Am I a Memsahib?
Many years ago I received a text message from an unknown number: “You are a white beach” it said. I hadn’t been long in the Philippines, so it took me hours to figure out that someone was accusing me of being a white bitch.
“Why are you angry at me?” I wrote back.
“Sorry Ma’am it was a miss-send.”
Being a western woman who lives in Asia is sometimes tricky. World War 2 brought an end to colonial rule, the often romanticized era when European countries sent “sahibs” and their wives to rule over the “natives” and build empires.
Things are different now. I’m not here to spread mashed potatoes throughout the Philippines. We don’t call Filipinos “natives”. My sahib ran off with the maid years ago. I don’t drink gin and tonic and I let my yacht club membership lapse when we sold our sailboat three years ago.
I am definitely not a memsahib — but I am absolutely, undeniably a Ma’am. When I first moved here I was told that it was important to hire locals to work around our house. “Your neighbors need jobs, Ma’am,” I was told. And so I have become accustomed to having others clean my house, work in my garden, drive me where I want to go, carry my groceries and change my lightbulbs.
This is not always a good thing. I have watched myself grow soft and lazy. I get angry if I have to carry my own suitcase from a taxi to the hotel lobby. I suffer from culture shock when I leave Asia. I admit that whenever I arrive back at an Asian airport, whether it be Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Singapore, I walk into the terminal and breathe a huge sigh of relief. I know how to be a white woman in Asia. I’m more at ease here than I am in Canada. In Asia I know what’s expected of me. I know how to behave and what role to play. I’m comfortable with this life, it’s WHO I AM — for better or for worse.
And I have come to understand one very important fact: I have watched how other expats treat the locals and have seen some shockingly appalling behavior. The bottom line is that the more arrogant and disrespectful YOU are, the less respect you are given in return. It’s much better (and safer) to be nice. Just ask the British…