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The Artist Abroad

Men and Women for Others

/ 07:55 PM January 14, 2014

NEW YORKThe recent expulsion of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, from the United States due to alleged visa fraud and abuse of her maid, Sangeeta Richard, also from India, brought to the public’s attention the role servants occupy in the lives of middle- to upper-class Indian society. Ms. Richard has told prosecutors in New York that she was forced to work 94 to 109 hours a week, or an average of about 13 to 15 hours a day, with few breaks. What enraged the Indian government and public was the fact that upon the diplomat’s arrest, she was subsequently strip-searched by the New York police. It was taken as a humiliation not just of an individual but also of a whole country. To have strip-searched her because of allegations by her maid was, in the words of an Indian journalist, “ridiculous”—an assessment I agree with, even if the abuse charges prove to be well founded. Lost in the diplomatic tit for tat—a US diplomat was expelled from the embassy in New Delhi—was the plight of the domestic helper.

Servants occupy a similar position in the Philippines, and in other countries where labor is cheap and unemployment is high. Overlooked derided, ignored, exploited: our views of them are decidedly paternalistic, whether expressed in benign or abusive treatment. I remember how the phrase mukhang atsay—looking like a servant—was used to denigrate a plain-looking female, even though one heard, growing up, of numerous instances of comely young maids being taken advantage of by the randy sons of their employers, or even by the master of the house.

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And I know, as do most Filipinos, of families who treat their help abominably, whether in the States or in the Philippines, church-going Catholics whose views of charity are remarkably limited to themselves—and their pets. The very fact of working within someone else’s household seems to lend itself easily to an exploitative relationship. Servants are paid to be there for others, those others whose wishes are their commands.

The issue of servitude has special resonance of course for thousands of Filipinos not just at home but abroad, from the Middle East to Hong Kong, from Europe to the United States.

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And the master/servant relationship can serve and has served as the underlying metaphor for other exploitative relationships, particularly that between colonizer and colonized. In such a relationship, it becomes a bit more complicated, for the terms employed are euphemistic, e.g., “special relationship,” but winds up being the same: a former colony such as the Philippines essentially agreeing to the wishes of its former colonizer, the United States.

Bring in skin color, and race as well as class becomes a factor. Not only that, race then serves as an indicator of class. Put simply, one can move up in class but not in race. How else explain the deep-seated animosity felt by many Americans, including a significant percentage of Filipinos and other Asians who delude themselves into believing they too are white, towards Barack Obama? He may now be a member of the moneyed class but he ain’t never gonna be white, is the thinking among the good ol’ boys. In the cockeyed equation of colonial history as well as in that of master and servant, dark serves light.

The servant is presumed to be the master’s inferior in all respects, except perhaps sexually, since the libido of the starving classes is thought of as being unruly, as opposed to the supposedly restrained and civilized, if repressed, sexual attitudes of the upper class.

Our own history as a US colony so clearly demonstrates this. “Little Brown Brother” (LBB) rather than being an overt expression of fraternal solidarity, was a polite way of indicating where we stood in relation to the Yankee overlords: below them, hence “little”; not in the same category, hence, “brown.” “Brother” is thrown in as a sop, to prevent a sentiment from being obvious, i.e., “Sambo” or “Gunga Din” would have been more accurate than “Brother” but that wouldn’t have been very Christian or good PR. The most telling cinematic representation of this misplaced fraternity, to my mind, can be seen in the 1945 film Back to Bataan, its hero the indomitable, death-defying John Wayne leading a group of Filipino guerrillas and some Philippine Scouts in fighting the Japanese. At his side is the embodiment of LBB, a Pinoy sergeant about a foot shorter who is basically his aide de camp and who will do anything that the Wayne character tells him to do. The sergeant is as much of a hero as the Wayne character, but naturally the latter gets all the credit.

Often, at the heart of lightness is usually a dark man or woman, making sure the valves are clean and the beat, steady.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2014

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