December 16, 2010

What all the girls are talking about

I just got back from a fun lunch with friends. It struck me on my way home how different my conversations are now that I'm living an expat life with expat friends on this side of the world.

When I first moved here, hours of conversation revolved around how to navigate the ins and outs of this city. The best grocery stores, where to get sports related items, where to go to get things like a shower curtain rod (our hunt for one of those almost made this Baptist girl go all sailor on everyone) finding out where I could buy a piece of wood for yet another 6th grade project. Home Depot...I will never again take you for granted.

We talk a lot about traveling. We are here for a limited amount of time with limited amounts of school vacation so it's a mad rush to squeeze in everything you want to see. It can be extremely overwhelming requiring a ton of research and conversations with others for personal recommendations. For most of us, this is our only opportunity to see this part of the world. There's a really good chance Langkawi won't make the Spring Break list when we go back home.

We talk a lot about politics. Much more than I ever did back home. I think it's being immersed in a new culture and new type of government that just creates the backdrop for some interesting conversations about life in America in relation to the rest of the world.

Then, there's the hours and hours of discussion among us newbies about the phenomenon that is "The Helper". There's just no way to sum up our conversations about a helper in a couple of sentences so indulge me as I give you the full 411 on The Helper.

When we were here for our "look see" (still an odd term for the week you visit looking for a place to live...seems a tad redundant), we noticed that every single apartment we looked at had a maid's room. It didn't matter if it was the fanciest or the oldest place we saw, they all had maid's rooms. The idea of having someone move in with me, in an apartment, and do all my work was very unappealing. Because of that, we ended up in a three bedroom apartment and turned our maid's room into Scot's office.

The maid's rooms are removed from the main part of the apartment, usually out in the utility area. They are not air conditioned and the majority don't even have a window. There is usually a small bathroom adjacent to the room that is a shower, toilet and sink all in one type thing. Like you could take care of all your business at the same time. We currently have all our luggage stored in there. I try not to let that gross me out.

Ours happens to have a window is a pretty good size (about 7 ft x 7 ft) so it works well for Scot. Except the no air conditioning thing. It can get pretty warm in there. Oh, and the leak from upstairs apartment that has left a lot of mold and some cute itty bitty bugs crawling all over the walls. Except for that, it's practically like having a corner office! What can I say? It keeps him humble.

What bothered me initially was the idea of even asking someone to live like that while we lived with air con and windows and bathrooms that required more than one step to get yourself clean. Well, supposedly. I do live with boys who believe that the quicker you can get through your hygiene routine the better so there's no telling what kind of shortcuts happen in there.

I think my friends and I literally spent hours talking the pros and cons of getting a helper. It is expected here. The majority of expats have them....I am the only one out of all my friends in my building that doesn't have one. In fact, we've had numerous handymen come through here (reference before mentioned mold and leaks) and they are always surprised to see me back there doing my own laundry. They ask me where my helper is and are even irritated that they have to work around my schedule for when to come instead of having the luxury of always having someone here to let them in.

There are classes offered everywhere for helpers. Western cooking lessons for your helper, how to get along with your helper (she's doing all your work for hard is it to get along with her?), and first aid courses for your helper.

Not having one sets you apart. Even more than not having a car. Since we currently have neither, I would say with confidence that it makes us the most unusual of all helper/car scenarios. Most common is a helper and one family car followed closely by having just one or the other. Less common is a helper and two family cars and then there's us.

Just hanging out being unusual.

Let me lay out some basic facts and let you decide for yourself.

Fact #1
The helpers are usually from the Philippines. A few have some form of higher education. I know of one lady who interviewed a helper that was a doctor back home. They leave everyone behind, sometimes even their own children, to come and work as helpers in Singapore. The fact is that they can make more money here than in their careers there and usually send most of what they earn back home. And that small, non air conditioned room? A HUGE step up for most. A fact I wasn't sure I believed until I started asking some of those ladies myself.

Fact #2
Helpers make between $400 and $550 a month depending on her experience. You have to pay taxes on them as well as health insurance so in total you will usually end up spending about $700 to $800 US dollars a month for a live in, 24 hour a day, 6 day a week, helper. To put this in perspective with my helper/car comment from before, we recently looked into leasing a Hyundai Santa Fe. A small SUV with no outrageous bells and whistles. The lease would run us right at $2000 a month. That's right.....two thousand dollars. It's cheaper to have full time help than it is to even lease a car.

Fact #3
If you have a helper, you no longer do laundry, cleaning, cooking, or even grocery shopping if you don't want to. You have 24 hour babysitting at your disposal as well as an extra person to shuttle kids around. That means you can come and go as you please. When my friend Lisa was moving her helper into her house, her husband looked at her and said, "So, I guess this means you're done! You're on vacation for the next 2 years!". She now gets her sheets and towels ironed on a regular basis (I don't think I knew that towels could get wrinkles) and is loving life with Miss Rose. Heck, I love Miss Rose. She makes flowers out of vegetables and puts them in our salads!

Fact #4
If you have a pet of any kind, it's almost essential that you have a helper. There's no way you're going to travel with your cat or dog back and forth to the states for 8 weeks every summer so someone needs to stay home with Rover. Noone wants to board their beloved pet for that long.

Fact #5
You are responsible for your helper if she gets sick or needs medical attention of any kind. You are responsible for sending her home once every two years. You pay for all of her room and board including groceries that she might need unless otherwise negotiated in her contract.

Now I will grace you with a few of my own opinions on The Helper.

Opinion #1
Since living here, I've seen people who approach The Helper concept in a good way and those that don't. It will take effort on your part to not let your children get completely spoiled by the idea that they no longer have any chores or cleaning up after themselves to do. For that matter, everyone gets spoiled by it. One of my neighbors had her helper go home for a wedding recently and while she was gone, their washing machine quit working. My neighbor had never actually used her washing machine before so it took some time to figure out whether it was in fact broken or whether it was operator error.

Can you imagine? It half horrifies you and half brings out all kinds of envious feelings, right?

There can be a good balance, but you have to work for it.

Opinion #2
I have learned that most helpers LOVE to spoil your children. They will even spoon feed your 6year old. One of my friends shared a story about how she went to lunch with someone that had lived her quite awhile. She had her 6 year old son with her at lunch and he proceeded to throw a wild and crazy fit because he wanted his Nintendo DS. The kind of fit that makes you want to throw on your t-shirt that says "I am NOT with crazy" and a big old arrow pointing at the child. On top of that the child refused to feed himself. So, the mom calls The Helper and asks her to please come to the restaurant and bring the child his DS and an extra spoon so the helper could proceed to feed Henry Jr his lunch. I promise on my life this is a true story.

That being said, there's something really sweet about having another woman in the house that will love on your kids. And in my case? There's not a helper out there that could shovel food into my boy's mouths fast enough for them.

Opinion #3
I have watched children treat helpers as someone beneath them and nothing irritates me more than watching anyone treat another human being like they are beneath them....especially a child. I am very verbal with my boys about how I feel about that and they know that if they ever speak to any adult in a condescending manner, I will drop kick them.

It's weird that I have had to have conversations with my boys on helper etiquette.

Greet The Helper and call her by name. She has a name so use it.
Thank her profusely for anything she made for you or cleaned up for you.
Maintain eye contact with her and by all means, use your manners with her. Do NOT boss her around no matter how the children in the house may speak to her.

It's those chapters in the parenting books I never, ever thought I'd have to use!

Opinion #4
Going to someone's house for a meal where your hostess is not running around crazy, sweating in her non air conditioned kitchen, or frantically trying to clean up after herself is really a great thing. Even better is after the meal when all the dishes, pots, and pans magically get cleaned up so when your guests leave there is nothing for you to do.

It's every night not having to worry about making dinner. There's more time to spend with kids on their activities or schoolwork or just having fun because dinner will be made and ready when you are. And chances are it is going to be healthier than anything you picked up on the run.

It's needing one or two ingredients and having someone at your disposal who can run to the store and pick them up for you without grumbling or complaining about it. Not that that attitude is ever displayed in my house or anything!

It's those things that would and have changed my mind on whether or not I would ever want a helper. Cooking and coming up with meals is something I dread every single day. To have someone else do that for me? It's the closest I'll come to heaven on earth.

Opinion #5
Helpers always call their employers ma'am and sir. They refer to all their employer's friends the same way. I am getting used to it now, but it made me uncomfortable at first. My gut instinct is to try and have a conversation with them, ask them to call me Keri, find out about their families and help them in the kitchen. The reality is that my attempts at proving to them that I feel we are equal makes them uncomfortable. They don't quite know what to do with me. I have learned to just treat them with the same respect and kindness I would anyone and that seems to work. At least, I'm getting used to it.

It's the helpers that are almost subservient in their attitude and won't even look at you that I really struggle with. It's just a hard concept and not one I've ever been exposed to before. It's weird to be living in a place where news stories on the abuse of maids and having safety houses available to them is commonplace. I just flat out have a hard time with the inequality of it all.

So there you have it. Some facts and my opinions about having a full time helper. I am glad I didn't write this when we first moved here because my opinion has changed some. Initially I swore I would never consider it. Now, I would absolutely consider having one for the cooking alone. And because I understand better that these women are here because they not only have a better life working as a helper, but they can provide a better life for their families back home.

There's a popular saying here:
Noone ruins a good maid like an American.

I would completely ruin a helper and wouldn't feel bad about it at all. For now, my husband is the one spending most of his time in the maid's room. There's something about that that makes me giggle a little bit. Maybe I can ask him to iron some towels for me in his spare time?

This is a picture of Miss Darsi. She is the helper for our friends on the 23rd floor and according to my boys, she's an amazing cook. They LOVE getting invited to their home when Miss Darsi has cooked something. She hands down makes the best Spring Rolls you have ever, ever tasted. We love her. It took a little convincing for her to be willing to take this picture, but I talked her into it. She's beautiful.

There are so many times my friends and I look at each other around a lunch table and just laugh at how crazy it is that we came from all over to live here. Together. That our worlds can change so much in just a few months.

On the agenda for tomorrow's lunch? World peace

Stay tuned. I'm sure we'll come up with the perfect solution!


  1. I love, love, love reading about life in Singapore. I bet those ladies thought they'd seen everything until you moved there! I hope we get a chance to get together while you are in town so I can give you a big hug!!

  2. After the crazy family Christmas party for my husband's side of the family I was feeling exhausted from all the decorating/preparing/cleaning. I told my husband afterwards that I didn't feel like I had visited with any of his many sisters and brothers. Note: Men usually act surprised over this comment because they get lots of visiting in. you think I could borrow the Helper a couple of times a year so I could actually have a conversation with our guests??

  3. Great, great story, Keri. Not that I would expect anything different! Reminds me very much of growing up here on the Texas-Mexico border. Everyone has "maids rooms" built into their homes. Almost everyone we know with small children has "a helper" living with them, usually from the interior of Mexico or Central America. At that one time when Lisa and I had 4 kids under the age of 3 in the house, we had a helper ourselves. The dinnertime and cleanup afterwards were fantastic. But, I had similar feelings about the whole concept of a "servant" or an "employee" living in the house. As much as I tried to rationalize it, it still was a little uncomfortable, even though I knew the job she had with us was the best, safest, highest-paying job she had ever had. Great article...made me think hard about those times! Wade Sales

  4. Interesting read! Merry Christmas! Best wishes and safe travels!

  5. Your posts from Singapore make me so happy. I love the way you've captured the culture through your unique lens. CANNOT wait to meet you. :)

  6. Keri, You have been on my mind for the past week or so. I have been out of blog world since I went back to school, so I just had to come and see how you are doing. I have enjoyed reading the past few posts; girl, I just love your heart. I pray God continues to bless you and your sweet family. -Anita from Mud and Coffee.



Site design by Fabulous K Creative