Domestic helpers, part III

Allow me to preface this piece, which tries to describe some of the common difficulties that arise between employers and domestic helpers in Hong Kong, by saying that I don't just think that many DH's in HK are exploited and oppressed by their employers -- that many are is simply a fact. My church has hundreds (possibly thousands; it's hard to keep track) of members who are DHs, and I've gotten to know many of them, some quite well. I've heard many ugly stories, and have no reason to doubt their veracity. Mrs Tall and I have also heard HK people who employ DHs bragging about how hard they're able to work them, how deeply they've been able to undercut the minimum salary they're legally obligated to pay (this is a disturbingly common practice, especially with helpers from Indonesia), and how little they spend on the food their helpers eat. There's no doubt that many -- maybe most -- DHs toil in bitter anonymity, sacrificing their own happiness for their families' well-being.

But then why are so many people in Hong Kong perpetually trying to find new helpers? What goes wrong, even for decent employers who sincerely want to pay a fair wage, and who believe themselves to be fine, tolerant, liberal-in-the-very-best-sense, just generally nice people? I think there are several basic problems that come up again and again, and I'll try to classify them here.

First, one big source of trouble is that domestic helpers comprise a group of human beings. They are not housework machines, nor are they de facto saints. It sounds stupid and condescending to say this, but it really has to be said -- perceptions of DHs tend to veer wildly toward one or the other of these poles. For example, in my first article on DHs I mentioned the ugly tendency of HK expats to use their DH's perceived shortcomings as fodder for small-talk; this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the many examples of ill treatment of DHs I've already mentioned attest.

But it's also dehumanizing to fall into the great trap of identity politics, i.e. to attribute to the group of DHs a certain set of characteristics -- even if they're generally positive ones -- instead of treating them as individuals. I've seen this in many stories I've read on the HK DH scene, as well as in conversations with other expats. For an excellent example, originally spotted by Chris at Ordinary Gweilo, if I recall correctly, see this Economist article. It's certainly informative, accurate, and even moving, but it's also utterly one-sided. I'm not blaming the writer for this, by the way -- a hagiographic account of DHs' self-sacrifice in the face of oppression writes itself; it's got photogenic and quotable protagonists, and nobody in London or New York really wants to hear the other side of the story. If I'd been given this assignment, I'd probably have written it much the same way, although maybe I'd've held back on that line about DHs 'often' living in 'virtual slavery under their Chinese or expatriate masters'. Just a little over the top, that, in its demonizing of a non-PC group.

The point is, there certainly are 'saintly' DHs, but there are also quite a few who are dishonest or idle or cruel. When you're hiring a DH to come and live in your home and take care of your children, you can't just gloss over this. No matter how self-sacrificing and noble your DH may be in the abstract, if she's whacking your kids while she's alone with them, or verbally abusing them (I've seen this in progress out on the street more than once) she's got to go. This kind of behavior isn't the norm, but it certainly does exist. And some DHs do steal. And some do spend hours on their mobile phones while their young charges run wild. They're human beings.

A more common problem that leads to misunderstanding and bad working relationships is mismatching between employers and helpers. Finding a 'good' helper is not unlike finding a school for your child -- different helpers are going to have different strengths and weaknesses, and you do yourself no favors by viewing all the candidates you interview as essentially interchangeable (see point above). And don't forget that helpers are sometimes also disappointed in their employers, too, and not just for how they're treated. For example, when Mrs Tall and I were interviewing earlier this spring, I was calling up potential candidates who'd advertised on Asiaxpat (I think is better, but their site was down that weekend). I called up one woman who had been working for a family in Tai Tam. She sounded great on the phone -- experienced, quick-witted, friendly. We were in the process of setting up an interview, and I started explaining how to get to our flat. I mentioned our MTR station, and she interrupted me: 'That's not on Hong Kong Island, is it?' Her tone suddenly dripped contempt, as she grilled me about the outrageous inconveniences she'd need to endure crossing the harbor via public transport. Changing trains. Finding a station in Kowloon -- well, all right, the New Territories. Whatever. I eventually suggested we not waste any more of each other's time, and she expressed her agreement by hanging up on me. She obviously had expectations the Talls couldn't meet, so more power to her if she could find an employer who did. The point is, it's just as well to find out about potential mismatches before you hire someone.

This is easier said than done, of course. For one thing, when Mrs Tall and I have interviewed DH candidates, it's hard not to sympathize with some of the women who are desperate for a job, or who are looking to escape an abusive employer. But if you sense it's not likely to work out in the long run, are you doing her -- much less yourself -- a favor by ignoring your best instincts and hiring her anyway? That's why I recommend interviewing at least three or four candidates in quick succession when you start your DH search process. If you interview just one or two, it's more likely you'll be swayed by your emotions and end up with a mismatch.

Many other mismatches can be written off to cultural differences. For example, methods of food preparation are like religious rituals in the way they're rooted in particular cultures. But many of these cultural differences are quite obvious, and my guess is that most DHs quickly learn to look out for them, and smooth them over without their employers even knowing. There are some mismatches that simply can't be avoided, however, no matter how straightforward and careful both of you are. The problem is, a domestic helper by definition is helping you with rather intimate tasks. She'll soon know more about your peccadilloes than your close relatives and best friends do. And the intimate details of people's day-to-day lives vary enormously. In many cases, you can accurately adduce all sorts of things about someone just by meeting him and talking to him briefly -- his politics, his religious beliefs, his economic/social status. But you'll never know that it bugs him to death to have his sports shoes and work shoes stored on the same shelf in his shoe cabinet, and that at home where no one's looking he actually likes his pasta nice and squishy instead of al dente, and that he wants the bottles of toiletries to be wiped of and lined up daily, while he can't tolerate the random-looking stack of DVDs next to the TV being moved at all, and so on.

In other words, by adulthood each of us comes equipped with a full set of personal foibles guaranteed to bemuse our fellows. Most of these develop when we're kids in our parents' homes, so they seem utterly normal to us; they only start to sound odd when you try to explain them to someone else. Married couples are supposed to work through these issues in an attitude of mutual respect and desire for understanding: that indulgence isn't going to be there for a domestic helper. If you don't make clear to her what your little non-negotiable preferences are, you must accept the way she does things, which will of course seem equally idiosyncratic to you. This inherent cause of mismatches can be overcome, but you'd be surprised how grating it can be if you're not prepared for it. I suspect it's behind many unhappy DH situations in which an employer complains of 'things just not going well', or 'she just can't seem to get things right'. If you're in this situation, think about it: how many of your dissatisfactions with your domestic helper stem from petty incidents in which it's likely she'd have needed to have read your mind to have done what you really wanted?

Finally, there are a number of what I'll call 'structural' problems that make it tough for DHs and their employers to see eye to eye. An excellent example is the discipline of children. On the one hand, as an employer you don't want your small children to set the tone with a helper. Children are human, too, and they'll eventually try to push behavioral boundaries. You can tell your helper to clamp down, and she can try her best. But if, in the heat of battle, as it were, she went as just far as you would in disciplining, she'd likely be in danger of immediate dismissal. You might give your child a smack if she's out of control, but do you think your helper would? Or should? You can see the built-in gap here between your authority and hers -- and so can your kids. So on one hand, your children may behave differently -- very possibly worse -- in your helper's care; on the other, what can she really do about it? She's going to err on the side of caution no matter what you say. Other structural problems revolve around the difficulty of evaluating a helper's day-to-day performance (in most cases you, as her supervisor, simply can't be around in her workplace that much, unless you stay/work at home yourself), and the frustrations of trying to get through the actual hiring process, which I commented on in Part I.

As always, we'd appreciate comments and tips -- this is part of life in Hong Kong that so many of us expats are inexperienced with, and the stakes are pretty high.


An interesting take on the DH dilemma

I came across this book review from The Atlantic magazine, and found it quite interesting in relation to some of the issues HK expats face when hiring domestic helpers.

Caitlin Flanagan is reviewing an exposè written by a woman who'd been the nanny for the children of the famed Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz. But she soon opens up the essay to consider the management of household staff in general:

[The issue of] how to treat the help? -- had become the brand-new problem of middle-class types like me. (The problem itself falls into two parts: legal and emotional. Both are fraught with complexity, ambiguity, contradictions -- not least that many employers are so conflicted about having a servant that they try not to think about the fact too much, a dodge that helps no one.)

She later sums up neatly the dilemma inherent in hiring someone to care for your children:

. . . this is a commercial transaction from which parents desperately, if selectively, want emotional results. In hiring a nanny, they're asking -- if you'll forgive the pun -- a relative stranger to love (and tolerate, and indulge, and tend to) their children as the children's own mother or father would, for money. In short, they're trying to purchase what ultimately can't be bought.

The whole essay is recommended.