Dreams From My Helper: Part Three

02/25/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

This is the third story in a four-part series on the culture of domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

While I consider my former helper to be one of the most important figures in my life, I won't pretend that our relationship hasn't affected the broader family dynamic. A few years ago, for example, Che Che told me that our current helper, whom my sister and I call Che Che Miriam, didn't like her. "What makes you think that?" I said uncomfortably.

"I know," she replied. "I don't just think, I know."

It soon became apparent that her sentiment was not unfounded. From then on, I began noticing that Miriam, who has been with my family for nine years, would tense up whenever Che Che came over, turning her attention to washing the dishes or putting away leftovers once she'd walk in the front door. Che Che, for her part, usually attempted a friendly hello but wouldn't try to prolong conversation.

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"I just don't want her to think that I am going there just to get her job," said Che Che one day when I asked her about it. "I think she's worried that because you are close to me, and your mommy's close to me, that I will be - what is it that one? - that she's losing her job. There's a feeling, even your mom, she's saying that."

Che Che began trying to limit the number of visits to our home to curb the tension. "Even though I wanted to go to your place, I'm trying to avoid," she said. "Because I don't want her to be uncomfortable."

Feeling torn, I asked Che Che whether she felt that Miriam's treatment of her was fair. In Hong Kong, it isn't uncommon to see helpers smiling at each other in acknowledgement on the bus, and you rarely ever see them being unfriendly. To see it happening in my own family was even more unsettling. "I do understand her, maybe because she needed a job," she said.

My mother also wrestled with her feelings about my relationship with Che Che. In some of our more raw conversations, she'd tell me that her single biggest regret was not spending more time with my brother or me growing up.

Even as I write this story, I'm trying to stifle my anticipation of her reaction, though it's a telling indicator of these relationships' underlying complexities. For instance, once domestic helpers in Hong Kong are hired, they're legally required to live in the homes of their employers, meaning there are virtually no bounds to what they witness - women who quietly pretend not to hear their employers fight, snap at their chicken pox-contracted children not to scratch, and sit in their rooms at holiday dinners, where they're expected to come out to take the family photos and have supper off the leftovers.

For decades, critics like Holly Allan, manager of the legal aid clinic Helpers for Domestic Helpers, have argued against the mandate to no avail, pointing out the dangerous promotion of the idea that helpers only live to work and the increased risk of physical and sexual abuse. Proponents contend that the requirement is convenient for helpers looking for accommodation in Hong Kong, the world's most unaffordable housing market. But most of the time in such a densely populated city, employers can't afford to put up a helper anyway, said Allan. Some workers will be made to sleep "next to the washing machine, on the floors, in the corridors. Sometimes, even required to share a room with a male member of the household."

Shortly after I was born, my father was working as a business development manager in Beijing, only returning to Hong Kong every few weeks. "Mommy was working full-time, almost 24 hours," Che Che told me. "She would leave about 6, or 6 something, and then come back at 11 o' clock, nighttime. She is working very hard, that time. She would leave, you're sleeping. She would get back, you're sleeping. She can talk to you only on the phone."

Today, my mom, who still pulls demanding hours at an insurance firm, has a decidedly strong relationship with Che Che. Although she talks about her guilt, I believe that seeing how close my relationship was with our helper also came to be a source of comfort for her, the sense that something good had come from her role as a working parent. They were only a year apart in age, and related to one another in their humble backgrounds and desire to provide for their children. Sometimes when Che Che would come over after a trip home to the Philippines, she'd bring her mangoes wrapped in newspapers, and they'd usher me away for a long, private chat. A few years ago, Mom too became Hazel's unofficial godmother.

There are some 320,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong, 320,000 potential Che Ches for other little girls. Sadly, our bond is vastly different from most others. A few months ago, my friend's mother posted a cartoon on Instagram, announcing she'd fired one of her helpers that morning. Presumably a joke, the picture received a number of "likes," including one from another friend's mom. A few of us stayed with her son one spring break in their London home, a luxury apartment in Westminster. One day, we got a text asking us to tidy up because his mom was coming to visit. We got to work wiping down the kitchen counters and finally making up his bed after a week of neglect, even fluffing the pillows.

His mom arrived the next day. "Wah, so messy!" she declared cheerfully.

She turned around and beckoned the Filipina woman behind her. "Rose, come on. We got a lot of work to do." Apparently, she flies their helper from Hong Kong to London every few months to help clean her college-aged sons' apartment. We stepped aside.

For Part Four, check back next Wednesday.