Dreams From My Helper: Part Two

This is the second story in a four-part series on the culture of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. To read Part One, click here.

Che Che wasn't always so lucky in connecting with her bosses. One day, she was at home when her employer Mimi (whose name has been changed on Che Che's request) returned with her 10-month-old son from a day in the park.

"I saw his knees, there is wounds, and scratch," said Che Che. "I asked her, 'Did you let him crawl on the floor? Because the floor is so rough.' And she told me I don't have the right to ask her a question like that. She said, 'Do you think I'm a bad mother?' She said that two or three times. Then I left. I didn't answer her back."

Che Che went to her room and cried. After that, their relationship slowly deteriorated in numerous similar confrontations, always met by hastily blurted apologies by Mimi, a first-time mother. Within a month, Che Che gave notice. "We argued again. I don't remember what we argued about," she said later to me, pursing her lips. It was the first time she had actually truly disagreed with an employer, and it was clear that these encounters had needled away at her pride.

Che Che, who has always loved kids, described them as the most fulfilling part of her job. Sure, there are a lot of other helpers around, she said. But "you will only see them on Sunday."

Saying goodbye to her alagas, "it hurts me a lot," she said. "It's very difficult to recover. But I have to, because that's life. When you look after kids, because they're not your kids, you have to accept the reality that they're not yours. The only consolation is that all the kids that I look after, they're all in connection with me. That's the only consolation I have."

Che Che had first come to Hong Kong at 35 years old in 1993, about a decade after her sisters Helen and Rose moved to the city for work. She had been there once before to visit, and while it struck her as vastly different from her hometown of Clark, a sprawling developing city about two hours' drive from the capital city of Manila, "it's not crowded at that time," she said. "At first, we don't know anything about Hong Kong. Only the agent says, 'It's okay to work in Hong Kong.'"

Before that, Che Che, the only one of her sisters to have finished high school, had worked as a secretary at a construction firm for 13 years, picking up odd jobs on the side to make money, like selling dresses at a small boutique and a brief stint at the Clark Air Base, a U.S. military facility that would later become the local airport.

"Before, I wanted to be a flight stewardess," she said. "Even when I was young. But I didn't pass the exam because I don't know how to swim."

The job of a flight attendant is a prestigious one in the Philippines, according to Che Che, who'd often push me to apply for work with Hong Kong's largest airline, Cathay Pacific. "You will earn a lot. And the benefits of the flight stewardess is a lot, that include the family," she'd say.

A few years after giving birth to Hazel in Clark, Che Che met a Filipina woman who told her she was recruiting for a Canadian airline. In an elaborate, year-long scheme, Che Che and her friend Loida, who coincidentally had an uncle in Edmonton, got on the bus several times to Manila, where they'd stay at the woman's house, fill out some paperwork and end up paying a 15,000 pesos (now about US$336) "agency fee."

"She'd say what to do, and then she'd say, 'Okay, next week, we're going to train in the airlines,'" said Che Che. "I keep on calling and calling, she's not answering. They said she'd gone back to Canada already."

Scams like these are not uncommon in the Philippines. That was when Che Che decided to join her sisters abroad. "Because if I will not, I cannot send Hazel to school," she said.

There were public schools in Clark, but Che Che had been sending Hazel, then almost seven, to a private institution, the Operation Brotherhood Montessori Center, about a half-hour drive away in neighboring Angeles City. She wanted to give her daughter a "better foundation" than the one she'd received in the government system. "I do not want her to be having a hard time," she said.

The school, founded by Preciosa Soliven, a Philippine ambassador, cost more than 40,000 pesos a year, she added, "more than my salary" even with the side jobs. "I think the [monthly] salary when I went there, was 3,000 Hong Kong dollars," she said of becoming a domestic helper. A year of school for Hazel.

Rose and Helen, who were already there, had attended vocational school for dressmaking and cosmetology respectively, but soon realized that they would make more money working as helpers in Hong Kong. They were eager to begin working, she said, unlike Che Che, who had worked through the day and attended trade school at night.

"At first, they are nervous," Che Che said of her sisters. "Like, of course, because they didn't finish studies, right? The communication between the employers and the helper. Luckily, they learned Chinese easily through picking it up with sign language."

She joked that she was the only one who didn't really know Cantonese, beyond some colloquial terms and phrases. She knew "pung yao" ("friend"; many helpers like to greet bus drivers, for example, with an enthusiastically enunciated "Hello, pung yao!") "um goi" ("excuse me") and "sik fan ah!" ("Time to eat!").

In the market, she learned to ask butchers and vendors, "pung yao, geh qin ah?" meaning "Friend, how much?" Rose taught her to make Chinese household staples: steamed fish, stir-fried vegetables and herbal soup, having received the same training from a local cook hired by her employer.

Being friendly in Cantonese was obligatory, insisted Che Che. "You have to be friends with them, so they won't be nasty to you."

But "I'm not really interested in learning how to speak Chinese," she said smilingly. "Because if they say something not nice about me, I don't want to understand. If I don't understand what they're saying, I'll just laugh."

For Part Three, check back next Wednesday.