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

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Nadya was an intelligent woman, and she was a fast learner. By the time she completed her two-year contract, Nadja was able to speak English, and had saved enough money to return to Indonesia so that she might continue her education. She had a close relationship with members of her family–receiving presents from each of my family members for her birthday and Christmas. In honor of Chinese New Year, Nadja received the traditional red packet with money in it. This young woman was a favorite of ours. She had a happy disposition and exuded confidence regarding her future.

My family has a long history of hiring domestic workers from other Asian countries. The second woman we hired (whom we will call Adlinda) was from another Indonesian province, Cilacap (Jawa Tengah), which is located in the central part of Indonesia. Like Nadja, Adlinda was employed by us for two years. However, she did not leave to get an education. Instead like many FDWs in Singapore, Adlinda left to get married. Some of the women worked in our home for four years or more. A few worked with us for only a few months—until they had earned enough money to go back home so that they might get married. These short-term employees might instead return to their home so that they might rest—until they felt that they needed once again to earn some money (having spent all their savings). Unlike Nadja, our first FDW, who was seeking to acquire an education, many of the FDWs we hired have more traditional or shorter-term aspirations.

The perspectives held by those foreign workers we hire concern not just their short-term (money) or long-term (education) aspirations, but also the deeply embedded social norms of their home country. Sometimes there is a poor alignment between the perspective of newly hired FDWs and their employers. For instance, my brother and his family hired a woman from Myanmar, who spoke fluent English and Mandarin. Unfortunately, the cultures of Myanmar and Singapore don’t align. As a result, most residents of Singapore consider Myanmar women to be abrupt and rude. These women don’t appear to be polite (based on Singapore behavioral norms) and are often labeled “rough”. They are portrayed as cold and fighting warriors. When compared to women from Indonesia or the Philippines, they are often considered unpleasant. We find this same kind of cultural mismatch in many stories and documentaries emanating from novels and documentaries of the American South (such as The Help) and France (such as Black Girl). These women were also often considered rude and combative by their employers. We suspect that many of the Harvey Girls were similarly viewed as cold and fighting warriors (or at least norm breakers) by citizens of their local Western community.

Immediately after the Myanmar woman was transferred, my brother hired another woman, this time from Indonesia. I found Ani (not her real name) for them. I interviewed her a few times and found her suitable. Now the family is happy; this woman is an excellent cook and gets along well with everyone in the family. Ani has a happy disposition and works well with the Filipina woman who was also employed by my brother. At last, there is peace and laughter in my brother’s home. It seems that compatibility between employer and employee is critical in Singapore households. As we noted earlier, a social exchange operates between the employer and employee in these households. It is not just enough for a FDW to do her job and get paid for this work (market exchange). There is a level of intimacy that requires a “happy disposition” on the part of the FDW—and probably members of the household as well. Laughter and peace might be an important outcome of the FDW’s presence in a Singapore household. Clean bathrooms might be necessary but not sufficient.

Friendship and Aspirations

After living on my own for twenty years, I hired a woman from Cilacap (Central Indonesia) to begin living in my own home. Sor (not her real name) has been working in my house for more than 13 years. She came when she was only 19 years old. When Sor first came to work for me, she had no overseas experience; she was not able to cook and appeared frightened and timid when first arriving at my home. However, I soon discovered that Sor held a positive attitude regarding her work and exhibited plenty of initiative (as evident later in her life when she purchased her own home). This was Sor’s first job away from her family, and her first time in Singapore. I immediately posed a challenge: if she was not able to iron well, then I needed to send her back immediately (for a woman living with me at the time was very picky about the clothes she wore to work each day). Wow, that was a tall order, so for the first seven days I had to teach Sor how to iron. I found that she learned fast.

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