Friday, February 1, 2013

The Help

I have to get dressed to go pay the gardener. 

My noblesse oblige is not being properly acknowledged by the servants.

My gardener’s suggestion that my cilantro peach salsa is not “authentic” has me wondering if he really is from Mexico.

It’s naptime and my housekeeper is not done cleaning.  How will I sleep?

Unrelated but still funny:  The increased legroom they have in First Class means I have to stand up to get my inflight magazine from the seat pocket in front of me.

"Maids Are a Problem Everywhere"  (click to read article)

Read this article twice: once as “just” a Westerner, then again as a Third Culture Kid.  The first time you will laugh and roll your eyes. A non-TCK will immediately send it to “First World Problems”.  As a TCK you will nod with understanding of what your mother went through all those years overseas. 

The article is oozing with that “je ne sais quois” that is part of a TCK’s DNA.

In Manila, my parents had doorbells installed on the wall behind their bed.  (No, they didn’t “have” them installed, they were already there.  I know what you’re thinking!)  All mom had to do in the morning was reach up over her head, without even having to sit up, and push the button.  Shortly after that our maid would come shuffling into the room with Mom’s coffee on a tray.  I don’t think my dad ever rang his bell, but then again, he was hardly ever home.

We went through a long procession of maids.  The first ones came with our house.  My dad was promoted to run the Manila office after his predecessor died.  (That is a story in and of itself.  Death and dying in Manila is an adventure.)  Our house was a mish-mash of ornate gaudiness, with an entire wing made up of three maids’ bedrooms, a maids’ bath and their own kitchen.  (We wouldn’t want the maids cooking in the same kitchen as ours now, would we?)

Our first maid started putting on weight pretty quickly.  It wasn’t long before we realized it wasn’t because of her cooking, but that she was eating for two.  To our knowledge, she wasn’t married.  Exit maid one.  The second maid told us she needed to visit her family in “the provinces” and could she borrow some money?  She never came back, nor did the money.  There was always drama going on in some shape or form; our own Downton Abbey.

Mom “tried” to instill some sort of responsibility in me.  She asked the maids not to clean up my room while I was in school.  I would leave it in a scattered shamble on my way out the door, socks strewn, clothes wadded on the floor.  When I got home, everything was neatly folded and put away.  This might explain my present lack of housekeeping skills. 

We had a series of gardeners who kept our yard manicured to the nines.  The landscaping was a work of art: bougainvillea, palm trees, miniature bushes, grass cut into basket-weave patterns.  (Not to mention the two courtyards between the living room and the bedrooms.  One with a pond.  With a statue of the Mannequin Pis doing his thing into the pond.) One gardener, Reuben, an elfin little man, wore an enormous straw hat (a salakot), and giant rubber boots.  It seemed to me, that he pruned the flora with a pair of nail clippers.  He and our dog Sheba didn’t get along.  One time she had him by the hem of his pants; I have a vision of him trying to shake her off: “Mum, de dog please, mum!” 

I never stopped to wonder how our maids came and went.  Was there some sort of “maid agency” that my mom went through?  Or was it strictly word of mouth?  Were the expat women always on the hunt, stealing their friends’ maids behind their backs?  In our case, a dear friend of mom’s moved away, and her maid, Pacita, came to be with us.  She was a gem; always jolly, and very good at what she did.  I have a memory of a stuffed fish, complete with head and fins, that was absolutely delicious.  Mom had a tiny brass bell (in the shape of a Korean woman in a hoop skirt) on the dining room table, to be rung when dinner was over.  Pacita would come running to whisk away the plates.  Even when her own house was under several feet of water after a typhoon, she came to work.  My mom was shocked when she found that out, and made her go home.  Pacita was so loved, mom looked into having her come with us to Singapore.  To this day, we pretend to ring a bell and call for Pacita to come clear the dishes. 

The last maid was always the best; it’s almost like you hated to get attached because inevitably that is when you got transferred out of the country. 

In Japan it was the same way.   Our first maid, Masako-san, slept in what I thought was a closet right off the kitchen.  Her little nook had a sliding door, and she popped out whenever I was walking by, scaring the bejeepers out of me.  I was afraid of her.  When we moved out of our apartment into a house, my nanny was Saiko-san, whom I loved dearly.  I had an ear infection once while my parents were out, and Saiko-san tended to me like I was her own.  Once while she was giving me a bath, the six year old me got curious about belly buttons.  I asked her to show me hers (kids say the darndest things!) and she cleverly told me she didn’t have one.  The devil had come in the middle of the night when she was a child, and stolen it away.  The things that stick with you from your childhood.

Our last maid, Yamamoto-san, was a cook and housekeeper extraordinaire.  We had a naughty little dachshund named Oscar, who came to us one Christmas.  When he misbehaved, my mom would make excuses for him, “He’s just a puppy, Yamamoto-san!”  Yamamoto replied, “He been a puppy TOO LONG!” 

Yamamoto-san was very patient with me.  While she prepared dinner one night, I shadowed her every step, chattering away in my little girl manner.  To keep me out of her hair, she gave me a bowl and some utensils to play with.  I mixed up a green slimy concoction of everything I could find: milk, spices, hot sauce, you name it (remember I was seven).  She gamely took a sip, and I’ll never forget the look on her face.  I still feel bad about that one.

Living in a foreign culture forces you to adapt.  Everyone in Manila and Japan had maids.  It wasn’t that we were privileged or, far from it, rich.  Our servants lived on a measly monthly pay and a 40-pound bag of rice.  And they had pretty nice quarters to live in, compared to their actual homes.  Some of them became dear friends; if they were valuable to us, the rewards, for both, were limitless. 

I have heard that the Philippine economy depends on service jobs.  I will never know if our maids muttered under their breath about us, complaining about the rich folks, or if they served us happily, grateful to have a job.  I truly believe that having lived that privileged life gave me an appreciation for those less fortunate than I.  I never took these ladies and men for granted.  I even feel uncomfortable in the Vietnamese nail salon.  


Anonymous said...

Our first maid in the Philippines scared me too--jet lagged and unhappy teen that I was, she followed me around trying to do things for me. Later we discovered she went after another maid with a butcher knife while I was upstairs with strep throat! can't imagine what my mom wnet thru. Loudres was next and she was wonderful. We too still call for her to clear the table 30 years and an ocean away. I can still taste her fish. Friends in the States still can't believe we had "servents"...

Wiliam Hannaford said...

Liz, Bill H here.Right on the money and parallel to my experience right down to the bell on the table, except we rang it for every little thing!

Our first cook, a man, was a thief. He didn't last long. Eventually we had a family team, a married couple and the husband's sister. They had a child in the provinces and went to see him about once a month.

You evoke so many memories... like with knives, except in this case my brother was enraged by some things I had said and the house man had to restrain him from hacking me to death with a bolo!

And friends here in the states "still can't believe we had servants"!!

Nancy Broussard said...

Liz, this is priceless! My mom will ove reading it on her iPad - and I'll nudge my sister towards it on Facebook. Your reference to 'The Help' adds a dimension that only those of who know both the old and new South can understand. Bravo - this one is a winner!

Anonymous said...

I too have zero housekeeping skills. Having maids until you are 16 years old did nothing for my domestic goddess talents. Alas, I believed I too would live the expat life.

The endless cycle of maids...the one who smoked cigars...the ballboys at the club. When we moved to Switzerland I remember playing tennis waiting for someone to toss the balls to me.

Looking back, although it was a way of life, I am not sure it was for the best. I was ill prepared for anything, including making a bed. What did the mothers do all day that would justify a maid? As far as I remember, most of the mothers did not work.

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Liz! It all started in Italy when "Nonna" said she would help my mom take care of the "Bambina." Nonna had 2 grandkids our age and some weekends we would go home with Nonna so we could play with the kids. This was only 1960 and I believe there was still rationing in Italy. Mom would load us down with tons of food - way more than 2 toddlers could eat in 2 days. I now know it was her way to give food to Nonna and her family without getting into trouble with the black-market resale laws. jwms

Anonymous said...

In Thailand we only had a housekeeper/lavadera. Mom did the cooking.
In the PI we always had two maids and a gardner, Pablo. The cook cleaned the upstairs and the lavandera did the laundry and cleaned downstairs. One cook didn't last too long; I remember she made pbj with peanutbutter, BUTTER, and jelly. Yuk. I guess her first american family liked it that way. Once, our parents were out for the night and the maid tried to restore order. I'm sure my brother and I were being our normal hellish selves. The next day I told Mom she should fire the maid. Mom explained she could not as we had to have at least 2 maids to help them and the economy. We could afford it and it was our duty to hire them. jwms