The first time I was called madame it made me blink. But it was our Indonesian cabin steward aboard our cruise ship, so I thought maybe it was a language barrier. He was very polite.
But then it happened again, this time from a Filipino server at the buffet. And again, and again, from various East Asian crew members aboard the Noordam. I began to suspect they were instructed to address me in this way, and it made me squirm. It was courteous, yes, but this isn’t the 1800’s and I’m hardly a madame. I half expected the men to start pulling their forelocks.
In any other situation, I’d be lucky to be considered a member of polite society. I shop at Goodwill more often than I’d care to admit, and my car is 17 years old. And yet, I could afford to take a cruise without having to work thereon for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end to do so. So there’s that. And so I took my awkward place in the cruise ship hierarchy.
Never having grown up in a blatant hierarchical system, such as the class system of Elizabethan England, or in India, where Untouchables still exist in some areas, I’ve never felt comfortable with having people considered greater or lesser than I am. I know this type of discrimination is all around me, of course. I can’t relate to people who buy 700 dollar shoes at Nordstrom, and they often look at me with disdain. If I enter a really rich neighborhood (or a really poor one if I’m honest), I feel uncomfortable. But as a white person in America, much of the time I have the luxury of overlooking these nuances.
I don’t know what it is about cruise ships that cause the layers of society to be so sharply defined, but I couldn’t seem to get away from it during my journey. It was a little hard to take. While I enjoyed my time aboard, it also made me chafe and feel a bit ashamed.
From my observations and also from a lazy Google search, there seems to be 4 distinct classes on the Noordam. Where you found yourself in the pecking order determines how many hours you work, the number of roommates you have, the food you eat, the amount you are paid, and the respect that you are given.
On the top level are the officers. Since Noordam is a Dutch ship, most of them seem to come from the Netherlands, or Northern Europe at the very least. They tend to carry themselves like Gods, and keep themselves separate from everyone else, including the passengers. They eat the best food and often have their own staterooms. Being at the top of the heap, they of course do not appear at all uncomfortable with the system, and in fact can be quite condescending to those below them.
Next come the passengers. We, of course, are a necessary part of the system because we are the cash cows. In fact, a great deal of time and effort is expended on extracting as much money from us as is humanly possible. Upselling is the order of the day. Of course, we have good rooms, based on what we are willing to pay, and good food, with access to even better food, if we are willing to pay. Many of us are decent and kind and probably work hard for the money that we use to pay for the trip. Others are whiny, complaining, entitled a$$hats who seem to expect to be catered to at every waking moment.
The third level is comprised of members of the staff. Mostly they came from the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. They are in charge of the entertainment and administrative aspects of the cruise. They work hard, but their hours are not as long as those of the crew. They often have one roommate, and get more days off in port. Their food is not as good as ours, but it is tolerable.
And then there is the crew. I really felt sorry for the crew. They are predominantly East Asian, particularly from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. They often work 10 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end without a day off. Their pay is abysmal, and their food is even worse. They usually share a room with three to five other people. I honestly don’t know how they manage to remain so courteous, other than the fact that there would be dire consequences for them if they did not.
The entire boat seemed to be full of shining happy people. Everyone acted like they loved their jobs and wanted to be there. Everyone said hello as they passed in the halls, and we were made to feel very comfortable and pampered. But every once in a while, cracks would show on the surface. The exhaustion would become evident. Stress would peek through behind the smiles. Sometimes I had to work really hard not to feel sad and uncomfortable.
I overheard one crew member mention that she just found out on that very day that she lost a loved one, but she wouldn’t let the company know because she didn’t want to break her contract and lose her job. That, and she had no way to get home for the funeral anyway. All this while catering to passengers and smiling, smiling, smiling. It broke my heart.
One of the places where the class division was most evident was in the Vista Lounge, the largest entertainment venue aboard. I always enjoyed my experiences there. Comedians, musicians, demonstrators, educators. It was all good. But I’ve always felt as though cruise ship entertainment was a bit too nervous, a bit too slick and over the top. It didn’t occur to me until my Google search that they were being watched and could lose their jobs if they didn’t give it their all, despite any illness or injury they were experiencing. That’s got to make you feel like a puppet on a string.
One night, volunteers from the Filipino members of the crew put on a variety show for us. It was late at night. Their set pieces were made out of plywood and cardboard, as opposed to all the glitzy, high-end productions on other days. And at the end, a few of the cast members had to rush off to get back to work rather than take a final bow and experience our praise and applause for their efforts.
Come on, Holland America. These people were providing your passengers with free entertainment. Couldn’t you pay them and allow them to miss one hour of work? Couldn’t you provide them with a production budget? That, in a nutshell, is how the hierarchy works on these ships. And there’s no justification for it.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time aboard the Noordam. I’m glad I did it. I’d recommend it to others. I’ll take away many happy memories from the cruise. I’m sure there were passengers who looked at the entire trip through a different lens. As a matter of fact, I often felt like I was seeing things through two different lenses at the same time. The luxury, the fun, the beauty were there as well. But I still felt the things going on below the surface. That’s just how my brain is wired.
One comedian said it best. “How many officers does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They need a Filipino for that.”
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