One lives and learns

Once upon a time, I used to castigate employers who take their maids to restaurants and let them sit there watching them (ie the employers) eat to their hearts’ content or have them banished outside the restaurant, waiting to be summoned once the bosses have had their fill.

Occasionally, friends who have more dealings with foreign domestic workers  than I did back then would point out that there could be all sorts of reasons why the FDWs didn’t eat with their employers.

For example, they said, it could be the maids didn’t like the food being served at those restaurants.

My usual reaction was: how can, good food, expensive places. I preferred to think those employers who let their maid run on empty while they fed their faces were stingy mean!

Other friends would point out that the maids had probably already eaten at home. Then why bring them out, I would retort. My ever patient friends would then say: Perhaps the kids or the elderly folks need the maid’s help?

I remain unconvinced.

Since that time, having lived with a maid — my mother’s actually — for about 30 months, my eyes have been open to some of the burden which some employers have to put up with from their FDWs.

Mum’s Siti, though extremely clean, meticulous and clever, is very temperamental and picky with her food. She’s all smiles one moment and stormy faced in another.

She’s complained of sickness of all sorts that had seen us taking her for A&E and a breast specialist at SGH — which friends at the hospital say is the best in Singapore — all with nil health results and she’s right as rain after the visits.

Friends have advised me to send her packing but as I give high marks for cleanliness and meticulousness and mum having gotten used to her, I’m reluctant to take their advice.

Then today, Siti did something that makes me reconsider my friends’ advice. As well as open my eyes to the reality that when employers don’t include their maids while dining in restaurants, it could be that the maids refused to eat.

That’s what happened to me at Culina in Dempsey at lunch today. I took mum and her maid there, altho earlier I had promised to take them to Marina Bay Sands to try the hawker fare there and also for Picky to take some pix of the Integrated Resorts to send home.

However, today being the first day when all the safety barriers have come down after the F1 races, I chickened out from heading for MBS. Also, I wasn’t sure where mum could be dropped off to minimise walking or using escalators, because of her wobbly legs.

After explaining all this — and promising to go to MBS another time — we headed for Dempsey, sat down and the wait girl was about to take our orders when Siti wrinkled her nose and said she didn’t want to eat.


 “I don’t like the food!” 

The wait girl tried to tempt her with offers to do spaghetti with this or that. I suggested the garlic prawns on the menu. Or pehaps a sandwich then? But no. Siti was adamant.

“I don’t want to eat.”

The situation was turning ridiculous.

I said, resignedly: “Well, if you don’t want to eat, then you mustn’t sit here watching us. Why don’t you go for a walk?”

She got up, made a face and went off.

My mother, who has MCI, was non-plus.

“Where she’s going?”

“For a walk. She doesn’t want to eat.”

As it turned out, Picky didn’t go for a walk. She just sat outside the restaurant, probably giving everyone who walked into Culina the impression that we didn’t want to pay for her meal! Oh the poor maid! Oh the wicked employer!

Was i embarrassed? Yes! Was I annoyed? Yes! Did she spoil my lunch? Rather!

But it also made me see that when a maid doesn’t eat with her ma’am in a restaurant, it isn’t always because ma’am is Cinderella’s step-mum.

If anything, today’s nasty experience showed that I’ve maligned too many maid employers in the past and got my just dessert!


16 thoughts on “One lives and learns

  1. Is Siti a Muslim and was the Dempsey restaurant halal-certified? That could be a reason why she wouldn’t want to eat there…

  2. May Chu, my family had live-in maids when we were young but somehow when grown up, we decided to do with part-timers. When mum couldn’t manage too well in recent yrs, we bit the bullet and took in a live-in foreign maid. We were determined to treat this helper like family but as the months pass and she’s become more and more temperamental — to the extent of 4getting her manners — I’m beginning to understand why some employers are so fierce with their FDWs!

  3. Yes, Siti is a Muslim but like many, if not all, FDWs of the same religion here, she’s quite open-mided abt eating in non-halal places (including my home for heaven’s sake!), with the proviso she isn’t given pork in any form, shape or sauce. We’ve adhered to tt strictly and she’s happily eaten at my clubs (those that allow FDWs); at Jap restaurants, Crystal Jade and Imperial Palace, even at Shangri La. No, yesterday’s scene most likely reflected her unhappiness at not going to MBS, as I had promised for many days.

  4. I read this post with a sense of déjà vu. I spoilt two good maids that way. Both were the sweetest ever things for 2 years and then when they figured me out, they decided to become the boss. I was scolded and sulked at… the kids were ignored and yelled at. One of them pushed The Daughter’s neck against the table in a fit of temperament. Another let her boyfriend into our house at night.

    That taught me to institutionalise some psychological boundaries so that the helpers don’t overstep the boundaries of civilized behavior. They never eat with us… must knock when they enter and must address us with the proper honorific – Ma’am and Sir. These simple things hark from a bygone feudal system of Kings and subjects but they work somehow with Indonesian maids. Possibly because they have the cultural memories of a Sultan and his subjects. It is a high power distance culture.

    Filipina maids respond better to a more egalitarian treatment. Treat them as equals and they tend to have a lot of initiative and drive. Philippines doesn’t have the feudal system. I think their culture is correspondingly low in power distance.

    Anyway, it’s only my own 2 cents worth. You need to perhaps manage them the way they want to be managed, not the way you wanna be managed.

  5. Thanks, Pet for sharing! It reinforces wot a cousin said fm day one: “The way u treat Siti, she won’t “hormat” you.” This cousin has had decades of experience with FDW.

    U are right abt being scolded and sulked at. Day be4 yesterday, Siti looked at the oranges I had bought n said: “U bought the wrong ones!” When I demurred, she went to the fridge, triumphantly took out the bag of what remained of those she had gotten on another occasion and showed me the finer points of orange buying! Of late, I’m beginning to feel like she’s my macikan, even tho she still addresses me as “Ma’am” but in a perfunctory way.

    If/When I get a new maid, I will be more careful abt the leeway I give. But it will b difficult as I’ve no dragon lady aura or gene in me. 😦

  6. It will get worse if you don’t do something you know…. Both the helpers I spoilt ended up running afoul of the law. One eloped with the grocer downstairs to Batam. The other dated an illegal immigrant. We sent her home when we found out because WE didn’t wanna run afoul of the law but the fellow had evaporated. She came back 3 months after working for another employer. Within 9 months, the police came snooping around us asking if we had seen her… she had been reported missing and the medical report had come back stating she was pregnant.

    You need to pluck up your courage and set some boundaries… or quickly send this one home and start anew. It won’t get better.

  7. Dear auntie lucia.

    Have you thought of replacing your maid?

    It is difficult to control people. Having said that, when they begin to ‘ impose their authorities’ on the employer/s- time for the employer to step up to the plate.

    We have a Chinese maid from China. She is our ‘part-time’ maid here in the US..
    Does great work.
    We treat her just as a regular person, on first-name basis.
    But she can be one pushy broad.
    Thank goodness, she’s only part-time, or I will have to reign her in.

    John says there is a wonderful movie- about a man who hires a maid, and the maid eventually rides on his back, beating a whip!- it’s a great movie, n gets the message across of how our employees can ‘take over control’ of our lives!

    The way I used to handle difficult maids, in Singapore, was to look for a new replacement, and ONLY THEN- fire the old maid.

  8. May Chu: thanks for yr advice. As for that movie, the one remotely familiar is The Servant starring Dirk Bogarde in the title role.

  9. Pet, your latest comments gell completely with my thinking. I’ve been trying to set n reset boundaries over the months but somehow they r breached. Temperamentally, I don;t like rows or to tell pple off in a meaningful way. Yet I’ve got to bite bullet by recalling what happened with the maid who looked after my late father a decade ago. All his 9 children put up with her, even tho we had our suspicions — because we wanted a quiet life. Then she tipped the scales by staying away for one whole nite and was found out by a sister-in-law who decided to drop in late one nite, to check on her property where my dad was housed. My dad passed away 3 mths after and I’m always left to wonder if he might have lived longer if not for the slew of changes he had to endure as a result of our sending his maid away! As an elderly parent is again involved in the current situation, I’ve to move carefully!

  10. Yesterday, I was reminded of this post! My maid threw on a sour face throughout lunch at Swensens because she did not like western food. She left her plate almost untouched….

  11. Is your maid Indonesian? Mum’s picky Siti is and she claimned after that incident that as soon as we walked into Culinare she could smell a smell that made her want to throw up. I didn’t smell anything but if that wasn’t an excuse, it cld be because the kwai lohs tend to use a lot of butter in their cooking and that’s off putting for her. She doesn’t eat butter or cheese but don’t seem to detect them in cakes or pizzas 😛

  12. Exactly! After refusing to finish her main, she went on happily with fries, ice cream and cake… yes she is Indonesian.

  13. Haha Pei, we can now nail down one characteristic abt Indonesian maids. Note, they also don’t eat anything raw or semi raw, esp eggs! So, no sunnyside up for them!

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