My grandmother was not well. In a phone call with my mother, she told me that my ah ma may have pneumonia. “She is coughing blood,” my mom said, calling from Medan, Indonesia, my parents’ hometown where they’ve chosen to retire.
It had been a painful year learning about my grandmother’s ailments. They all sprung up simultaneously, right after she was diagnosed with dementia. First, she lost her motor and limbic functions, then her memories, then her cognitive functions. She excreted waste on the floor, unable to control herself. She lost her way, fell on concrete, and bumped her head onto walls until she bled. Slowly, her hair started to fall in clumps. She refused to eat and was overcome with digestive problems and inexplicable physical pain all over.
“Do you think that might have been COVID?” I asked my mother, conflicted between a sense of guilt for not helping more and a desire to be left completely out of the horrendous updates.
We weren’t sure if my grandmother had COVID-19 or not. Hospitals were at above capacity and they refused to take her in. My mom told me that they asked my aunt and cousins to evacuate the home they lived in with ah ma in Medan, and that she had instructed their live-in maid Atun to stay behind to take care of her. Atun, whose name I’ve changed for her privacy, is from Malang in East Java, about 2,000 kilometers away from where my grandmother lives, and has worked for my Chinese Indonesian family for over two years.
I immediately thought: So auntie and her kids need to be protected but not Atun? I was shocked by what I heard but not surprised. It was yet another casual comment from my mom who, like many Asians from older generations, carry deeply rooted biases against certain races and social classes. And, like many younger Asians, I knew that what she said was wrong, but had no idea how to react.
My mother was obviously suffering and the whole family was teetering precariously on the doorstep of grief. It was not an easy situation for anyone. Money was tight, hospitals were full, and the pandemic was not abating. It felt like a social experiment meant to test my morals, only I wasn’t sure if there was a right answer. I felt like a bad person, an unfilial child to bring up my concerns, but I couldn’t help myself.
“You know, she might be a maid, but Atun is also a human being,” I told my mom, not hiding my anger.
I told her that, at the very least, they should make sure that Atun was fully vaccinated, to equip her with full protective gear, and give her a choice to stay around ah ma or not. They ought to pay her extra if she agreed, and if she refused, it shouldn’t affect her employment.
My mother lashed back at me. Who do I think I am? Have I contributed a single cent to my parents who sacrificed everything to raise me? What right do I have to judge their decisions? Why should I care? Have they asked me to contribute to caring for my grandma? All I care about is myself and the inane, Western ideas I picked up from my fancy overseas education. I truly belong in hell.
There it was. The usual parental blackmailing card. They gave me life and therefore they could do nothing wrong. I did not know what else I could do. I felt bad for saying things and would feel bad for staying quiet.
One thing I’m sure of is that I’m not alone in experiencing this contradiction every day.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it painfully obvious that, most of the time, domestic workers are not regarded as equals by the family that employs them. Various Indonesian media reported that live-in domestic workers are vulnerable to virus exposure because they are usually sent to do the riskiest chores, such as caring for the elderly and running errands at crowded public places, with no added protection or health insurance. Some have to cover the cost of buying their own masks and hand sanitizers, which cuts into their already small wages. They are also likely to be the first ones to lose their job without warning or a severance package during the economic downturn.
Of course, while the pandemic is fairly new, these problems are not.
The history of slavery in Indonesia dates back to colonial times, during the 1800s. Back then, indentured slaves at buruh (plantations) and babu (domestic households) worked to serve the Europeans, Chinese entrepreneurs, and aristocratic Indonesian families. After gaining independence in 1945, the derogatory term babu was replaced with pembantu, or maid. Pembantu are not slaves but, for the most part, still do the same job as babu.
Today, these domestic workers often come from rural backgrounds with limited education, resources, and job opportunities. They are usually hired full-time, living, eating, and sleeping in the household they work in. They do all sorts of chores: Washing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, shopping, cooking, and childrearing. They often rise before dawn and do not stop working until bedtime, at around 10 or 11 p.m., and are on-call the whole day. The pay is meagre and many don’t get days off.
Some argue that it’s better to live as a domestic helper in the big cities than to stay in the countryside for more back-breaking and less secure work, but that doesn’t mean they should be expected to just suck it up and consider themselves lucky. Why are they treated like they’re not as important as everyone else?
I grew up with household help in Jakarta, like many others in my middle class bubble. It was so common that I never questioned it. Only after moving to the United States, where only the wealthiest of the wealthy could afford to have live-in help, did I understand the gravity of this practice.
In college, I cleaned my dorm’s bathroom for extra cash. One day, as I held my breath while scraping shit out of the toilet, I came to a realization that our helpers back home work like this every day and much more, at a fraction of my wage. And while I could separate my part-time job from the rest of my life, most domestic workers can’t do the same because of the blurred lines between home and work, family and employer. They too have their own identity and dreams, but I grew up reducing them to a job title. It’s a problem in Indonesia and other countries with stark economic inequality, low levels of education, high poverty rates, and limited labor rights.
“While I could separate my part-time job from the rest of my life, most domestic workers can’t do the same because of the blurred lines between home and work, family and employer.”
The helper I grew up with started working for us when she was 18 and stayed with us all the way into her 40s.
She was always there to feed and clothe me, pick me up from school, sing me lullabies before bed, comb my hair, and listen to my friendship woes and unrequited school crushes. But despite having spent much of her life with my family, she could not relax around me. When I watched TV with her on the sofa, she would quietly slide onto the floor and eventually leave for the kitchen or to do some extra cleaning. She often praised my appearance when I’d return from the U.S. during holiday breaks from school—how slim and tall I had grown, how good my skin was—while she talked about herself in self-deprecating terms, like how she had become a fat old lady no one would want to date.
When my parents sold our home in Jakarta to move back to their hometown, they let her go too, giving her a severance package. My mother said she managed to buy a few properties in her village to support her family, after all those years working for us. I listened to this in silence. Her departure from my family felt bittersweet. I wish I could have done more to make her feel like she was just as important as everyone else in our house.
My parents pay our helpers well. My mother often boasts about how generous she is with gifts and bonuses. They don’t violently scold their household employees or lay a hand on them—as if they should be praised for this. They think of themselves as good people. But when it comes to life and death situations, like the one involving my grandmother and her caretaker, things are even more apparent. It became shockingly clear that they pegged Atun’s life at a lower value than that of my aunt’s, cousins’, and dying grandma’s.
We see this every day during the pandemic, when domestic workers are sent to buy the groceries in packed supermarkets or face delivery riders to pick up online shopping packages, often without considering the health risks involved or a plan to better protect them from the virus.
I currently live in Singapore and don’t have live-in help myself, but my experience has opened my eyes up to the reality of their unfair treatment in many Asian households. Whenever I hear my friends mock their helpers’ habits, I call them out. That’s why I called my mother out too. It might be difficult to change people’s mindsets but I’m hopeful that they’re listening. So I keep talking.