Friday, September 25, 2009


            When we first got our housing in Hong Kong, one of my soon-to-be colleagues sent me a copy of the floor plan.

“Holy crap,” I said to Ellen.  “You could land an airplane in there.”

Seriously, we’d been expecting an “urban experience,” our euphemism for five people crammed into a room designed for storing wicker furniture, and “complete with shower” meant you could bath while sitting on the toilet. 

The floor plan, though, showed a spacious flat with a large kitchen, separate dining and living room areas, and not one, not two, but—

“Hey!” I hollered to Ellen, even though she was standing right behind me reading over my shoulder.  “There are four bedrooms.”

“That’s the study,” she said (did I mention our airport has a study?).

“No.”  I pointed, gloating; it’s very seldom I trump Ellen on anything, and when I do, I like to push it so far that I end up sleeping on the couch. 

She leaned in.  “Huh,” she said, reluctant to admit I was so much smarter than her—or at least had better eyesight.

“See the bed?”

“Yeah, but look:  no windows.”

“There’s a bathroom right beside it.”

She used the mouse to zoom in.  “Is that a washer and dryer?”

I wrote an e-mail to my colleague, asking if it was a bedroom, and if so, would it be a good place for Jamie to sleep?

“Those are servants’ quarters,” she e-mailed back.  “I just use them for storing suitcases.”


Turns out she’s about the only one.  We haven’t actually gone door to door and taken a survey (“Excuse me, but do you traffic in human flesh?”) but we’re pretty sure that, save the couple upstairs from us, we’re the only people in four floors of faculty quarters that does not have a “helper.”

In fact, turns out that roughly 10% of the HK population has a real live human being stuffed away in a broom closet somewhere.  And I do mean closet.  No windows.  No air conditioning.  And—ahem—a bathroom with a showerhead in the corner, so that you can bath while sitting on the toilet—something I’ve always longed to do, preferably with a laminated copy of Cooking Light. 

Why, you ask, does 10% of the HK population have a domestic helper of this sort?  Well, the reasons are many:  first, there’s the fact that a lot of HK families are dual income, meaning someone’s got to take care of the kids, feed the dog, and mop the floors.  Then there’s the fact that—well—they’re cheap.  Really cheap.  Really really really cheap.


Think about it: for a one-time fee of HK$9600 and a mere HK$3580 a month, you too can have someone who cooks all your food, does all your dishes, takes the kids across town to school, picks them up again and takes them to ballet lessons and English lessons and accordion lessons.  They’ll do your laundry, water your plants, shop for groceries, polish your silver spoon until it’s so light and shiny you barely notice it’s in your mouth.  All for (more or less) 500 US dollars a month.  I’ve bought handbags that cost that much (not for me of course, but for a friend of mine named, um, Tall Hanstand).  And that $1250 US down payeent? There are clothes dryers that cost more—and all they do is dry clothes.

At least once a week someone we know or someone we’ve just met whose found out we have three kids will ask if we’re going to hire a helper.  “NO!” we’ll say with a snort.  “What are you, crazy?”

We don’t really, of course.  Though frankly, that’s what we’re thinking.  I’d like to say this is because we’re in some way morally superior, but it’s more complicated than that.  Truth be told, we’re just not domestic helper types.  Ellen won’t even take aspirin to cure a headache; I can hardly see her paying somebody else to pick up her dirty socks.  It’s probably just as well, too, because my guess is if we brought a helper into our home, within a matter of weeks I’d have hired four or six hundred, formed them into an army.  At dusk, you’d find me in the bathtub, pouring water over my head like some sort of naked ape and mumbling something about how someday I may call and ask for a favor, but for now, this is to do honor to my daughter’s wedding day.

No, when someone asks us if we’re going to hire a helper, we just shake our heads and leave it at that, or explain that we’re only here for a year, or that Ellen’s not working, so there’s no need. 

Back when I was in grad school, I remember taking a multiculture literature class and having a discussion about the white man’s burden.  “We’re so arrogant,” one of my classmates said.  “We go into these countries and think we’re helping people, but really we’re making their lives worse.”

I should have kept my mouth shut, of course, but when have I ever done that?  I absolutely got her point—I mean, geez, is there a part of the world we haven’t screwed up?—but I was also starting to see a peculiar theory-geek laissez-faire going on with some of my classmates, a sort of, “Whatever we do we’re damned to oppress, so we should just shut up and sit on our hands.”  Actually, it might have been the professor who said, that, or maybe the dean, or my mom, but someone said it and several people nodded in agreement.

Anyhow, stupid straight white dude that I was, I raised my hand and talked about my stint in Africa a decade earlier, how one of the projects we’d worked on was digging a well outside a village so that the women wouldn’t have to walk five miles each way to and from a sometimes dry creek, carrying two fifteen gallon jugs on their backs.  Wasn’t that a good thing? I asked.

Whoever it was I was debating looked awfully smug and white and grad studenty in her carefully faded jeans and pseudo-second hand Italian scarf.  “But how do you know,” she demurred, “that for those women that 10-mile walk wasn’t the best part of their day, because they didn’t have to cook or tend to children, and they could talk to their friends or be alone with their thoughts?”

“Because they told me,” I said.  When we were having cappuccino and trading scone recipes, I might as well have added, it was that big a lie.  

But she had me.  I didn’t know.  And this was annoying.  Because seriously, what good is it being an American if you can’t go into some minimally developed country and throw your weight around?  And worse, not only can’t you do that, you can’t even go and get all judgmental, pointing fingers and telling folks they should act like this or like that and don’t they know they shouldn’t make their wives walk ten miles carrying water? 

In the end, the worst thing about all of this was that I’m not sure I left the class with any clear answers about how to act in a situation like the one with the well, or now, with the helpers.  Which is fair enough—education isn’t meant to give us the answers, just give us the fish to fish the well with, or something like that.  But even so, tell a mildly insecure, navel-gazing academic type (I was getting my PhD in Victorian literature after all) that the best thing to do in any situation is question your own judgment and motives, and what you get is a severely insecure, navel-gazing academic type who can’t figure out whether to go forward or backward and ends up metaphorically standing in the metaphorical corner of the not-so-metaphorical moral ballroom of life. 

Indeed, there are times where I wonder if my advanced education didn’t strip me of some common sense approach to ethical behavior that would let me know how to behave in situations like this.  Even now, I’ll find myself apologizing to my boss for not checking with her first before taking some course of action.  “I’m still learning the protocols,” I said.  “I hope I didn’t step on your toes.”

At which she’ll roll her eyes.  “It’s not like that here,” she’ll say.  “Just go do what you need to do.  You don’t need permission.”   It’s like I keep thinking there’s some secret Hong Kong code of behavior, a handshake maybe, or a special brick I need to push so that I can find the hidden passage with Frank and Joe at the end, tied to straight-backed chairs and gagged with torn sheets.


All of which is a roundabout way of saying what should be obvious:  I don’t know how to respond to these helpers.  Or more to the point, I don’t know how to respond to the people who employ them.  On the one hand, it’s none of our damn business.  On the other hand, these are our friends, and we’re around them and their helpers a lot—sometimes in fact, we interact more with the helpers than we do their bosses.  If Ellen or I go to the market on a weekday morning, we’re not surrounded by women in pearls and heels, but the Philippine and Indonesian women that make up 98% of the hires helpers in Hong Kong.  Sometimes on Sundays we’ll go into the city center and find ourselves surrounded by thousands upon thousands of helpers, camped out on blankets in parks and shady walkways, playing cards and sharing food out of tuperware with their friends.  The noise is unreal, cacophonous, like flocks of geese arguing politics. 

Then you have to consider the fact that, relative to some countries, Hong Kong treats these women very well.  In Malaysia, for instance, only recently have they passed laws that standardize helper salaries, provide helpers a day off each week, and forbid employers from holding the helper’s passport.  These are laws that have existed in Hong Kong for years.  And a good thing, I might add. 

But then I step into what we call our suitcase room and go, Holy Jesus, it’s hot in here.   And then my mind will picture laying in that pitch black room at night, no AC to cool you off, no window letting in a breeze or the sound of crickets, just lying on your back in the dark trying not to sweat, trying to sleep, knowing you have to get up before everyone else come morning.  And my inner claustrophobe rears it’s ugly head and screams, “Why don’t you just bury them alive already?”  (In matter of fact, I have screamed this, but only in the context of a departmental meeting about learning outcomes and assessment rubrics, and at that point I replaced “them” with “me.”)

Ellen makes the point that we have helpers in the States, only instead of having one person to do everything, we farm it out to several parties:  one lady comes in twice a month to scrub the floors and Clorox our toilet, and another pair of women take care of our kids.  Of course, we pay these folks more than $500 a month (much more,;oh lordy, so much much more) but then, we don’t give them health insurance, and that’s covered for the helpers in HK. 

But still, we don’t make our Laura and Jessica sleep in closets (as much as, on occasion, we may be tempted to do so—just kidding).   And that’s what I keep coming back to:  those tiny airless rooms.  How bad must your life be that you look at sleeping in 3,000 degree heat, getting up at dawn, bleaching the crap out of other people’s underwear, only getting two weeks a year to fly home and see your family—that you look at that as an improvement? 

I mentioned this to my friend Drew the other day.  Drew’s a Canadian and a smart guy who’s lived all over the world.  He and his wife are two of the most generous people I know. 

“I’m not sure,” he said, after I’d spent 20 minutes looking for a metaphor to describe those tiny rooms, finally settling on “dead baby whale, without all the goo.” “Our helper’s already told us that she won’t be renewing.  It’s too bad, too, because she’s great.”

“What’s she going to do?”

“Go back to the Philippines.  They have a couple kids there, I think, little ones.  Her husband’s a foreign worker, too, in Japan, I think, and she only gets to see him and the kids once a year, when we fly her back.  They’ve been doing this for a few years, saving money to build a house.”

“A house?  Really?”

He nodded his head.  “Living is cheap in the Philippines.  She quit an office job to come work for us.  It must have made some sort of economic sense.”

A few nights later, we’re invited over to Drew’s for dinner.  It’s the first time I’ve eaten somewhere where the food’s prepared by a person other than the host. This makes for awkward moments—who do you complement if you like the pie?—but all in all it’s a nice evening. 

Drew and his wife have a bunch of kids, so we gather all of theirs and all of ours around the coffee table and cut up their hotdogs and pour their ketchup before gathering around the bigger table for pork chops and Szechuan vegetables.  Occasionally Ellen or I cross to the kids to make sure they’re getting something in their bellies besides apple juice.  Once the food’s on the table, only notice the helper once, peeking out of the laundry room to see if it’s time to clear the dishes.

Eventually, Jamie makes it clear that he’s not going to eat his hot dog, subtly making his point by spitting bits of masticated meat onto his plate, the floor, and our hosts’ dog.  I grab an extra chop, cut it up, and put a few small pieces on his plate.  I feed him a little and he eats, chewing carefully, so I drift back to my seat.  Every few minutes or so, though, I go back to the coffee table, spear a few more pieces, and shove them in his mouth. 

Then I get distracted.  I don’t know, it might have been the spicy vegetables, the wine, the double-chocolate chocolate mousse they’re serving for dessert.  Anyway, when I finally get back to Jamie, Nellie is sitting on the floor beside him, forking bits of pork chop into his mouth.  She’s cleaned up all the dishes but his, and I assume she’s feeding him so that she can finish up and start in the kitchen.

“That’s very nice of you,” I say, “but you don’t have to do that.” Jamie’s taking the food from her happily, like a baby bird, leaning forward to receive her fork. 

“It’s okay,” she says.  “I like it.”

And then she wipes one cheek with the back of her hand. 

And then, of course, I know that she’s crying. 


1 comment:

Najla said...

Ohhhh... this made me so very sad.