Monday, May 9, 2011

Between "the help" and a hard place

I had an epiphany this weekend that, short of being transported back in time, I doubt I could have understood without having lived in the UAE for a while.

It happened while watching the British television series, Downton Abbey, which portrays early twentieth-century life for a noble family and their servants on a sprawling country estate. In the second episode, a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, who grew up as a middle-class doctor's son, is invited to live at the estate because it appears he will be the next heir to the family fortune.

Upon arrival, Matthew is overwhelmed by the slew of servants waiting to greet him. And then he is assigned a personal valet, a man several years older than himself, to wait on him hand and foot. The young heir-apparent proceeds to spend the first several days mildly annoyed that this man is always hovering, trying to help him put on his coat, pick out his clothes, and pour his tea. He repeatedly brushes the valet aside, saying "No need, I can handle it," and laments to his mother that he does not wish to be changed by his new-found station in life.

Downtown Abbey servants

Finally, after Matthew tells the valet he doesn't need help with his cuff links, the following exchange takes place (paraphrased from memory)–

Matthew: "Surely you have better things to do?"

Valet: "This is my job, sir."

Matthew: "Well it seems a very silly occupation for a grown man."


In the same episode, Matthew tells the master of the estate, Lord Crawley, that he has no need for a valet, and Lord Crawley wisely replies, "Would you deny a man his livelihood?"

Double ouch.

Now, I have a hard time allowing people do things for me that I can easily do for myself, such as bagging my groceries, or finding my size of jeans on the rack in a clothing store, and I feel even more strongly disinclined if I'm not expected to pay for the service. I doubt I'd ever say it to a person's face, but I would probably feel similarly to Matthew Crawley if there was a servant in my room trying to help me put on my earrings in the morning. I would assume it a waste of her time and talents.

Living in Abu Dhabi, I have been faced with comparable scenarios on numerous occasions. Essentially, this is a caste-based society where certain nationalities are paid pittances to serve and dote on other certain nationalities, and tipping is not required nor expected. It is a place where the laws and customs of the land have not left much room for social mobility. At times, it feels a bit like England in 1912.

For example, there is a team of grown men at my office, all of South Asian descent, who are employed as custodians, for all intents and purposes. They clean the bathrooms, empty the waste baskets, and refill the copier paper, all respectable jobs that need doing. However, I have more than once heard them referred to as "boys" by my colleagues, who seem to think nothing of calling them in to fetch their tea or take their inter-office mail down the hall to the drop-box. As an American, it recalls an entire history of injustice that we've worked hard to overcome, and leaves me feeling queasy.

Just last week I was leaving work carrying my laptop, purse, and a large box; awkward, but manageable. But at the front door one of the aforementioned custodians offered to take the box and carry it the short distance to my car. I thanked him, but I would not let him take it. He insisted, even reaching for the box, but I insisted more firmly. My response was instinctive, and reflected a desire to demonstrate that I view him as someone of worth, who shouldn't have to bother with such trivial tasks on my behalf. But perhaps, like the Crawley heir, I was communicating quite the opposite.

So how does a person who is not in a position of power keep from perpetuating a system of prejudice, without "denying a man his livelihood"?

I don't know yet.


  1. Interesting post. I too would pale at calling anyone over the age of 12 a "boy". This is also probably exacerbated by the racial component. If the "boys" were white, black, asian, south asian all mixed you'd probably be less bothered, no?

    The last guy, however, was probably just trying to be a gentleman. Perhaps you should have let him.

  2. It's a valid question, Duffy, though I'd like to think that I would be just as bothered by the nickname if they were of mixed descent, including white. You are probably right about the latter part, though. If chivalry is dead, it's because we feminists killed it.

  3. Great post, hope you don't mind if I re-blog it....

    We are struggling with similar questions as my wife is going back to work full time and for the first time we have employed a maid, much against our previous insistence that we wouldn't. It's proving a huge learning curve for all involved....

  4. Perhaps you could start calling them "the Tea MEN". You never know if it will catch on.

  5. @Duffy,

    Not so sure he was just trying to be a "gentleman" as this manner of conduct is mainly Western in origin (though there is a loose parallel in Confucianism) tied to class (previously among the elite until the 19th century rise of the middle class where it eventually took hold as a guiding principle). Thanks for reading!

  6. Shannon, I hope you keep writing wherever you end up.
    There are things that I would like to share, but maybe in an email. You words are always so thought-provoking.

  7. Shannon - I have struggled a bit with this being married to Ken. He really enjoys opening the door for me, ordering for me in restaurants,carrying the suitcases, packages, groceries, etc. When I tell him it's not necessary, he tells me it's his way of showing respect for me.Although I still sometimes balk,I allow it by choice about 99% of the time. If this is the part of him that is very much the gentleman,I certainly won't stand in the
    way. Not quite the same analogy as your dilemma I know, but for whatever reason, it was important to that man to be able help you. I don't see the downside for you to accept his offer of help and thank him for it. I should think that would make him feel validated. And that's my 2 cents.

  8. I too feel the same as the person who posted above. The 'man' would have felt validated had you let him carry the box. Without letting him (your way of showing him respect) you have made him feel useless just like the valet felt.