Time and again, we hear stories of the abuse of Asian women working abroad as domestic workers. Last year the curtain was lifted further after we published Follow the Maid, a wonderful study of how young women in Indonesia are recruited, groomed in specialist training camps and sent off to serve in the homes of countless middle-class families across East and Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East.
But this study and many of the other stories we hear are recounted by outsiders. The tales told by maids themselves are something different. The black is blacker, the white whiter and in between there are indeed fifty shades of grey.
In recent years, a few Indonesian women have written about life as a maid in a foreign land, producing short stories based on their own experiences and those of fellow maids. Until now, these stories have only been available in local magazines and written in Bahasa Indonesia. Now, for the first time, 23 of these stories translated by Jafar Suryomenggolo are published in English in At a Moment’s Notice: Indonesian Maids Write on Their Lives Abroad. These stories give voice to the hopes, fears and everyday reality of maids’ lives, not just for a global audience but also offering insights to the many people across Asia employing such maids.
Here is the first of these stories. We hope you enjoy it.
The Jade Bracelet
by Mega Vristian
That year winter in Hong Kong was longer than usual. I had to wear several layers of warm clothing. There was no heater in the apartment where I worked, perhaps because my employer wanted to save on the electricity. The weather should have been warmer, now that Chinese New Year was approaching.
I had to clean the whole of my employer’s apartment. It’s an annual ritual – everyone in Hong Kong cleans everything before welcoming in the New Year.
The Year of the Dog was about to arrive, to replace the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese believe that those born in the Year of the Dog will be kind and loyal. I didn’t really believe in such things, but I was curious and couldn’t resist checking the horoscopes to find out what this year would hold for those who are born in the Year of the Dragon. And after reading my horoscope, I was now a bit worried because it said that those who are born in the Year of the Dragon would fare less well in the up-coming Year of the Dog. Well, that’s horoscopes for you! It would be wrong to take them too seriously.
Far more important was to finish my cleaning as soon as possible. If I did, I might get lucky and receive a well-stuffed ang-pau from my employer, as it is a Chinese tradition to give money on New Year’s Day. Presenting these gifts is believed to bring good luck to the giver. That’s how things are.
It was two p.m. and I was cleaning my employer’s bedroom. The room was eight meters long and six meters wide, and the door was slightly open. Fiona was lying on the bed watching the television.
“Oh, Fiona, you’re still here. I thought you were about to leave for your cram course,” I said, reminding her.
“No, I don’t need to go. We have a holiday during the week before the New Year. Not just at school, but also at the cram courses,” she replied.
Unlike me, with my layers of clothing, she was wearing only a t-shirt. It was the Mickey Mouse shirt that she’d bought at the newly-opened Disneyland. My employer and her only daughter, Fiona, were fine with cold weather. She lay on the bed, lazing there with her eyes glued to the TV. She was watching a ghost movie broadcast by Hong Kong’s Star TV.
“Ah, is that so?” I continued, “Fiona, I need to clean this room. If you want to keep watching the television, would you mind moving and watching it in the living room, please?”
“You can clean the room. I won’t interrupt you while you’re working.” Fiona was enjoying lying idly on her parents’ bed. I knew her well, and I knew that she didn’t like being disturbed when she was enjoying alone time. So I started to tidy up the bookshelf.
There were some books on the small reading table in front of the bookshelf. I saw that these included a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in Chinese. I could not read Chinese, but the English title was on the front cover. The madam liked Western novels, unlike her husband, who only read the newspaper and manuals on kung-fu. Mind you, he was a kung-fu instructor. I lifted the book, which was quite thick, and noticed that there was a jade bracelet underneath. It was beautifully crafted. A dragon cast in gold encircled it, contrasting with the green of the jade. It sparkled. There was no doubt that it had been expensive. Only the rich in Hong Kong could afford to buy a jade bracelet like that. I wondered, though, why madam wasn’t keeping it in her jewelry box? I didn’t even dare to touch it, afraid that I might damage it.
“Fiona, do you recognize this bracelet? Why is it here?” I pointed it out to her.
“Pe ngo tai a! Pe ngo tai a! Yes, I recognize it!” she replied, coming over to me.
“Oh, be careful. I think it must be your mom’s bracelet.”
She wanted to look at it for herself. She picked it up and put it on her little left arm.
“Look, yiyi, auntie, it’s beautiful, isn’t it!” She laughed happily. The bracelet was too big for her, but it certainly looked beautiful on her arm. Nonetheless, rather than admiring it, I was feeling worried that it might slip off her arm and fall. If it broke, if it got cracked or damaged, I would be the one blamed. I might even lose my job.
“Fiona, that’s enough. All right. Please put it back on your mom’s dresser. It could fall off your wrist,” I warned her, raising my voice. However, she didn’t take any notice.
“I want to see myself in the mirror. I want to look beautiful just like mom,” she said, running out of the bedroom into the living room, where a huge mirror hung on the wall. Not long after she ran out of the room, I suddenly heard the sound of something falling on the floor.
“Fiona, are you OK?” I immediately stopped what I was doing and ran out of the bedroom to look for her. She was squatting down, picking up some broken pieces. She didn’t say anything and I saw that her face had turned red as she tried not to cry. She was clearly afraid and felt guilty. I hugged the little girl. She was ten years old – the same number of years that I had worked for her parents as their maid. What I had worried might happen had come true: the bracelet was broken. The carved golden dragon encircling it was broken into three parts: the head, the body and the tail. Although I hadn’t broken it, I was afraid and I felt uneasy. There was nothing I could do to change what had happened, though. I tried to banish my fear and think calmly. Maybe some egg white might glue the pieces back together? But I knew that this might put an end to the close relationship that I had built with my employers and their daughter. It might end with my dismissal. If that happened, I would just have to accept it.
“It’s all right, Fiona. What’s done is done. That bracelet was too big for you. I’ll buy you a smaller one that fits you.” I tried to calm her, wiping away her tears, which were now falling. I promised that I would buy a jade bracelet for her. I had often before bought her little things to make her happy. I treated her as my own child, since I had been caring for her ever since she was a baby.
I carefully collected all the broken pieces. I went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took out an egg. I cracked it and separated the egg white into a small bowl. I applied the liquid to the broken pieces and glued them together. Although the bracelet was intact now, it was not perfect, as you could see the crack lines. I gently put the jade bracelet back on the table under the Da Vinci Code, where it had been before.
However, it wasn’t long before my employers found it. It was Fiona’s father who saw it first, when he came home early. He happened to pick up the book, and underneath it he found the bracelet, with three crack lines. He was furious, as he thought his wife had not taken proper care of the bracelet, which had been a wedding gift from his mother to his wife.
It was true that Fiona’s mother was feeling bad. She realized that she hadn’t looked after the bracelet properly. However, she didn’t know where the crack lines had come from. She asked me and Fiona about it, but both of us answered that we didn’t know. I admit that I didn’t tell the truth. I wanted to protect Fiona, who was anxious, sad and upset, engulfed with guilt. My lie saved us both: I kept my job and Fiona avoided a scolding from her parents. The truth was, though, that I felt guilty for keeping quiet about what had really happened.
+ + +
Three days passed and my two employers, husband and wife, had not really talked to each other, although they were still sleeping in the same bedroom. Every time they said anything to each other, it ended in a fight. Fiona’s father had, in fact, already accepted that the jade bracelet, the wedding gift from his mother, was heavily damaged. However, Fiona’s mother had found a folded note in her husband’s shirt pocket, with a female name on it – Mei Hwa – and an address in Shenzhen, and after this fight after fight erupted between them. Mind you, for Hong-Kongers Shenzhen has a bad reputation. Men allegedly travel there only to go on a spree with prostitutes, as there are lots of teahouses in the city. When I overheard madam screaming, demanding that he tell her who Mei Hwa was and what Shenzhen had to do with him, I too was shocked. Could it be that Fiona’s father, who loved his wife so dearly, had been going to Shenzhen behind her back?
When Fiona saw that her parents were arguing, she confided in me. She said that she felt that her parents were paying less attention to her. I tried to cheer her up. I told her to be patient and understanding of the situation, telling her that it was natural to be upset and angry when something valuable was damaged, no matter how patient a person might be normally.
Until then, I had never seen her parents fight like this. Fiona’s father loved his wife. Whatever mistakes she made, he never got angry with her. She was a beautiful woman, very devoted to him and very understanding of his ups and downs.
And then came the telephone call. It came while I was ironing his favorite woolen trousers, the ones he wore every time he traveled. Both of my employers were at home, as it was a holiday. They were keeping themselves busy, separately. He was flipping through the yellow pages for business numbers; I wondered what he was looking for. Meanwhile, his wife was busily preparing for the Chinese New Year by making a cake. As she was checking the recipe book, the telephone rang near where she was standing. She picked it up.
“Good afternoon. May I speak to Mr. Sen Liu Chiang, please?” a female voice asked. When she realized that a woman was asking for her husband, Fiona’s mother was rather taken aback.
“Who is this?”
“Apologies, ma’am. I can only talk to Mr. Sen…”
Madam interrupted her, asking again, “Yes, but who is this?”
Click. Deeeet … Deeeet …
The call had been disconnected and there was now just a steady dial tone. Fiona’s mother was still holding the telephone and her face was frozen in surprise. She looked pointedly at her husband. He, however, was busily reading and pretending that he hadn’t noticed what had happened. She was feeling intensely jealous and angry, and in the past few days her relationship with her husband had turned sour. She went over to him.
“Who was that lady, pa?” she asked sharply. But her husband didn’t answer; he only glanced up for a moment.
“Who was that, pa? Who?” She became furious and raised her voice.
“You asked her, didn’t you? And what was her answer?” he responded calmly, remaining seated on his armchair. He had been eating sunflower seeds, and there was a bowl of them on the table in front of him.
“It was Mei Hwa, the prostitute from Shenzhen whose address was on the piece of paper you had in your pocket, wasn’t it?” she said, in a raised voice.
Her husband put down his cup of coffee after taking a quick sip. “Papa, don’t pretend that you know nothing about this. Why are you taking a mistress? Is it because of the jade bracelet from your mom? You’ve crossed the line, pa!” She couldn’t control herself and she picked up his cup of coffee and threw it on the floor.
The cup broke into pieces and the coffee spilled out. I was so shocked by the sound of this that I forgot that the iron was still on the back of the woolen trousers. I saw that there was coffee spilt all over the floor and that the cup was broken. Fiona also seemed to have been started by the sound of the cup breaking, and she came out of her room and went to her mother.
“Mom, what’s happened?” she said sadly, looking at her mother.
Her mother didn’t reply. She just hurried into the bedroom and shut the door.
Another shock. My heart began to beat faster. I felt anxious. As I was about to get the broom to clean up the mess, Fiona started to cry, so I hugged her first. I tried to calm her down and took her back to her room. Afterwards, as I started to clean up the mess on the floor, I noticed that Fiona’s father, who had been controlling his emotions, was about to leave the apartment. I guessed that he would go to the courtyard inside the apartment blocks to be on his own. I had noticed, during my employment with this family, that when he faced a difficult situation he always remained silent and would go outside to be alone. He was a very patient husband and father, and rarely became angry – except in the matter of the broken jade bracelet.
I picked up the broken pieces of cup and mopped up the coffee spilt on the floor. While I was doing this, I smelt something burning.
“Oh no! The woolen trousers!” I hurried over to lift the iron up. There was a hole as big as the lid of a coffee cup on the back of the trousers. I splashed some water on the area from the small bowl I kept on the ironing board. Then I sprayed some air freshener to cover up the smell of burning in the room.
“Ah, how careless of me!” I felt bad about what I’d done. I examined the woolen trousers, and began to try to think of ways to repair the damage. The hole was bigger than I had initially thought, in fact, so it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fix it. As I didn’t know what to do, I just folded the trousers as usual, but covered the hole neatly. I would patch up the hole later.
Then the bedroom door suddenly opened and Fiona’s mother came out and walked towards me. She asked where her husband and Fiona were. I replied that Fiona was in her room and that her husband had gone out. She didn’t react, but from her face I could see that she was feeling sad and probably not feeling very well.
“Laras, I have a headache. It’s a migraine,” she said to me, speak- ing slowly. Even with a sad face, she was still lovely. She looked like the Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia. [Note: Born in Taiwan, Lin Ching Hsia was a popular actress in Hong Kong from the 1980s to the early 1990s.]
“Would you go and buy some herbal balm from the store downstairs for me, please? I need it for my headache,” she said, handing me a 50-dollar bill. Before I went downstairs to the store, I turned off the iron and piled up the clothes that I had finished ironing. I was a bit nervous that she would find the woolen trousers in the pile. I just hoped she wouldn’t!
I had been gone for less than ten minutes when I returned to the apartment with the herbal balm she had asked for and the change, and I handed both to her. She thanked me and quietly went back to her bedroom. I went back to my ironing – and noticed that the pile of clothes, including the wool trousers, had disappeared.
“Wuaah…” I felt panicky and really didn’t know what to do. She seemed to have taken all the clothes to the bedroom. What should I do? I couldn’t just knock on her door and ask for the trousers! “I’m doomed!”
+ + +
The next day, when I went to do some shopping at the market, I didn’t waste any time. I immediately started looking for a store selling men’s trousers, hoping to find a pair of woolen ones. I planned to substitute the damaged trousers with a new pair. I knew they would be expensive, but I decided that I would spend whatever it took – even if it took half of my monthly income.
Fiona had come shopping with me. For no apparent reason she looked nervous. Perhaps she just wanted to get home early? I didn’t tell her anything about the damaged trousers and my plan to swap them. I just told her that I needed to buy some new clothes.
“I won’t be long, Fiona. I need to buy some clothes for the New Year.”
“We still have four days and you can buy some tomorrow. I’m really thirsty…” she whined.
“Come on. We’ll go this way. It’s faster.” I took her hand and turned towards the jade market, a long street lined with jewelry stores. Some stores were closed already – Hong-Kongers often close their stores when New Year is approaching and open them again a few days after the New Year has passed.
“There are only jewelry stores here, no clothing stores,” she protested, thinking that I had gone the wrong way.
“Over here. You’ll like what you’ll see,” I replied. A little further on, I pointed at a small café, the Mido Café. She began to smile. We crossed the street and walked towards the cafe.
Just as we were about to go in, I noticed a familiar-looking man sitting in a small garden next to the store, with a woman. I recognized the man, though I had no idea who the woman was. Fiona had also seen them.
“Is that papa, yiyi?!”
“Ssshh…” I closed her mouth with my hand. “Keep quiet, Fiona.”
Both of us took a step back and turned around. We didn’t go into the café, but instead went back a few steps and hid behind a jewelry store. We had a quick chat about what to do.
“I want mama to know and I want her to tell that woman off, yiyi! So that she won’t pursue papa anymore.”
I didn’t say anything. I was trying to work out what to do. I didn’t want to see my employers’ family life collapse because of a woman. “So you want your mom to come here?” I asked her, and she nodded her head.
Informing Fiona’s mother and letting her see her husband with the woman might be the best way to get rid of the ‘other woman’ once and for all. Would it work?
“But Fiona…” I hadn’t finished my sentence when I realized that she was already making a call on her mobile phone. It’s common now for young kids in Hong Kong to have a mobile phone, so that their parents can call them directly at any time, before or after school. That way, they can monitor their children when they are at work.
“Mom said she’s coming right away,” she informed me, putting her mobile phone back in her trouser pocket. The market was about a ten-minute bus ride from the apartment.
While waiting for madam to arrive, I inserted a few coins into the vending machine in front of the jewelry store where we were hiding. I pressed for a bottle of Sprite, Fiona’s favorite drink.
Fifteen minutes later, Fiona’s mother stepped down from the bus. She hurried towards us when she saw our hands waving at her to show her where we were.
“Where is your papa, dear?” she asked her daughter in a calm voice. She seemed to have prepared herself, and to be determined not to get carried away with jealousy and anger. Fiona pointed at the small garden.
The three of us walked towards the garden. My boss was still sitting there with the woman.
“Aha… so this is that woman, right?” Fiona’s mother raised her voice.
When he heard his wife’s voice, her husband stood up suddenly, taken aback. He was holding a small box in his hand. The woman also stood up, but she looked calm. There was no trace of nervousness or fear on her face. She looked as if she hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Who are you? Why are you pursuing my husband?” Fiona’s mother asked sharply.
“My name is Mei Hwa and I am not pursuing your husband,” she replied calmly. “I have my own life and have never meddled in anyone’s family.”
Hearing that her name was Mei Hwa, Fiona’s mother could not control herself any longer, and became infuriated. She raised her hand as if she was going to slap the woman. Her husband quickly intervened.
“Mama, please,” he said, facing his wife. “Don’t get angry. Let me explain first.” Then he turned to Mei Hwa to apologize.
It was when he turned that we all noticed something strange on the back of his trousers. The hole was so big that we could see his underpants. They were red.
I gasped. He was wearing the woolen trousers that I had damaged.
Fiona’s mother’s rage vanished immediately. Instead, she became embarrassed that her husband was wearing trousers with a hole. Fiona and I looked at each other and neither of us was able to say a word.
Fiona’s mother took my shopping bag and, holding it, put her arms around her husband’s waist in an effort to cover the hole. She whispered to her husband:
“Next time, you’d better check your trousers more carefully before leaving home, pa.”
“Huuh? What’s wrong with my trousers?”
“Haah… never mind. We need to go back home now.”
“But you need to apologize to Mei Hwa first. And then you need to thank her.”
“Why should I thank this Shenzhen woman?” muttered Fiona’s mother.
Fiona’s father opened the small box he was carrying. Inside was the jade bracelet. It looked beautiful, just as good as new. The gold dragon encircling the jade was now smooth and there was no trace of the cracks or that it had ever been broken.
“Oh, it’s beautiful! The repair is perfect. I’ll wear it when we visit your mom this New Year’s Day,” Fiona’s mother said, admiring the bracelet. She looked pleased and happy. The bracelet which had been broken now shone brightly, and it looked brand new.
“It was Mei Hwa who repaired it. She is the younger sister of a colleague. Her jewelry store is on holiday today so we met here in this garden. She works with some jade-specialist friends of hers in Shenzhen.”
On hearing that, Fiona’s mother’s attitude was rapidly transformed. Her face changed from looking stern to being wreathed in smiles. In fact, she seemed to be trying to cover up her embarrassment by smiling. She came forward and offered her hand to Mei Hwa. She apologized for what had happened, especially of having accused her of pursuing her husband. Mei Hwa responded in a friendly manner. She smiled back and she nodded her head.
“I apologize, pa. It’s all my fault. I should have controlled myself. I’m really sorry.”
“It’s my fault, too. I wanted to get it repaired without telling you. I meant it as a surprise for you. Sadly, I gave you the wrong impression.”
“It’s all right, my husband. I love you all the more, pa.”
“Mom, dad, it’s actually all my fault,” Fiona interrupted. “I was the one who broke the jade bracelet. I’m sorry that I wasn’t honest. I should have told you.”
Her parents didn’t say anything. They were looking into each other’s eyes. It was clear that they had known about what had happened all along. Fiona’s confession melted their hearts. Both of them stroked her head.
Taking advantage of the moment, I approached Fiona’s mother and whispered to her:
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I made the hole in the trousers. I forgot to turn off the iron because I was hurrying to clean up the broken pieces of the coffee cup the other day.”
When she heard my confession, she went quiet for a moment, realizing that it was she who had thrown her husband’s coffee cup on the floor.
“It’s all right. Let’s go back home now and continue cleaning the house before the New Year. We only have a few days left. Look, that’s our bus. Come on, let’s go!”
After saying goodbye to Mei Hwa, Fiona’s father took his wife’s hand and Fiona’s to run for the bus. I followed them. But as he ran faster to catch the bus, we could all see the hole in his trousers again. “Pa, please stop. Don’t run. It’s your trousers…” And Fiona’s mother told him about the hole.
“Ai ya! My trousers!” Once he knew that there was a hole in his trousers, he stopped running. Instead, he walked slowly, using his right hand to cover the hole at the back. When we saw what he was doing, we all smiled.
(Yau Ma Tei, end of January 2006)
At a Moment’s Notice is available from your local bookseller, also from online retailers like Amazon. The paperback ISBN is 978-87-7694-271-7.