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Sample Chapter from The Word for World is Work: The Life of Women

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Sample Chapter 

The Life and Work of FDWs in Singapore

What is it like to be living in this world of domestic service that includes (and even demands) virtually nothing but work? We can address a similar question to those employing the FDWs. What is it like to employ someone who will be living in your home and working virtually non-stop on your behalf? In this chapter we offer the perspective and experience of one of us (Rosalind) who has brought FDWs into her home to assist her with household chores. We begin with Rosalind’s continuing recollections (begun in Chapter One) regarding her relationships with the FDW she employed in her Singapore home. In Chapter Seven, we provide the narrative of several women who were deployed by Rosalind’s agency—a unique offering of this book.

The FDW Experience

I [Rosalind Sun] reflect back on my own experiences of relating to women working in my household. After our first experiences in hiring women to work with us, we decided to hire a woman from Jogjakarta, Indonesia. We will call her Nadya. From then on, we always employed Indonesian women. They were good workers: very polite, gentle, honest and hardworking. Of course, their culture was quite different from ours; they were comfortable sitting on the floor to eat. They did not use fork and spoon, but instead eat rice with their hands. Nadya, the woman whom we hired from Jogjakarta would kneel when she was serving us. She had to back off a short distance before she would stand to walk away.

When I was sitting on the floor, Nadya made sure that her head was below my own. She reminded me so much of the way the King of Siam was treated in the musical, The King and I. All of us in our family were uncomfortable with the submissive way in which Nadya interacted with us. We kept telling her that she need not kneel nor remain lower than us—but she persisted. So, we just left it alone. During the two years that Nadya was with us (under contract) she spent nothing for her own food and toiletries. They were all provided. She saved all her wages, spent very little time away from our home and focused on her job. Her Word for World was truly Work. Nadya’s goal was to go back home to finish her education. She left us after her two-year contract expired to go back to school. We were very happy for her.

Everyone Must Learn and Change

We encountered many differences in religious beliefs. My family is Christian, while most of the Indonesian women who came to Singapore are Muslims. They do not eat pork whereas we who come from a Chinese background relish pork dishes. As such, we must be mindful not to force them to eat pork. We must respect their religious belief and make sure we have other food for them. The women we have hired are accustomed to eating rice for all three meals a day, so when they first come to work for us, we have to educate them that we eat bread for breakfast, and rice (or noodles) for lunch and rice for dinner. Of course, we do not stop our FDW if she would prefer rice for all three meals.

This is just one example of the ways in which we had to adjust our own life patterns when first bringing a FDW into our home. We had to learn to give and take if we were to live with the lifestyles and preferences of the women who worked for us—and if we were to accept them into our family. The learning and adjustment had to move both ways. The women we hired also had to adjust to our quite different way of life. They had to learn how to use the kitchen equipment, washing machine, and all our electrical appliances. Practices related to sanitation also had to be learned. Typically, their own homes, located in rural areas of Indonesia or the Philippines, had no modern kitchen equipment nor were their homes equipped with modern sanitation devices. As such, when they first arrived without experiences abroad, we had to teach them how to use all the modern sanitation and kitchen equipment, as well as help them adjust to the new environment and lifestyle. Some of the women were quite understandably homesick for the first six months. We had to support them emotionally.

One of the challenges my family and I faced was the language barrier. We had to teach Nadja how to communicate with us. We deployed many hand gestures and some sign language. Slowly she was able to understand what we wanted her to do. There was laughter aplenty as Nadja attempted to make sense of what we were communicating. She was only 17 years old when she first joined us—yet Nadja’s ambitions were apparent from the very start. Her primary motivation to earn enough money to go back to school was a bit different from those of other FDWs. Her desire to continue her education is much more commonly found among some of the American women we have studied who have been Pulled to their job, rather than being Pushed.

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