This piece is in an effort to respond to the controversy that was sparked by my recent article in the Nassau Weekly, titled “Maria.” The article was about my personal experience with a domestic helper in my home in Hong Kong, where the domestic help industry is widespread. My article also incorporated a more general look at the industry as a whole, and I tried to highlight some of the issues that are prevalent in it. I was deeply affected by some of the responses to the article given my close relationship with Maria, a person I have known for all the formative years of my life, and a person about whom I care very deeply. I acknowledge that many of the ensuing criticisms were valid and illuminating, and I would like to respond to them.
First and foremost, I would like to apologize to anyone whom the contents of the article offended. That was never the intention, and I take complete blame for not conveying my perspective with as much sensitivity as I intended. I regret that I did not emphasize that my article was informed by my unique experience with Maria, and that my perspective was afforded by my membership in a family that was privileged enough to be able to afford to employ a domestic helper. This is also to say that there is a whole other side to this issue, the side of the domestic helpers and their families. It may have seemed as if I were representing objective truths about the industry in my article, but I want to affirm that the contents of the article were all written from my perspective, and my perspective only. I do not claim to represent the views of any others, especially not those of the domestic helpers who face many of these injustices. In leaving out so many vital voices, I realize that this was an irresponsible misstep, as I was also representing an issue with which few people are familiar. With this being said, I would like to clarify my intentions with this article, and hopefully clear up some of the misunderstandings that have informed the backlash against it.
In my article, I never sought to condone or defend the system of labor perpetuated by the domestic helper industry in Hong Kong. Admittedly, I never explicitly denounced it or condemned the people of Hong Kong for propagating this system. Some people took issue with my reluctance to pass judgment on those perpetuating the system or to denounce it immediately as an unjust. Having been removed from the system in which I was born and raised, I am coming to terms with many of the problematic aspects of the domestic helper industry. That I am even able to talk about these issues with this platform is a remarkable luxury, one almost never afforded to domestic workers by current power structures. What I was trying to do, rather, was to highlight the fact that the reality that exists back at home is a product of societal norms that evolved from a different historical context. In so doing, I was trying to underscore the fact that many people do not view this system as problematic. I never meant to imply that they were right in doing so. I was attempting to explain my perception of it as crafted by the society I grew up in and how that perception has changed since moving away and now looking back over my shoulder.
In my penultimate paragraph, in saying “How are we meant to judge a place like Hong Kong…”, I did not mean to imply that Americans ought not judge the people of Hong Kong (I would have said “Who are we to judge…” in that case). I was merely asking an open-ended question: with what criteria are we to judge the people of Hong Kong? Is it appropriate to apply the standards of the United States to a place that is completely different in terms of its historical, social and cultural contexts? Perhaps it is—perhaps that unequivocal judgement will help the situation. Perhaps not. I never set out to answer that question. But I thought, and continue to think, that it is worth seriously posing this question.
I called Maria to talk about my article, and I asked her a few questions that shed a little light on the reality of the industry from her perspective. She said that it is definitely a “gamble”, like “flipping a coin”, when you choose to make the move to Hong Kong. The experience is a “blessing” if you meet a good employer who treats you well, but it can be a “suffering” if you meet a bad employer. She said that she also has never heard of any case of bad treatment, such as lack of food and sleep and that good employers, in her experience, are “far more common than bad ones.” Maria also said that the domestic helper recruitment agencies were often what caused the most trouble for Filipina women looking for jobs abroad. These agencies require large sums of money as processing fees for various applications. She said that “the money was very valuable to me”, and she explained to me that for economic reasons, many women try to avoid going through the whole application process again. When I asked her about not being with her family, she said that it was a sacrifice she was willing to make for money. She says that it is helped by the fact that she Skypes her family every day, and that she looks forward to her trip back home every two years. Perhaps it is obvious to state that this sacrifice being viewed as a “choice” at all is problematic because many enter into the domestic helper industry since it is one of few options available to many of these women at the present moment.
The bulk of the criticism of the article focuses on the last paragraph, in which I state that “I like to think that we treat Maria well.” This has been read as an extremely problematic statement, as it comes off as condescending and self-gratifying. I admit that, in re-reading this poorly written paragraph now, I could have done much better. It does not effectively convey how I feel, and it is easily misconstrued due to my own writing. I was trying to reckon with a situation that is so close to me. It is easy for me to tell this to myself in order to justify my family’s involvement in the domestic industry, and I was trying to express that in this paragraph. One of the comments on the article asks how I can write this article without feeling a sense of guilt. Indeed, I am wracked with guilt whenever I think about this issue that exists back at home. In retrospect, I conclude that the last paragraph was a selfish effort to relieve some of that guilt in reaffirming to myself that even though my family propagates an unjust and in some cases exploitative system of labor, I might derive some comfort from the fact that I and my family highly value treating Maria with respect, and that we are providing a life for her family that they may not have had otherwise. I understand that my family can only feel this way because of the extremely unjust circumstances that forced Maria to leave home and work for us in a foreign country. I am frustrated because there seems to be no better alternative for her now. In the Philippines, she would have to settle for a much worse job that provides her family with less.
My last sentence, “I suppose I feel comforted by that reassurance”, was duly criticized as it showed my lack of awareness of my family’s complicity in this system of labor. I can do nothing more than to say that at the time of writing the article, I did not know what I could do to challenge or change the system. I still don’t, really, and I find myself so wrapped up in this societal norm that I grew up in that I am still trying to grapple with its problematic nature. It may appear self-evident to some of the readers of the article that this system ought to be immediately condemned. I have to admit that as a result of my own experiences with this issue, I am not yet in a position to advocate against the industry with as much rigour as some of the responders of the original article, but I am reflecting more than ever about ways to enact positive change. Perhaps I am further behind in this regard than many of my peers, but I hope that this will change soon.
What has been, I think, a positive consequence is that the article opened up this dialogue on the domestic helper industry in Hong Kong. This issue is seldom talked about by locals and onlookers from abroad, and I am grateful that I am being challenged to think critically about my stance and my involvement in propagating the system. It is clear that I still have a long way to go in terms of coming to terms with the problematic nature of the everyday practices of my home, Hong Kong. I hope that this article will create a space for more conversations about this topic, as I think it is long overdue. I hope that my intentions have been clarified, and that a more productive dialogue can ensue.