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Asian Servants

Monday, December 17th, 2018   9:28 pm |  Category:   Life, Retirement locations, Travel   |   Add Comment  
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During the 1970s in my international banking career, my wife and I lived in Southeast Asia for five years—two in Jakarta and three in Singapore. Returning to the States, we found that friends were curious about servants and assumed they were like those in PBS British dramas. Before arriving in Jakarta, we had hoped our servants had stepped out of a British movie. Our hopes were quickly dashed.

 

A rule of thumb in Asia was: the poorer the country, the more servants per household. Indonesia was poor in those days; we had a cook, a house boy, a wash girl, a gardener, a driver, and four djagas—guards who were off-duty policemen. Employing numerous servants was a form of charity, since rural people flocked into Jakarta to escape farming’s drudgery.

 

Indonesia has numerous ethnic groups; some are quite aggressive.

 

However, most Javanese are cooperative and avoid confrontations; raised voices were rare. A servant’s terms and conditions of employment consisted of monthly pay and a rice allowance; the rest was vague. Cooks left without warning; within a few days another cook would show up looking for a job. Servants kept track of those comings and goings through the vast network of gossip that foreigners called the bamboo telegraph. Despite initial frustrations, we came to accept the less structured Javanese ways. We liked our servants; they seemed to like us. In short, we cared for each other.

 

Singapore was becoming rich when we arrived from Jakarta. Singapore’s servants were expensive, aloof, and had rigid job descriptions. The story below follows our negotiations with our gardener in Singapore.

 

The Gardener

 

That morning, Fred Zimmerman, the bank manager, came to my desk, “Gulf Oil likes your ideas for their Japanese imports. They’re hosting us for lunch today. You’re coming…”

 

Neither a question nor an order, I said, “Sure.”

 

“Nice work,” Fred said tapping my shoulder. Fred had an avuncular nature.

 

Before lunch, Stanley Wong asked me, “Who’s that shabby little man waving at you?”

 

I looked up from my desk. “Raju, my gardener.”

 

I waved back as Raju came up the circular stairs from the banking hall to the second-floor lending area. Raju took a magazine from the coffee table and disappeared into the wings of a Chippendale chair.

 

Stanley said, “You had servants in Jakarta?”

 

I had been transferred from Bank of America’s Jakarta branch to the Singapore branch three months earlier. Stanley and I were Assistant Managers; our relationship was tenuous.

 

“Indonesian servants are different than servants here.”

 

“If one of my servants came here to see me,” Stanley said, “I’d sack him on the spot. But your gardener saunters in like he owns the place. What’s up?”

 

“There’s a problem with his job description.”

 

“Job description? You and I have job descriptions. Gardeners garden; it’s that simple.”

 

“It’s somewhat complicated…”

 

Stanley interrupted, “Raju refused to do something your wife requested?”

 

“Yes.”

 

About to leave for an appointment, Stanley said, “Don’t negotiate with Raju; you’ll end up looking foolish.” Stanley waited for my reply.

 

I nodded.

 

After Stanley left, I went to the reception area, shook hands with Raju and motioned him back to my desk.

 

My wife, Emily, and I were conflicted about servants. We were in our early thirties and felt odd paying people older than we were to care for the garden and do the housework. When I was transferred to Asia, we imagined the efficient British servants from the movies. Then reality intruded: English was the servants ‘second or third language and misunderstandings were common. The amah (maid) was bossy and Raju was aloof. But our garden was exquisite: jewels of multicolored orchids surrounding an emerald lawn. We had settled into a give-and-take that worked until that morning.

 

A Tamil, Raju’s forefathers had come from southern India to work the British rubber plantations and tin mines in Malaya. Tamils were considered feisty; many thought from their scorching food. That morning Raju was engaging, and we chatted as we walked to my desk.

 

Raju always wore baggy black shorts—Bombay bloomers they were called—a white t-shirt, a brimless hat, and blue Bata plastic sandals. Probably in his fifties and less than five feet, his gleaming teeth contrasted with his coal-black skin and crimson lips from chewing betel nut. Raju’s gardening centered on the orchids that could overrun the garden if they weren’t hacked into submission. Our home was full of orchids.

 

He sat across from my desk, and I offered a cigarette. He took a Marlboro from my cigarette box and lit it. “Coffee, tea, or juice?” I asked.

 

“Juice, no ice.”

 

The bank’s amah prepared and served beverages. I called her while Raju smoked and surveyed the crowded banking hall with detached aplomb. When I finished the call, he said, “American cigarettes too sweet. The best are Tiga Limas.” (“Three Fives” were British cigarettes.)

 

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