When you travel, and observe, you see how little nuances, little shifts in how a society and its people relate to one another can dramatically change you own position in that society, if it were your own.
One thing I now notice more and more is how differently maids are used in places where labor is cheap. My family never had a maid. It was partly because, living in America, having a maid is usually a luxury reserved for the wealthy, but it was also partly what I always believed was my parents natural inclination to do the hard work on their own. We always had dishwashers but they remained nothing more than dish holders, my parents always preferring to wash their own dishes, by hand.
Thus, my first experiences with maids were during our family trips to India. In the shadows of my aunts house, quiet, only making her presence known discreetly, there she was, darker skinned than us, a pattern I’ve noticed repeating itself at other relatives homes, and now, around the world. They were quiet, always speaking softly, surprised at how my brother and I were so thankful and courteous.
“In Indonesia, labor is cheap,” said my friend, explaining to me that she never cooks. In my social circles, almost entirely middle class Indonesians, I learned that few of my friends, men or women, cooked, often opting for food cooked by their maids, or prepared by low-wage street vendors. In my kost, the boarding house where I was staying, I felt awkward handing the keys to the two quiet, short, “country” girls who were the live-in maids, to do my laundry and clean my room.
After hosting a dinner, or a house party in New York, I’m often asked by my friends “can I help clean up,” or more often, the sound of sweeping, or water running in the sink as a friend takes initiative. Here, in South Africa, I’ve already heard a few times, after a house party, or upon seeing a pile of dishes in the sink, a far different question.
“When is your maid coming in?”
Being in Indonesia last summer, and now, in South Africa made me realize that two things I pride myself on, and am often recognized for in America – my cooking and my cleanliness skills – are almost worthless in some places, among the middle classes, due to the preponderance of cheap labor.
I also wonder about something else.
Over the years, I’ve tried to be inspired by the tribulations of others. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, or the heroes of the American civil rights movement. One common theme I read in all of these books, and particularly, in Gandhi’s biography, was a dedication, almost an incessant desire, for hard work. Gandhi insisted on everyone who lived in his communes, to perform the exact same labor, no matter their previous social status.
My own life, reflected back upon me, I realized, had a terribly small amount of manual labor in it.
So, here, in South Africa, after hearing the question about when the maid is coming, I went to the kitchen, the sink piled high with dishes. Most were crusty with food, no one thinking to let it soak, because, the maid was coming, no matter that dry, caked in food would take her far longer to clean. I washed my hands, turned on the sink, and began to wash. I doubted anyone, except my good friend, my host, noticed.
It didn’t matter to me. As Gandhi often said, there is something incredibly cleansing and soothing about working with your hands, about doing manual labor. The quest of our species is not laziness. For a few minutes, I could put myself in the shoes of the millions who do this type of work daily, whether it be maids in South Africa and Indonesia, or restaurant kitchen staff in America, and I did it with meditative pleasure.