Monday 17 January 2011

Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

A couple of weeks ago I went for a pedicure with a friend. We often go together, and have a package of 10 pedicures so that we can sit and chat and drink coffee while our feet are made flip-flop ready. OK, this is sounding wrong already...Hmm. How to explain? Can I explain? No, I won't, I'll just leave it there as it is, think what you will.

While we sat getting dead skin shaved off our feet, and picking a nail varnish colour, we returned to a topic of conversation that is often on our minds. Helpers. Like her, we never expected to have a helper / maid / amah, we didn't budget for one, we didn't choose where we lived with that in mind. Then one day near the beginning of my pregnancy, we went for an ultrasound scan and the technician asked "Can you count them?" THEM?! So all the umming and ahhing about whether we would need a helper was over. In fact, many people said that we would need two helpers, and indeed quite a lot of my friends with twins do have 2 helpers.

Anyway, the point is that we were complaining about our helpers. Well, not complaining but discussing the best way to manage certain things. For example, when the boys were ill, our helper (V) had very strong opinions about how to look after them, and her 9 years' experience with a Chinese family meant that her opinions did not match ours. V is a fantastic helper - she's kind, patient, imaginative, discreet, cheerful....I could go on. In short, I am thankful every day that we found her, and that she said yes! So we were sitting talking about our helpers, and I realised ow uncomfortable I felt. I think this stems from the fact that helpers do things that I did myself once upon a time (badly, grudgingly and not very often, especially when it came to cleaning the bathroom!) It's hard to find the right balance - helpers are doing a job. They are paid for it, and it's not immediately obvious why I still feel wrong when V makes me a cup of tea, or sweeps the floor while I check my emails. She hates it when I try to do things myself - if I go to make myself a cup of tea, or clear the table, she quietly but firmly interrupts me, and says "I'll do it ma'am". I try to remember that if my boss kept arbitrarily doing things that were part of my job, I'd be pretty narked. So I try to let her get on with it, while making sure that on her day off I am still capable of caring for myself, my husband and our boys.

It's all made harder (and easier, depending on how you look at it!) when you consider that there's a legal requirement that helpers live with their employers. V is wonderful, so far I have very rarely found it annoying or intrusive to have her in our home - I think I am so grateful for all she does for us that I couldn't possibly be irritated. We are lucky that we have 3 bedrooms, so she has the spare room rather than a helper's room (often to our eyes, these are little bigger than cupboards) She is definitely part of our family, in a slightly removed way.

I know that things may change - we had a helper previously - we really rubbed each other up the wrong way, so we terminated that contract. I suppose that experience has made me all the more grateful for V. Mothers of older kids have told me that their needs from a helper change a great deal as the children get older, and of course that may happen. I wonder how things will evolve as the boys get old enough to be disciplined for example. But for now, all is well. And I hope that no one who overheard our conversation at the salon formed a bad opinion of us. I fear that I would have done, pre-babies, pre-V, if I had heard people like us, getting pampered and complaining about their full-time, live-in, low-salaried maid.

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