At expat writing group we draft for 15 minutes about a Writer’s Digest “Your Story” photo. It features a woman floating in water, her body wrapped in a red gown and her mouth just above the surface, her limbs akimbo. The photo radiates sky blue, crimson, and the white-yellow of filtered sun.
It could be a scene of drowning or survival, of death or life. It is both. Neither. I use my laptop to check the word suspend, i.e., suspended in space or a suspended judgment. The word suspend signifies deferment or delay, or the state of staying aloft, like collagen in a salt solution.
My thoughts spin home, to where one daughter plays with a sitter who helps us three days per week. With blue collar jobs the sitter and her husband support a thirteen-year-old child, and do well by a certain standard: they drive a Chevy Colorado pickup, eat out, and carry smartphones that our girls commandeer to make videos.
Yet this sitter wears thick sunglasses today, her eyes sensitive to light after a recent surgery. She insists on returning to work early, rather than resting to let herself recover. This is not the first time: I have seen her cook and clean while ill, and even work when her house was flooded, because her jobs with us and another teacher are too important to risk losing.
Our neighborhood employs hundreds like her: maids, nannies, and housekeepers who allow expats to live like guests in their homes. Domestic help is affordable, and a godsend to families who live far from relatives. It is also a boon for non-Thai speakers who struggle to schedule repairs or bargain at markets, or just appreciate ending their commutes with meals cooked fresh in their own kitchens.
Whatever the reasons for hiring, helpers are ubiquitous: we see them biking to shops, pushing strollers, walking dogs, sweeping sidewalks, supervising children on playgrounds, and watering plants. Many a home I visit has a mae baan (mother of the house) toiling in the kitchen, discreetly producing and whisking away drinks. Learning to hire a helper is part of many expats’ first orientations, along with basic first aid for snake bites and cautions about street food. Hiring help is part of life.
I never dreamed, growing up, that I would supervise domestic helpers. They belonged to fiction: the Daddy Warbucks mansion in Annie or Aunt Polly’s house in Pollyanna. All the families I knew scoured their own sinks, mopped their own floors, and washed their own clothes. I dusted or vacuumed on alternate Saturdays and mowed grass, hung laundry, and made beds as did (I thought) all kids. Our family had a “cleaning lady” when we children were small, but we tidied bedrooms and otherwise cleaned for the cleaner, so she dealt with Tide, Comet and Windex. She did not wait on us hand and foot.
Here, families find it a challenge not to be served like royalty. For example, nannies often tidy up fastidiously after children, so the parents can return to a neat home. Parents may ask the nannies to include the kids in tidying up, or even to leave such tasks for later, but minders seem driven to make things just-so—and employers, myself included, find a spick-and-span house hard to resist.
In another example, helpers take pride in keeping laundry hampers empty at all times, washing and pressing clothes and folding them away. A wearer may never see an article from the time she removes it until it appears, pristine, in a drawer—even if she never meant someone else to handle it. I have rushed loads of sweaty clothes to the washer at pre-dawn to save a helper from enduring them. If I warned her away, she would still feel duty-bound to wash them. There have been times, however, when I forgot to intercept the grunge.
One result of this assistance is that we who are helped go soft. We forget or never learn to clean the tray under the fridge, take care of potted orchids, or check the filters in air conditioners. We develop different skills with time freed up by the help—I have grown as a translator because of it—but we lose our abilities to take basic care of families and homes. We grow used to giving dirty work to other people. We may look up sometimes and wonder if our self-respect has left us completely.
My friends and I do take pride in creating jobs where jobs are scarce, and providing above-market salaries and conditions. We strive to know our helpers not as robots but as humans who share our lives. Many mae baans develop aunt-like relationships with kids they nurture and stay in touch, even after the families leave Thailand. I hope the same for our sitter and girls.
Yet the fact is, domestic jobs are so dear, and poverty so great, that helpers continue to help too much, employers will slack too much, and helpers will get hurt. Cases of abuse sometimes hit the news, but more troubling are day-to-day slights that grow routine: employers piling on too much work, failing to pay wages on time, forgetting the local holidays, failing to train the dogs their maids must walk, and failing to rein in entitled kids.
Meanwhile, workers’ salaries just barely make the slights endurable. Many live in barebones maids’ rooms, boardinghouses far from family—or worse, in shantytowns. Our sitter lives at home but travels a long distance, which makes her wake early every morning. She and her husband will be paying off their truck until my kindergartener is a preteen.
I think of the word suspend again with regard to our sitter. Does she feel delayed, deferred, set back in realizing the benefits of her work? Fixed in space, observing worlds of ease that cannot be hers? Would she feel like the woman in the Writer’s Digest photo, put-together but treading water, never sinking, yet never quite drawing a full breath?
I can only guess; answering such questions violates the professional code, like ignoring dirty socks. What I can do is observe, write, ask questions of neighbors, and stay conscious in relating to her. I only hope that my strength to do that will not go the way of my ability to deep-clean and iron.