Monday, April 02, 2007

Maid To Order

At first thought, living in a house with eight servants seems wonderful. It struck me as such at first, too—that, plus the appellation “Miss Hannah,” made me feel so very antebellum South that I caught myself longing for hoop skirts and handsome moustached suitors. Sometimes, it’s true, having servants is great. I’ve never been much of a cook, and, after several months of doing so in Egypt, I have no particular desire to hang my own laundry on the line to dry. For the most part, though, I’d trade them, yes, all nine of them, for, like, ten minutes of privacy.

They’re nice and all, I'm sure, "nice" only goes so far when it means putting up with the constant presence of ten people intent on, from my perspective, bothering me. I couldn't possibly detail everything that has ever bothered me about the servants--we'd be here all day as I complained about how sometimes they lock me out and I'm stuck standing on the street in the rain for thirty minutes at eleven P.M.--so we'll just do the biggies.

First, while their constant confusion between “foreign” and “stupid” may be amusing, and fodder for some good blog entries, it does get tiresome. They delight in pointing out the obvious to me, until I feel just the tiniest bit like pointing out to them that I am, in fact, seven or eight years older than them, and, what’s more, perfectly capable of intuiting that yes, that mouse poop on the counter means it is dirty. They also can't seem to believe I can do things alone: yes, it’s been a long, hard battle, but after twenty two years on this planet, I am also capable of toasting bread, boiling water, and peeling oranges by myself.

Second, they clean my room. What am I complaining about? you may wonder, especially if you are my mother. I’ve never been the neatest person in the world, and the room probably needs the cleaning.

Sure it does: tile floors do get dirty surprisingly quickly. I wouldn’t mind having someone swipe a mop over them once a week or so. But the maids do far more than that—they feel the need to tidy. Since I generally do keep my room fairly neat, they indulge their clenaing urges by moving things, rather than actually neatening them. Every few days, I come home to find the door to my room wide open, with the stack of books I had left on the bed suddenly moved to the desk, while the papers that were on the desk are moved to the bed. They mix piles of paper—tenth grade homework wantonly shuffled in with twelfth grade homework—and frequently they change the setup of the room as I liked it. Sometimes I think the next time I come home to find the air conditioning temperature reset, the curtains closed, and my shampoo bottles moved, I’m going to scream. Or throw things. Now that would be a reason for my shampoo bottles to be in disarray.

Third, and finally, the kicker: food. Indonesia is still a scarcity culture—the thin are poor and malnourished, the rich are fat and happy. Having food to offer is not only a sign of generosity and good host behavior, it’s a sign of social status, and, as such, is hugely important. Everywhere I go, I’m dogged by people offering food—at friends’ houses, at school, even after church. I understand the reasons. I know they’re just being nice. That’s fine.

It’s not fine, though, when it’s at home, my one supposed place of refuge. Yet every time I come home, the first thing I hear is a maid saying, “Have you already eaten?” They’ve even given up on hello, just going straight to the food issue. Worse still, there are four, sometimes five maids, and they all feel it necessary to check on my eating habits, which means walking from the front door to my bedroom means running a gauntlet of “sudah makan?”s. Worse still, they don’t believe me when I say that I have, and so then I have to endure an interview, every day, without fail, about what I’ve eaten: what? When? How much? I don’t know why they even bother asking, because their conclusion from the interview is always the same: I must be hungry. I must eat more. I must try the chicken, the fish, and the vegetables. I’ve taken, lately, to sneaking food into my room just so that I have some privacy about what I eat and when—if I eat in the dining room, there’s always at least one maid hovering over me urging me to add more. They also, in desparation to please, knock on my door every hour or so to bring me a plate of snacks. Sweet? Yes. Kind? Yes. Utterly invasive of my personal space and decisions? Yes.

This all drives me insane, in case you can't tell. My eating habits aren’t exactly the greatest, but at least they’re my own; moreover, I resent the implication that I cannot, by this point, figure out when I’m hungry and when I want to eat. I mean, anyone who knows me well knows that I cannot, in fact, figure out when I’m hungry and when I want to eat, but, by golly, it’s my right to suffer hunger headaches and nausea if I want to!

We’ve come to an uneasy peace, though, these past seven months, all of us learning to compromise. They’ve stopped hiding the toaster in the mornings, their initial strategy for keeping me helpless, though they do still hang around and watch me spread the jam on the bread, checking that I’m doing it to my own specifications—"Are you sure you don’t want apricot? Or chocolate? Why aren’t you using butter?" I’ve stopped offending them by rinsing my own dishes. I still put them in the sink, though, which, judging by their faces when I do, causes them endless amounts of pain. They clean my room, but they don’t move stuff off the bed, and I’ve learned to grin and bear it when I come home to find it all in stacks. As for the food, well, that’s still a battleground, though now it's more like a Battle of Cheat Mountain than a Gettysburg. harder. I’ve basically just learned to lie to their faces with deliberately vague answers: “Have you already eaten?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Yes.” “What?” “Food.” “Where?” “Not here.” It may not be terribly polite on my end, but, hey, it’s a compromise: by definition, everyone’s unhappy.

I never thought I’d say it, but I’m looking forward to not having servants anymore. And if I have to eat my words as soon as I get back to the States, well, no problem—at least that way, I won’t be lying when I claim I’ve already eaten.

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