Maids, My Driver Shiva, & Why the Hell Does Everyone Call Me Ma’am?

Maids, My Driver Shiva, & Why the Hell Does Everyone Call Me Ma’am?

When I first heard it I truly did take it as an insult.  Back in Spain or California we only use Ma’am (or Señora in Spanish) for older ladies.  I mean, I know very well that 40 is not  super young anymore but I don’t think I look like an old lady so why the hell was everyone calling me Ma’am?  First it was the driver who collected me from the airport, then the guys at the hotel, waiters, shop workers and then – eventually – co-workers.

It really did a little damage to my ego every time I heard it.  Like tiny little stabs piercing me!  Well, eventually I asked a colleague what the hell was going on and WHY everyone was calling me Ma’am.   Basically what he told me was that it is a respect thing, not a backwards slam to make me feel old.  The caste system is still very much alive and well here in India, so basically if someone decides that I am higher up on the evolutionary food chain than they are, then chances are that I am going to be Ma’am’d.  This is especially true within the hospitality sector, with junior colleagues, while shopping, etc, etc, etc…  it’s a sign of respect and in no way is meant as anything else.  Glad I learned that quite quickly because I was considering to head out for my first Botox to try to fix it that way!

And there isn’t a thing that I can do to change this.  I actually tried to stop it with my driver Shiva.  He and I have a great relationship, we are the same age, I spend more time with him than virtually anyone else here in Bangalore.  We talk about tons of different things and he basically knows everything that is going on in my life because he’s typically there too in some capacity.  Shiva also helps me with my blog by giving me tips on extra facts about India that I could add to improve them before I publish.  And he makes it possible, for example, for me to go cook masala dosas for an afternoon at one of his friends’ restaurants.

So at times it feels really strange to me that he calls me Ma’am.  I mean, he feels more like a trusted friend than an employee.  I asked him once to please start calling me Angela.  He said he would but he was a huge liar and never did, haha.  I guess he said what he thought I wanted to hear (a very common sweet yet simultaneously annoying Indian trait that is still taking me time to understand).  I brought it up one more time but again he still didn’t do it so I have given up.  I know that it’s simply not gonna happen.  It’s a tradition for respect that dates back so far that I have zero possibility of changing it.  And now there is a part of me that has grown to like it.

Most of the time, I insist on opening my own door because it’s pretty embarrassing when Shiva opens it and people see.  I always sit in the back of the car, which I prefer because I have a super setup back there complete with my laptop, USB internet and a charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter so I can keep all of my devices charged up, work, write or catch up on mail whenever we are in the car.  In fact, I’m just missing leather upholstery and a mini-bar and it would be like my own little limousine!!  However, as much as I insist that I open my own door, Shiva puts his foot down and insists that he open it at certain places because he says that it is the correct thing and if I want to generate more respect that he should open my door.  I know he is only looking out for my best interest so I will always say yes and thank him.  It’s odd to me that something like a door being opened for me might improve how someone perceives me.

Our maid goes even beyond anything that Shiva does, I suppose because Shiva is a businessman (I employ both him AND his vehicle) so there is less difference in our social standing.  Our maid is sooo sweet and so cute and always has a smile, but she sort of bends over and almost bows, which is too much and definitely feels strange to me.  If she catches me doing something that she could do for me she’ll shoo me away and insist of taking care of it personally.  And not a single sentence will fall from her lips without a Ma’am at the end.  It’s quite sweet when it comes from her.

Life here in India is shaping up to be so massively different from anywhere else I have lived.  The difference between southern California and Barcelona wasn’t that extreme with respect to our social standing and lifestyle.  My daughter and I always had a housekeeper in the U.S. and in Spain but the housekeeper only came once a week.  That was okay for cleaning but I am sooo lazy when it comes to dishes and laundry that there would be massive accumulation mid-week!  I’m not proud of it but “es lo que hay” (it is what it is)!  It would have been nice to have someone come more often, especially when I had massive projects and was working 12 hours a day on some new technology product launch.  But here in Bangalore it is the opposite scenario to L.A. or Barcelona.  For less than what I paid our housekeeper for 1 day per week in Cali or Spain, I have a super hard-working maid who comes 6 days a week and clean, run errands, and make sure that the flat is 100% in order every day.  At Rs. 5,500 I pay her more than what an Indian family would pay her (I know this because my Indian mates say I am paying too much but I don’t care).  On top of that, I am sure she must love us because we only ask her to work 2-3 hours a day and it’s just two females and we aren’t messy.

The first summer, I didn’t want the maid around on the weekends and she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that she didn’t need to come on Saturday.  Here in India there is a 6-day work week for domestic staff and they work on Saturdays — always.  So the first Saturday came around and I was happily asleep when all of a sudden the doorbell started ringing.  She has her own quarters with bathroom and a private entrance and I had purposely double bolted her door.  You know, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was going to come anyway and thought that the locked door might deter her.  But that little spit-fire just rang my door!  I dragged myself out of bed, opened the door in my Betty Boop pajamas, pulling my earplugs out (yeah, obviously they weren’t super earplugs if I heard her!) and yawning…I basically shoo’d her away as sweetly and quickly as I could.  Then I made her promise that next week that she would stay home and not come to work.  Eventually she started coming 6 days a week and I have to admit I love it.  It’s probably spoiled me for life and outside of India I will not be able to afford full-time domestic staff so I am basically screwed in the future!

On a completely — 100% — unrelated note: her family has avocado tress on their property and she is now keeping me super stocked with the freshest, biggest avocados EVER, I’m never letting her go!

Right or wrong, the salary that international executives earn here in India – like mine – coupled with the low cost-of-living afford me and my daughter to easily enjoy certain things that we couldn’t back home in Barcelona or L.A.  Some things are actually more expensive here, like our rent for some odd reason.  That 10-month security deposit was a bitch too…I’ve never seen that anywhere else in the world!  And private school isn’t any cheaper here than it was in Barcelona, it’s around $1,000 per month.  But, having a driver and a full-time maid for us is affordable and it definitely improves our quality of life and makes the day-to-day much more relaxed.

It’s always easier to live with a pay rise over a reduction.  And it’s nicer to have “more” than to have to do without something you need or want.  Well it’s started me thinking…what the hell am I going to do if I ever leave India?  I’ve heard people who’ve moved away say that they had a really tough time moving back to their own country with regards to actually missing the luxuries of India like the maid and driver.  Generally speaking, only the wealthy can afford this type of domestic help in Europe or the U.S.

I can imagine the shock for my daughter in two years when she heads off to university and has to start doing her own laundry, ironing and picking up after herself…oh dear! Haha  As for me…well, maybe I will just never leave India 🙂

XOXO from Bangalore

© Angela Carson 2011

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Angela Carson
Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I’ve explored 35 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). I even have a private pilot’s license and was shot at once by bandits!

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16 Comments

  1. kristi Owen
    01/08/2011 / 19:42

    interesting, i like to be ma’amed and door opening is something i really appreciate too. it is a compliment and a sign of respect. it happens infrequently here, but when it does i thank the person. also, my children are to say sir and ma’am when they are talking to adults, myself included. it is a very hard lesson to teach. but i tell you what, adults really appreciate it when a kid shows respect like that.
    -just a country girls perspective:)

    • 01/08/2011 / 19:49

      Okay first, my dear sister, I about spit on my monitor when I read “country girl” … you twirled flags in El Segundo at the beach in L.A. til you moved in high school to “the country” hehe Wow, I can’t believe you have taught them that, good for you, sis. I never did anything similar with Alina so kudos to you!
      But I’m sorry, I hate the ma’am thing. Probably more becuase of the Señora thing than the english but it’s only used for old ladies in Spain, which is where I’ve lived more than anywhere the past 20 years.
      OMG we have to catch up, have news! xxoxoox

  2. 01/08/2011 / 19:47

    I have been called “Aunty”. That feels a lot worse. 🙁

    • 01/08/2011 / 19:51

      Hi Sharrel! Okay, read my comment above to my sister Kristi. Now your comment is related. In Spain, “auntie” is Tia andd there they use Tia and (the male) Tio as slang similar to the English Dude. So that sounds a-okay to me! Funny how where we are from or lived affects how insulting one thing is over another 🙂 x

    • Nadiya
      28/08/2013 / 12:48

      hahahaaa…that is exactly i wanted to say! im 32… and when i came to Bangalore i was 19 …i used to hear sometimes…also Aunty! from a guy who is of an age of my papa:)))) or wors once a had a maid who is 50 something…and im by than 23..calling me Didi(elder sister!)

  3. 01/08/2011 / 20:44

    Hi Angela… “Everything is priced at its perception”. Treat the whole Ma’am thing like something that is not associated with age and you will feel quite comfortable.

    Even a twenty something who walks in through a door in a civilized attire is addressed as Ma’am. Most of the time its either professional training or the money that talks.

    It might interest you that our pronouns are filled with respect too!! Elders, teachers and seniors are addressed as “aap” (You) instead of “tu”(you). In some families, parents as well as kids address each other as “aap” to show mutual respect.

    • 01/08/2011 / 22:46

      Thanks, G! Loved the comment, thanks! –ang

    • 02/08/2011 / 00:56

      OMG I understand that 100%… I can’t imagine it the other way again 🙁

  4. abstractpsyche
    02/08/2011 / 04:43

    I understand what you mean. But some-things HAVE to run that way. My drivers who were with me since I was 10 or 12 yrs old still call me “Pedda Babu” (Big/Elder Sir) and my bro as “Chinna Babu” (Small/Younger Sir) and my Dad is the actual ‘Sir’ to them. One of them taught me how to drive, another helps me with chores. And all their kids are in good schools, courtesy of yours truly and of-course my Super Dad. I love them of-course, they’re family too who have been part of my Dad’s biz since a while, but never ever do people forget their place (and ‘place’ as in not the fancy medieval mannerisms stuff but its entirely different here).
    What your driver Shiva is doing is correct, I mean, opening the door at some places is very very important. It generates respect as he put it aptly. These days we see a few drivers with attitude who almost never ever do it.

    “Ma’am” when translated to the Indian-ness is actually ‘A person who provides food’. In local accent they call us, “Mother” (to the Lady of the House) and “Father” (to the Man of the House). Or sometimes “Bhaiya/Anna” (Brother) and “Didi/Akka” (Sister) if they are almost the same age. However, its not Mother and Father or Brother & Sister, though the words are same. You have to understand a simple fact that some things cannot be explained in other languages. Like for eg., the other day a friend from France had a hard time explaining what “je ne sais quoi” means in exact terms.
    To put it another way, you don’t expect a waiter at your regular fancy/posh restaurant to call your name loudly and give you a friendly shoulder punch every time you go there with friends or clients..do you?
    P.S: Gauresh is absolutely right too!!

    • 02/08/2011 / 23:59

      Hi…thanks for the fun, descriptive reply 🙂 I always like it when someone takes the time to share their own experiences so thanks for the that. I went onto your blog today, you haven’t written in a while…does that mean you found a job and arre super busy now? -ang

      • abstractpsyche
        05/08/2011 / 00:47

        My pleasure mademoiselle!! 🙂
        Yeah, the blog has been in hibernating mode for a long time. I was aiming the blog for a much younger audience, probably you’ve noticed that. Most of my posts are actually kiddish 😉 . Guess, I should start sometime soon. hehehe!! Not exactly a ‘Job’, but more like regular projects related to development and/or web designing. I’m interested in Information Security though. 🙂
        Thank you for asking! 🙂

  5. 03/08/2011 / 07:08

    I guess I needn’t explain the ma’am-ing to you now.. 😀 And like Sharell pointed out, Aunty is much worse.. : 😛
    Loved the post! 😀
    PS: Glad to hear Alina is getting here soon. You must be super excited.. 🙂 🙂

  6. Suriya
    03/08/2011 / 12:59

    You will be alright and Yes, India is expensive and the lifestyle we have here is what “super rich” in EU and USA can afford. here we call it “domestic” help!! lol. I hope, your daughter will acclimatized to the UNI life. (i did, gosh , did I crib!!) 😛
    Hope all’s well ANgela. Tc

  7. anonymous
    12/08/2011 / 03:43

    To me, the most convenient luxury of living in india is, getting my clothes ironed….

    • 12/08/2011 / 10:48

      I love the pet food store that I have in town that delivers all my kitty litter and food right up to my door too 🙂 –angela

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