Help – do I need somebody?

Who are you calling Madam? Sweatshirt by Zoe Karrsen

Who are you calling Madam? Sweatshirt by Zoe Karrsen

“Do you have a helper?” a newly arrived expat asks me in the usual way of someone who hasn’t grown up with servants (most of us newcomers to Hong Kong) sussing out whether they should employ staff or not.

As a just off the jet gweilo I found the question of hiring a live in Filipino maid an uneasy one. Being shown around apartments where a cupboard is deemed “the maid’s room” by the agent is alarming. And a tiny, windowless room is luxury – some are given space under the counter in the kitchen.

Seeing groups of women sitting on pieces of cardboard and newspaper laid out on the ground on their day off is also troubling. Then one day it becomes normal and eventually even annoying. My husband, Mr J, actually refuses to go to Central on a Sunday because he doesn’t want to be faced with the endless gaggles of the maids. And as heartless as that sounds, I can’t help but understand what he means.

I admit to losing the will to live while standing behind them at the supermarket check out with their mountainous grocery trollies for their employer’s weekly shop. And then feeling pity when they count out a few coins to pay separately for the plastic looking white bread they’ll eat themselves.

But the decision not to employ “a helper” (which sounds so much more PC than the old colonial term amagh) is one I still struggle with. With just the two of us, no children, not even a dog to walk, and with me not having a full time job, there is not enough for a maid to do. Yes, it would be nice to have all the shopping done, and let’s face it employing a maid in Hong Kong is pocket change. But I wouldn’t trade the lack of privacy for the small amount of help I would get in return.

I know I am considered an oddity for this. In the first few weeks I bumped into one of my husband’s work partners on her way home from the office. “Do you have a helper yet?” were the first words out her mouth. When I timidly replied “no” she looked appalled. “You MUST. It’s the main benefit of living here!” she berated me in front of the huge taxi line. “I haven’t cooked in 25 years!”

I can live with being considered strange but I find being looked down on by other people’s maids harder to take. Oh, I know you probably get treated like shit by your “madams” but do you really have to take it out on me in the supermarket honey?

I’ve come to realise that the fact that I’m lugging my own shopping home – while the Filipinos jump in and out of their bosses’ chauffeured vans like they’re to the manner born – and that I’m the only gweilo in the dry cleaning queue means that to them I’m a complete nobody.

Dry cleaning seems to be a whole other level though. When my part time cleaner (all above board people, she has her own work visa) saw me arrive home with a couple of plastic wrapped shirts she begged me to let her call someone to have them picked up and delivered back next time.

So I tell my new expat friend, no, we don’t have a helper and all the usual reasons why which as a newbie she totally understands. But I also tell her, if you’re even thinking of the idea, do it straight away before you have time to think about how strange it is and get used to being a madam as quickly as you can.

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