The best aspect of working internationally is the opportunity to become a student of human nature and it is my conclusion that we are all subjected to the laws of perspective, perception, and circumstance. When countries and societies clash over differences, I look for the truths that we all share.
My business offers instruction to people from vastly different cultures with one thing in common: they all work in the luxury hospitality industry, serving the richest people on earth. Training employees to work for elite travelers means explaining why items are of vital importance to guests, even when these things are not part of their reality at home. Examples: Wi-Fi, perfectly ironed sheets, and hot running water. People who are used to fine amenities want their environmental comforts to travel with them, and my industry works to offer this niche market everything they are looking for. It is important to note that I do not have any ill feelings or jealousy towards luxury customers. On the contrary, they have provided me an excellent living and good jobs for many people who serve them.
Still it must be said that while the financial gap between worker and client is so great (getting larger by the day), I need to spend time in each class raising employees’ self-esteem and to recognize their personal value. The employees I work with worldwide make an average salary of about $4,000 per year. The guests they serve earn an average of $900,000 per year. I teach empathy for these guests (a tall order) but in doing so it is my goal that employees will find success and grow their own careers. I teach employees that they are important individuals who matter. Something I have seen at all levels of this industry is that being rich or poor in monetary terms is not an indicator of happiness. Ask any experienced housekeeper – she will tell you the same.
On January 9th, 2016 I wrote: If I were in my home country of the United States, the date would be 1/9/2016. In almost every other part of the world the date reads as 9/1/2016. In Hungary the date would be shown as 2016/1/9, which they argue is the most logical. In the past four weeks I have been on several airplanes, touching down in 6 countries: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Morocco. I have not been home, which always makes me introspective.
On that day I was sitting in the back seat of a sedan being driven to the ancient city of Casablanca. The driver and I started our journey in Marrakesh where I just spent six days working. The trip takes two and a half hours.
Marrakesh is known as the Red City, because most of the buildings are made of red sandstone. It is actually the pink city, but I suppose that would not be as good a title. The city is busy and full of construction, but there is something that keeps it from developing into the modern age entirely. There are areas that are under serviced, dusty, and simply old, but there is a wisdom and beauty there too. Employees that I met are expert sellers, well-educated, and eager to succeed in business.
We left the city and started driving through a desert, scrubby bushes and cactus replaced apartment buildings. The landscape was dotted with goats and sheep tended to by young herders. There was an occasional lean-to house or little farm with children’s toys out front. Donkeys pulled carts and a horse and farmer struggled with a plow to till the rocky, arid soil. Between these tenacious settlers we drove for five minutes at a time seeing nothing but a moonscape of rolling red hills and weeds. The people living here are scratching out a living. I wondered what they thought of my black shiny car. I wondered what my driver thought of spending five hours driving an American white woman to Casablanca and then returning alone.
The driver and I did not speak much which is unusual for me, as I typically strike up a conversation wherever I go. Drivers see and hear everything, and often have fascinating insights on what is trending in society. Occasionally I have regretted to start-up a conversation, especially when the driver has different beliefs than I do. Here are some ‘opinions’ I have heard from limo drivers lately:
“Women should not work, other than to raise children. You must be a bad mother.”
“The US invented ISIS, and you should stay in your own country for the shame of it.”
“If your husband lets you travel this far alone, he must not really love you.”
“Women in my country are treated with respect. They are not allowed to work. They are treasured and protected and kept at home.”
I doubt that most business men are spoken to this way. Rarely do I hear people say to men who travel, “Are you able to be a good dad, working like you do?” I am asked that question often, even occasionally from well-meaning friends. Being a white, educated woman born in the United States gives me some advantages, but for some people my status will never be equal to that of a man’s. I have learned to live with this fact, work around it, educate when possible, and if all else fails – ignore the opinions of the ignorant. It has on occasion pushed me to work harder than I ever thought possible.
Sitting in the back seat of the car, I wondered what kind of life the driver has when not wearing his ill-fitting, heavy black uniform. A few decades ago I was a young, single, hotel worker living in a terrible studio apartment in New York City. I wore lots of different (mostly ugly) uniforms and often worked two full-time jobs to pay my bills. I would serve the famous and wealthy, then crawl back to my shabby apartment and wonder. ‘All that money, why aren’t rich people happier?’ Now, after more than 25 years in the industry, I think I know.
As the car drove on I wondered: ‘Does this driver know that I worked my way up into the position I have now?’ Of course not – not without knowing me. ‘How does he feel about his clients? Does he wish me well, as I do him?’ These questions will never be answered without communication between us.
Looking out the window, I saw a barefooted child playing with the dust clouds outside his humble home. He was darling, spinning in circles, in his own world, pretending some adventure. I wondered what type of future he will have. In many cultures he is better off and more valued than I am – he is male, young, and (hopefully) healthy. I wondered about my own children who were raised with a careful, if slightly neurotic effort to balance privilege with social consciousness. Will they use their good fortune to become productive, kind members of society? Time will tell.
We are all valuable, worthy human beings, but perhaps I have been luckier by circumstance than that little boy. It is my prayer that he will grow up strong and happy. Will his obstacles hold him back or inspire him to do better in life than anyone thought possible? No one knows who he will become, but he is off to a good start; playing outside and using his imagination.
We arrived at Casablanca (nicknamed the White City) and I tipped the driver well, knowing he probably thought I made a mistake (another ignorant tourist). My week there revealed another side of a coin – after hearing from employees in Marrakesh tell me why their city was better, I heard from the new group why Casablanca is better. Another case of needing to feel superior to someone else, people instinctively compare themselves to others constantly. When conducting sales training and discussing the area they live in, I often hear, “We are luckier than X because…” or “Our city is more (interesting, fun, prosperous, safe) than X…” occasionally I also hear, “I wish I lived in X.”
My trip ended having a conversation with a wealthy Moroccan college student, studying in the U.S. We met in the airport during a ten-hour flight delay and he told me about his desperate struggle to be hired by a financial company in New York. He needs to be sponsored by a firm before he graduates so he can continue to live abroad legally. His life straddles between his family culture and his wish for everything he sees while living in the States. Unfortunately, his bitterness was showing, which I believe will keep him from being successful for a while. He said, “The companies are all racist and obviously don’t recognize talent when they see it.” His belief was that his name (a common Muslim name) is what kept him from being considered. I suggested that he search how many people working for the firm have that same first name – probably hundreds if not thousands – and that should give him the courage to keep trying.
Haves, have-nots, and everything in between.
Once I was a U.S. city – I’ll refer to it as City A. The sales team in class said, “We can’t compete with other places, it is terrible here.” One week later I was across the country and an employee said, “You were in City A? It is my dream to live there!”