Alex Tizon's "My Family's Slave"—published in The Atlantic's June Issue —shocked, moved and outraged readers, and brought to light an uncomfortable reality of our modern world—indentured servitude. Tizon's story about how his family kept a slave for 56 years in the United States (without pay or a decent standard of life) was definitely an extreme case, but I can't say I was surprised by what I read. Growing up in Pakistan, I also experienced and participated in the subhuman treatment many parts of the developing world dole out to their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Having servants is practically a regular part of life if you're well-off in Pakistan. It's often seen as a misfortune if you cannot afford to hire a full-time cook, or a housecleaner, who very likely live with you in a section of the house known as the servant quarter. Growing up rich in Lahore in the 90s and early-2000s, we always had servants living with us, cooking all our food, doing the laundry, cleaning everyday, and driving us to school and work. Before we immigrated to Canada in 2005, my family had five live-in servants who would tend to our daily life needs—a driver, a guard out front, a cook, a cleaner, and a nanny for my younger sister.
My parents paid them an average monthly salary of about $200 (which is quite standard), didn't mistreat them or stiff them on their pay, and we would visit them in their homes in villages on the outskirts of the city if they ever fell sick and couldn't come to work at our house. We treated them well, but only as well as you can treat your servants. There was an unspoken understanding between the servants and their employers—my family—the servants were there only to provide for the family and their needs, nothing else. You didn't make friends with your servants. You didn't talk to them freely or treat them in a way that was too welcoming or warm. You always had to maintain an emotional and mental distance from them because they were not your equals. They existed only to facilitate your life, nothing more.
That was "the way things are," and dehumanizing the workers around you was the only way to cope with this reality.
My mother, who was primarily in charge of keeping all our servant-related tasks in order, believed that as soon as a cleaner got too comfortable in their job, they'd start slacking and wouldn't perform their duties as well. Therefore, in order to keep them on their toes, the threat of losing their job always loomed over them, and my mother wasn't afraid to act on her threats either. In a given year, we would see anywhere from three to five different housecleaners come and go. Some lived with us, while others went home at the end of the day. Some were children no older than seven, while others were middle-aged women whose children worked as servants in other people's houses during the day. It was hard not to wonder why I went to school while their children went to clean houses, but our society didn't question this arrangement much—most people I knew employed servants at home and work, and no one (not our teachers at school or our parents at home) had ever explained to us how this social order worked. Like religion, it wasn't something you questioned. That was "the way things are," and dehumanizing the workers around you was the only way to cope with this reality.
After we immigrated to Canada when I was 17, we became responsible for taking care of our own daily needs and chores, which my father considered an insult since he had never before done his own laundry or taken out the trash. My family and I would undertake all the tasks at home that were outsourced to our servants back in Pakistan, something I came to enjoy as it meant I was no longer dependent on others to run my day-to-day life. I was relieved by this because I didn't have to witness the staggering levels of social inequality that were commonplace back in Pakistan. Out of sight, out of mind. I didn't really think about the unfair social hierarchy in Pakistan until my late-20s when I moved into an apartment with my partner.
We had moved into a bigger place in Toronto and were both working full-time. One day, my partner suggested we get a cleaning service to start coming in and helping out with the upkeep of our place. It made sense, and we had the money. But I was squarely against it. Even though I had lived in Canada for more than 10 years at this point, I hadn't reconciled within myself how human beings could treat one another as coldly as we had treated our servants back in Pakistan.
There's a very powerful line in Tizon's article about why his parents treated Pulido so poorly her whole life: "The leap across the ocean brought about a leap in consciousness that Mom and Dad couldn't, or wouldn't, make." I know exactly what leap Tizon is talking about, because I made that leap when I moved to Canada after seeing what a more equal society looks like. It is impossible to justify keeping servants the way we do in Pakistan after you have explored questions surrounding the worth of a human life. Why are some humans valued more highly than others? How is that justified, or fair? Is anyone really responsible for the kind of socioeconomic conditions they're born into? Or the religion they're assigned at birth? Or their race, or the color of their skin? Yet, these things determine how people born into poverty will live the rest of their lives, the jobs they will be deemed as worthy of having, and how far in life they will be allowed to progress. These are heavy questions to ask oneself if you come from a society where people don't even notice children as young as five begging on the streets for food, and instead swat them away as though they're some kind of pests.
I didn't want to think about the injustice of it all, of how I could have lived in that world so many years and participated in that kind of treatment of fellow human beings. The night before the cleaning lady was scheduled to come to our place, I broke down and had a panic attack in the middle of the night. I woke my partner up and shared stories from my "past life" about the children who worked in our house and how we always kept physical and psychological distances from them. I had never hired a cleaning service after I moved to Canada because I didn't want to ask myself "Would I treat the cleaning lady with the same cold detachment my mother had towards our servants? Would I look at her (or him) as some sort of background noise, whose life outside of her profession was of no consequence to me?"
If we hope to change any of this, we first have to admit that yes, we do have a problem.
Needless to say, none of my fears came true. The cleaning lady came over, we spoke like two adults would in any other situation, discussed our plans for the weekend, and shared pictures of ourselves from high school and lamented about how we were skinnier when we were younger. I felt at ease after she left, realizing I wasn't some heartless monster who lacked basic human decency. But I was surprised at how, even after all these years, memories of the servants and working poor in Pakistan still haunted me.
There has been a lot of backlash against Tizon's article, but I know how much courage it took for him to confront these truths about his life and write about his experiences. If we hope to change any of this, we first have to admit that yes, we do have a problem with indentured servitude in many parts of the developing world, fuelled by extreme poverty, ignorance, lack of social safety nets, and plain old tribalism and racism. These are systemic issues that have been in place for centuries, and bringing them to light and being unafraid of confronting this reality is the first step in moving past them.
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