My face hurts really badly which makes it hard to concentrate on things, so bear with me here...One of the strangest things for me in employing a maid is negotiating our relationship. I actually have much more experience than a normal American in interacting with live-in help. My grandfather had a housekeeper (Margaret Best and God rest her soul!) for many years. My father's mother, too, had a maid/cook/goddess of domestic arts who took care of me a lot when I was a girl, Annie Washington. My grandfather on his deathbed had Annie swear to take care of my grandmother when he was gone, and this she faithfully did almost all the rest of her life, even though she really wanted to live in the country on her brother's farm. Even when she was 80 years old she could lift my grandmother in and out of the bath like she was a sick child. So, anyway, this is not completely new to me the way it is to most expat women who come here to Singapore and end up hiring a maid. But it's still weird.
You sometimes read in old books about England where there's a would-be social reformer type who insists on palling around with the hired help at the country house weekend party, and somehow just pisses them off, or is tolerated with amused scorn. This can easily be seen as soothing reinforcement of class distinctions (see, they like it this way!), but there is actually something to it. Tena's sister had a bad experience with an employer here in our building who wanted to be her friend. She refused to be called "mam", etc. (I tried to convince Tena not to call me "mam" when she first started working for me, but she point-blank refused to call me Belle and since she has a much more forceful personality than I do I gave up.) The thing is, if you are friends with someone, you can't send them out to get the dry cleaning for you. Or have them iron your shirts, or do the dishes, or change your babies' diapers. Or, to the extent that anyone might do these things every once in a way for a good friend who was sick or had a new baby, it would be with the understanding that the other person could ask you to return the favor sometime. And since you are never, ever going to iron your maid's shirts, pretending that she's just a pal who happens to want to pick up the living room for you is a weird thing to do. It's an irritating, patronising thing to do. In the end this person decided that Tena's sister didn't have the right personality, because she required too much direction, and having lured her away from a perfectly good job with Chinese employers (which paid more!), she turned around and fired Elsa after 9 months or so. This person is actually rather nice in many ways, really funny, and perhaps it's not her fault she found herself tempermentally unsuited to employ a maid, but it was still a kind of shitty outcome.
Now, this is not to say that you might not eventually become friends with your maid, just as a boss in another setting might become friends with an employee. In the sense that I plan to keep in touch with Tena even after we move to the states, and keep helping her family out if we can manage, I do consider her a friend now. And, indeed, she's often the only adult I talk to during the day. She is a fan of salacious gossip, and together with Auntie Lim at the shop downstairs (who is the Gillman Heights nerve center) she basically knows everything that happens around here. She has seen me at my lowest ebb, moping around on bed rest like an unhappy beluga whale. I was the only one here to hold her when she found out her father had died. (In typical Tena fashion she turned down my offer to send her home, asking that I pay for her sister to go back to the funeral instead, because she (rightly) thinks her little sister is a weaker person who couldn't stand it otherwise.) Again, it's stupid to say your maid is "just like a member of the family", unless you have some sort of orphaned cousin staying at your place whom you treat like cinderella. But she is certainly something a lot like a family member. I remember well when Zoe was just learning to talk and she was making up a story about "a mommy lion, a daddy lion, a yaya lion, and a baby lion!" Maybe the rich South African lions import domestic lionesses from Zimbabwe or something.
So, all that said, it was interesting to go to Tena's place where I could be her guest. Of course she still introduced me to everyone as "my mam"; this is the flip side of "my maid". She was both proud of things in her town she wanted to show off (the beach, the food) and sort of triumphantly irritated by various negatives (people trying to squeeze me for money, feckless brothers-in-law, corrupt and inefficient government). "Now you know the truth about my country!" she said with satisfaction, as I fumed in the airport, where we were being shuffled from desk to desk in various bullshit transactions designed to squeeze just a few thousand pesos more from the departing overseas workers. She still says that now, when her relatives call for money. "Now you know the truth about my country!" She thinks they are all "money face", but she is also pround of herself. She's like the one-woman engine of her whole family. She dreams about winning the Singapore pick 4 lottery so she can buy back the land her improvident father sold to pay gambling debts. More realistically, she wants to build a house on her part of the remaining land; she's been inspired by various places she's seen in Thailand and Bali on our trips. That's something I'm confident she will do, and I look forward to visiting her there.