Just over a year ago, I wrote this in my other blog about how it felt to have hired a live-in helper. Some things have shifted a bit in my mind in the past year; other things, like the unimaginable luxury of it, not at all. Now, after a year, MaryJane is as much a part of our family as someone from a completely different background, experience and nationality can be. When I think of it in those terms, it’s quite bizarre that my friends and family back home don’t really know the first thing about her. They are still surprised when they learn she actually lives with us. I got some educating to do (or some learning on disclosure, either or…). But that’s for another post, maybe. This one is more just about me being an unmitigated wanker in the first days of having a helper.
One of the best things about living here, if not the best, is having a live-in helper. Most families here seem to have one, expats and locals alike. They do the childminding, cooking, cleaning, and shopping, all for around AU$110 a week (the legal minimum was is HK$3700/month). They’re predominantly Filipina and one of the most interesting things to do here is walk about the place on a Sunday and see how long it takes to spot a Chinese person. For Sunday is helpers’ day off, and Filipinas take over the streets. Clusters of young Pinoy women gather in churches and parks, on overpasses, subways, and any other available space, and share picnics, sing along with guitars, and pray.
Nearly all of them have children in the Philippines, and are here to work hard and send home as much money as they can. Cleaning other people’s jocks and chasing after their shitty kids all day is something any right-thinking person of any nationality abhors; but these ladies endure it because the pay, inconsequential though it seems to us, is mad scrilla compared to any income they could hope to earn in the Philippines.
There’s far more to be said on the morality issues surrounding hiring a helper, which I won’t go into here (but please bear in mind my not writing about them doesn’t mean we didn’t give them all due consideration.)
In any case, there’s no daycare centres or childcare here, so we didn’t really have an option. We have thus employed MaryJane. She approached me one night as I was returning home from work to Pak Wai, the village we were temporarily staying in and where she was employed by a family with a 5-, 4- and 2-year-old. And she asked me for a job. She wanted to leave her current job because they were only paying her HK$2,000 a month (which is about AU$240). With this she had to survive herself, and support her four children back home, aged 6 to 12, and her mother, and her wheelchair-bound husband. She worked from 5am until midnight, six days a week, and shared a room with the 5-, 4- and 2-year-old. On her day off, she did two part-time cleaning jobs to try and bridge some of the shortfall in her mandated minimum wage.
I suppose she should have considered herself lucky to have a bedroom at all, given that most of the helpers live in tin demountables parked illegally on house rooftops, or in the cavity under the stairs.
Also, she had to play Farmville on Facebook “as” her employer. What?!
A protracted period of debates, discussions and research culminated in us hiring her. Upon resigning from one employer and taking up with a new one, a helper must return to their place of origin. So, six weeks ago, MaryJane headed back to Manila to await the reissuing of her employment visa. In the meantime I got repeatedly swindled by the recruitment agent, the Immigration Department, and the Philippines embassy. Despite paying an expedition fee, we ended up waiting longer than the usual four weeks for MaryJane’s visa to be reissued. I had to chase the agent every day. It turns out the Immigration Department put the wrong chop on a document (and in Hong Kong, nothing is more important than having the correct chop on a document.) In Manila, MaryJane was being swindled by the agency’s office there, having to pay many pesos for things I’d already paid for. I remain completely infuriated by the process but pretty much unable to do anything. It’s like that one time, in Africa, crossing the border between Kenya and Tanzania, or it might have been Kenya and South Africa. ‘Immigration’ was a wooden shack with a boom gate in front of it. Men with machineguns ushered us off the minibus and into the shack where we were to present our passports and pay the fee, which according to the sign on the wall was US$100 but according to the warlord behind the desk was US$400. I remember my dad arguing with him and making many reasoned points about extortion, extrapolated out to the downfall of African society, with mentions of the greed of one man typifying all the manifold problems of East Africa. I admired his proponence of liberty and his fight against The Man, but the fact of the matter is, The Man had a machinegun and in Kenyan and Tanzanian border towns, The Man will kill the whitey if he doesn’t make with the US$400. It took a while to reach my dad on his justice crusade, but after much whispered pleading we convinced him to part with the cash and so relieved were we to get back on the minibus alive and retaining passports, we were even content to listen to his proclamations on the state of Transvaalean politics.
It seems a bit like that in this situation. I got ripped off, MaryJane got ripped off: but she’s here, and it’s in the best interests of her family for her to remain here, so I need to step off the high horse.
It’s actually really very important for her to remain here and earn as much as she can. She lives in a slum area in the Philippines sharing one room (and one bed) with her four daughters. She baulked when she saw that we feed the kids Vita Brits for breakfast (they’re expensive here, because the locals don’t eat cereal. “Expensive” like AU$3/box. Still…)
Nonetheless, I have managed to shame myself with unthinking displays of wasteful and frivolous spending, and embarrassing statements like:
(After an 11-hour day at work) Yeah, I’m sooooooooooo tired.
(The same day) I really missed the kids so much today!
(To Joel, righteously) I can’t believe some people make their helpers take their kids to birthday parties. The ONLY THING I want MaryJane to do is mind the kids. I don’t care if she doesn’t clean at all. Well, she can clean the bathrooms once a week, and cook dinner. And do the shopping. BUT THAT’S IT.
And she’s only been here two days! It’s going to take some adjusting. I foresee a period of covertly drinking Coke in my bedroom and secreting the bottles to work to dispose of.
But already I know I can never return to Australia, for it’s too amazing to return home to a clean house and have dinner on the table! It’s like Joel’s got a real wife at last!
The day she arrived, we said to MaryJane we’d get takeaway but she insisted on cooking something that was already in the cupboard. As I predicted in a post last year, she cooked up six packets of mee goreng noodles and served them on a decorative oval plate. Joel rejoiced. Zadie was pretty happy with the situation too.
But today we went shopping. Or more correctly, MaryJane went shopping and I waited with the kids at Starbucks. I wish I was joking, but not really because there’s no way I want to step inside the wet market, which is where MaryJane proposes to buy our food from now on in order to save money. Nonetheless I could have done better than bloody STARBUCKS. Next thing you know I’ll take to using an ornate personal fan on particularly humid days. Yesterday I let out an involuntary “Aiyaaaah!” when the taxi I was in nearly hit another car. Shortly after, he did hit another car. On purpose. With the impact site squarely centered on the passenger side. “Oh SHIT!” he uttered, “YOU’RE FUCKING KIDDING! Dude are you okay?? I mean, aiyaaaaah…”
*cough* So anyway, the wet markets are no good for my sensitive Western proclivities, especially my ex-vegetarian ones. But, in an effort to appear not quite as much of a Western wanker as I obviously am, I told MaryJane we’d be happy to eat whatever she cooks. A lot of the helpers go through a great daily travail trying to prepare Western dishes, which are so unnatural to them. I’m so grateful someone else is going to be cooking, I figured I’d be happy to eat Philo every night. MaryJane met us at Starbucks after the wet market and (in a surprising development, considering my repugnant character demonstrated in this post thus far) I helped her carry the shopping. I dropped a bag at one point, and as I leaned down to repack the shopping, the first thing my eyes alighted on was A WHOLE CHICKEN, STILL WITH A HEAD. Oh fucking hell. I’ve never been able to come at chicken, and now I’m carrying around a dead one WITH A HEAD??
I stressed about it all afternoon. Twice I even opened the freezer just to look at it; I couldn’t even believe it. At about 4 o’clock my heart palpitations were becoming so alarming I really really hoped we’d (my family, I mean) just eat the chicken tonight for dinner and get it over and done with. I played weakly with the children as MaryJane chopped away in the kitchen. I was really worried about how she was going to remove the head because we don’t have one of those big cleavers or a boning knife or anything. Then I started to think maybe we (they) were going to EAT the head.
She spent a lot of time on the meal and I guess it was the national specialty, because that’s what you’d cook if you were introducing someone to your cuisine for the first time, right? We made our way to the table and awaited our dinner. First bowl down was full of steaming basmati rice, each elongated grain separated and cooked perfectly. The cortisol flooding my body slowed its explosive course. The second bowl appeared to be a soup containing thick triangles of carrot and potato, broccoli florets, and filmy cabbage. At this point I made a timely paschal return to Catholicism and offered up silent prayers of gratitude to my undoubted Lord and Saviour. Being a vegetarian is a wonderful thing sometimes, with its boringly predictable broccoli and carrot. No eyeballs or beaks for me, just mounds of deliciously bland and white rice and potatoes.
But then came the third dish, and it was white also, but it was a fried fish, and IT STILL HAD A HEAD TOO. And we have a small table, and it was placed right near me, and its white dead COOKED EYE was staring right at me. MaryJane removed the skin and invited us to eat. Joel spooned some of each dish into his bowl and I implored him very meaningfully with my eyes to eat more. Rufus and Zadie each ate a bowl of rice and vegies with no complaint. It was okay for them, they didn’t have some dead fish lips gaping at them and also they’re yet too young to grapple with powerful issues of morality.
I served myself up a huge helping of rice, and Joel put some of the fish on my plate (NOT a bit containing any facial features). I dipped my spoon into the bowl of vegie soup stuff and was dismayed to feel it clink against something hard and smooth, which I knew instantly was a bone of some kind, and it was, it was a hip bone, the ball joint, of I don’t even know what animal, and as I continued compelling Joel to eat more and more as quick as he could, the level of soup dropped until I could see the fish head out of one eye, and the shiny ball joint out of the other, and I felt my special stress rash come up hotly across my chest, and I choked non-fatally on a small fishbone as I ate the tiny serving on my plate as quickly as I could. Zadie, wonderful, sweet fidgety child, proved my salvation with a fit of whingeing that surely could only indicate a desperate need for a breastfeed on the couch, where I sat panting in quiet horror.
So today I have been disabused of nearly all my good self-perceptions. Turns out I am as big a wanker as the next expat, with my spectacularly lapsed vegetarianism, unadventurous palate, and unfounded martyrdom.
You see what helpers have to put up with! And I’m supposed to be one of the “good” employers!