Friday, September 24, 2004

Domestic Assistance

I’ve mentioned the fact that we have a domestic assistant in previous posts. I think this fact deserves more than a passing glance, because it is one of the more troubling aspects of my cultural adjustments here in Bangladesh. There is a very clear cultural/social system by which everyone operates here that I have been trying desperately to figure out.

Momota is one month younger than my sister Page (who is 16). She told me that she was born in the year of the great flood (1988), one month before it began (March). She has been with Masud’s family for at least 8 years, because I met her first in 1997 when I came to Bangladesh for the first time. I remember distinctly two exchanges that we had. I asked Masud to ask her how old she was, to which she responded that she didn’t know. Later, we were all watching Mr. Bean in the bedroom, and we were all sitting on the bed, but she sat on the floor. I told her to come sit on the bed with us, and she got embarrassed and stayed on the floor.

She is from a village in Mymensing, and sees her family a few times a year. Her mother had to send her to work because they didn’t have enough rice to feed the entire family.

Momota has become a special project for Maya. Because Maya is a good person, she has made sure that Momo goes to school (she’s now in 5th grade), and she has put money in a savings account for her future schooling and wedding expenses. In this sense, she has really been “adopted” as part of the family. This is not how servants are typically treated.

There are still some very clear differences, however, in the way that Momo is treated compared to a member of the family. The social system of Bangladesh does have a very clear hierarchy, with the oldest members of the family taking precedence over the younger, and the male over the female. Momo, however, is always at the bottom rung. If everyone is sitting, and someone wants a drink of water, Momo has to get it. It would be impossible to ask anyone besides Momo to get the water.

I understand that people need to eat, and to eat, many of them must work, and send their children to work. I also understand that she would be much worse off if she didn’t have this “job”, and that she has a responsibility to work for her wages. I’m told that she doesn’t have what we would call a “work ethic”, and that she doesn’t do anything beyond what she’s told to do. She also has a certain obsession with TV viewing, and often forgets about her chores until someone reminds her (usually loudly).

Her chores include sweeping the entire house at least once a day (usually twice), and then wiping the floors with a wet rag or a mop. This is an essential task for any house in Bangladesh, because it gets really dirty from the dust in the air. Another job of hers is to wash clothes (by hand). She is also responsible for most of the cooking and kitchen work, as well as general pick-up. Maya argues that these tasks are straight-forward and routine, and that she should be able to get up in the morning and finish them, and then she would have the rest of the day free to watch TV or do whatever she wants. When Momo forgets of puts off her chores, Maya gets upset and uses strong language to remind her what she needs to do. It’s really hard for me to hear it, and one day I said “Stop yelling at her”. I probably shouldn’t have tried to interfere in the system, but I just couldn’t help it. Both Maya and my husband Masud told me that I made a mistake and shouldn’t have said anything. So now I’m trying to keep my mouth shut, and I try to help her out as much as I can. So far, I’m a terrible cook in Bangladesh (I’m blaming it on the humidity, cuz you know how humidity can make your potatoes burn), so I try to stick to things I know like washing dishes and picking up around. Whenever she catches me washing dishes, she says “Mami (Auntie), you don’t have to do that, leave it for me.” I tell her that this is something I know how to do, so I’m trying to help her.

I suppose after a few more weeks, I’ll figure out more of how this system works, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over the uncomfortable feelings of it all. What a different world I’ve come to live in.

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