Over lunch with a colleague one day, the topic of domestic helpers came up.
“I’ve had 5 or so helpers before, but I think I can only remember 3 of their names,” I said, shaking my head.
“Really? My helper was my best friend,” she replied, “In primary school, I would always look forward to coming home just to see her. In exams, whenever I did well, she would be happy for me. In a way, she was like a third parent and someone I wanted to make proud.”
It wasn’t my first time hearing stories like this. I have friends who are friends – even best friends – with their helpers. They would dedicate posts on social media to them, go out for meals with them, and even take vacations together.
Call it moral obligation, envy, FOMO, or whatever, but I too wanted that kind of relationship with my own helper.
At this point, Marjorie had been with my family 8 years and I didn’t even know her last name.
We lived under the same roof and she’d been privy to countless personal and private moments – everything from family fights to tearful farewells and me bringing my first boyfriend home – but we never had a single meaningful conversation.
And so I decided that it was time for change. For the first time in 8 years, I was going to get to know my helper better.
It was Marjorie’s off day and she was preparing to leave.
Marjorie: Bye Mei Mei, I go off now.
Rachel: Oh, okay bye.
Poor start, admittedly. Until this attempt at a semblance of a conversation with my helper, I had always prided myself on being a good conversationalist.
I had intended to compliment her on her shirt (it was nice, navy blue with cut out shoulders and pleats) and ask her how her church service had been, but all I could muster was a simple goodbye.
On the bright side, it could only get better from here.
Of all the domestic helpers my family has employed, I’ve enjoyed Marjorie’s cooking the most. I’ve often cooked dinner with her, picking up recipes and tips here and there, but our relationship has never progressed beyond talking about food.
This time would be different; I was determined not to spend my time in the kitchen glued to my phone.
Having prepped the ingredients beforehand, she was ready to go. We started off with chicken. While I cooked, she observed.
M: You hold it [the spatula] like this, closer, and the other hand hold the wok handle here, careful it’s hot. Come I help you.
Thanks to my inadequate skills, a one-woman job had ballooned into a two-person operation. I felt like a burden, yes, but the time spent over a simmering pot of chicken did help me feel closer to her.
M: Fry the chicken first then later add the other ingredients before letting it simmer
R: Okay, that’s quite simple.
M: I taught your sister this recipe, before she went to Amsterdam so that she can cook it there.
R: Is it? [laughs] I think she never cook leh.
R: It’s okay, next time when I move out I will cook this.
M: You can remember? I can write it down for you, later you cannot remember.
But perhaps I was too quick to rejoice.
Over dinner, my parents complained that the chicken was too tough and the vegetables too salty. My fault.
I tried to defend our cooking, but I think my parents blamed her and not me for it. Till this day, I still kick myself for not having said more.
As I was rushing out of the house for work, I hadn’t noticed that it was drizzling.
M: Mei Mei you take umbrella, it’s raining.
R: [annoyed] No need la! Drizzling only, so light.
M: Better not, later you fall sick, I take out [the umbrella and plastic bag] for you already.
We’d been through this routine many times before. It oftens ends with me refusing because I just don’t want to bear the added weight of the umbrella throughout the day.
Then I caught the look of concern on her face.
R: Okay, I’ll take the umbrella. Thanks.
I should’ve apologised for my earlier tone of voice, and explained that it was 8am after all, I was cranky from a lack of sleep. It didn’t occur to me that she’d been up since 6am and was probably even more tired than me. But maybe I’ll save that for another day.
I woke up Monday morning to find Ed Sheeran’s voice blaring from the dining room radio. From the confines of my bedroom, I heard Marjorie humming along.
R: Morning. I like this song too
M: Ya? It’s very popular, radio nowadays keep playing it
R: He’s performing in Singapore in November actually. [pause], it’s a good thing that the radio Dad bought is in use.
M: Ya, If not the house so boring, so quiet, so I turn on the radio [laughs].
Her words struck a chord with me. This being my home, I’ve never felt lonely or that it’s too quiet. In fact, as someone who spends the majority of my time outside, I cherish every moment spent in the peace and quiet of home.
Whenever I heard the radio playing, I assumed it was just because she liked the music.
For Marjorie, who spends a good 70% of her time at home alone and working, the radio is, more often than not, her only source of company.
Before today, I never noticed. Or to put it more accurately, I never cared to notice.
M: Are you coming home for dinner tonight? If not it’s just me and your mum.
R: Er, probably not? [pause] Actually can, I can come back for dinner first. Okay?
M: Okay, I make salad for you two. You want fries? Soup? Avocado?
R: Auntie Margie, I heard from Mum that you might be returning to the Philippines soon?
M: Ya, maybe go back, settle down, have kids. Not sure yet.
R: I heard you have a Saudi Arabian boyfriend?
M: Ya, very long already [laughs]
I always knew that she’d have to go home one day; Marjorie couldn’t stay with my family forever. But that didn’t make it suck any less. Her leaving would mean the arrival of someone new, someone to get accustomed to all over again.
Right there and then, my quest to get to know her better seemed futile. What was the point if she was leaving anyway? But then, shouldn’t I at least get to know the woman who’s spent the last 8 years of her life living with me? The woman who’s helped make my life much easier than I sometimes deserve?
R: Then when you leave will you miss us? What about Singapore? You’ve been with us a long time.
M: Of course miss you all la. So long already. How not to miss?
I didn’t tell her that I’d miss her or that I’d be sad to see her go. But the truth is, I would.
Marjorie and I are still a long way from being friends or anything resembling that, but I plan to keep trying. At least, where I am now with regards to my relationship with her is better than where it was a month ago.
In the past, I had hoped that by distancing myself from my helpers, I would be able to lessen my feelings of guilt. I could ignore the fact that she stayed in a room one third the size of mine, washed my clothes, cooked my food, and swept my floors all for a sum of money I would barely survive on.
It’s been said before that domestic helpers are the modern day equivalent of slaves, just better paid. While I wouldn’t go to that extreme, I won’t deny the unequal and exploitative elements of such relationships.
So maybe I can’t change how much she’s being paid or the kind of room she sleeps in (not yet, anyway), but I can change how I treat her.
It did dawn on me one day: what if she doesn’t even want to be friends? Am I just doing this to feel good about myself, or does she benefit as well?
But then I see the change in the way she speaks to me and it gives me hope.
While it may be unrealistic to expect that a few short conversations can make up for 8 years of absolutely nothing, it’s definitely helped me take a step away from ignorance and towards understanding.
It’s not enough to stop here. There are still things that I haven’t plucked up the courage to say. But one day, I will.