I'm not 12 hours into my Fulbright in Hong Kong before I find myself stymied by a cultural knot I can't unravel.

"What is it?" my wife asks, peering over my shoulder.

"I think it's a bedroom."

We both look into the small space I've discovered in a corner of our flat. The room is maybe 5 by 10 feet, just big enough for a single bed and a cheap wardrobe. No windows. No air conditioning. Even early in the day, it's sweltering. The attached bathroom is so small that the showerhead hangs over the toilet.

Ellen shrugs. "Good place to store laundry."

Later I ask Anne, one of my colleagues, about the little room.

"Servants' quarters," she says.


"You know," she tells me. "Helpers. Don't worry. I just put suitcases there."

It turns out that roughly 10 percent of Hong Kong households employ "helpers"; the proportion rises to 30 percent for families with children. In contrast, a good half of the faculty members living in campus housing—natives of Hong Kong and foreigners, with and without children—have household help. That disturbs me. What does it say that people who've spent years engaging in the life of the mind can't be bothered to scrub their own bathtubs?

We try not to judge. These are kind, smart people, whom we respect and whose company we enjoy. But whenever someone who's just found out we have three small kids asks if we're going to hire a helper, we have to hold ourselves back from asking, "Do we look like we traffic in human misery?"

The thing is, in Hong Kong, help is cheap: just $500 a month, and a one-time fee of $1,200. That's not much to pay for someone who'll do the laundry; mop the flat; go to the green market for vegetables, the wet market for fish, and the grocery store for pasta, toilet paper, and mango juice. Sometimes just getting a kid to school in this town can take an hour and a half—and she has to be picked up again at the end of the day and taken across town to ballet lessons and English lessons and piano lessons. If we were going to be in Hong Kong for more than just a year, could we really resist the temptation to get so much help for so little cost?

Back in grad school, in a course on multicultural literature, we spent a lot of time discussing the "white man's burden." "We're arrogant," a classmate said one day. "We go into countries and think we're helping people, but really we're making their lives worse."

I should have kept my mouth shut: I absolutely got her point—is there a part of the world we haven't screwed up? But, like an idiot, I raised my hand and talked about my stint in Africa a decade earlier—how one of our projects involved digging a well so that village women wouldn't have to walk three miles from the creek carrying 15-gallon jugs on their shoulders. Wasn't that a good thing? I asked.

Whoever it was I was debating looked smug. "But how do you know," she responded, "that that six-mile walk wasn't the best part of their day because they didn't have to cook or tend to children, and they could be alone with their thoughts?"

"Because they told me so," I said, and might as well have added, "when we were sipping mocha lattes and trading strudel recipes"—it was that big a lie.

But she had me. I didn't know. And in the end, I'm not sure I left the course with any clear sense of direction about how to act in a situation like the one with digging the well, or now, with hiring helpers. Which is fair enough—education isn't meant to give us the answers, just the pole to fish with, or the hoe to dig with. But tell a mildly insecure, navel-gazing academic that the best thing to do in any situation is to question one's own judgment, and what you get is a severely insecure, navel-gazing academic who can't figure out whether to go forward or backward and who ends up metaphorically standing in the metaphorical corner of the not-so-metaphorical moral ballroom of life.

In short, my wife and I don't know how to respond to the helpers of Hong Kong—who are always women—or to the people who employ them. On the one hand, it's none of our damn business. On the other hand, the people who employ them are our friends, and we're around them and their helpers a lot.

Maybe you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong, relative to some places, treats these women very well. In Malaysia, for instance, the government has only just passed laws that standardize helpers' salaries, give them a day off each week, and forbid employers to hold their passports. Those kinds of laws have existed in Hong Kong for years.

And Ellen makes the point that we have helpers in the States, too, only instead of employing one person, we farm out our housework to several parties: A team of women come in twice a month to scrub our floors and Clorox our toilets, and two other women take care of our kids. Of course, we pay those folks more than $500 a month, though we don't give them health insurance, something that's covered in Hong Kong.

But still, we don't make anyone sleep in our home. That's what I keep coming back to: those tiny rooms with no air conditioning. How bad must your life be that you look at sleeping in 100-degree heat, getting up at dawn, washing someone else's shirts, and getting only two weeks off a year to fly home to your family as an improvement?

I mention this to my colleague Stuart one day over lunch in the campus canteen. He's Canadian and a smart guy who's lived all over. He and his wife are two of the most generous people we know.

"I'm not sure," he says, after I've spent 20 minutes trying to come up with a metaphor to describe those tiny rooms. "Abigail's already told us that she won't be renewing. It's too bad, because she's great."

"What's she going to do?"

"Go back to the Philippines. She and her husband have a couple kids there, little ones. Her husband's a foreign worker, too, in Saudi Arabia, and she only gets to see him and the kids once a year. They've been doing this for years, saving money to build a house."

"A house? Really?"

He nods his head. "The standard of living in the Philippines is horrible. Abigail makes as much here in four months as she would there in a year, so coming here to work makes sense."

A few nights later, we're invited to Stuart's for dinner. We gather their kids and ours around the coffee table and slice hot dogs and pour ketchup before retreating to the dining room for grown-up pork chops and Szechuan vegetables. Once the food's on the table, we notice Abigail only once, peering out of the laundry room to check our progress.

Eventually Jamie, our youngest, makes it clear that he's sick of hot dogs, so I grab a chop, cut it up, and put a few pieces on his plate. I feed him a little and he eats. I drift back to my seat. Every few minutes, though, I go back, spear a few more pieces, and make sure he eats.

Then I get distracted. It might have been the spicy vegetables, the wine, the conversation about living abroad. When I finally get back to Jamie, Abigail is sitting on the floor beside him, forking bits of pork into his mouth. She's cleared all the dishes but his, and I assume she's feeding him so that she can finish up and start in the kitchen.

"That's very nice of you," I say, "but you don't have to do that." Jamie's taking the food from her happily, like a baby bird.

"It's OK," she says. "I like doing it." And wipes her cheek with the back of her hand.

And then I understand that she is crying.

Paul Hanstedt is a professor of English at Roanoke College. He is in Hong Kong on a special administrative Fulbright scholarship. His blog is www.whiteboyfromwisconsin.blogspot.com