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Reflections on Having a Servant

What it’s like to live in a servant culture, and why Americans should care

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We had a cook once. Our own personal chef, who also served, Alfred-like, as a house cleaner, launderer, ironer, bed maker, grocery shopper, and general household manager.

Before going further, it must be established that my wife and I are school teachers, and therefore not wealthy, but for the period we had servants we could pretend we were. What instigated this small fiction was the fact that everyone else in the country, Pakistan, went along with it.

When speaking of Mr. William, I reflexively say we had a cook, not hired one. 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 the beginning to the end of the party we would do no work.

We had a lot of parties.

A servant culture is one in which having a servant does not raise eyebrows or cut quietly against established custom, norm, or class. You can’t say ‘We have a servant’ in America without the sentence receiving a double-take. We don’t call them ‘servants’ in America, just as we don’t smear their general responsibilities into a vague puddle. One can employ a nanny, or a house cleaner, or even a cook, but not a servant.

When my wife and I moved with our kids to Pakistan, one of the first things the school scheduled for us was interviewing help: cooks, maids, drivers. We politely demurred. ‘We know how to cook and clean, thank you very much, and our children need to learn responsibility.’

The old hands smiled knowingly. ‘Sure,’ they said. ‘Of course.’ But in their eyes and set of jaw was an unmistakable ‘Let’s see.’

We lasted a month, and now forever tell the story of how Mr. William ended up in our lives.

By the way, everyone in servant cultures with a servant tells the story of how they came to have theirs, a story told with a mixture of self-satisfied gratitude and divine intervention. I want to tell our story now, here, to you, about how Mr. William saved us and we saved him. It’s a good story, and in my subjective mind it’s fundamental to the narrative of servants, but objectively it’s not. Objectively, the story masks a relationship more than it explains one.

What I will discuss, though, is how after a month we felt we needed a servant; or rather, we needed someone to help us manage the new conditions of our lives. So we never called Mr. William our servant; we called him our cook, which carries a better mix of respect and self-aware indulgence (I mean really, how luxurious is it for a pair of school teachers to have a cook? A cook has skills. And we inevitably included in our narrative, as I have here, recognition of Mr. William’s talent in the kitchen.)

It’s also tricky to say we needed a servant in Pakistan because some needs must be balanced against their costs. Minimally, we need food, water, shelter, but these fundamentals, reduced to their essentials, were never in question. We had food. We had water. We had a house. Did those things require another human being to make them happen?

But the food. Vegetables were absurdly cheap, bought at little stands set up outside more formal shops selling hardware and plastics and furniture and such. But you had to drive to the market, and there was rarely any kind of easy parking. Other goods, like beans and pasta, could be found at other stores in other places. Same for meats, for fish, for cleaning supplies, for paper goods like toilet paper. Everything a different store. And the vegetables didn’t need to just be washed; they needed to be washed, rinsed, washed again, and soaked in a light bleach solution. It was work getting a meal together. 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.

And the water: Boiled. All of it. The stuff you drank came delivered, but even the water used to, say, wash dishes needed to be cleaner first. Rumors of the metal boron in the water supply even had some colleagues washing their hair with bottled water.

Pakistan was having an energy crisis when we were there, so the power was often out. For a while it went out every other hour, in these rolling ‘brownouts’ meant to ration use. The result was that washing clothes could take all day. And the absence of dryers (too expensive, for one) meant every item need to be hung to dry and ironed.

And the city was dirty. There was a dirt to the very air, the smog of 10 million people cooking with wood fires. Livestock in homes and used for transportation. Ten million motorcycles and five million beat-up cars with no emissions regulation. The house was swept and mopped every day, and every day the dustpan filled and the mop water darkened.

In servant countries, the entire system conspires to keep servitude in place. 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.)

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 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 a 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 a while 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. 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.

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 that an American of modest means might live in are slowly moving away from systems of servitude, America seems a bit blithely unaware that any such movement might occur at all.

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. Third world countries create servitude and class, in part because the demand for comfort and security and health quickly becomes a need if you can afford it. But the infrastructure is bad enough that the easiest and most flexible and most attentive path to comfort is another human being whose own discomfort is such that providing your luxury is worth the necessary obeisance and servitude.

But scratch that surface, or mute that tone, or straighten that nose and you’ll see the one thing common to all: wealth.

Race and gender are so thickly infused throughout servitude that I think we can too easily place the blame there. Women, after all, were property of their husbands legally into the 1920s and socially until much more recently. In Pakistan our skin color held a magical authority, but our paleness was rare enough by then that other distinctions came into focus, especially religion. Mr William was a Christian, and so he, and his family, had limited economic options. The most common job for Christians in Pakistan was street sweeper (or so I was told).

Religion, ethnicity, ancestry, height, accent. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find some feature — physical or mental, visible or audible or something so subtle only the initiated know. Some feature that relegates one person lesser than another.

But scratch that surface, or mute that tone, or straighten that nose and you’ll see the one thing common to all: wealth.

What keeps me from having a servant in America is cost. But what makes having servants so wonderful is something else entirely, something primal. One study found we would rather live with 100 dollars if everyone around us made 50 than live with 200 if everyone made the same. We are selfish, of course, but our selfishness is fed subtly with servants. We don’t feed a selfishness of ‘more’, we feed a selfishness of ‘better’.

America is still far from accepting servitude or being a servant culture. It may not be in our blood at all. But we certainly don’t value service financially. Just consider what we’re willing to pay for just about any service work — from soldiers to teachers to policemen to nurses to parents (and the frequent outrage when that work is compensated well). Perhaps more importantly, though, consider the opportunities for advancement or more pay; no matter how many hours you put in at most service careers, the pay remains mostly the same.

One has to wonder how servitude might manifest itself in 21st century America. Many young people today are bound by debt before they enter the workforce, and once employed, health insurance is still a powerful cord indenturing many to their employers. Many developments are troubling.

There’s a great deal more that can be discussed: The way education in a servant culture is no guarantee of success or security. The unquestioned acceptance of wealth as divinely earned status. The uncomfortable fact that an American in an international school or company usually earns double or more than that of a local hire doing the exact same work. I’ve not touched the troubling commonalities between a servant and a slave either, but oh they are there. I could talk too about how Mr. William became part of our family, how we attended the wedding of his son (and paid for much of it), yet how quickly we pulled away when we left the country. I could write several essays about my students in Pakistan, the children of wealthy landowners and businessmen who grew up with servants as a daily fact of life.

Perhaps it’s enough to close with the observation that our current gig economy, and education costs, and health insurance uncertainty, and crumbling infrastructure, and ever-widening wealth inequality, and a dozen other disturbing developments, hint at a future America disconcertingly similar to servant cultures elsewhere.

I don’t think, fundamentally, that America will morph (or revert) into a servant culture. We simply will not accept the conditions, and the stronger those winds and currents buffet the nation towards that kind of servitude, the more forceful will be the push back against them. I suspect, if anything should be predicted of our future, it is this. Not the establishment of a servant culture, but an angry and troubled struggle against it.

just another frustrated teacher

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