Dreams From My Helper: Part One

This is the first story in a four-part series on the culture of domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

The idea of calling someone a maid has always made me uncomfortable.

Coming to America, people often wouldn't understand when I'd talk about my helper, the general term used for au pairs in Hong Kong. "You mean your maid?" they'd ask. I'd always flinch.

One of my earliest and most profound childhood memories is sitting on a small wooden chair on the balcony of my family's apartment in Hong Kong, watching houseboats sway in the marina from which we lived across as a lady braided my hair. I was about five years old, my esteemed hairstylist a Filipina woman named Rita Pineda. She was my family's domestic helper, and the woman I would gradually come to regard as a second mom. Che Che, as I called her - a more vocally accessible shortcut at the time to jie jie, meaning big sister in Mandarin - stayed with my family for eight and a half years. She was a strict disciplinarian, never letting me watch TV after school until I'd finished my homework. "Show me," she'd say. When I was old enough to start bathing myself - and sometimes even when I was older - she'd often call out, "Make sure you wash under the kili kili, ha!" (the armpits). At night, she liked to read me passages from a children's Bible and reminded me to thank God for my blessings before I went to bed. Some days, she'd look out the kitchen window and call out to a Filipina friend and fellow helper walking by. "This is my alaga," she'd say, jerking her head in my direction. My person I'm taking I'm care of.

Sometimes, I would get in trouble with Che Che, for things like falling asleep at the dinner table, putting off bath time or not finishing my eggplant. She would tut in irritation. "Michelle!" she'd snap. To this day, hearing that tone still makes me sit up a little straighter.

My first best friend was a girl named Samantha, the daughter of a German father and a Cantonese mother who would later become my own mom's best friend. Her helper at the time, another Filipina woman I called Aunty Fely, was Che Che's best friend. Every Friday night, Che Che, Aunty Fely and a few other helpers would organize "Girls Nights" - capitalized. We'd start off with dinner at someone's house, usually Samantha's, where the helpers would dole out pasta and chicken wings and pour us plastic glasses of "kids' champagne," otherwise known to most people as sparkling grape juice. Afterward, we'd either watch a Disney movie, play "pretend" games in Samantha's mom's bedroom or - our helpers' favorite - have a dance party. They liked to end Girls' Night by blasting the Macarena, sitting on the arm of the couch laughing and applauding in delight as we sashayed through the routine. "Bravo!" they'd cry.

The night my little sister Melanie was born, it was Che Che who answered the phone and delivered the news to me as my mother rested. It was close to midnight and I was just about to fall asleep. "Now go to sleep and when you wake up, you can meet her," she told me. Later that year, I turned nine and moved to Malaysia for two years to finish elementary school. By the time I was back, Che Che had found work with another family, and since then, has worked with four more, mostly expats who relocated often. "First the French, then the Canadian, then British, and then British, again," she said.

But even as I grew older, my relationship with Che Che hardly waned. When I got into fights with my parents, she was usually the first person I'd think to call. The day I brought home school pictures in junior high, she asked for one and slid it into her wallet, next to her daughter Hazel's. She often proudly told me that the reason my nose looked so different from those of my siblings (whose noses she'd call "mushrooms") was that she'd pinched the spine of my nose as a baby, "so that it'd look straight." Weird as it seemed, the fact that she'd decided to "correct" my nose never really bothered my parents or me. (And I kind of have noticed a difference.)

In her new jobs, usually no more than a 15-minute walk away in our relatively small suburban community of Discovery Bay, she'd often tell her employers about me. For seven years, she worked just down the street from our apartment with a British family, a divorcée named Helen and her three kids. Helen was a kind lady, Che Che told me, an understanding employer who'd always ask about Hazel. She'd also let her have me over on my visits home from college to play with the kids or to eat one of my favorite meals, her roast chicken with gravy and potatoes. Che Che would be offended if I didn't finish. Sometimes as we sat down at the table, she'd tell me about Helen. "You know she wants to go Thailand for plastic surgery?" she said one night as the kids were watching TV. "Yeah, liposuction on the tummy."

She felt sorry for Helen, whose work involved a demanding travel schedule and who complained of never meeting men. "She's saying that she cannot find the right guy in Hong Kong for her, because she's a working mom, and single mom, and she doesn't think that any guy that she can meet in Hong Kong is serious in a relationship."

To read Part Two, click here.