When we arrived in Bangkok we were given pots, pans and crockery to tide us over til our stuff arrived. Amongst the borrowed goods were a global take-away brochure and “an essential guide to living in Bangkok”, with a section on ‘Setting up home – domestic help and child minding’. I got butterflies when I first read that, child minding. I hated the thought of a stranger looking after my kids, even though that’s what school is and I knew I’d have to be open to some big changes, but this change frightened me. I asked whether CRB checks existed out here and South East Asia pointed and laughed at me.
The guide was useful to help plan an interview, I learnt things like – it is considered rude by Thais to use written instructions, verbal is preferred. If a family member of your employee dies, be prepared to contribute to the funeral. In fairness I’m more likely to offer to carry the coffin and wail more than the widow.
Through word of mouth (apparently the best way to find a DA) we learnt of a Burmese woman looking for work. The phone calls leading to the interview were awkward, especially trying to give directions to where we lived. Then the interview was communicatively unbearable, and I gave up asking her to repeat herself for fear of sounding like the Fat Fighters club leader in Little Britain “Come again? Do it again…do it again…do it again….”. Plus more importantly she didn’t engage with my ‘precious darlings’ and the vibe was all wrong.
A month later, we’re in our permanent address. I text 5 strangers (recommended by our estate agent) to ask if they can help clean the condo and mind the kids. I get 1 response and set up an interview, but she’s a no show. I call her and the chat is tricky but we re-arrange. Unreliability is commonplace, so I’m told, due to high expat demand, maids are snapped up quickly and leave swiftly if not looked after properly, and rightly so.
Her name is Wandi (pronounced like Wendy but magic ‘wand’ vowel sound), she is Thai, which I want my kids to learn to speak, and her English is ok-ish. Wandi needs to leave her current employer because he’s not treating her fairly and it sounds like she’s caring for an old man with the needs of a baby. We learn that Wandi has worked with European families and she shows us 1980s photos and a good, yet dated reference (she tells us she lost paperwork in the big flood 2 yrs ago). My face aches from over-smiling throughout the interview. I try my Thai on Wandi, she says its “very good, Madame”. We decide we want Wandi, not because she praised my Thai, but because she has kind eyes, she’s Grandma-ish and we have to go off instinct and trust. Wandi is hired because the vibe is right.
Wandi asks to ‘live-in’, she views the ‘Maids Quarters’ (I’m checking over my shoulder as I type ‘maid’s quarters’, the same way I turn to see who she’s addressing when Wandi calls me ‘Madame’ – I’m not Madame, I’m Kenno from the block). In Manchester our house had a loo in the backyard – we didn’t use it, we’re not THAT poor, I’m just expressing my point. The maid’s quarters is a poky living space it has a shower/loo, a small bedroom, and no air con, but a slatted window over-looking the washer and dryer. As living space out here goes, I hear ours is good, but it makes me blush, especially in comparison to our massive open plan apartment. I squirm at the thought of Wandi sleeping in there. And there’s a service entrance. I read a sign in our apartment atrium telling us that maids and cleaners had to use the service lift, not the main lift, or they’d be banned from using the lifts completely. Where’s Rosa Parks when you need her?
I’ve hired cleaners in work before, you can’t run a hostel without cleaners and I’ve cleaned ‘shit’ up myself, literally. I’m picturing a bag of adult poo left in a kitchen cupboard in a hostel I ran (not at home, James does his in the pan drawer), a dirty protest with flies everywhere, puke on carpets, stinky toilets, skiddy undies left on the floor, I’ve cleaned it/seen it all. You can’t expect others to do what you’re not prepared to do yourself can you? So why am I still cringing? We’re paying Wandi more than the average for a Thai live-in maid, plus extras for cleaning up after visitors (tolerating my Father’s jokes) and babysitting.
My society has been trying to inflict the role of cleaner on me from birth, just because I’ve got a vagina. Pink Plastic kitchens for girls to play in, adverts telling me my hands will feel softer if I opt for one carcinogenic washing-up liquid over another. At home we couldn’t justify having a cleaner and they were less common amongst my peers, whereas here, everyone I know has one.
Perhaps I’d feel less guilt for not cleaning if I was in paid work? Or dare I say, if I had a penis? I’m sure I’ve thought people were lazy bastards for not cleaning their own crap in the past, regardless of their gender, but more likely through a bit of envy – ‘so and so’s too good to wash her own pots’.
Can I just point out that this is temporary, at some point I’ll be back in England choosing bleach and polishing the woodwork. I know this is a luxury and I’ll enjoy the benefits soon enough, I swear.
I know I’m about to be as tidy as I’ve ever been in my life and I’ll clean before our cleaner arrives. I make the bed, then Wandi makes it again, better. I tidy all the empty suitcases, prams and boxes in the storage cupboard, Wandi rearranges it into a work of sculpture. I offer to make Wandi a cup of tea, well I didn’t know, I thought I could let her put her feet up, have a brew and a biscuit *and 1000 expat ladies clutch their pearls.
Wandi and I are separated by boundaries, culture, language and the kitchen. Before she starts I offer to get Wandi whatever she needs. A bed, a chest of drawers, a fan, a lamp, to hell with it, she can have my bed, sleep next to James, I’ll take the floor. I rush to Ikea, pick up brand new things off the list, aside from the telly and a bed base. We’re told the building will provide the bed base, but they don’t. They say maids tend to have a mattress on the floor, it gives more room in small quarters. It feels wrong but what do I know. I clean the room, make the bed, sans base, assemble the drawers, make it nice. Mr James, not my husband, my camera-mate, asks to come along on Wandi’s first day - capture the awkwardness. When Wandi arrives she tells me she has a bad back and needs a bed base. Shit! Shit! Shit! I feel like a twat, not because I’ve been busted for being a slave trader, because I’m feeling the power imbalance, I should’ve gone with my gut, not the advice. The advice you see is very mixed. ‘Don’t get her a telly until the trial periods over’, ‘don’t let ‘them’ take advantage’, ‘set the boundaries early on’, what boundaries? ‘If you give an inch they’ll take a mile’, ‘don’t give time off’, ‘don’t give extra money’, ‘get her to work weekends’, ‘ours didn’t smile enough’, its a minefield and I’m in a discomfort zone. How could I not buy her a bed base, and a telly? I get a telly within a few hours of her starting, a good one, GBP 100.
Wandi’s settling in well, she’s on a 2 month trial period, but she’s a definite keeper if she’ll have us. Wandi’s making us amazing Thai food, with ingredients from markets I don’t know exist. Our fridge is full of random green veg, the cupboards – mixed spices and exotic pots of paste, the freezer – unidentifiable meat. Our house is spotless and organized, and I know that soon I’ll have time for me, because of Wandi, which will save on therapy and vallium, which I can buy on the school run if things get really on top. The kids tell her the meals she’s made them are “Wandilicious” and thank her in Thai (though they have done time on the step for calling her Wandi-poo-head). And there have been a couple of fish fingers with beef gravy style incidents. I’ve had to message my mates to tell them of my newly organised knicker drawer, and James and I have banter about her tidying stuff away when we can’t find it – threaten to take away the telly.
I have memories as a child, of accompanying my Mum on her cleaning job. I remember a goat in the garden, a golden Labrador, and an aviary. I can picture the white porcelain of a ‘downstairs’ loo as my Mum cleaned and I watched from the stairs. I loved going there. In the end they stopped needing my Mum, the place was so clean the ‘woman had nothing to do when she got home from work’. Feminism hadn’t hit the Wirral in 1980, not in our house, or theirs perhaps.
Wandi doesn’t work weekends, one Monday I ask her what she did at the weekend, she said she went home and cleaned her house. A busman’s holiday. I’ve learnt that Wandi needs a day off, to sign some deeds on some land she is buying. My spirits are lifted when I hear this, I like the thought of Wandi retiring when she’s finished with our family (we’re her last chapter in domestic help), I can imagine her sitting in her garden, drinking a beer, playing with her grandkids and telling them about Abe and Patti.
There’s a lot to get my head around with this move. Having Wandi is a privilidge and a Godsend, yet still something huge to adapt myself and the kids to. Wandi will be treated well with The O’Haras. I feel like I have to sometimes justify this new life to myself, and to readers of this blog. A friend of mine has made a career out of living/studying abroad. He married his boyfriend in Vietnam after living in Bangkok, Malaysia, all over South East Asia. He is a good source of information and encouragement for me. In his last message he said:
“It’s so incredibly challenging what you’ve done. I travel a lot, as you know, but doing so with a family and children under 5 as well, and being responsible for them, their lives, your lives, is an altogether different experience again… I’m dead proud of you”. (I wept when I read that). “A life with frequent almost constant misunderstanding, confusion and ignorance is frustrating at best, but somehow rewarding if the same mundane encounters are successfully performed”. I am so grateful to him for saying this, for getting it, and thankful to Wandi for everything.