As an Australian, the concept of household staff is a foreign one, and I constantly find myself bewildered by the presence in my life of a full-time driver and a part-time maid or ‘helper’ and all the unwritten rules and expectations that accompany them.
The concept of sharing my apartment with live-in help has always been anathema to me. We tried it once, with two tiny kids, while I was being hideously pregnant with the third. Mary Anne was a sweetheart, and I fully appreciated everything she did for me (and I mean everything, as I lay like some traumatized Victorian lady on the sofa – with a bucket beside me – for nine months). I have never felt so totally useless, frustrated and dependent. I loathed it.
It is always interesting to watch the different reactions to dealing with staff: those who have never had home help before, but instantly become prima donna employers, demanding and impatient; those who have grown up with it, and can take it comfortably and graciously in their stride; those, like me, who have no idea how to find a comfortable balance with the notion that this very kind, helpful person is doing all the things I dislike or don’t fancy doing in 35’C heat and 500% humidity for a miniscule wage but at the same time is unintentionally invading my personal space and testing my tolerance to the limits.
The need for privacy does not seem to rate on the Filipino radar, where togetherness and social support is a way of life. So it can be a nerve-racking juggling act to have someone living in your home with whom you want to maintain the distance of an employer while she irons your underwear, inhabits your kitchen, cleans your toilets and, inevitably, becomes part of the family.
My ‘Arrival Survival’ guide book assures me that having domestic staff is ‘not a problem.’ It repeats this several times. Not a problem for whom, I wonder? While I am very fond of and incredibly grateful to our helper for everything she does, and I would certainly never have survived the last two years without the endless calming presence and practical assistance of our wonderful driver, I have realized that I do not like giving orders or the feeling of being looked after, and for me, it is a real problem to swallow the daily frustrations of being a “ma’am.”
‘Culture Shock in the Philippines’ is more realistic, claiming honestly that one third of the issues faced by expatriates in the Philippines comes from having to deal with home help, when so many of us are ‘unprepared by training or background to handle a large household staff.’ (Or even a small one!) Being up this close and personal with the locals can require cultural knowledge and navigational skills we just don’t possess.
Then there is the guilt of paying someone what sounds like an embarrassingly low wage to be at your beck and call at all hours, six days a week. Yet here in the Philippines there is an expectation that they will cheerfully provide loyalty and availability in return for your care and support. You may think you have employed a cleaning lady on a nine-to-five basis, but this is rarely the case. As they become a part of your daily routine and your family, they will expect you to become part of theirs. This can be as uninvasive as remembering birthdays, acknowledging births, deaths and marriages and sharing a chat over a coffee. It can also include constant loans, help to employ family members, education for their kids and sudden absences to deal with illness, drama and death amongst a large extended family.
And despite a shared language, as any expatriate here knows, there is English and there is Taglish. Often the misunderstandings that arise from the chasm in communication can be incredibly frustrating for both parties. Speaking simply helps, but I so hate giving orders, I tend to talk too fast and usually issue them over my shoulder as I am dashing out the door, from sheer embarrassment. So it is hardly surprising that things go wrong, especially when I quickly learned not to expect staff to ask if they haven’t understood me properly, as they would never presume to put me in the wrong by questioning my instructions.
Expats like to moan and groan about their helpers, and yet somehow we all muddle along. Each of us finds our own way of dealing with those daily irritations and adapts to the situation until that moment when we find ourselves wondering how we ever lived without household staff – or will ever cope without them!
Personally, I am slowly learning that, for the best results, it is always better to smile and swallow any frustrations, or try to turn it into a joke against myself rather than lose my temper. Especially as I am realizing any mistakes or misunderstandings usually start with me. So, reminder to me: helpers need clear, precise instructions, and most prefer supervision, at least while they are learning something new. Routine works well too – something rarely on my agenda! Be organized and, like a good boy scout, always prepared. Don’t expect miracles, but do remember to praise and thank them for the things they do well. I guess we all like to know when we have done a good job.
Occasionally I step into my old role of ‘Jack of all Trades’ just to make sure I remember how – but mostly when Phoebe isn’t looking for fear I am doing it wrong! In the meantime, there is a wonderful sense of freedom about being allowed to avoid the joys of a waltz with the ironing board or a heart-to-heart with the kitchen sink…
*Pictures of my favourite old Amelia Bedelia books courtesy of Google images.