Most families in Hong Kong employ a domestic helper.
We certainly do: MaryJane, and frankly we are not moving away from Hong Kong until the kids are fully independent adults because life is just so much easier with three adults to manage two kids.
I’ve spent some time over the past couple of years (often just in my head) bumblingly trying to increase the dignity and awareness of this army of incredibly strong ladies. It will surprise no-one to know that I haven’t been able to effect any legislative change, or in fact conceive any plan to really change many people’s situation at all. (Though there was a victory this week with the helper next door, whose saga I’ve mentioned on my Facebook, finally receiving minimum wage and a guaranteed one day off a month. Now that’s the life…)
Last year, a Canadian steno friend Lisa sent me some money to “do something for helpers”. We exchanged it for HK$300, bought 15 Indonesian phonecards, went straight to the nearest park and looked for helpers to hand them out to. But then I was too embarrassed to actually do it. I just felt like a cock, walking up to a bunch of helpers enjoying their one day off to beatifically hand them a phonecard. I stuck those 15 cards in my wallet and didn’t think about them for a while.
A couple of months later, walking through the transport depot at Hang Hau, I saw a sad-looking helper who had just dropped her young charge at his school bus. She just looked miserable. I wanted to go up to her and tell her I noticed her and please smile. (You see now why none of my grander plans have been realised – I’m completely and utterly idealistic.) But again with not wanting to be a cock. Then I remembered the phonecards! I had an excuse! I pulled two out of my purse, walked over and showed them to her, asking if they were the ones she used. She looked a little confronted – you would too if a random white lady trying really hard to be cas accosted you at the bus stop – but said yes. I offered them to her. There was an awkward moment when she looked crestfallen and indicated her pockets, saying she couldn’t pay me for them. I hadn’t thought this through at all (another trademark of mine). I didn’t want to embarrass her with speeches about dignity and charity; instead, drawing on my experience as Second Understudy (Non-Speaking) of Tavern Boy in my school’s year 8 production of Fiddler on the Roof, I improvised. “Sunrise, Sunset! Sunrise, Sunset! Oh, and I bought these phonecards for my neighbour’s helper but they’re the wrong kind. It’s not like I have anyone to call in Indonesia. I’m just trying to get rid of them.”
With the brightest smile and a heartfelt “Thank you ma’am!”, she took the cards, and an idea was born.
I can just walk around giving out phonecards to helpers!
I have since decided to call this “project” RAT. This is not to associate domestic helpers with the the rodent pest, OF COURSE – even though rats, LIKE MANY HELPERS, are hardy, ingenious and pretty cute! No, it’s because the more I thought about it, the more I realised I could incorporate two of my favourite concepts – ratbaggery, and rat cunning – into the plan. Marry that with a clunky acronym and while I realise you can’t go so far as to say it’s a good name exactly, it’s only about half as offensive as you first thought, right? Originally I was going to say RAT stood for Random Acts of Telephone Cards but that doesn’t really work syntactically. Random Acts of Telephony? Too old-fashioned; and again, nonsensical. Finally I have settled on Random Acts of Tokenism. I like it because it’s a little bit mysterious, and also leaves the door open for distributing other cheap disposables that have no connection to telephonic communication. While retaining the all-important RAT acronym, which in turn leaves open the possibility of designing a logo featuring a rat. On the phone. I’m overthinking this now. I need some marketing assistance rat. I mean stat.
RAT is a simple idea, but one with lots of merit:
-It’s useful. All helpers want to speak to their kids back home. Lots of them don’t even earn AU$500 a month, so they need to send all that money home, not spend it on phonecards. Catch-22.
-It’s not insulting. If you think you’re going to offend the recipient, you can just make up some crap about buying it for someone else or even finding it on the street.
-It’s not so overwhelmingly charitable as to be embarrassing. Helpers want and deserve dignity. They often rightly don’t want grand gestures or gifts. I think a phonecard is just a nice little marker that someone has noticed them and just wanted them to know that.
-It’s cheap. The phonecards cost HK$20 (AU$2.50). I buy a big bunch of them every pay and just stick them in my wallet. And, even if you give one to a helper who doesn’t really need it, or who isn’t a nice person – who cares? It cost virtually nothing! And because it’s cheap, you can do it ALL THE TIME and give this little gift to a huge number of helpers.
-The helper is not going to get in trouble. Sometimes, I want to give helpers money. This would be a problem if their employer found them with it and accused them of stealing. The phonecards are tiny and easy to conceal, and even if they’re “caught” with them, no-one could accuse them of stealing it from their employer’s home (assuming their employer isn’t the same nationality).
-It isn’t illegal or even dubious. It has eminent plausible deniability, breaks no laws, and therefore can’t affect either my or their working visas.
-It feels GOOD. I love to give the phonecards out in the morning. It really does make me feel good for the whole day and do heaps more smiles. Me me me!
The rat cunning element arises because the more I hand out, the more brazen I become. I like to try to hand them to helpers who are with their employers, using eyebrow communication and sleight of hand. The ratbaggery is because I know many employers would not approve of it, so while it’s not illegal, it is kind of…ratbaggy. Phase II of RAT, to be instigated shortly, will involve me and MaryJane parking in village carparks all over the New Territories in the evenings, around the time when helpers are bringing the rubbish down to the bins. In this way we hope to be able to distribute phonecards to helpers who don’t have days off and have no chance of buying phonecards, or being RATted on the street.
I do want to eventually have a way for people to donate, but there are some legalities involved re being here on a working visa and “bringing in income” for an “unregistered charity” at the same time. So until I work out a way to solve that, I encourage anyone reading this in Hong Kong to RAT someone today. I bet you’ve got thousands of those pointless 10-cent and 20-cent coins sitting around. NOT USELESS ANYMORE! Redeem them for RAT cash! Experience for yourself the joy of under-handing a phonecard to a helper!
(I stick loveheart stickers on mine for a personal touch.
Awkward if you’re making up a story about having found it on the street.
I will keep a list of successful distributions below. It’s nice to remember the happy and/or ratbaggy moments! In the meantime, legal advice viz. setting up an organisation which is neither a charity nor conducts any business, but wants an inflow of cash, are welcomed. As are submissions of rat-based corporate logos…