if it didn’t taste otherwise. We actually had to ween him from imitating American processed food. So yes, we were lucky too that he took care of our household.

While most Americans of modest means, such as teachers, stumble for a bit when they first get servants, they quickly find easy patterns and paths. If you taught in Pakistan (or teach in a number of other countries), you have full time help. More often than not, overseas teachers have full-time nannies for their children.

We did not have a servant when we lived in Dubai, though the apartment had servant’s quarters. Houses and apartments in servant countries always have quarters for the help, always these dismally small rooms tucked into far corners. The bathrooms never have hot water. In Lahore, Mr William insisted on sleeping in a room outside the main house, where there was no air conditioning or heat and the shower was a tap over a drain. (We offered a spare bedroom in the house, but it was — for him — unnaturally close to our own rooms.) We bought him a television and had the cable run to it, put down a carpet, and found a gas heater. We spoiled our servants.

We did not have a servant in Dubai, but someone came to the house daily to clean. We could have had a servant, and had our kids been younger no doubt, like all our colleagues with small children, we’d have had a permanent nanny. But perhaps more to the point, everyone who isn’t a servant in Dubai IS one, and that’s most people. Dubai is a city of servants — millions of laborers bussed in from somewhere in the desert every day to drive the taxis and staff the restaurants and clerk the stores and gas the cars and deliver the food (everything from groceries to McDonald’s) and every other hourly job one could imagine. In a nominal sense one might argue that we Westerners were servants to the elusive and obscenely wealthy Emeratis who owned the place, but that was never really true. It never is really true, because we don’t come from servant cultures. We haven’t been raised that way.

Much of America has little understanding beyond Downton Abbey what a servant culture is like. We give it up in the West, of course, because it’s such a quietly dehumanizing, undemocratic system. Some argue that just about everything in the Western world (good and bad) comes down to the fundamental assumption that no man is inherently better than any other; if this is so, then having a ‘servant’ (in the traditional sense) is a clear violation of the principle.

And a servant culture is different from merely having a dedicated household employee. It is a system defined and dependent on the status and the roles. Thus, in Pakistan and other servant nations, many jobs that ought to be easy are not. Washing clothes, for example. In Lahore, we bought our own dryer, for the air was often too humid or too smoky or too cold for a good dry, but then the electric bill was astronomic so we limited use to the clearest of days. Everything had to be ironed; though Mr William (and later his niece) did also iron our socks and underwear, which seemed excessive. As to the actual washing, frequent power outages made even machine washing a time-consuming process.

In servant countries, the entire system conspires to keep servitude in place. Shopping, for example, in Pakistan required multiple stores for basics, and a careful picking through of items. Meat was at the butcher in one part of town, vegetables in another, light bulbs somewhere else, cleaning supplies again elsewhere. It was not enough to wash vegetables, they had to be scrubbed and soaked in a light bleach. One doesn’t really need to wash their produce in the Industrialized world; there’s scant chance an American will get sick from their salad if it’s unwashed, because the infrastructure keeps citizens safe. In Pakistan, you can pretty much guarantee some kind of distress from unwashed, raw vegetables. Same for water from the tap (even in brushing teeth). Many of our colleagues had drivers not merely because having one was cheap, but because the attendant chores that a car involves — grocery shopping, parking, navigating streets, appointments, and such — are difficult. There are few parking lots in servant cultures, much less sidewalks. Having someone pick you up as you leave a restaurant is not merely convenient, it’s nearly necessary.

And then there’s the money. Much of what we do at home in America — laundry, food, cleaning — is not done exactly by choice but cost. The true domestic servant lives at wages and salary a world apart from those he or she attends to. In Lahore, we paid our cook a salary comparable to local teachers. He was thus in the local lower middle class. But that was us, foolish Americans. The average for a servant was a quarter what we paid, or less, which was itself orders of magnitude less than what we earned for our labor. (And it may not have escaped notice that we ourselves were teachers, who paid Mr. William the same salary as a local teacher. Being Western, and white, and English speaking and all the other less obvious aspects of our privilege and status meant we were not the same as the teachers locally. Not by far. Nobody in the West is really a servant, no matter how low paying the job.)

In the Industrialized world, a lot conspires to prevent a certain kind of servitude. Laws and taxes and regulations. Customs and attitudes. Pay. Machines take up the labor, or at the least soften it. It’s easy to be unaware just how much infrastructure costs, and how thoroughly that cost is spread out among the population through taxes and regulation. In the West, we hire out many of our services — dry cleaners for the laundry, an occasional house cleaner, a vast world of prepared foods. Child care, lawn services, pool cleaning — all performed by men and women for a wage that places them — often — in the same class as ourselves, even above, and certainly without any of the attendant attitudes that we hold in countries where servitude is assumed. And it’s expensive, to live in an Industrialized country.

But if the Industrialized world conspires against servitude, one has to wonder if we’ve given service and servitude the attention it truly deserves.

In the West there’s a kind of assumed mutual respect — imperfect, but quite different than the class system of a servant culture. It’s not, by any means, as deeply satisfying as actual servants, who rush to perform any job that hints at the ‘common’ — carrying a bag, washing a dish. This much is true: having servants is wonderful. Someone always there not merely to do that tedious daily work of a life, the cooking and cleaning, but also to pamper, to elevate, to make one feel superior. True, it’s awkward at times — and those who carry themselves with an air of entitlement, as having servants can elicit, can set one to resentment and a soft little anger — but that doesn’t change the overall power one feels when they have servants. It is wonderful having servant. It is wonderful being the Master in a servant country. But this is not to endorse such countries. I’d not really wish Pakistan on anyone simply because, statistically, you don’t end up like me there. Statistically, you end up like Mr William.

I suspect that we in the Industrialized nations imagined for awhile living in a world where servitude was taken over by machines, and to some degree that DID happen — so much domestic labor is now handled by metal and motor –dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and washing machines. But in labor we still by necessity must wait on each other. The store clerk must bag the grocery, the nurse must wash the body. The waiter must bring the food and lay it down before us in a gesture of respect and obedient subservience. We are most of us servants in one way or another: to our children, to our parents. And of course there’s this interesting statistic: 80% of the American economy is service based. It is perhaps no coincidence that servant and service sound so much alike. We have entered a service culture, and — like the working class of yesteryear, we are going to have to convince ourselves — not the leadership — that service is a worthy occupation, worthy not only in values that have nothing to do with productivity and manufacturing, but fundamental to who we are.

There is a difference between service and servitude, however. One can move back and forth with service — one can be served upon and still be the server. Service is a job, servitude is a life.

Service paid my way through a substantial portion of an excessively long journey into adulthood. If a young American has to drift through life without much responsibility, they can do fairly well by being a waiter. The job pays in cash each day, offers intermittent hours, and is abundantly available in places good for drifting: big cities, vacation towns, beaches and resorts. A good hotel or restaurant offers insurance; service paid for both my children’s birth. I’m a different kind of servant now. I teach high school students, which is a relationship of service so twisted up and complicated that I have yet tease apart all the knotty and knotted ropes that bind student and teacher, teacher to student.

It is the strangest thing, though, that nobody talks about service in America, while the most ardent pro-American immigrants come from servant cultures. And while most servant cultures an American of modest means might live in are slowly (Pakistan) or quickly (Colombia) moving away from systems of servitude, America seems a bit blithely unaware that any such movement might occur at all.