In 2017 an opening paragraph like this in The Atlantic was bound to cause a stir.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family's household.
It's the story of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, or Lola, the family nanny who was given as a "gift" to Alex Tizon's mother in the Philippines, who followed the family to the United States, and raised Alex and his siblings. She was not paid. She was not allowed to go back to visit her family. She was abused by Tizon's parents and, in the end, when she was finally "free", she had nowhere to go.
The story has caused quite a storm on social media. Some are praising Tizon, a Pulitzer-winning journalist for his courage in confronting a dark chapter in the family history. Others are lambasting him for romanticising what he admits was modern slavery. The story was written after Pulido died. It was published after Tizon had died. It's a confession that changes nothing. For many it was not a profile in courage but an abdication of courage.
It was news only because it was happening in America.
When I read it, I was horrified, moved, shocked, appalled. But, most of all, I was struck by one thing. It was news only because it was happening in America. That same story happens in some variation or the other all over India. We pay no attention to it because for us it's just another day in the life of another "Lola".
My sister and I too were raised by someone much like Tizon's Lola. She was not given as a gift to anyone. She was paid, though I do not know how much. She went home regularly and her daughter and grandchildren came to our house regularly. I grew up playing with them. Chhor-di, as we called her, widowed early in life, raised my sister and me, nursed my dying great-grandmother and grandmother, wiped bottoms, emptied bed-pans without complaint. She brought us fresh cashews from her village, still in the fruit, delicious cashews which she roasted by hand, a taste I've never forgotten or encountered since. Unlike Tizon's Lola, in old age she was able to retire back home with money that my father gave her. One day she came back from a bath in the village pond, felt uneasy, lay down and died. "She accumulated a lot of virtue," my mother said admiringly. "That's why her death was so easy."
It's a family story and a familiar one about the old family retainer, more loyal than the children. It carefully photoshops out the social inequity at the heart of it all. How often have we heard a servant described as not really a servant, practically family? The maid will rarely dare say that about the master's family. It's the master's prerogative to extend that largesse to the maid. As long as she does not sit on the bed. I don't remember Chhor-di ever sitting on any of our sofas. It did not occur to us that there was anything strange about that. That's just the way it was.
It's a family story and a familiar one about the old family retainer, more loyal than the children.
It's easy to be outraged over Tizon's confessional, especially because the circumstances of this story are particularly egregious. Pulido's teeth fall out because she is not taken to the dentist. As a child when her mistress gets into trouble with her own father, Pulido is made to take the beating because that's what a maid does. Yet, as I read the story, I kept thinking if she was paid something, how much less of a slave would she be? The lack of payment allows us to feel morally superior because we never did that, but in reality, how much free will would she have earned with her pittance?
What struck me reading the story is both how uncomfortable TIzon is as he realises that his loving Lola is really a slave and how little he does about it. When neighbours ask him about her and why she is always working, he quickly makes her a distant poor relative who likes to work. He is saving his family's face. And, as it transpires, even after she dies, he talks to the obituary writer of the Seattle Times and dishes out the same romanticised story of the selfless woman who gave up her life to raise other people's children, completely omitting his own family's ugly role in that act of sacrifice. That obituary writer, Susan Kelleher, has written a piece saying she feels sick knowing now that she wrote "about slavery as a love story".
What struck me reading the story is both how uncomfortable TIzon is as he realises that his loving Lola is really a slave and how little he does about it
What all this makes clear is that even as we talk about cultural contexts, and how we cannot judge these complicated feudal relationships in the Philippines or India by black-and-white western standards, we understand full well what we are perpetuating. We turn a slave into Lola because we say we know that others will not understand it. But in our hearts we know they will understand it only too well. That makes us cringe. That is why Tizon takes so much pains to explain away his Lola to his neighbours. And that is why in every case of domestic help abuse with Indian employers in the West, the employer complains about how much better the maid was being treated in America than she could ever hope to be treated back in India. It's almost a sign of ingratitude that she complained about back wages or days off. It's as if America has given her license to complain.
An Indian consul general's maid complained she was forced to work long hours for $300 a month, her passport was confiscated and she had to sleep in the closet. A landlord in Berkeley was accused of trafficking poor women from his native village in Andhra Pradesh. He faced a court, but in his village he was treated as a god. New York perfume millionaires Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani were convicted of beating their Indonesian maids with brooms and forcing them to eat 25 hot chillies. But to the outside world, we insist they are not servants, they are just like family.
That's our problem. Our Lolas and Chhor-dis are not family or just like family. By calling them family we are not honouring them, we are just trying to make ourselves feel better. But really it would be better all around if we treated them as what they are — employees doing a job for us.
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