Amahs

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I would like to open a discussion about Amahs and get as many view points as possible. I've been in Hong Kong for almost 12 weeks now, and almost every Westerner I have come across has an Amah. I'm sure to most my income must seem poor since I don't have one (the amount of Amahs you have seems to be a status symbol here), but I don't have an Amah by choice. I no longer work and am now a stay at home mother while my husband works full time. My mother used to live in South Africa in the 70's when they used to have maids and she hated it. I see Amahs and am reminded of that situation and how it was abused by Westerners. Please don't mistake me. I do not believe all Westerners or even Chinese people mistreat their Amahs. I have seen Western children mistreated and Amahs mistreated by Western children equally, only to see other Amah/Child relationships be very harmonius and caring. I suppose my question is am I being stubborn on this issue for no apparent issue? Would an Amah be much easier in Hong Kong, or am I right to not abuse a system that has been set up in Hong Kong that is abused by all, Amahs, Westerners, Chinese alike?

Amahs

If your husband is already working full time and you are comfortable with the income and existing life-style, listen to your heart and mind and stick with the status quo. For many it is partly a status symbol and partly a necessity. There are untold benefits and advantages when a mother stays at home to raise their children, as compared to starting this with a stranger, regardless of how qualified they seem to be.
In Hong Kong and many other places where wide income disparity exists, many amahs need such a job to make ends meet, and to give them the opportunity to do what they love, to give care, love and nuturing in return for a decent wage and hopefully also respect from the employer.
My family has had amahs at one time, and mui-gui (young orphaned girl adopted into your family and would work for you until her mature life). In our case, my grand-parents let her go early to start her new life. In all cases, we are indebted to these women who came to our lives then faded away and always -
remembering them.

Abuse?

"or am I right to not abuse a system..."

That makes it sound like hiring a helper automatically means abuse. I don't think that's true, so I'd suggest asking two separate questions:

  • Should you employ a helper?
  • If you do, will you be an abusive employer?

We've hired one of MrsB's sisters in law to come to our house in the daytime, Mon-Fri. She looks after our two young daughters, and helps with housework. Since we had our second daughter, she has less time for housework, so some tasks like ironing have come back to us.

Both MrsB and I enjoy time with our girls, but are happy we don't have to look after them 24x7. We spend the whole weekend with them, and as we wind down on Sunday evening we're both looking forward to sister-in-law's return!

I don't like the idea of having a stranger in the house all the time, so this arrangement works well for us.

Mr Tall has taken a different approach and has a full-time live-in helper. It'd be worth looking at his thoughts about this, as he's covered the above questions in some depth.

Also check Gweipo's blog - I think she has one of the best reasons I've seen to think carefully about how you'll manage life with a helper.

It's certainly common to have some sort of help here - outsourcing on a small scale. But it's really up to you to choose how it fits in to your life, or whether you want it at all.

MrB

In Some Form....

....... it is indeed abuse. I can see why you wouldn't think so MrB as you employ your sister-in-law. This to me does not entail the same thing. The backround I come from culturally nearly always has extended family 'helping out' with the kids/ house and sometimes they get paid. So the situation you're in is not unusual to me to say the least. A full time stranger living with you, someone you have not the first clue about, who is there because they need the money can easily turn into a form of abuse. I would never abuse an amah if I hired one. Indeed I believe I would end up being the one who was abused because I could be easily taken advantage of for constantly feeling sympathetic to an amah and why she has to take care of some strangers children and be a constant maid. Having scanned through some profiles of domestic helpers just yesterday and seeing that one of them had graduated as a vet, something I would never have the patience to do, just made it worse. Do you not think perhaps your extended stay here has adapted your view to see domestic helpers as quite normal when really for most of us first arriving in Hong Kong for the first time, it isn't?

Employing domestic helpers

 

You write: "The backround I come from culturally nearly always has extended family 'helping out' with the kids/ house and sometimes they get paid".

That's fine, but it is also potentially filled w/ abuse as well. I have read many memoirs where older sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins have hurt the kids in their charge, or been hurt by the family they live with. In some ways, because they are family, that system may be more ripe for abuse than having a "stranger" in the house who is employed with a written contract for an agreed upon wage. 

In the background  (decayed haut bourgeois in No. America) I come from - my parents' generation grew up w/ some live-in help (nannies, house-keepers). In that time and place, most of them were country girls from the Maritime Provinces of Canada or Maine.  As a child, my parents had student couples living in who provided help in return for rent-free accomadtion. 

In my youth (high school & college) I worked as a part-time domestic helper. One family I worked a couple of afternoons a week - cleaning mostly. Another family, I  cleaned twice a week and looked after the daughter & prepped dinner. Another customer was an elderly lady - I vacuumed and cleaned and changed her sheets once a week. I also did big spring cleanings for various people from time-to-time. I also has regular baby-sitting customers for evening work.

 I think it really depends on the employer and the employee. Yes, it is possible for there to be abuse, but that possibility arises in any situation between two human beings. I remember last winter there was a case of a local shop owner (female) who physically abused her employee (male, also local, not mentally or physically handicapped) for a period of years. He did not live in

I have employed domestic helpers for the past 11 years and I do not think that there was any abuse on either side. 

Yes, having a full-time domestic helper seems very weird for many westerners at firs. But, in many parts of the world, it is a normal part of life. 

 So, I see the question as  not "employing a helper, good or bad" but rather "Do I want or need domestic help?"

 If no, then no problem, I won't hire anyone.

 If yes, what kind of help do I want: part-time (once a year, once a quarter, once a month, once a week,  1/2 a day....?   Then proceed from there. 

 

 

Getting used to domestic helpers

"Do you not think perhaps your extended stay here has adapted your view to see domestic helpers as quite normal when really for most of us first arriving in Hong Kong for the first time, it isn't?"

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, it did seem very strange that so many families had one or more helpers. While I was single and didn't have any children, and with most friends in the same position, I got used to the idea of helpers, but didn't have much contact with them. Now I'm married with children, many families we meet have helpers. So yes, I've certainly changed to see having a helper as quite normal.

But I'm still not clear why you see it as automatically implying abuse. I see it as an employer-employee relationship, with both parties agreeing to the transaction under their own free will. skmama says it well - that if you don't need help, that's great. You certainly don't need to hire a helper just to fit in with what other people think.

If you do decide to employ someone that's fine too. Just be aware of some of the thought processes you might go through, and the difficulties they can cause. If you do that then it's very possible to get to the end of the contract with both parties satisfied. Who's been abused?

MrB

abuse?

Hmmm. As I mentioned in that article MrB referenced above, there are some potential problems that are more or less built into the domestic helper employer/employee relationship. But abuse certainly isn't inevitable, as skmama has said.

Having asserted that, we've just had another helper leave us, this time for reasons so depressing I don't even want to get into it. Suffice it to say that although she was the best helper we've had, she was arrested on suspicion of committing a fairly serious crime. There were no warning signs that anything was going wrong. Since her case is pending, I'll leave it at that . . . .

What I found very interesting in your post, Stef, is your worry that you'd feel so sympathetic to your helper that you'd likely be a pushover. I think this is very common, especially amongst westerners who employ helpers. Many employers seem to worry that they'll be perceived (by their peers, mostly) as racists if there's any indication whatsoever that they're 'not treating their helper well'. And are some helpers both sufficiently aware of this predilection, and willing to exploit it? Sure, just as some employers are more than willing to exploit their helpers' desperate need to make money.

So I guess although I agree with MrB and skmama that abuse is certainly not inevitable in a helper/employer relationship, the situation does have a lot of built-in opportunity in which it can occur.

 

Conclusion

Skmama and MrB, you do both make fair points, and yes it does really come down to what suits my life in terms of a domestic helper. I think that Mr Tall filled in the point that I was trying to make but perhaps missing it. The margin for abuse is quite large on both sides and very possible. You are both correct however in indicating that if I am to think in the extreme on one viewpoint, I must also see the other happy viewpoint. Although I think the word 'abuse' has been picked up and been put in a box of what each individual terms as 'abuse'. The abuse I was mentioning was a general term in the sense of being taken advantage of and not necessarily physically abused. I'm not concerned about being termed racist as I know we can all be at some point or another although in this instance that's certainly not the case. I can see why some Westerners would feel that way as they drag some old imperial attitudes with them to Hong Kong. Plus I do believe Westerners who tend to move to Hong Kong can have some other 'strange' ideas, so I certainly wouldn't be concerned about what they think. If ever there was a melting pot of views as far as city life is concerned I think I've hit it. Mr Tall your story does concern me though, and perhaps touching an exposed nerve whenever I tackle the issue of whether to hire a domestic helper. Bottom Line - Hong Kong is a hard place to live with a toddler in terms of getting around and keeping them occupied, and I miss my car ; )(Never thought I'd ever say that as it took me 27 years to get my license in the States as I never 'needed' a car in London.)

Superior Servants

On another line, I am reading a most fascinating book called "Superior Servants, The legendary Cantonese Amahs of the Far East" by Kenneth Gaw.

It doesn't really have anything to do with the current situation with the Filippino helpers, but a lot of the situations are similar.  One thing did strike me as I've been reading this, is that as a stay at home mother and wife, who has had to cope without help for periods in time (like the summer vacation and when living in Europe), is that at times my life is not that much better than an amahs!  I too have to rise at 5 or 6 am, cook all the meals, make sure the house is clean, kids are happy and aired etc. etc.  The difference is that I have the conveniences of a washing machine, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, electric iron etc.

I also have to do the "marketing" daily since we have a minute little fridge in our poky little kitchen.

 Life here is geared to having a helper, it is just not very practical to try and survive without one.  I had a friend who insisted on doing so - ostensibly since the occupational therapy of housework stopped her from feeling she was useless.  As a result she was completely inflexible in joining us in the more fun things HK has to offer.  Her son never had a regular babysitter, so wouldn't let her go out in the evenings as he didn't like / trust the temporary ones.  Her husband travelled all the time.  She was desparately unhappy and depressed and lonely.  In the end, she said to me (just before she left for Singapore)  - you were so right.  The first thing I am going to do when I get to Singapore is hire a helper.   I hope she does.

I am like you. My husband

I am like you. My husband works full time and I am a SAHM without an Amah by choice. For me the issue is about not wanting to have to manage another person in the house as well as our need for privacy. We are a Canadian family and therefore are not used to having help in the home. Haha with my 8mth old starting to crawl and 2 dogs, I wonder if I'm going to change my mind soon...?  

MM

http://milkmonsterlaughs.blogspot.com/

Amahs

Having lived in Hong Kong a long time and now Canada, I notice there is a different mindset when it comes to house chores between Hong Kongers and North Americans. GENERALLY, Hong Kongers consider vacuuming, mopping floor, ironing, and even tending to garden flowers are time consuming, boring, and for some below their dignity. Their life-style, disposable income and easy availability of amahs and gardeners fuel such practice.
Whenever my Hong Kong friends visit me, some of them are surprised, some feel pity too, that housewives of well-to-do families in Canada have to do these chores. There is no need to bring a stranger into my house. The modern household appliances have freed up much of the time our mothers and grandmothers had to bear in their time.

What you say is true. In HK

What you say is true. In HK some people think I'm STUPID for not getting help!! What I often have to explain is that i have considered the consequences of having help in the house and the development of my child, how can I ask him to clean up after himself (He's still a baby but when he's old enough) and do some household chores if there is someone picking up after mommy...of course I'm sure there are many families who are able to find a balance but having to manage that balance is not something I'm up for (just yet). I don't make light, it's a tough job being a mom and especially if both parents work, I can see how much easier life would be with help.

HK vs. Canada

I've seen the difference first hand. As a Chinese Canadian born in Hong Kong, but having emigrated to Canada for most of my life, there is a huge difference between living in Hong Kong and living in Canada. I spent the summer of 2006 in Hong Kong working and it's pretty easy to see the reason why many people have Amahs or Hired Help. While in the case of MilkMonster, she's a stay at home mom, many households have both parents working, often long hours. I could easily see this in the case of my relatives that I lived with, who probably not be able to juggle two kids and two jobs.

I easily see why people think that people are exploiting hired help (as seen by the hired help always doing things that most westerners do themselves), but I think it's just a hallmark of the past. And while I don't agree with it personally, it's easily to see why many families have some form of hired help in Hong Kong. Hours are long, and work's stressful, and there's a need for someone to make the home life easier.

The Sims™

I am also a Chinese Canadian born in Hong Kong and spent 12 years there. My family's still there. I think the long hours point is perfectly relevant. But the grand parent post do have a point. How are kids going to learn to clean up after themselves? How would they learn how to clean windows (easy in Canada we just fling out our squeegee and long poles). Even something as trivial as cleaning the mirror in the washroom becomes a challenge.

What's interesting though, a maid actually works to the same effect in a PC game The Sims™. The longer hours you work, the more the maid helps to advance your game.

Here's an interesting

Here's an interesting article from the Toronto Star http://www.thestar.com/living/article/257946 about the shift in views about having "help", not an Amah but paying for services that make your life easier. I know a lot of my Canadian mommy friends now have live-in "nannys" - that's what they call them there, so in a few years things may be very different perspective wise.

It's a job like any other.

It's a job like any other. The only difference is that your amah will be living with you unlike the employees in your husbands company. It's amazing how much privacy you can have with a live in helper. They're very sensitive to your needs and are very happy to watch tv or visit other helpers in the building's lobby when you don't need them. Perhaps you'd feel differently if you respected what they did?