This story is by Gaelle Chatenet and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I was almost 20 years old when my Mom told me I would have to leave my country, The Philippines to come join her in Hong Kong and work as a domestic helper. I was halfway through a nurse-training that I would now never complete. I was grateful to have been able to study that long. As the eldest of five children it was amazing I had not been asked to help out the family earlier. But now three of my siblings were teenagers and the household just needed more money. The time had come for me to do my part.
I had been dating Enrico for a bit over a year and finding out that I would be leaving we decided to tie the knot. He was a year older than me and working in the harbor. We arranged a quick wedding with our relatives, minus our moms. They were both were working abroad to sustain their families and only came back ten days a year at Christmas time.
It was summer when we got married and on the first of September we said ‘goodbye’ not knowing when we would see each other again. As a domestic helper in Hong Kong I would not receive my ten days yearly holidays until I had worked six months for my sponsor and so would most likely not be able to make it home with my Mom that Christmas.
Employers are bound by contract to pay for our trip home once a year but we can only leave at a time that is convenient for them. If you work for a western family, you usually get to spend Christmas and New Year’s at home, but Hong Kong families prefer to wait until Chinese New Year to give their helpers leave. We make 540 US Dollars a month, working six days a week. We are required by law to live in with our sponsor, not that we would be able to afford rent in Hong Kong with our allowance. This makes the borders between work and rest blurry. Because if we are here, why wouldn’t we do the dishes, play with the bored child or take the dog out?
Flying from Manila to Hong Kong only takes a bit over two hours. But it felt like landing in a different galaxy.
I never thought of myself or my country as poor until I set foot in Hong Kong on that very first day. I had arranged to arrive on a Sunday so my Mom could come and collect me from the airport. It was my first time on a plane and I felt lightheaded after we landed. I got off the plane and soon found my mom. I had not seen her since the previous December. It was strange to think that I was going to see her every Sunday from now on. Though she laughed and said that once I made friends I would probably want to spend my Sundays with them and not the boring old ladies she hung out with.
My Mom had left home when I was 3, and for the next 17 years unless she was pregnant, I only saw her at Christmas time. As a child I sometimes doubted whether she was real or if I had made her up. Real was the gap she left the first time she went, the need and craving for the familiar embrace, the light that seemed to enter the room with her each morning when she woke me up. But as time passed I wasn’t able to distinguish what was true and what had just been my imagination. Did she really use to sing to me while stroking my hair? Or was it something I had seen on TV? Did she really use to take me swimming at the beach? Reality mixed with what I wished for until I could not distinguish one from the other anymore.
I remember the first time she came back after eight months. I was scared to approach her. I think it hurt her. I remember looking at her like the flame of a candle. She was so beautiful and yet I was scared of the pain she would leave behind. When she left again it was like being torn in two.
There was no internet at the time, but once a month she would call home. We would set a date and time and the whole family would gather to hear her voice for a few precious minutes.
Eventually I got used to it but I was never easy. My dad and my grandma raised us and it had to be enough. Some children don’t even have that. I knew kids whose parents were both abroad and who were being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles … and then of course there were the street kids. Thousands of children live in the streets of the Philippines. They live in groups almost like animals. To me they were the poor ones until I came to Hong Kong.
As I followed my mom through the city I couldn’t help but stare at how clean and new everything looked. How efficient the machines selling the subway tickets, how beautiful and spotless the subway carriages were.
I also saw my country women. They were everywhere. There are over a hundred thousand Filipinas working as domestic helpers in Hong Kong and they were all out. My mom explained that since they live in with their sponsors they have nowhere to stay or go on their day off. Their wages are too low for them to go to cafes or restaurants. They just bring cardboard boxes and build little enclosed spaces near subway stations, in parks, on bridges, pretty much any open public space and they sit together. They eat, play cards, chat, sing and dance until it is time to go and start another week of work. There was so much my Mom had never told me about her life here.
She knew my sponsor. One of her friends had been working for them but she was now seven months pregnant and needed to go home to give birth. Her sponsor needed a new helper and my Mom volunteered me. She told me they would be away until late tonight as they were on a trip to Macau. We had time to go and sit in a coffee and talk.
I was taken aback by how expensive things were in the coffee shop we entered but my Mom insisted so we sat and sipped tea while she talked.
It sounded like she wanted to tell me about all these years now, in one go. How hard some years had been. Living with abusive sponsors. Sleeping in a room not much bigger that a broom closet. But also good things. A nice English couple without children, gave her the guest room with her own bath. They stayed for three years and she said she cried the day they left and she had to move on to a Hong Kong family to avoid losing her visa. There, she had to share a bed with the grandmother and one of the children. She told me I should not worry, that the family I was going to work for was a good one.
Listening to her talk I realized that this was the first real conversation I had ever had with my Mom. I never knew about her life and she knew very little about mine.
I started to think about Enrico. When would I see him again? Would we have children? Would my children grow up estranged from me as I had from my Mom? I felt like I was seeing my life for the first time, with brand new eyes.
It was time to go. We walked for a bit then my Mom stopped and pointed at a big apartment tower. ‘Here Rosa’, she said, ‘that’s your new home.’
We took an elevator to the twenty-third floor. The ride was so smooth I was surprised we had moved at all when the door opened soundlessly. The corridor was wide and empty. There were only two doors, opposite from each other. A creamy, plush carpet on the floor. My Mom handed me the key and I was again amazed at how easily it turned into the keyhole, how the large door opened effortlessly. Inside it was all white marble, stainless steel and plush carpeting. There was a lovely flowery smell to the apartment. Every piece of furniture was glossy, lustrous. We had just left the lively street and the flat was so extremely peaceful. I had never seen anything like that. I took off my shoes in the foyer and walked to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Gazing at the Hong Kong harbor I couldn’t help but wonder how in one same world such luxury could coexist with what I knew back home.