Live-in Maids

Nellie and the girls

Nellie and the girls

 What I learned from Nellie

Until we moved to the Philippines, I’d never hired anyone to clean my house or mow my lawn; never even considered paying someone to wash my windows or paint my fingernails.

And here we were, touching down at Manila International Airport, about to start a new life in a country where most middle-class people hired maids. I’d have to get used to a whole new way of life. I hadn’t given it much thought though yet. I’d been too busy selling our house, organizing a yard sale, packing, saying goodbye—and, oh yes, giving birth to our third daughter.

airport to Manila 001Luckily my husband’s new boss and his wife did give some thought to our situation. As we staggered across the blazing hot tarmac with two little girls, a baby and various bags full of diapers and toys, they were waiting for us just inside the glass doors with their own maid and their maid’s cousin. Nellie.

Nellie was young and lively and smart. And she’d worked as a maid before. She knew what to expect.

I didn’t.

The next morning she moved into the maid’s room attached to our apartment and went straight to work washing the breakfast dishes while I nursed the baby. It was nice that I didn’t have to tell her what to do since I wasn’t comfortable giving orders. When the baby finished eating, I burped her, put her in the crib and picked up my purse. “I’m going out for groceries,” I said. Just like that—no scramble for a babysitter, no figuring how to bring all three kids with me. A maid could be a real bonus, I decided, especially with three children under the age of four.

When I returned, it was almost lunchtime. While I checked on the girls and changed the baby’s diaper, Nellie unloaded the groceries, prepared a simple lunch and set the table with three plates. Just three.

“Won’t you join us?” I asked. How could we live in the same apartment and not eat at the same table?

She shook her head. “No, ma’am.”

“Why not?” I asked.

She looked at me sideways. That was not how things were done. Besides, she’d already



chosen an appropriate place to eat, at the little table on the balcony. We all need our space.

During that first year, Nellie and later her brother Samson and their sister Fely taught me a lot about relating to servants. I learned to live in the middle ground the relationship demanded, between the intimacy of people living in the same house and the privacy of our separate lives. The middle ground between too friendly and standoffish, between over-bearing and overly-permissive. (See post by Mindanao Bob.)

Servants in old China

E.'s family 001My husband, on the other hand, was at ease living with maids from the get-go. He’d grown up with them. Back in China, his grandmother had one young maid who had been given up by her parents. “In times of great floods and famine,” my husband explained, “a peasant sometimes has no choice other than to sell his child. My grandmother took in such a little girl. She brought her into our house, fed and clothed her and gave her light work to do. When the girl reached a marriageable age, she provided her with a dowry and found her a husband.”

Inequality, at home and abroad

As for our family, we stayed in the Philippines for fifteen years. Our live-in maids dusted and swept, they washed clothes, cooked dinner and babysat. After a while, it stopped feeling strange to eat at separate tables. We developed a relationship that was close, but appropriate. That’s the best one can do, I suppose, in a world of unequal opportunities.

A world that still exists. These days, when I pass a maid in the hallway of a hotel or motel, I still feel uneasy—not that she will change my bed when I leave, but that she doesn’t expect to be acknowledged. Sometimes I stop to chat for a moment. But that doesn’t change the facts.

If you have any comments or insights on this topic, please share them in the comment box below.

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Next week’s post: Nursing with Books

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. I’ve come across many maids in Singapore and got to speak to a few. Indeed, middle class households keep a maid, but even working class families also employ them, especially for them to look after the elderly. I could understand why the maids (especially from the Philippines and Indonesia) are very sought after in their neighbouring countries, though many of them are treated well, we know that many are not that lucky.

    When I was in Singapore, even in the food courts, I saw a lot of old people being looked after by their maids from the Philippines or Indonesia. Young people go to work and perhaps they don’t enjoy physically looking after their own aging parents.

    These maids have made a lot of contributions to the society — in their own countries and their neighbouring countries. Many of them are highly educated.

    However, this system also comes with a great price: imagine the maids’ own separation with their own children, and cultural clash, and loneliness.

    • You’re right, Janet, many Filipinos work abroad as maids, drivers, etc. in SE Asia and the Middle East. Fely (above) is now working in Australia. When we were in the Philippines, most of the domestic workers in Manila seemed to come from other provinces. They were also far from their families, although they could usually go home when they had vacation.

  2. I’ve heard about having household help in foreign countries, but never having lived outside WA state, I’ve never experienced it–with six kids, I’d have loved the help, I’m sure. That said, I, too, would have felt out-of-my-element with help living in the house with us. The nuances of culture and personal backgrounds are many.

    • Six kids. Wow! That must have kept you busy. Now you must be reaping the rewards of all your hard work.

      Having live-in maids, like living away from home and family and most things in life, had its challenges and rewards. I can’t complain.

  3. Nicki, I find your posts very interesting and I can relate to most of the topics you write about. With regards to this particular post, I have never had a live-in-maid or a maid of any kind for that matter. However, I have privately tutored several children who had live-in maids. I would always make small-talk with them and on a few occasions, I ran into them on Sunday (their day off). I remember one particular Sunday I was walking through the park and met one Filipino maid I knew with her friends. I stopped, sat down, and chatted with her for a bit and her friends were surprised, almost honored. To me, I was just stopping to talk to someone I knew.

    • My late husband’s maid came to Taipei with his grandmother (probably in 1949). She was retired and living alone when we met up with her while visiting Taiwan in the mid-seventies. She didn’t speak any English, but she volunteered to babysit for our youngest daughter while we did some sightseeing. Taiwan has become such a modern, prosperous middle-class society; I don’t suppose there are many people who hire maids there anymore, at least not Taiwanese maids.

      In North America the average person doesn’t have many opportunities to interact with people of different social classes–neither the migrant workers who pick our apples nor the millionaires and billionaires who own the large corporations. Maybe we were closer when we lived in a developing country.

  4. In the province where I live, most Chinese folks hire “household assistants” (when I was in Junior High School, my English teacher said that the term “maid” was really harsh. She asked her students to say “household assistant” instead).

    Some of these household assistants move into the house of their employees, some work for a few hours and then they return to their own homes.

    It is harder to find people who want to work as household assistants nowadays, especially in the western parts of Indonesia. It is mostly because of “prestige”. Even the unlucky (translation: uneducated, poor, handicapped) women prefer working in factories where they will get some training and do very monotonous jobs.

    • Practices and attitudes regarding household help vary around the world. Thank you, Hari, for telling us about the western parts of Indonesia. I hope you’re well and that the eruptions of Mt. Pinabung have slowed.

  5. Wow! What an experience. Here in the US it’s very expensive to have a maid or any sort of household help. I do have a house cleaner once a month which is absolutely wonderful but it’s not anything like what you describe. I think I could get used to it although, like you, I would feel odd if I treated them like servants rather than friends.

    • Yes, Kate, it was quite an experience. A different way of life. The houses available for expatriates to rent were set up for having maids–maids’ quarters in every house, no washers or driers since the household help was expected to wash by hand and hang our clothes up to dry. There was no central air conditioning, so the windows were always open, and since the air was polluted, the house needed frequent cleaning. Vacuum cleaners weren’t generally available in the early years. But work tends to expand to fill a void. Since everyone had household help, we were expected to entertain more frequently.

      Some expatriate women never became accustomed to the lack of privacy. Others worried about theft. But for the most part, we enjoyed having maids and were grateful for their help and friendship. Oh, and today is Thanksgiving. Now that I’m living in the US, I give thanks for all the appliances that make housekeeping fairly easy.

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