Saturday, September 06, 2008

Is This How the British Colonialists Felt?

For those of you who aren't in this Foreign Service mess, you might not know that the largest chunk of State Department employees worldwide (somewhat over fifty percent, I believe) is comprised of local hires - foreigners, usually of the nationality where the embassy is located, who help out in the day-to-day of running the embassy. Here in Saudi Arabia, I think we have one local hire who is actually Saudi; the rest are Arabs from around the region, South Asians, and Filipinos.

About half the people in my office are not Americans, and they are clearly the backbone of the office. When most of us stay for a year or two at most, they're they institutional knowledge that keeps our section running. It's a bit of a different story for them, because they have a professional position and are often very highly educated. However, they still often have to defer to decisions from Americans in most cases, many of whom have only been in the Foreign Service for two years or fewer. It's a bit bizarre.

My other main involvement to date with our local hires has been with the drivers in motor pool (see previous post for more details on how that works). It's uniformly bothersome that they all refer to me as miss hannah, and if I have some package I'm carrying, they scold me for carrying it myself and not letting them get it. It's so bizarre. I hate feeling like I'm their superior. The other day I was talking to one driver who has been working at the US embassy since before I was born. He still referred to me as ma'am and miss hannah, which sets off all kinds of warning bells in my head, probably due to having grown up on farms in Mississippi and Arkansas. If you have any tips on how to deal with this, please let me know.

One other thing - almost everyone here has a maid that they hire to do basic cleaning and sometimes cooking around the house. I understand that this is a fine Foreign Service tradition all around the world. Given the way that household staff are treated in Saudi Arabia (that's another story for another day), it was a bit of a thorny issue for me to consider. I did just hire a woman, Fathima, taking over her once-a-week contract from the person I replaced in the consular section, and when I realized what pay she was actually asking for, I felt ill. I think that, like her previous employer, I'll be paying her double what she actually asks for. She's here from Sri Lanka to earn money for her family, and at the rate she was asking it's hard for me to see how she is able to send anything back home, even working for three or four other people simultaneously.

Things to get used to, I suppose. Still, it's hard to shake off the willies that I get from the mentality of white person hires dark person to do menial stuff.


  1. I understand your concern. Still, you have to ask yourself - would these people be better off if they didn't have these jobs?

    We loved our housekeeper in Mexico, and I'd like to think we treated her well - we continued to pay her even when she had to take several weeks off for breast cancer surgery, and we paid her a handsome severance (granted, we had to under Mexican law) when we left.

    I say think of this as simply one of the perqs of Foreign Service life...its why so many of us want to stay overseas and not return to DC!

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  3. I agree with noze. By employing her, you are doing a good thing. It is hard not to let cultural differences get to you. I couldn't stand being called Mr. Ethan in Guyana (by people older than me even). But I did look like I was 40 when I had my beard (according to the young children....this eventually made me shave). Anyway, there are a few tangents. Basically, you are doing a good thing, on many levels. Thank you!

    Plus, the British Colonialists actually felt they were better than everyone else (mostly anyway). They didn't feel remorse. So to answer the

  4. Of course I'm interested to see that you've hired a Sri Lankan housekeeper! I am curious to know more about Sri Lankan migrant labor - particularly the women who are much less visible when they return here - so let's chat at some point. With whatever 'chat' feature isn't blocked in Saudi of course... :-)

  5. I know it's a struggle we both go through. Some days are better than others. But I agree with noze. You know you're going to do so much more than is required...because you care.

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