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  • Théa Mercado

Why I get annoyed when strangers mistake me for a domestic helper

As a mom I am no stranger to being judged. But once people come to the conclusion I am a domestic helper the judgement has a stronger bouquet of casual racism, sexism and classism. Boundaries and civility go poof. Strangers are more likely to correct or worse reprimand me. Suddenly my perceived autonomy and intelligence shrinks to that of an eBoy who says 'bro' too often.

Thanks to my Northern Filipino genes combined with plenty of Spanish colonist interference I am fairly light. So depending on if I wear makeup, how I dress and how not tanned I am, I can pass for Chinese. That is inconvenient as Hong Kongers will address me in Cantonese. I then have to either fake it with the my Cantonese 30-word vocabulary or admit defeat right away.

But on most days, especially in the summer, I wear leggings, quick drying T-shirts, no makeup and put up my hair in a ponytail. Just google "mommy school drop-off outfit" and that is what you get. To me it is the most practical outfit to be out and about with my very fidgety toddler boy. All that knitted fabric gives you enough stretch to run after the little devil, pick him up or carry him around. Apparently, being an ambivalent-looking Asian, accompanying a small child while wearing inexpensive athleisure wear marks me out as a domestic helper and/ or some Filipina woman who is in less need of boundaries but in desperate need of offensive criticism.

Mom or Domestic Helper?

There were several incidents in which people got into my face because they thought they could. One which immediately pops into my mind was when Dex was around 18 months old. We were at the promenade watching ships pass by. Dex sat on the balustrade with me standing behind him, holding on to his waist. When he got bored he got up and indicated that he wanted to balance on the balustrade. The surface of the top rail was flat, dry and a bit wider than a gymnastics balancing beam. I deemed it safe. One of my hands was holding on to the back of his jeans' waistband while I held the other hand just in front of his tummy. While facing him I did sidesteps to walk along with him.

Dex was enjoying himself and even tried to push my hand at his tummy away for some more independence. Towering over mommy made him giggle. Whenever he was about to lose his balance, we stopped, and then kept going. Dex was about 10 kg then, lighter than two small sacks of rice. Preventing him fall would have been easy.

Maybe five minutes had passed when I felt disapproving looks as if I was wearing an I-Love-Christian-Grey T-shirt. I quickly looked over my shoulder and I saw two Cantonese-speaking women, one in her sixties and the other in her seventies, walking past us, and pointing at Dex and me. I turned back to Dex because he was on the move again. At the corner of my eye I saw that the middle-aged lady had approached me and now was standing next to me. "You auntie, that is not safe!" she said in English. Auntie is another term to address domestic helpers in Hong Kong. 'I am his mom,' I wanted to say. "It's fine,"I just replied while not taking my eyes of Dex and doing my side steps. "No," she paused stepping along with us, "it's not fine." I could hear the air quotation marks around the word 'fine'. She waited for a few seconds for me to react.

We did not stop our little game. She gave me the stinky eye, turned around and walked back to her companion. We kept going for another few minutes until Dex signed for water. I set him down on the ground and gave him is sippy cup. Then I realized that the couple was still watching us from a distance in case Dex did get hurt and a witness account was needed from the authorities. They looked like they would gladly snitch on me.

Many helpers have taken care of several kids in their career. They even might be mothers themselves but they are often still perceived as less trustworthy or less competent than other moms by default. There is no such thing as a mom university. We read a few books and parenting articles, make up our own mind what good parenting means, and hope we do not mess up too badly. Why do people judge a helper's caretaking abilities so much harsher? I have been ruminating about this and will try to put in into some semblance of sensible sentences.

Those women at the promenade saw that I allowed a child to take a risk. What irks me is that when they concluded I was a helper they judged my behaviour as negligent and dangerous. In other instances when I looked more like what befits the mother of my Chinese-looking child or when my husband was with us we would get less comments about our child's explorations.

The ironic thing is that helpers are less likely to allow their young wards to engage in any kind of risky behaviour as the employers (the parents) might hold the helper accountable for any scratch. Kids are bound to get banged up a bit, and evolution saw to it that they can bounce back from that faster. But helpers will tend to shield them from that aspect of childhood so they can be presented to their parents in pristine condition.

Even after 2 years with us, our helper, E., would still point out every mosquito bite, minor bruise, or scratch Dex had gotten that day and explain in detail how it happened and how she tried to prevent it from happening. She would notice marks which happened on my watch and probably mentally jot them down like with a rental car before a handover. E. must have gotten lots of flak for kids getting the usual bumps and scuffs. It seems that helpers are often held to a stricter standard but expected to fall short.

On my last trip to Mysore, India in 2015 I met a fellow yogi from South Africa. We had rented a studio apartment Like so many white South Africans, he had a Dutch sounding last name and initially I thought he was Dutch. We got along splendidly. He was funny, generous and outgoing. My sister Alba and I sometimes popped over to his place to make use of his bigger kitchen and we'd all have lunch together. His wife was about to join him in two weeks time. "She's half Chinese but doesn't speak any," he mentioned.

We often bumped into each other at the rooftop of the complex doing our laundry. While he was waiting for the spinning cycle to finish, he told us about his family, and how his grandfather and father worked their asses off. Thanks to them his family can lead a comfortable life now. "I believe you can get yourself out of any shitty circumstance only if you work hard enough," he said with conviction. Alba and I looked at each other. "Uhm well," I started. "It is also a matter of luck and how shitty the circumstances are. There is a reason why more black people are living in poverty. You cannot say it is all their fault,"hinting at his country's history with apartheid. "Many of them could do better only if they worked harder. They're just too lazy to put in the necessary work for a better life. My family was poor but we changed that thanks to hard work and sacrifice." I remember that Alba and I tried to counter-argue but stopped before things got too heated. We walked down the stairs to our flat in dissapointed silence.

Domestic helpers have to face a similar racism-classism combo in Hong Kong. I often came across the notion that domestic helpers are helpers for a reason and could not amount to anything else, not hinting at social injustice but rather at their own failing. If only she worked hard enough, if only she was smart enough, if only she was more diligent, if only she finished high school she could have spared herself the fate of becoming a helper. It is like a karmic consequence for a self-inflicted inadequacy. Imagine judging a nurse for not having become a heart surgeon or a high school teacher for not having become the Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge University. Thank God for nurses, thank God for teachers, and thank God for domestic helpers. I have come across several forum threads which were initially about a bad experiences with one helper but escalated to a tale of caution: how helpers will disappoint by stealing, lying, being lazy, not smart, illogical, not knowing their place. Their station in life suddenly becomes a scarlet letter, a testimonial to their characters.

I grew up around OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) and know that their lives neither lack hard work nor sacrifice. Many of them only get to see their children once or twice a year. Most of them send the lion's share of their salaries back home so they can pay children's or younger siblings' tuition, their parents' medical bills or other relatives' expenses. For most leaving their homes and working in a foreign country without much legal protection is the only way of moving up financially. The Philippines and Indonesia, where most domestic helpers come from, are economically worse off than Hong Kong and also suffer from rampant corruption. The reputation of the country is also projected onto their nationals. 'The country is a mess because its people are a mess' is an oversimplified and false equation.

Back to my question why helpers are generally judged harsher in their caretaking abilities compared to the moms who employ them: We ticked racism and classism. There might be language barriers, cultural differences, and the fact that a helper's ward is not her own child which can aggravate these biases. But that is not all. We are getting to the gender bit.

As there is an overlap between what constitutes a mommy outfit and what constitutes a helper outfit there is also an overlap between the helper existence and the mom existence. When Dex was still an infant and I was overcome by the demands of being a new mom I once told my husband that E. was a more important caretaker than he was. It was one of those days when he asked me: "Just tell me how to help you." And that was too much to ask because all my processing ability was already working over capacity. Fellow moms might recognize this as the result of the invisible mental workload of motherhood. During that time E. was more useful to me because she knew what to do. There were times when I wanted her to do things differently but nevertheless she was able to take on more of the mental load than my husband. She still does, especially during this bloody pandemic.

I know many mothers do not like to hear this but in a way we co-mother with our helper. In many households the helper is the assistant mom. Aside from taking over most of the household chores, she feeds the kids, dresses them, bathes them, interacts with them, comforts them, worries about them and more often than not loves them. Moms know that is a lot of work. It is also unglamorous and undervalued.

Caretaking and managing the household are still viewed as an inherent female skill gifted to us women by nature. The psychologists, Alice Eagly and Antonio Mladinic, pointed out in their paper, published 1994, that traditional feminine attributes are appreciated "culturally but not financially". That is a blow for moms but the services of a domestic helper are even less appreciated, culturally and financially.

A study conducted by researchers from Cornell University found evidence in their study 'Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?' that mothers experience more discrimination and get less opportunities to advance their career compared to men or non-mothers not based on their performance but simply because of the fact that they are mothers. Interestingly, fathers do not suffer such a penalty in their careers.

"Mothers were judged as significantly less competent and committed than women without children… Mothers were also held to harsher performance and punctuality standards. Mothers were allowed significantly fewer times of being late to work, and they needed a significantly higher score on the management exam than non-mothers before being considered hirable."

What if helpers have to deal with a domestic helper penalty? Are they held under low esteem mostly because of being a helper? Discussing the discrimination of any vulnerable group is a complicated matter. I am not trying to put domestic helpers on a pedestal. They have their failings like all of us but they have to work harder to make up for them. This post has gone on longer than I planned and this topic could fill the pages of a thesis paper. We have gone down a rabbit's hole here, haven't we?

Let me just leave you with this: At the end of his article 'The motherhood penalty: It’s not children that slow mothers down' Curt Rice describes following scene:

I remember a professor from graduate school speaking once about another graduate student who was expecting a child. He commented on her career simply by saying, “She’s made her choice.”
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