Spread Across the World

Ngo Cong An is also known as Andy Ngo. He's 16 years old, chunky, and wears his hair in a buzz cut. He sits in a traditional Vietnamese home - wooden, built on stilts, with a thatched roof - and glowers at you.

"I was born in Vietnam," he says. "I live there again now, but from age 3 to age 14 I lived in Cleveland."

"Why did you go back?"

"My parents made me. They're not educated, and they couldn't make much money in Cleveland. They wanted to send me to a good school, but the cost of living was just too high. So now we're back living in their ancestral village."

"Where do they work now?"

"Cleveland still. They still have the same jobs they had before, but now they do them remotely. Gupes, y'know?"

"Do you still get to see your old friends?"

"Yeah. I Gupe them sometimes, but it's not the same, y'know? I had a girlfriend - that's over. She's old-fashioned, she doesn't want to date a guy who's Guping. There's a twelve-hour time difference, that's a real killer. I can't go to netschool with them, I have to go to one in Australia, where everyone speaks strange English. And I have to live here, in this crappy house in this dirty little village full of chickens and brats. It's boring."

"Will you go back to the US, do you think?"

"As soon as I can. I don't care if I have to go into debt, work the rest of my life, I'm going back. There's nothing for me here. I don't know my relatives, I don't want to know them. They're always trying to push into my life. I have to get out of this place."

Gina Ma also lives in a small village, in inland China.

"I was brought up in the US, but now we've come home," she says. "I remember crying as I left my village, when I was about six. That's 10 years ago."

"Which country do you prefer living in?"

"Oh, I like it here." She smiles. "In the US, I never felt that I fitted in, you know? I looked different - not that there weren't other Asian kids, but we all got lumped in together, it didn't matter if they were Thai or Japanese or Chinese or what, everyone assumed that we all knew each other and were basically the same. Here I'm myself - I look like everyone else but people see me as a person. And I've connected back up with my cousins who I used to play with when I was little."

"Would you go back to the US?"

"Oh, to visit, yes. But here is where I want to live."

Agnes Avila lives in Manila in the Phillipines. She is a maid for a family in France. Her eyes and her hands dance as she talks to you, and she smiles, showing somewhat crooked teeth.

"The hours can be hard," she admits to you, speaking Tagalog with simultaneous translation. "It's seven hours later here. It means I can get up late, though, and still be at work very early. I make the croissants for the family before they wake up. Then I work through the afternoon here, cleaning the house and putting everything in order and making the dinner. They still work outside the home, so when they come home from work it's all done and I can go to bed. That's between midnight and about half past one in the morning, Manila time."

"How is it, to live between two time zones?"

"Not so bad once you are used to it. I can't go out in the evenings except on my days off, but when I do, I am used to being up late and it isn't a problem to party! And I have Euros to spend. I have my own house - I am only 23. It's a little house but it's mine. I can shut it all up and sleep through the morning. Yes, my life is all right, I think."

"Would you like to live in France?"

"Oh, no, I would never live in France. I mean, I don't often go outside the house there, so I haven't seen much of it, but I hear the family talk. There are many problems there, they complain about the government all the time, and the weather. It is very cold, I'm glad I don't feel it through the Gupe, I am warm while they are cold."

"Is it easy to get work in other countries?"

"Oh, yes, everyone wants Filipina maids, they know we are the best." She laughs. "Most of my friends are maids. We work all over the world, though most of the ones I see often work in Europe or the Middle East. A few work in China or Australia. The maids who work in the USA or Canada, they are on a different time schedule from us, we don't connect with them so much."

"And do you know people from anywhere else in the world?"

"The gardener at the place I work, I speak to him sometimes, he is in the Congo. He does gardens in several places in that town and in Germany as well. But my friend Mary Ann, she works in a big house in the Czech Republic. They have a butler from Barbados, a gardener from Mauritius, three maids from here and one from Taiwan."

"How do they get on together?"

"As well as anyone. I mean, it isn't always easy, when you're doing everything in translation and sometimes the way people put things is different in their language, and you misunderstand. She tells me stories. One time, the butler told her to clean something and she thought he meant get rid of it, and she got in trouble. But no worse than anywhere else, and he can only yell at her. My aunt, she was a maid in Dubai when she was younger. Her arm still hurts in the damp weather where another servant broke it."

"Are you worried that robots will take your job?"

"Not my job, no. But if I have children they will not be servants. I will get them an education. My parents could not do that for me, they live in a little village out in the country, there was no money in those days. My children will do better." She sets her jaw and her eyes go distant, looking into an imagined future.

We're back with Callie Arnold.

"Servants?" she says. "Well, I employ local people, actually. I think you should, when you can."

Serena Koslowski.

"I'm wealthy enough to afford live, local servants, but I don't have any now. Gubots just do what they're told. Much less trouble all the way around."

Ted Anderson.

"I have a woman from Gabon come in, via Gupe. She's very good, hard-working, and I'm glad I can help her family out by employing her."

Jill Kwan.

"Oh, my house has pseudopods, dear, for dishes and things, and it cleans itself. I do my own cooking or buy food wherever I happen to be. I don't think I'd be comfortable with a servant. I mean, I'm the Hermit Crab."

Jan Kress is a statistician. She's showing you a map of the world, large enough to walk around, with big looping striped ribbons connecting a number of countries. The stripes have chevron-like arrowheads moving down them to indicate the direction, and the speed of their motion varies. Most of the western countries have narrow ribbons outbound and wide ribbons inbound, and most of the developing world vice versa.

"The width of the ribbon shows how many people are Guping to work in the various countries," she says. "Just to work - not for tourism, as best we can separate them - some people, of course, claim to be going for tourism and actually try to work, but they usually get caught. The different colors show what they're going there to do, and the speed of the arrowheads shows how quickly the trend is increasing. The black stripe is domestic service." She touches one arrow that loops from the Phillipines to France, one of a dense set of broad arrows from that country to all over the world. It has a wide black stripe.

"So here are people from the Phillipines in domestic service in France." A secondary set of graphs blossoms above the ribbon. "Mostly female; mostly relatively young. Total number: almost 500,000. Now here is what happens when you switch the display to show the direction of the money instead of the direction of the labor."

Most of the ribbons, naturally, change direction; some get wider, indicating countries which are able to charge a lot for their labor, and others narrower. The Phillipines is one that stays about the same width. She switches back and forth a few times, finally stopping on the original display.

"Can we see, for example, just the Phillipines and just domestic service?" you ask. "I find this a bit busy."

"Sure," she says, and the display simplifies. "Now, one of the interesting things is that people in the Phillipines are now buying in domestic service from overseas themselves. See that ribbon there, from Cambodia? The value of servants has got so high that the people in the Phillipines can't afford local ones. In fact, there are people who are making such a good living in service in Europe that they have a Cambodian remote servant for their houses in the Phillipines."

Dorothy, who doesn't want to give her last name, is one such.

"And what do you do, Dorothy?" you ask her. She is standing in the hall of her own well-appointed house, with two Cambodians who are present by Gupe. She answers in excellent English.

"I'm a domestic manager - effectively, a butler - for a millionaire in Latvia," she says.

"And these are your servants?"

"Yes, they cook, clean and garden for me." They smile and nod.

"Isn't it odd to have servants when you are employed as a servant yourself?"

"Yes, I suppose it is funny," she says very seriously. "But I have a demanding job, and my employer pays me well to do it. Why should I come home and have to clean my own house? It's too big for me to clean, and anyway, cleaning houses is not what I do. I'm not any kind of maid."

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This entry was posted in Agnes Avila, Callie Arnold, Dorothy, Gina Ma, Jan Kress, Jill Kwan, Ngo Cong An, Serena Koslowski, servants, Ted Anderson. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Spread Across the World

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    Sorry, this one took a little longer than usual, between a touch of writer’s block, a brief holiday and some other odds and ends. It’s extra-long to make up for it.Time zones are the biggest curse of working internationally, though they do have some advantages as well as long as there’s enough overlap with yours. I’m doing a project at the moment with someone in Britain, who is 12 hours different from me, and it’s not easy to catch up. And the second-biggest curse of working internationally, of course, is the occasional culture clash. I tried to show it from a few different angles here.

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