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.
Luckily 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.
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
My 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.
(To keep up with my weekly posts, you may click on the orange “subscribe” button at the top of the page.)
Next week’s post: Nursing with Books