This is not how we do things in America. There is no noblesse oblige where we come from.

My wife had helped the friend of our go-to weekend sitter, a young Philippine national, to find a job as a full-time nanny with an expat family in our home city of Bangkok, Thailand. Now our babysitter — also a young Filipina — was telling us that her friend’s employer was mistreating her. The employer was delaying payment of her monthly salary (a measly $250), demanding she work many hours beyond the agreed-upon contract (without additional pay), and verbally denigrating her.

“Why doesn’t she quit?” my wife asked. “Because, Ms. Claire, you are the one who got her the job. She does not want to dishonor you.” We had ascended into a role neither expected nor desired: we were a class of Asian nobility.

My wife was stunned. The woman’s employer was obviously manipulating a situation where the family held all the cards, while the Filipina was the hapless servant. The underlying, uncommunicated threat from the wealthy expat to the short-term-visa carrying migrant laborer was clear: “go ahead, quit if you want, there are thousands more where you came from.” Yet here was this twenty-something Filipina, holding on to a terrible job out of a sense of duty to my wife for landing her the gig.

A Culture Cast in Modern Capitalism

A few years ago, a ubiquitously-aired Thai commercial featured a handsome, wealthy man returning home after a trip. Expensive gifts were liberally circulated to family members: perfume, scarves, hats. The man then imperiously commands his servant to open the trunk of the car: there, the housemaid, dressed in rags like a character out of a Dickens novel, discovers what appears to be a $10 handbag with a note especially for her. It reads: “do you like it?” She nods, as she begins to weep in exultant joy. It’s a terribly patronizing piece of socio-cultural propaganda. And yet it exemplifies the continuing role of noblesse oblige in Thai society, a paradigm that at its best — when benefactors act virtuously — encourages loyalty and solidarity among classes. At its worst, it exacerbates the exploitative tendencies of a culture’s wealthy elite.

Neither I nor my wife — both products of middle-class America — ever envisioned ourselves in such a position. When we hired our full-time help — and later a regular Filipina babysitter — we didn’t realize we were taking on a responsibility beyond simply paying them a fair wage.

Certain signs early in the professional relationship clued us in that something was different. Once home on a holiday, I started doing the dishes after lunch. “Oh no,” our helper told me, “you don’t do the dishes.” A woman in the house telling me not to do the dishes? This was new. Later our helper approached my wife and told her how strange it was that I had tried to clean, both because I was a man and because this is not a task an employer should be performing. I was amused.

Anyone we employed exhibited deference in our presence, bowing their head to us purposefully when passing by. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a humorously fantastical retelling of the Arthurian legend, refers to the potential good of noblesse oblige in his somewhat mythical assessment of the Norman-Saxon relationship of Medieval England:

“Everybody was happy. The Saxons were slaves to their Norman masters if you chose to look at in one way — but, if you chose to look at in another, they were the same farm labourers who get along on too few shillings a week today. Only neither the villein nor the farm labourer starved, when the master was a man like Sir Ector. It has never been an economic proposition for an owner of cattle to starve his cows, so why should an owner of slaves starve them?... They knew that Sir Ector was proud of them….He walked and worked among his villagers, thought of their welfare, and could tell the good workman from the bad. He was the eternal farmer, in fact — one of those people who seem to be employing labour at so many shillings a week, but who were actually paying half as much again in voluntary overtime, providing a cottage free, and possibly making an extra present of milk and eggs and home-brewed beer into the bargain.”

So it slowly became with us, as there developed a reciprocal loyalty that blessed both parties. Our full-time helper developed a deep affection for our children, even spending money from the paycheck we gave her to buy them little toys or outfits. She helped out with innumerable problems outside her normal duties, many of them requiring proficiency in languages we did not speak. We did our best in turn to accommodate whatever personal, financial, or work needs she requested. We soon realized that we had the opportunity, and even the responsibility, to ensure more than just the financial welfare of our staff.

Embracing Our Responsibility

My wife and I, in our own very small way, have come to appreciate the unforeseen opportunity — and duty— of influencing others’ happiness as it relates to their economic and social well-being. Such a social relationship speaks of a different era in the West, of lords and ladies, of deference and reciprocal loyalties between the classes. In three years in Thailand, we have seen its surprising benefits and its gross misapplication.

This brings me back to that particular night when my wife and I realized that we had inadvertently assumed a class of Asian nobility. As my wife told me about her conversation with our Phillipina babysitter, I was furious. How dare they — someone we ourselves had recommended to our babysitter’s friend — withhold hard-earned money from her? How often did they take a weekend excursion to some exotic Thai beach, dropping just as much cash on the hotel as they would on this woman’s monthly salary? It was here that our assumption of noblesse oblige intersected with an indelible American individualism, which “don’t take nothin’ from nobody.” “Her friend doesn’t owe us,” I declared. “And she certainly doesn’t owe those jerks anything. She should quit!”

In reflecting on our experience as nobility in Thailand, I’m reminded that of a universally-held dogma of America’s founders: that the strength of any sociopolitical system lies not just in the objective force of its laws, but ultimately in the virtue of its members. James Madison, for example, asserted: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea." Societies with or without nobility and intra-class loyalties require more than just a system: they require virtuous citizens. This is why, regardless of whether a culture seeks to maintain or evict the concept of noblesse oblige — with its many advantages and disadvantages — it will be virtue, as well as loyalty and solidarity, that remain the determinant factors of any society’s success or failure.