I was a different person when I moved to Hong Kong. I'm pretty sure I was still called Nat, but other than that, I was pretty much chalk. I'm now cheese.
(Has anyone ever tried to combine chalk with cheese? Are they really that different? I guess they are. Plus, not much goes with chalk.)
I digress. I saw many unfamiliar and 'weird' things when I got here in 2009; people hanging meat outside all day long and then eating it, bird's nest, shark fin, dogs in prams, you-name-it.
But one thing that was really strange for me were the domestic helpers. Often called 'amahs', which is similar to 'aunt' in Chinese (and NEVER called 'maids'), these are the ladies who move from places like the Philippines and Indonesia to wait on expat and Chinese families. At first I thought this was reserved for the wealthy folk, much like having a full-time nanny in Australia. But, no... every single person I know in Hong Kong has a helper that comes at least once a week. I've only met two people who decided not to have a full-time helper after they had children.
It's what you do: you move here; you get a helper to do things like cleaning, ironing and washing. You move here and have a baby; you get a full-time, live-in helper who does all of the above, as well as cooking, shopping, nannying - whatever you need her to do. It's more than common. It's just the done thing.
And the reason why most of the population can afford this miracle? Because it's cheap. Because minimum wage for domestic helpers in Hong Kong is low, and because most of us who live and work here can afford it.
And now that B and are 'with child', we're faced with the decision about whether or not to have one of these full-time helpers. A lady who is with us every day, taking away 'the daily grind' off our hands, looking after our child when we need her to, cooking our meals when we need her to, and basically just freeing up my time to parent without the extra pains. The bigger part of me says 'yes'. Why make life harder than it needs to be? Why try and be superwoman, when I don't have to be? And, if everyone else does it, why shouldn't we?
The smaller part of me worries about two things: (1) being physically unable to move back to Australia after becoming reliant on a life without endless buckets of washing and sheet-changing; and (2) that terrible word: 'exploitation'. And that's the tricky one. While it's no-doubt not good that people are paid far less than us per hour to keep our homes clean and our table's full of food, most of these ladies earn far less in their home countries and want the work; particularly when their employer is someone who is kind to them and pays them above minimum wage. Which is what we would do: pay above and beyond the standard, do as much as we can around the house ourselves, and - maybe most importantly - be kind. I have friends here who love their helpers like they're part of their own family. They're not 'maids', they're housekeepers and they're just doing a job.
The woman we interviewed is currently working with a local family who makes her sleep on a wafer-thin mattress on the kitchen floor because they don't have room for her. They ask her to work from 7am to 9pm six days per week, and she's paid the very minimum wage and benefits.
We'll have her work less hours, pay her more overall, and do what extras we can. We'll never boss her around or make her do anything, and she'll live in comfort. We'll get along with her, and we'll be an employer she can count on to treat her as an equal.
Is that really so bad?
Please be honest with me, because I'm cheese. Maybe I need to remember what it's like to be chalk.