July 21, 2007

The ‘Manang’ Diaries (With Apologies to Francine)

Something Like Life
July 20, 2007

INSPIRED by my colleague’s piece on her experience with her son’s nanny, I am moved to write about domestic help and our relationships with them. And also because we have a new girl staying with us.

I remember growing up with domestic help – we called them “maids” back then – who spoke English clearly, were clean in body and around the house as well, and had enough common sense to react appropriately in any given situation. They often stayed with the family until they got married, and had that now-elusive quality of malasakit, or concern, toward their employers and their children.

Almost everyone I know has one or two favorite memories of their family’s domestic help. Perhaps this is due to the fact that these helpers, if they stay long enough, often turn out to become part of one’s family as well. Although they perform household services, they are treated the same as one’s next of kin and, in some celebrated cases among the upper crust, even inherit more money than their employer’s own children because of their undying affection and loyalty.

(Remember how Will & Grace parodies the relationship between employer and maid with Karen and her Rosario always throwing sarcastic lines at each other, tormenting each other with their cruel and unusual treatments, but actually can’t live without each other.)

To me, the househelp were ate or manang out of respect as they were much older than me. (It was ate, as well for a gay househelp – much to the chagrin of my father whom I suspect was a tad homophobic, and also because he tired out his lungs calling for “her” while it took her forever to use the rest room out back. I remember ate fondly for wearing red shorts around the house, which she cleaned to an almost Tide-sparkling white perfection!)

As a child with parents always out of the house, one tends to be attached to the househelp. With no one around, I would sometimes sneak off to eat with them (which is how I learned to love tuyo/daing and sinangag) or hang around with them watching the afternoon soap operas or a Nora Aunor flick (which is also probably why I am an Ate Guy fan to this day). In fact, I remember bawling my eyes out after I saw the Superstar “die” then slowly walk up the steps to heaven in a swirl of clouds and hallelujah choruses. I can never live that crying fit down and to this day, I am teased by my family about this sordid episode.

Except for one or two bad eggs and the occasional run-ins with my aging grandmother who was used to overseeing household operations like an office manager, most of our domestic help, including nannies and drivers, had pleasant relationships with my family. I remember Christmas especially, because it was a big thing for all of us and the househelp were also given their presents, usually pretty clothes or bonuses, in reward for their outstanding work and loyalty to the family. They, too, would share in our Christmas feast, except for the queso de bola which most of them found nauseating much to our amusement.

But those who grew up with domestic help surely will have already noticed that the quality of those now in their employ no longer measures up to those who performed such excellent services 10 to 20 years ago.

It just seemed that overnight, there were no longer any intelligent, hardworking and caring domestic help to hire. With the economy in crisis after crisis, I assume many of these girls from the provinces turned to other employment opportunities to make a faster buck and keep their families afloat. If these girls didn’t become prostitutes in Malate and Ermita, they went on to become dancers in Japan or worked as domestics/nannies in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Middle East.

According to the owner of an employment agency for domestic help, stay-in, all-around domestic help are paid a starting salary of P3,000 a month up to P6,000, depending on their level of skills and intelligence. Some of those in the upper bracket can speak English, have worked abroad, and know their way with a computer or have taken baking/cooking lessons. She said that she even had an applicant with an international driver’s license, o ha?! I began consulting with the employment agency after I found it necessary to have someone to stay with my aging parents, considering that my work often takes me out of the house and even out of the country.

But if you think about it, what is P3,000 worth these days? It isn’t even enough to pay for a househelp’s basic necessities, much less the baon for her children if they are at school. In comparison, domestic helpers are paid about HK$6000 in Hong Kong, or about P37,000!

So I’m not surprised about the dearth in good househelp these days. The employment agency already brought in three applicants for my mother to interview and they were either DUH! (you know the kind, glazed look and all?), had a touch of arrogance for having worked abroad already, or just didn’t return.

Right now we’re trying out a new girl – the sister of a former househelp – who needs the work to support her toddler. She is an unwed mother, which would probably explain her often-unsmiling face. I don’t have any major complaints about her, but I just find her a tad depressing because of her overall demeanor.

Her sister was at least very biba and knew how to make us laugh, especially my brooding parents. Unfortunately, she can’t live with us full time as she is utterly devoted to her growing children. My only beef about her was she often took shortcuts when cleaning the house. But she was alert and had a happy disposition, and truly had become part of the family. When my father would realize that he had mistakenly blamed her for some error not of her doing, he would quickly apologize to her – and this from a family not exactly quick with apologies among ourselves.

My mother, on the other hand, is going nuts teaching her sister the rudiments of cleaning a household. In the first place, my mother has very little patience – big wow that she never became a schoolteacher. Coupled with this is the seeming lifeless response of the new girl. I try to mitigate the difficulties in the new relationship between employer and househelp by patiently re-explaining my mother’s instruction to the new girl, but I look into her eyes and I wonder whether she is actually there. Does she understand what I’m saying or is she still rueing about her future without the man who got her pregnant and had left her to her own devices?

At times like these, I wish we didn’t need househelp. Abroad, alone, I was perfectly content doing my own laundry, cleaning my flat and cooking my own meals. But I only had a 60-square-meter home then and not living in a three-floor townhouse, with other family members to think of like I am now.

Like any new relationship, this one we have with our new househelp will need patience and understanding. Maybe even more so than the usual. It will mean extreme pakikisama to make sure she will agree to stay with us for a long time. This is going to be a very looong month for me.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Lifestyle section of the BusinessMirror.)

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