Tag Archives: international travel

Have a Seat at My Table

There are two older women cooking in my kitchen, and neither is my mother, grandmothwomanandchildcookinger, or close aunt. Considering the fact that for many southern American women such as myself, the kitchen is a sacred place where traditions are continued, future generations are pruned, and recipes are kept in furtive volts of the heart, to offer your haven to another without close supervision is both an honor and sort of a ritualistic trust exercise.  Though reluctant to pass the baton initially, I welcome this reprieve now with raised feet, a much more swollen baby belly, and a newfound confidence in the current keepers of the holy grail that is my book of recipes.

It’s been one week since our new home assistant, (“helper,” Foreign Domestic Worker) started, and I’m already living a completely different life. We’re on week two of training. (Of course my OCD forced me to develop a training and work schedule complete with tentative meal plans, emergency task lists, and duties outlined by the hour, day, week, and month. A bit much?) She spent this last week helping me reorganize my kitchen after we found a termite infestation (insert gag reflex) in one of the cabinets, (one of the many oversights of our previous assistant), and learning the tasks outlined in the training manual.

Today, she is enhancing her Western culinary skills by studying under the tutelage of another FDW who’s employed by friends of ours. I did not even waste the time, energy, and money to “invest” in my previous assistant in this way because the capacity just wasn’t there. To fully understand the contrast between the two, you’ll have to revisit the past eight months.

The Process of Getting Help

We hired *Joylyn after a debacle with *Mae (see “The Help(er) Part III” from Sept. 2013).  After a stream of crazy interviews that usually ended in tears and sob stories that bordered on deplorable and outlandish, we finally decided to hire Mae. Before we could even begin the process of completing the paperwork, she sent us a barely coherent text message stating, to the best of our understanding, that her employer wouldn’t release her from her contract.

Mae worked for a traditional Chinese family that employed very rigid restraints and practices; some of which included rationing her food portions, forcing her to sleep on the kitchen floor, and only allowing her to have one day off a month. This was just one of many sorrowful tales we were told as we interviewed dozens of women looking for an escape from their despots. Some spoke of abuse and compelled me to cry myself; others made me think they were vying for an Emmy for their role on “As the Teardrop Falls.”   Mae appeared more honest and less of a whimpering damsel who could cry on cue. We thought we were freeing her in a sense by offering her a much more amiable position that would bring her closer to her sister who lives just a few floors up as an employee of friends of ours.

So, when we got the text and realized she was unwilling to fight for her right to be transferred, we became a bit desperate. *Joylyn was one of two final interviewees, and was only selected because the one we preferred was in a similar predicament as Mae. We didn’t want a repeat repeal.

Please, Have a Seat

Her first night, she came to us one late stormy evening, hauling her life’s belongings in a single, bulging, weathered suitcase up the concrete flight of stairs leading to our condo building, instead of taking the elevator that would place her at our door step. I opened the door to her bright smile, as damp, limp, wiry hair clung itself to her forehead and cheeks like a fitted veil.

IMG3147-LJoylyn was twice the height of my two-year-old by a wayward hair, and probably no wider.  After first offering to sit on our floor, she timidly agreed to sit at our dining room table to discuss the employment contract and duties. My husband was out of the country, so it was just she and I, equally nervous, trying to grasp and make an ample first impression.   I made mine and broke the ice by pouring us both a glass of white wine; an unusual gesture that had a lasting effect.

Day 1

She was awake before we were, waiting for instruction. That was a good sign. I gave her a brief tour of our home and explained the morning tasks again. She mentioned in the interview that she was familiar with cooking and could follow recipes, so I was eager to see what she could do in that area. I needed someone to at least serve as an assistant chef when I didn’t have time to make dinner or when I needed help with preparation. Having worked for a Chinese family for four years, and a British family for only six weeks, she claimed to be well-versed in Asian cooking and somewhat comfortable with Western dishes as well. To our dismay, we soon found this to be one of the greatest misleading fabrications since hearing, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” As kind as she is, Joylyn could hardly pour water, let alone boil it to make anything when she first arrived.

Whole_No.15_Chicken__96994_zoomThe first and last meal she prepared for us without guidance was steamed chicken and rice. The chicken was dry, chewy, and unseasoned, and it still looked raw in color. The rice, well the white rice (we eat brown or black rice), was perfect in texture, though bland. We soon learned that making rice in a rice cooker was her only specialty, and really, the only thing she liked to eat aside from chicken feet and fish heads.

She also claimed to be experienced with young children, but we found that this experience actually hindered her.  The original family she worked for used her in the capacity of a full-time nanny for their infant daughter until she was four-years-old. By nanny, I mean full-time servant. According to Joylyn, the child was not encouraged to do anything for herself and the parents were not involved in her care. Joylyn shared a room with her, fed, bathed, clothed, and obeyed (yes, obeyed) her every request. She was constantly appeasing her and acquiescing to every command from the pampered toddler. This type of servile behavior did not bode well with any of us, especially the kibibi, whom we’ve taught to be more independent and respectful.

Joylyn was constantly trying to appeal to our daughter. Sometimes against my instruction, she’d offer her certain sweet treats or allow her to speak to her in a manner that I did not tolerate or excuse. I’ve seen this type of behavior with other children and their assistants, and I’ve always winced at it. I actually had to intervene once when a young boy of about seven years, screamed at and struck his assistant repeatedly because she said it was time to leave the playground. This type of occurrence is not uncommon. It’s just something we cannot allow in our home.

I remember once, when the three of us took one of our first trips to the library, I left Joylyn and Lil’ Bit to charportrait_ivyread in a corner while I sifted through bookshelves to find at least one or two books with characters that reflected our family. After weeks of explaining to Joylyn that she must be firm with Lil’ Bit and uphold the boundaries we’ve set, she finally tried flirting with the word “no” to a request for pretzels.  By this time, my little one knew how to play the fiddle, and the request turned into a command. I didn’t witness it, but I was told by both, that when another “no” was uttered, my sweet, angelic, cherub morphed into a tiny torturous tyrant and snatched the pretzels before smacking Joylyn with them and stating through gritted teeth, “You don’t tell me no!”

Well, let’s just say, my child lost every bit of her precious mind in that moment and I, in turn, had to match crazy with berserk right there in the children’s corner of the public library in front of an audience of docile Asian women and children, grasping their books and dropping their jaws in awe. Nothing like that ever happened again, but I was constantly intervening to assert some discipline when Joylyn failed to assert herself. It confused my child, as it would any child. She hasn’t mastered giving respect even when it’s not expected or worse yet, when it’s rejected.

Joylyn’s deficiencies began to outweigh her usefulness over time, and my patience an2954269188_Bad_Cook_answer_4_xlarged tolerance began waning increasingly once I became pregnant. Simple blunders like going to the market to get “Cheerios” and instead retrieving “Oh’s,” or “Corn Flakes” instead of “Corn Pops,” began to gnaw at my nerves; especially considering I’d write down the exact name, brand, and its location in the store, and I’d text her an exact picture of the item I needed. I also noticed Lil’ Bit became less enthused to do things when Joylyn was involved and would ask for “Mommy and me moments” more often when Joylyn was near.  My husband was growing more annoyed by her adaptations to my recipes or alterations to meals I’d already prepared that she simply needed to heat and serve.

As much as we enjoyed her colorful stories about her Filipino upbringing, or her current events about what was happening in the Philippines or in the park on Sundays, we were not entertained at all by the fact that we were paying for services that just weren’t being provided. I was still handling a great deal of the domestic work and missing time with my daughter because of it. I found myself more frustrated with her presence than relieved by it. Because, as employers, we are completely responsible for the salary, food, shelter, medical care, insurance, dental care, and overall well-being of our employee, Joylyn became more of a burden than a blessing.  It was time to make some moves.

To Be Continued….

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My Today is Your Tomorrow Part I

My Day is Your Tomorrow Part I

Sunday, August 25, 2013, 6:30 AM 

After four weeks in Singapore, I still don’t feel completely “home.” I honestly can’t tell you why or what that means exactly. It could be because I still have boxes packed with no sure place to unfurl or that as Westernized as it is, I’m still getting slapped in the face, (or literally nudged by passersby), with the reminders that I’m not “home.” I’m told this feeling is typical and actually will come in waves over the next year. The next year?!

Nothing you read or research can fully prepare you for living outside of your home country the first time, especially if the new country is literally on the other side of the world. So, yes I’m a little green. And, I tried to read it all: blog posts, books, news reports, the omniscient Wikipedia; I got my “Living in Singapore for Dummies” book and everything. Buuuuuuut, as soon as I stepped on that plane, which was really a four-star resort where the stewardesses dressed like they were graduates of the “Miss Asia Beauty and Charm School” while serving you lobster and turning down your bed (yes, bed on the plane), I knew I was in for more than I read. This was not Kansas anymore, (see “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” blog post).

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I literally time-traveled to get here and landed a day earlier than it was back home in Florida. When I called my parents upon arrival and really realized that they were still in yesterday, my whole “this isn’t really that big of a deal. People do this all the time. It’ll be just like moving within the states,” theory jumped off the roof. From there, the differences in how everything and everyone moves throughout the day continue to jolt me back to reality. On the surface, it looks very similar. It’s bright and sunny most of the time with chance thunderstorms that seem like the world is coming to an end for the ten minutes they last. Just like home. There are, surprisingly, a myriad of people (a beautiful mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultures, but LOTS of expats from everywhere) moving back and forth, coming and going in hurried or sluggish paces. Just like home. A plethora of tourists’ attractions, eateries, cultural activities, and enrichments are at your fingertips. Just – like – home.

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My daughter said, “mama, that’s Poo Poo,” when I cut this “dump”ling open for her.

Then, there’s everything else. They say, “the devil’s in the details.” And, if the devil is feeling like a nomad in a strange land, then the devil is in every ingredient in every dish I’ve eaten, every subway ride or walk I’ve taken, and every transaction I’ve made.

The food, that needs its own blog post (See “Fine Dining & Dirty Diving” coming soon), is anything but typical for me. The sticker shock alone will turn your stomach. But, once you’re passed the fact that you might as well leave them with your dominant hand when you pay, you have to get over the fact that you probably ate something that was alive ten minutes ago (freshness is a plus), but that you may not be certain of what that “something” is. Very few meals are completely identifiable by every ingredient. Even the rice and vegetables are typically cooked and mixed with “something.” When I ask, sometimes they just say, “meat” which I eat sparingly and selectively. Um, oooook. This is why I had some, let’s just say, issues the first two weeks. Thank God for a friend’s referral to “Yakult.”

One of the great differences about living in one of the most expensive cities in the world is that it is very clean and beautiful, in most spaces. Now, there are certainly beautiful landscapes back home, but I literally am surrounded by beauty and cleanliness, most of the time, here. I love opening our curtains every morning and just seeing litter-free greenery all around me. Even the air feels and looks cleaner, fresher. This is less about good home training and more due to the fact that the penalties for making a public mess are near unbearable. The government is less like Big Brother and more like, your crotchety older over-protective grandfather. Just see these mandates below cited from “www.hotelclub.com/blog/singapore-weird-laws,” (I told you I read the blogs):

           “1. It is against the law and a public caning offense to not flush the toilet after      using it. Again, that’s common sense, but in Singapore you might be getting a large fine for that, too, as the police officers randomly check on public checkrooms.

          2. You Litter You Pay-Big Time. A litter law dating from 1968 is the country’s way of keeping clean. Disregard the law, drop trash on the ground in this Southeast Asian city, and you’ll pay $1,000. On top of that you’ll also be forced to do community forced labor. And if you do it three times, you’ll have to wear a “I am a litter lout” sign. Along the same lines, it looks like Singapore has a law saying that relieving yourself in an elevator is particularly forbidden.  

           3. Chewing gum sales forbidden. if you had some garlic and on your way to a meeting or a date, you may be out of luck if you plan on having some chewing gum to get rid of the scent. Apparently Singapore prohibited the sale of gum after authorities have noticed a prolific amount of chewed gum being stuck in subway stations and on cars. As weird as it may sound, Singapore allows you to actually chew gum. Just make sure you stick it at the trash can, otherwise great fines apply.”

Now, I’ve personally seen several just down right nasty and disgusting bathrooms where it looked like they not only forgot to flush, but also forgot to aim. And, I’m talking about the women! So, I can’t vouch for number one, but the other two have me scurrying to pick up anything my daughter mistakenly drops on the ground and sucking on mints instead of the Trident gum I used to love. (See ending in Part II).