Those of you who know me, or know a bit about me, are aware that my commute to work involves the following:
1) A two minute walk from my house to my local ferry pier
2) A 15 minute ferry ride from Lamma to Aberdeen
3) A 5 minute walk to the bus terminus in Aberdeen
4) A 10-15 minute ride on a public bus to Causeway Bay
5) A 5 minute walk to my office
Not bad for the privilege of living on a car and high-rise free island in the South China Sea with access to arguably one of the most international cities on the planet. [The trip home is hardly so convenient, but sampans are a subject for a different post.]
Because of my commute I have an opportunity to do an amazing amount of people watching, also encouraged by the fact that there are around 8 million people living here. Official statistics report that 95% of the 8 million are Chinese, combining rather than breaking down the ethnic groups: Cantonese, Han, Hakka, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Teochew. You can tell these groups apart for the most part in Hong Kong… and not just because of the overt racism among the Asian population [I am not exempting the rest of the population from this racist label, just distinguishing the nature of the racism], they actually do look quite distinct from each other.
The other five percent is comprised of the rest of us. The largest ‘Western’ minority here is now American, followed by the Brits and then the Aussies. Sometimes I wonder if people mix the Canadians in with the Americans, but I think these statistics actually come from people registered with their embassies. Of course, I am not registered with my embassy, so who knows how accurate these numbers are. But there are other groups in this five percent as well and just visually it does make the casual, or even regular, observer wonder if these numbers can really be at all accurate.
The largest non-Chinese group in Hong Kong is Filipino followed very closely by Indonesian and both groups outnumber the combined ‘Western’ totals. According to official numbers there are more than 300,000 Filipinos + Indonesians in Hong Kong. Again, these are only “official” numbers, so who knows the real story. And they are nearly all women.
It is the Cult of Domesticity Redux.
All of these women are here in Hong Kong as “Foreign Domestic Helpers.” What is this? This is a 24-hour a day, 6-day a week live in servant that does everything from cook and clean to raise the children and walk the dogs. And to give you some perspective as to their importance among Hong Kong families (Chinese and Western) there are more domestic helpers than private cars in this city. To give you further perspective many people think it is quite strange that I (a single person living in 750 square feet) do not have my own helper, or share one with someone else. So, aside from demand, why do these women come here to work? Money of course. And for their efforts they receive around HK$3,500 a month. That is roughly US$450. I hear from employers that there are issues with trying to pay the women more because if causes rifts in the whole system. Ok. I am not sure if it is a valid reason but they are sticking with it.
Of course, they also get one day off a week, all of them, the same day: Sunday. On Sunday the streets and parks and any available public causeways are FILLED with domestic helpers picnicking and socializing, doing nails and playing cards. It is not something that you can readily understand without having seen it. Because the women are not allowed to congregate for any amount of time in restaurants or other more traditional points of communing, they sit on the streets. They make ground covers of newspapers, cardboard, whatever and commence their singular day of rest. most Sundays I do not go into Hong Kong anymore because I am troubled logistically and morally by this situation.
However, because of my commute I see these ladies all the time; lugging kids around, lugging shopping around, dragging dogs behind them, in the shops – and always on the public transport.
Last week on a Saturday morning (yes, I work on Saturdays, we will call this the Cult of Earning Redux) I was sitting next to a couple of these women and my mind just started to wander. Bearing in mind of course that I speak not a word of Tagalog, I wondered what they were talking about to their various counterparts via cell phone. It seemed so animated. So important. I don’t have many local calls I could make around here that would reach such a tenor. I continued to watch them, to look at them. Their clothes seemed basically an afterthought, but the details in their hair and jewellry and cell phone accessories belied an entirely different set of priorities. Gifts? Status symbols? I will never know. Their hands are the hands of workers: Strong, clean, dry.
What do they wish they were doing? Do they have plans for their post-Hong Kong lives as I do? (D.H. contracts are generally 3 years, but are usually renewed over and over as employers have to pay a lot of money to switch or rehire helpers.) Are they concerned about work? Being educated enough? Being successful enough? Friends? Relationships? Making the ‘right’ choices? Doing the ‘right’ things? Image? I wondered if I was projecting on them, my priorities. Or, underneath it all, are we the same? I have blogged before about the shift I have seen in my priorities since I left the sedation of the suburbs [where I used shopping to remind myself that I was, in fact, still conscious and drawing breath…] But I wonder if really in the end we are the same?
What’s the difference between me and the maid on the bus?
In politically correct terms I would say I have more opportunities than they do. I have been part of a culture that taught me fundamentally that I can do anything, have anything, be anything.
In simple terms: it’s class, man.
That is social stratification and social class in action. I was randomly born into a ruling class. They were not. That I would never work for that kind of money in a job that is unarguably far more taxing than the one I have is a forgone conclusion. That they would rarely be presented with the kind of job I have, the same. I grew up conscious of getting an education and a career… what did they think about in school? Did they go to school? On a human level, I don’t think it matters much, but on another level it has made all the difference.
Doesn’t matter what they tell you on the news, it still is all about class, man.