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Missing Irene

10 February 2019

Our teaspoons disappeared the day we came back to Hong Kong after Irene had left. We searched everywhere but never found them. No, we never thought she’d taken them with her to the Philippines, and eschewed other, more valuable stuff. It just underscored how helpless we had become without the person who quietly saw us through the day-to-day challenges for the eight years that she was with us.

Over the next few days, we started feeling her absence even more. Coming home tired from the office, we’d remember the times the table would be left set for us, the food still warm, or ready to be popped into the oven.

We’d remember our fresh-smelling laundry, or our neatly pressed clothes ready to burst out of our closets, because she seemed to enjoy sitting by the ironing board the most, with either her phone on standby, or her small tablet playing a favorite telenovela.

We’d remember how she quietly dealt with pesky delivery men from the post office or the water delivery company who’d buzz the doorbell continuously until someone came to the door. This, even more so when nobody came to drop the water bottles by our door the first time I arranged for the delivery myself.

Lately, we’d wonder how Irene managed to haul heavy suitcases up the top of our wardrobes where they sit when we’re not traveling, when we could barely lift them off the floor. Even the 5-kg water bottles that had always sat on the dispenser leave us struggling each time we try to lift them up to replace one that had just emptied.

How she managed to keep our floors shining and our bathrooms sparkling clean also stumps me. I remember clearly how she rose to the challenge when I complained about the brownish ring that formed around one bathtub. Next time she cleaned, the bathtubs and the anti-slip mats were all back to sparkling white. Now, the dark rings are back and won’t disappear no matter how long I scrubbed, and how many cleaning aids I use.

The Christmas decorations we had put up just before we all left to spend the holidays in the Philippines are still out, and serve as a reminder that we had long ago forgotten how or where we were supposed to store them.

But Irene is not the only one we miss. Now that she’s gone home to finally look after her own kids after helping raise our own, we remember all the others who helped us get through the challenges of living through the hustle and bustle in Hong Kong.

There was Lei, who endeared herself to our kids with her cooking. For a long time after she’d gone home after getting sick, our bunso would always say, “Nothing beats Ate Lei’s lasagna.” Our older kid has also only told us recently how Lei had patiently taught her how to cook, in particular her unbeatable carioca and palitaw.

There was also Ria, who bonded with our bunso the most, as she went out of her way to please the kid no end. We remember fondly the time we all went to Ocean Park on Halloween, when Ria got along with the bunso’s insistence on wearing costumes for the outing. Or how she’d quietly set the oven to the right temperature and did all the dirty work when bunso started trying her hand at baking. How bunso loved her, often calling out to “Ate Ria” in singsong fashion as soon as she arrived from school.

Looking back on all these women who faithfully, even lovingly, looked after us through the years that we were raising our kids and struggling to keep up with the challenges of living far from home, I get really amazed at how badly many others in the same position are treated in Hong Kong.

How could people be so harsh with women who left the comfort of their homes, many of them highly educated, just so they could earn a salary that provides them and their family a better future? How could they not see how hard it is for our women to adjust to a new lifestyle, while learning to cope with a heavy workload and worse, homesickness?

For sure, there are a few bad eggs, as there are in any society anywhere in the world. This is not a trait to be solely associated with foreign domestic workers, many of whom were merely forced out of their comfort zones by financial need.

For those who are being served by migrant workers now, it is not too late to show kindness, even respect. Talk to them, learn their story, understand why they were forced to leave home. It is only through mutual concern and understanding that we can foster a truly harmonious relationship within our homes.

Let not their departure from your homes be the only time you realize you had a friend with you all along.


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