It has always been difficult to talk about my maid. My maids. My siblings and I have always had conversations about whether we will hire maids in the future with our own families. Their answers were always yes, because it would save you a lot of time not having to do all the household chores. It is mostly a transaction for them, that the money you spend on hiring a maid could be earned back with the income that you can make with the extra time. They think that hiring a maid is actually more valuable than buying a car. I adamantly said no, I will not hire a maid. Not because I think it is expensive. I actually do agree with my siblings that the cost of hiring a maid is affordable if you earn as much as the median income household in Singapore.
I will never hire a maid because I will never want my children to go through the same stabbing pain I feel when the maid leaves eventually. In fact writing this sentence sends me straight into tears.
My first ever maid left permanently on 27 Oct 08. I think it says a lot when I remember the exact date of her departure nearly one decade later. She was there the first 12 years of my life, she was probably the one feeding me when I cried when I was hungry, the one who held me to walk, the one who taught me how to ride a bike, the one who brought me downstairs to interact with other kids at the playground. She shared a bed with me and my soft toys when I was little because I did not want to sleep alone. She was the one face I would be expecting when I step into the Parent’s Corner after dismissal. The one face I expected when I alight from the school bus and left the doors of my kindergarten and nursery every single afternoon. The one who helped me with my Art homework. The one who brought me to Clementi Community Centre during special occasions like Mid Autumn Festival to play with my other friends. The reason why I grew up in a Chinese-speaking family yet my English was way superior to my Chinese – I interacted with her in English throughout my childhood days. I do not remember much of my parents being there in my childhood, except my mother scolding me for getting 48/50 because “I played too much computer”. I cried a lot at home and my maid was the only one comforting me and telling me that I did well. My mother could make those insensitive remarks without a flinch only because she never knew how much I prided myself to do well academically since young, but my maid knew.
She probably drew a pay less than $500 at that point in time, but she set aside money and bought me birthday presents every year. She brought me out on Sundays to Lucky Plaza to meet her other friends, and she treated me to Filipino food there all the time. She made all my wardrobe choices and organised all my big birthday celebrations every Christmas. She collected empty boxes and wrapped them up to put them under the Christmas tree to add to the Christmas atmosphere for my birthday, and played Christmas music every single day in December. There was no bias, as she did the same for Chinese New Year too – hanging red stuff and pink flowers all over the house and playing Chinese New Year Music. which is why I can sing by heart most of the Chinese New Year songs today. She played a role much bigger than what she was paid for, and for that I loved her so much as part of my family.
Her departure came in advance, but no matter how early the notice came, it was extremely abrupt for me. At Primary 6, at a time when my parents finally granted me a bit of freedom, I chose to stay home every day for a few weeks because I remembered how afraid I was of running out of time with her. I remember holding her hands to sleep every night then, and refusing to fall asleep the last night she was here. I remember going with her to the airport with my family, with me playing on my Nintendo DS on the car all the way. I knew that if my thoughts ran wild to imagine how my life would be without her, I would start bawling my eyes out. I remember that very moment when she turned away from my family and walked into the departure gate. I remember that moment even until today. I will never forget it, how she started tearing and quickly turned around, how that scene triggered me but I held back my tears so badly. It was the start of months of pretending to be happy when I came home to a different maid, to a different person greeting me when I rang the doorbell. When I got home from the airport, I remember her text saying that she loves me, and asking me to “tk cre” of myself. Telling me that she will always keep my photo in her wallet. I will never forget how much my heart died that day, and how much I wished I could hide somewhere so that I could cry until I dissolved into nothing. I realised from that point on that I dealt with departures really badly, and I hated them so so much. You would see evidence of these thoughts in my 2008 posts, although I struggle to read those posts properly because of the cringe-worthy style as a 12-year-old kid.
Years later she would call home, say hello to us in a thickened Filipino accent and ask how we are. But it is all different now, we are no longer the same people. She was no longer the confidante and rock that she was in my childhood. How do I explain to her everything that has happened? How do I explain to her that I have now gotten into a good secondary school, joined NCC, met many more friends and grew a lot? How do I relate my life to her over the phone? The phone call would then end awkwardly with us trying to make small jokes (eg. “I am prettier than Shihui”), and I guess we knew and understood that whatever we shared was now only something situated in the past.
After 12 years of spending every single waking day together, our conversations are reduced to this one decade later. She added me on Facebook one or two years ago as she found my account by luck, but we could barely say anything to each other. Doesn’t it hurt when this is all you can say to the parental figure who took part in shaping your life all the way until you turned a teenager?
She also sent me messages on the special occasions, and on one of these occasions sent me these pictures that she took of me when I was young. The first picture spies a peach blossom flower pot with hanging red packets. These practices stopped after she went home, as no one else in the family saw the need to decorate the home for these occasions anymore. I couldn’t help crying when I saw these pictures for the first time. They were not in my childhood photo albums, presumably because she had taken them home for her personal collection of her 14 years of stay in Singapore. She was the biggest character of my childhood, and I knew she loved me with all her heart. It was as if we were forced apart by circumstance.
Sometimes I wish I did not have such vivid visual memories. I can remember all of these above-mentioned scenes: the exact setting, the lighting, and what people were doing. The ability to re-position myself in the exact scene in my head brings me back to how I felt then, and it stabs my heart sharply. How do you explain this void in your heart? These maids that you clearly regarded as family, leaving us permanently for their first families. Is it any different from an abrupt departure of a family member, since you will never get to see them again? I never received any form of contact from her from that text message until a few years later, when she finally called us. One day ago we cried leaving each other as she held my hand in hers to sleep, and for a few entire years after that not a single word was shared between us. How do we reconcile these feelings? I have been crying on and off as I write this post for the past hour, and I guess it is clear that I still am not able to deal with these feelings.
My third, and current maid has been with me since 2011. I remember her first day with us when we first met at my parent’s shop, when we realised that her English was terrible. She did not know how to tell us that she wanted a drink. When my sister wanted her to go downstairs to buy some food for dinner, she left the house gate and stood outside waiting for my sister, lost in translation. She got scolded several times for keeping the leftovers from our meals because it was what she was used to back at home – my mother thinks that eating leftovers are unhealthy and unhygienic. My brother uses a towel every time he showers, which means that he uses a towel up to four times in a day. It must have been difficult for her to adapt to our wasteful lifestyle habits initially. It took her several months of notes and mistakes, scoldings from my many-a-time unreasonable mother, and familiarisation around the neighbourhood to get acquainted with us. I remember her first few weeks when she would stand by the window and look out into the buildings in the background for hours after she was done with work. She did not have a mobile phone at that point in time as my mother did not allow her one, and she was cut off of all connection from her family. My heart ached for her. She wasn’t doing so well at the start.
6 years later she has become family. She speaks out about unwelcome guests to our house who mess up the order that she has put in place, she knows our wardrobes inside out, she can find anything you lose, and she is more well-acquainted with our schedule than anyone else. She knows when I want to go swimming, she knows when I have to go to base, she knows what time I have to wake up. She has been progressing with me in my life – through my NCC days when she helped me iron my uniform late at night, to my JC days when she cooked for me when I arrived home late from studying, to my BMT and OCS days when she helped me magically pack and unpack my book-in bag, to my overseas days when she packed my luggage for me. She was more of a friend than a parent, she proudly talked to me about her daughter going to university and training to become a teacher. She talked to me about my brother’s girlfriend, my sister’s boyfriend and of course when I brought my boyfriend home for the first time. She was there during what I would call my formative years, when most of my character was developed and moulded into who I am today. She helped me throughout and made my life so much easier to cope with in those busy school years. When I left I remember reserving my last polaroid picture for her, because I was afraid that she will no longer be there when I eventually return from my undergraduate studies.
These were also the reasons why I could not bring myself to watch Ilo Ilo even with the critical acclaim of the film. I know what it is about, and I know how much it will kill me if I sat through the entire film. And that’s why it also hurts my heart so much when I see news articles on Facebook with people mistreating maids. Restricting them of their food, withholding their pay even though they are clearly financially capable. I hate it when employers exercise authority over them just because they feel like they can. That’s why I get into heated arguments with my mother when she scolds my maid and deprive her from going out on her off day. Why do people always not put themselves in their shoes? Why would you do that to family, why would you do that to people who love you and whom you ought to love? Maids are not simply workers you pay, they are family who live with you and grow accustomed to your living habits.
I have dealt with these permanent departures by my maids twice, but I do not think I will do well the third time it happens. I remember telling my maid that I will be coming back this Christmas to celebrate my 21st birthday. She told me that she would wait for me to come back to celebrate my birthday with me before she leaves for good. Hearing that sentence from her killed me, because I once again realise her impermanence in my life. I hate people leaving me, and I hate how emotionally reactive I am to it. She will probably be the last maid that I would spend so much time with, because within the next 6 years I might no longer be living in the same house as my parents. I hope she will be the last painful departure in the best years of my life, before I deal with much harsher realities when I become middle-aged.