When we were house hunting in Singapore in 2011, I noticed that none of the properties, even those that were brand new, had garbage disposals in the sinks. Not one. The realtor didn’t even know what I was talking about. As an American, I couldn’t even remember the last time I lived somewhere without one. Maybe I never have.
Most properties had a separate wet kitchen where the live in helper would do food prep and most of the cooking before bringing it into the “dry” kitchen area in the main house. The condo we eventually chose also had a garbage chute, also in the maid’s quarters. Food waste was physically gathered by hand and put down the chute. This just seemed like a terrible solution to me. The chute was streaked with liquid and other food waste, and was often foul smelling as a result. Obviously, since it was in her quarters, it was separate from the house and not usually a bother to us, but I was bothered that she had to smell it. She didn’t mind. She was glad that she had her own quarters, her own separate space.
I noticed things like this often while living there. I was appalled that there were so few do-it-yourself conveniences that I was used to in the US. Instead of pumping my own gas and paying at the pump, I had to let an old man (old enough that I felt guilty about it) do the work and take my payment inside to process, then return my card to me.
Our helper was often concerned that our kids would not let her do things other families expected her to do like tie their shoes or carry their backpacks or bring them snacks. They preferred to do these things for themselves. They didn’t like to be “babied” as they saw it. I once spent an afternoon making doll clothes on my sewing machine for my daughter until I got tired of the erratic converter that was causing power surges. Our helper was amazed that I knew how to sew. She couldn’t believe I would take the time to learn how to do a menial task.
I explained to her that in the US, we assume everyone is equal and has their own hopes and dreams, and that we can do things for ourselves, independently. It was unusual for us to have someone else do things we were used to doing for ourselves, but we didn’t really have a choice there because Singapore is not built around those assumptions. Singapore is built around the assumption that you will hire someone to do those things for you. That’s why there are no garbage disposals. Nobody cares if the garbage chute smells bad.
An Indian colleague of mine who relocated to the US while I was living in Singapore was having the reverse culture shock to mine. He had always had live in servants growing up in India. Living in Ohio, suddenly, he and his wife were expected to wash their own clothes in the washer and dryer. “But it’s so easy!” I said. “It takes no time at all!” They had to do their own cooking. I had a ready answer for this one, too. “In Asia, you have a helper. In the US, you have Costco. There are so many ready-made, delicious meals available, you don’t need a helper! And you don’t have to shop every day because our food is so full of preservatives that it lasts three or four times as long. It’s made to be convenient.” He still said he felt like he got a demotion when he took that promotion. I too felt like I had lost out in the process. Everything was much harder than just doing it myself. I may not have to cook or do housework, but it was worse: I had to oversee and plan the cooking and housework while also running a $60M P&L business and traveling over 50% of my time. Blerg.
I actually looked into garbage disposals toward the end of my stint there, thinking this was something that really needed to be pitched to the government. I found that in order for garbage disposals to work, you have to have a specific type of plumbing, and your water treatment plant has to be set up to process food waste in the water. It’s not as simple as ducking down to the Home Depot and attaching one under the sink. It requires government regulation and modification across the board. It requires a community consensus that it’s needed. Say what you will about the repression of women in the 1950s, and I have plenty to say about that, but the one upside is that American companies created a lot of products and equipment to make housewives feel like actual “domestic engineers.” The technology of housewifery has revolutionized our assumptions about daily life in the US in ways that simply don’t exist in other countries.
I haven’t thought about garbage disposals for almost a decade until in September when we chatted up an Irish couple at dinner in Greece. All of us ended up talking about our experiences in other countries and how differently people lived due to their cultural assumptions, and I mentioned the garbage disposals which I have seen as a symbol of American egalitarianism, engineering ingenuity, and female empowerment. They found the very concept recklessly anti-environmental, consumerist, and ethically dubious. Of course I agreed that composting food waste is superior, but also impractical in some parts of the country, and downright inconvenient to all but retirees. Do I have to live with worms to be an ethical person? They were also appalled at the idea of a clothes dryer in the home, a feature that is particularly empowering to dual income households in the US. They saw it as a grave ecological concern that we would use electricity (or gas) to dry our clothes with heat rather than hanging them on a line outside and hoping it didn’t rain as they do in Ireland (protip: it’s Ireland; it’s going to rain). I didn’t even mention dishwashers. You get the point.
On the show The Good Place [light spoilers follow], there is a point system that ranks the actions we take in our lives. You might get positive points for letting someone in front of you in traffic and negative points for cutting someone off. Ultimately, in the show, the problem is raised that the systems we have are now so much more complicated than they ever were before. You might get positive points for drinking oat milk, avoiding animal suffering, but if it is sourced from a remote location that contributes to global warming, you also lose points from the same action. Every decision we make in the modern world is fraught with conflicting ethical concerns. We do something to empower women, but it creates an ecological problem. We try to support an emerging economy, but we also support an oppressive regime committing human rights violations. We stop fighting foreign wars, but we also stop protecting innocents.
Church attendance is also fraught with these types of problems. For example, last Sunday’s primary lesson was about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. A sunbeam teacher in an online forum shared that her students were traumatized by the retelling of the events that were in the lesson plan. My own CTR 4 class was unperturbed, but that’s probably because I don’t think they’ve ever listened to a word we’ve said. That class is chaos, I tell ya. The church video on this topic is downright dishonest about the events of the martyrdom. There’s a lot to unpack about why Joseph Smith was killed by the mob, and while vigilantism is morally wrong, so were a lot of the things he did, most of which we don’t talk about because it’s more important to paint him as a sinless, selfless martyr for some reason. The real events of that day bear more resemblance to the ending of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid than they do to the crucifixion. Alas, saying that he destroyed the printing press for printing lies is wishful thinking at best. But what’s the point of this story anyway? What are four-year-olds supposed to be getting from this lesson? Manufactured outrage and tribalism? An adventurous and titillating tale of murder and danger? The idea that mobs are bad (*cough* January 6th *cough, cough*)?
- What types of moral quandaries have you encountered due to the complexity of modern life?
- How do you balance competing moral imperatives?
- Is there an ethical way to teach Joseph Smith’s martyrdom story? What would you do? Would it vary based on the age of the class?
- Do you face an ethical quandary when asked to teach “approved” materials when those materials are misleading or inaccurate? How have you dealt with this?