A Domestic Helper’s Life

This is a piece written by Catherine M., who worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for 18 years. 

I’ve left it exactly as she wrote it – it’s Catherine’s story and her experience.  I’m very grateful to her for allowing me to share it.

Reading this prickles my skin, puts tears in my eyes, and gives me so much hope – each time. 

Please share Catherine’s eloquent expressions of sadness, wisdom and, ultimately, love – to recognise the dignity and sacrifice of the domestic helper.

A Domestic Helper’s Life – A Closer Look
By: Catherine M.

If we could see most lives from the insides, there will be a long list of disappointments, loss and failures. But there will be kindness, friendship and Love. Love that keeps us going.

The chance to work abroad came to me at an early age. To any naive 19 year old, it would have been frightening, daunting and even to a point, cruel. However, to me, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. A glimmer of hope. A mean to survive. It would mean food on the table, school fees for my sisters. A way to fix the house instead of praying in earnest that the next typhoon will not blow it away. Also maybe, soon my parents do not have to wake up at three in the morning to go to the market for our turo-turo (eatery) anymore.

People at home view life abroad through the beautiful pictures their love ones have sent to them. By the enormous packages they received and by the remittances they drew from a hole on the wall or delivered to their doors. I was one of them then and could hardly wait to start living the life of “privileged” , commonly enjoyed by those with relatives overseas.

With those aspirations, I boldly ditched my mother’s application and sent mine instead. No one knew. No one was expecting it. Why would I leave? I was a campus figure, an event organizer in our community, and for the first time, my elusive heart was in love. Love that guided me as I traveled the dark side of migration. Love that cheered me up and helped define who I am today. A love that stubbornly refuses to see the ugliness of the world, as migration showed me plenty. Instead, it patiently and tenderly understands.

Hong Kong, however, has its own story to tell.

No one told me that to be smart, you have to be stupid. That to be beautiful or acceptable in a jealous (?) Madam’s eyes, you have to be ugly. You have to forget who you are and be someone else- a maid. An extra pair of hand to do what they want done. You cannot be sick, you cannot be sad. You have to switch off your feelings and mind because you are being paid to do as told and emotions, especially homesickness have no place. You have to learn to hide it, and learn to put a smile on your face no matter how much your heart aches. Your world evolves within the four walls of the flat/ house of your employer.

No matter how beautifully we portray it to the outside world, the reality of it all could not be any closer to that. No one saw photos of the bruises and calluses, of us in aprons and hair nets, or loaded with grocery bags with a toddler in one hand, a stroller in another. None. I could almost assure you of that. What our family saw are photos of us during Cinderella day, our days off when we could at least dress nicely, meet our friends and have fun. Why, you ask? What’s the point. We don’t want them to worry about us, and maybe subconsicouly, we do not want to be pitied .

Lucky are those whose employers know the word- compassion. Or those who longs for home and affection found them from their wards, like I did. Tiny little hands, tiny little people with sticky fingers wiping my tears away saying “ I love you” was the love that was a salve to my aching soul when no other love was around. Fast forward 18 years, where I am now in my 6 bedroom, 6 bath house ,- the fruit of my labor – and the memory of those nights still makes me cry and appreciates them even more so now.

Overseas, in an inferior industry, many of us feel inferior and would say, “ I’m just a maid” when asked what we do for a living. We forget that to be a maid, you have to be an exceptional person. Someone who must have the strength , the courage, the selflessness to weather it all and enduring love that would help keep us going when giving up and going home would have been easier. It saddens me when I meet people who denies the nature of her/his job and would rather live in a make believe corporate world, falsely thinking that a job description defines a man.

18 years in Hong Kong made me see both extremes of life. The good and bad. From the denial that Santa is not real until secondary school so we could have an apple and chocolate in our stockings , to now playing Santa to the street children so they could have memorable Christmas. From borrowing clothes to wear whenever I needed to go on stage to receive an award, to now having more than enough new clothes to wear for a long time. From running away from my employer’s house at dawn with nowhere to go, no purse in order to escape from my boss’s father-in-law who almost raped me to traveling across the world, standing in front of the old masters, admiring the beauty of Autumn, and snow flakes. From being called stupid on a daily basis to working for someone who encouraged, inspired and motivated me to grow to become a better person and employee.

Life has been difficult, mostly because I have been too giving and kind and extremely tolerant of others. But I have so much more to be thankful for. I am lucky to have found friends who in themselves are priceless. Lucky to be working for a wonderful person who redefines kindness and compassion. A proud “ mom” of my baby–The Writers’ Guild and the little difference it makes to people.
Like everyone else, my heart has been broken and maybe would still be, but I know I have broken many hearts as well, for a reason. If there is something that makes me proud of myself s that even to this day, in solitude, when I try to think of someone I hate, wish ill or angry at, there is no one. Only love, understanding and maybe a little sadness for some.

We all have our own reason why we are here and we chose our own destiny. I know what mine is. To make sure that Kindness, the most beautiful face of Love becomes a continuous cycle. Paying forward, so to speak.

Life abroad is a playing field where double-faced individuals are plentiful. You will never know which face you will be dealing with next time, which one to trust. Do I judge them? No. We are all the result of life’s tapestry and whilst we have all had many trials to face and overcome differently, I can say that they make us a better person. Stronger and more understanding, far less cynical and made us more willing now than ever before, to be tolerant and spend a while walking in other people’s shoes.

Overseas work could easily crush a person’s dream, as life has a habit of throwing things under our feet to trip us up just when we do not need it. Contract termination, physical abuses, sexual abuses, loan sharks. These hiccups make us the people we are but we should always remember that we control who we will become. We just do not live for the now, but for the many tomororows to come. We must pick ourselves up; put the past into boxes and never forget they are there because they are life’s experiences. We keep them for future reference but try not to carry them as a burden into the future.

To survive and triumphed over the overseas saga, we need these: Heart, Mind and Lunacy.
A heart that over flows with love and compassion, a mind that could talk sense to our vulnerable heart and educate us that it is okay to say no from the constant demand to us, and seek help when needed.” Lunacy”, where we could laugh at ourselves and with the world. We must remember that Manners make the man , but it is Love that makes life worth living. Love that has no measure, except when there is none.

What you have read is not just my story. It is yours, too. No matter what we are here for and why, we need to find the balance between our heart, our mind and our ability to see things from the lighter perspective. In a way, it is innate to each one of us, but THE difference that would define us as individuals and would set the good from the bad apart lies with one and only one word -Scruples.

Without which, no one should stand tall.

22 Comments Add yours

  1. Susannah says:

    this is beautiful and inspiring. thank you.

  2. Toni says:

    Catherine, thankyou for sharing your story. It made me feel sad that people can treat others so poorly, but I also wanted to stand up and applaud you for the way you’ve lived your life, not allowing yourself to become as mean-spirited as your former employers.
    I wish you every happiness in the future.


    JADE — what can I do to help others in Catherines’ position??

    1. jadeluxe says:

      That’s the thing, Toni. It’s hard to know what to do without being either patronising, or jeopardising helpers’ legal positions.

      At this point my first plan is to increase awareness, especially amongst other women with families – this is a situation I wouldn’t have even known about if I hadn’t moved to Hong Kong, so I would like to share it with others. I guess it feels like giving back a bit of dignity if people acknowledge the sacrifice helpers make.

      Thanks for your comment xx

  3. Jenny says:

    Catherine, you write like a poet! Your story is a very good reminder that domestic helpers are indeed “exceptional people”. I was really moved by the part where you talk about people back home thinking domestic helpers are living an exceptional life because of the Cinderella photos sent home.

  4. Jenny says:

    Sorry, I meant “privileged life” in the last line.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Always an editor 😉 Thanks Jenny xx

  5. coffeetolive says:

    What an inspiring post! Beautifully written, I could feel every word touch my soul. Not only for Catherine’s struggles, but also for her outlook and philosophy on life. When I’m getting caught up in my own head, I’m going to look back on this post and remember to pay forward the kindness and take in and give out love.

    Catherine, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. xoxox

  6. Jo says:

    I love this whole post, but especially this –

    “We all have our own reason why we are here and we chose our own destiny. I know what mine is. To make sure that Kindness, the most beautiful face of Love becomes a continuous cycle.”

  7. Such a beautiful and thought provoking piece of writing. Thank you so much for sharing your story Catherine.
    I completely understand about sharing the “cinderella” photos – I think I do -this too, it’s always easier to show people the happy times and put up a brave and smiling face than to show all the shitty stuff that goes on. And MY shitty stuff is obviously so so so much less than what domestic helpers have to bear.
    You are an inspiration, and your story will make me think twice about all the people I see who have had to leave their families, for one reason or another.
    Thank you. x

  8. Jenny says:

    Yes, it’s exactly like choosing what we put on Facebook. Most people’s posts are 90% positive news. On occasions when I have put that I’m feeling crap with a cold or something mundane like that, I have got outpourings of sympathy that I wasn’t comfortable with!

  9. ellebee08 says:

    Dear Catharine: Your story is both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Sometimes we need to hear about the hardships that people like yourselves have gone through, in order to try to have a better life, to put things into perspective. Fancy cars, houses, clothes and possesions do not take the place of love, caring or compassion. Thank you for sharing your life with us. You are an excellent writer.

  10. bigmossie says:

    Hello. This is Catherine. Thank you all, for taking the time to read what I’d written, and for the compliments.

    To be a helper in HK has it’s wonderful moments, that is a fact. Oherwise, no one would be working there.

    We do not have the monopoly of the pains and sacrifices, but our love for our families, the reason why we left home is our own downfall. Filipinos'( infamous?) extended family makes it very difficult for a helper to save up even after working for may years. I know I was lucky because I found someone who taught me how to invest in the the stock marker in London, and has been successful but I did save up the capital. Depriving myself a night away in LKF, latest gizmos etc.( but shoes. Yes, shoes is an entirely different story :)..

    How can you help helpers like me? A little understanding, a little compassion but most of all, by educating your helper on how to save up, for the future.

    Again, thank you.


  11. jadeluxe says:

    So true, Catherine…! MaryJane (our helper) has friends who have been here 20+ years and have nothing to show for it.

  12. Pans says:

    I am appalled, so much more bucked up on Catherine’s piece. I have never worked on such a “level” (sic) but literally I feel “sick” as what others generally conceive a domestic helper as they are. These are gallant and courageous individuals who shun glorious titles, ennobling semantics but instead fulfill work with passion and honor with no other intent but to fend for the folks back home. It takes a lot of grit..tears of blood and a stoic heart to be one. I am proud to have met and known Catherine personally. I have been in the corporate world for over twenty years but now I get to ask myself..what have I really done?

  13. jadeluxe says:

    Hi ‘Pans’. No doubt domestic helpers have a stoic heart, and way more courage than I think I’ll ever have. I am also full of admiration for them – more than admiration – especially for my own helper, who is really a third parent to my kids. She shows them as much love and kindness as if they were her own. And she’s also very proud of her job and how she does it – as she should be – because as you say, it’s such an important job and one few people in this world could sustain. So, all respect to them.

  14. Kristyn says:

    A very familiar story to me. As a Filipino, I’ve heard and seen these experiences first hand. I used to live with a Filipino maid when I was studying in Singapore. At least I was able to help her in some ways but I saw how hard she worked. She worked full time 6 days a week for $350 a month!

  15. Jade says:

    Kristyn, I believe – from what my helper tells me, and what I read in the newspapers – that SG helpers are treated even worse than HK ones in terms of no protection whatsoever, extremely low minimum wage, no mandated holidays etc. Very sad. Do you have any family who have worked as FDHs? One thing I will say, when I went to Philippines for work a while back, I was touched to see how respected the FDHs are there. There were signs all over the airport and the streets saying thank you to them for their hard work, and special channels for them in the airport etc. (I’m sure you know all this already). At least Phils has some pride in their overseas workforce, you could really sense it. I don’t think Indonesia does. The Indo girls seem to be really alone here.

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  17. Pie says:

    very nice story and very well written. 🙂 salamat for sharing

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  19. Tin says:

    That’s the enigma of working as a helper. It truly is not just a story of one person but the whole filipino domestic helper’s community. Salamat po!

  20. Tricia says:

    Read this again an brought tears in my eyes…. and at the same time, warmed my heart.

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