This one’s a way of telling you something about living in Hk with its more opportunistic and aggressive culture (compared to say Malaysia or Singapore, I mean)…
So……. I suck at being a “Tai-tai.” I don’t think I suck at parenting, but I seriously suck at handling helper or driver or building management in HK. Here’s how I let it get out of hand:
1) Last I remember the law in HK is you are only required to provide a plane ticket home for your helper in her second year of service. I can’t remember when we have ever stuck to this – I fall willingly for the “you are a parent too you should understand I miss my kids/ family/ pet/ houseplant” every time. We always give them a ticket in their first year. Sometimes we offer tickets for more than one trip a year.
The “champion” in this category is a helper who worked a total of 11 months with us, having been highly recommended and vouched for by a (then) maid shelter and ministry at a church, and who got 3 tickets home out of us, including the one we are required by law to provide when we fire her. She was apprehended by HK police for running from them on sight, one working day at a pawn shop when we thought she was buying groceries in a totally different part of HK. That’s not even when we fired her. We fired her when she didn’t come home nights, lied that she was doing social work at a nearby church for two weeks and warned us that she “knew (her) rights” and had successfully taken two previous employers to court “and won.”
When she packed her bags, she had like, thirty pieces of luggage squirreled away all over our apartment. The items covered the entire common corridor. When she had arrived 11 months ago, she had had 2 bags. The church who had shown her kindness had never seen her again, shortly after she got the job with us. She kept us from checking with social workers and “her church” by telling us her pastor was seriously ill for months.
2) I was widely advised to deduct a helper’s salary when they ruin stuff. To date, I have never been able to bring myself to do this, even though friends have qualified that you apparently cannot deduct more than HKD 300 anyway, and it is the only way to stop them ruining stuff.
Our last helper had no experience (nor interest in) handling babies and had been trying to get herself fired ever since she discovered I was pregnant – by ruining/ staining our clothing. (If we terminate by mutual agreement they don’t get paid the extra 1 month salary you are required to pay in HK if you fire. The number of people I’ve met who tell me their helpers do crappy stuff to then get fired is seriously not funny.)
She ruined like, 12-15 items of clothing within two months thereabouts – from Rockstar’s school socks to Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger clothing items among them and despite scolding, I couldn’t bring myself to cut a single cent of her salary. (I just couldn’t do it. I felt she really didn’t make much to begin with.)
When we fired her I still couldn’t bring myself to deduct her final salary. And then she got huffy that we bought her air ticket scheduled for next day departure, instead of giving her cash – and ran away from the agent who came to fetch her (after proudly telling the agent flat out that she’d been ruining things for months to get fired), hid in the Bel Air Clubhouse with another helper who zapped her in, and 24 hours later another mummy forwarded me her very professionally written cv posted on one of the most popular expat websites, looking urgently for another job before her visa ran out. I would’ve hired her. If she hadn’t ruined 12-15 items of clothing. That is how impressively written her cv was.
In killing her pass into our building, I was then stupid enough to tell the seemingly sympathetic Bel-air reception/ management (whom I have known and chatted with 3 years) details that included my inability to dock her pay for damages.
Somehow it never occurred to me how weak and stupid it made me look to building management.
Know how I learned never to do that again?
3) Shortly after, the ceiling in one of our rooms developed serious fungus growth within the space of a week. As in, a quarter of our bedroom ceiling suddenly turned black. When we called building reception/ management to look at it and see if the ceiling was leaking (which would mean building management has to repair it) they demurred, citing my questionable ability in getting my helper to work and do cleaning properly. “I think you better get your helper to do a proper cleaning before you ask us to look at anything.” Twice.
4) Think I’m the only “dummy” about helpers? I wondered why a mummy friend who has since moved back to Washington D.C. was at great pains to mention she “just” has “a dog-walker twice a week.” One day shortly before she left HK, she explained. A helper “highly recommended” by her current employer who was leaving HK came for a “trial run,” and then told her “I’ve accepted another job, but why not try my (sister/ mother/ some other relationship I forget)?” After the trial, when my friend and her husband decided they didn’t really need a helper, this other helper started crying and begging for some opportunity to earn money. Reluctantly, my friend let her walk the dog twice a week. They said it was just really hard to get rid of her until they gave her something.
Then my friend went on a trip for 10 days. She arrived home to find the “dog walker” furtively trying to get her husband to sign something, “like (she) discussed with (my friend’s husband) while (my friend) was gone.” The papers turned out to be a full application to be this helper’s employer/sponsor. Except they only ever knew her whereabouts for an hour twice weekly when she walked their dog. They had absolutely no clue what she did the rest of the time. When my friend said they were not doing it, the “dog walker” began crying plaintively. “If you don’t do it I have to pay someone else HKD 20,000 to be my sponsor. You have to do it! I said I could even take care of your baby! Let me show you – hand me your baby!!“
For some reason, my friend did not fork over her only child.
5) I screwed up with our elderly local Hongkie part-time driver too, whom we got mostly to drive Rockstar to school. The kay-poh retired one who asks how much I spend on moisturizer and whether Kings comes from a “wealthy, powerful family.”
When he told me he had 3 kids around our age, and how his 32 year old only daughter still lives at home and he just hopes he can find someone to marry her off to, I was taken in. I’m still in touch with my elderly Malaysian Chinese nanny in KL. I thought we might have a similar relationship with our 64 year old Hongkie driver running extra errands for the family. He would shrug, “I got nothing else to do, my wife works late, may as well let me pick up the drycleaning/ find local cookbook for your new helper, etc. After all, you’re pregnant and have been feeling sick so often.” I thought he found especial joy in the extra cash to shower his only grand daughter with presents. She is apparently a top student at one of the most desirable public chinese schools in HK.
Then when he asked me several times, “Is (Kings’) dad someone powerful in the financial sector?” I proudly told him of Kings’ humble beginnings (as many of my readers I think have already read on Timothy (Tiah)’s blog and in the local HK papers). And… I chatted with him.
One weekend we came home to find our driver in our bedroom. He had never crossed the threshold of our front door area previously. He had shown up on a day/ time when he thought we were out (because I had also mentioned our weekend plans), given some ostensibly well-meaning instruction to our (new, very blur) helper that kept her busy in the kitchen, and then he’d gone snooping all over our apartment.
I watched him fumble with guilty excuses through the eyes of a former idealist who has been abruptly disillusioned. “Oh, and here’s that HKD 500 I took from you for errands the other day,” (ceremoniously returns me the cash out of his wallet in front of a bewildered Kings). “So we’re good.” Repeatedly falling all over himself with excuses in the following weeks, he also disclosed details that showed me just how closely he had been examining our personal space.
I somehow don’t think he steals, just that I like to say it’s a lot harder to be judgmental over someone who acts sincerely with a clear conscience. Then when you see someone who displays so obviously that they know in their own hearts they had no excuse………
And then Kings received a phone call from him one day:
Our Elderly Driver: Can I borrow some money? (He’s asked for < HKD 10k “advance” before, in the less than 6months he’s worked with us.) Like, a couple ‘man’ (i.e. Cantonese for HKD 10,000)? <pause> My daughter’s getting married.
Kings: Umm you mean a loan? What do you mean a couple ‘man’?
Driver: Ok make it HKD 50,000 lah.
Kings: I’m not comfortable lending you so much cash at one go, I can advance you several months’ salary if suits.
Elderly Driver: Ok can I have the money right away? When can I come collect it?
A small part of me is trying to say Come on, Aileen. He’s a 64 year old who still has to work and for whatever reason can’t seem to get enough money from his own 3 working children and his 56 year old wife still works til late at night.
But I couldn’t help feeling he wouldn’t have so blatantly asked for an amount that’s 8-10 months’ salary if I hadn’t told him about Kings having been a dirt-poor-village-boy-made-investment-banker while putting two siblings through tertiary education in Australia, and supporting his parents for several decades, all despite his own crushing study loans. (We’d married despite the crushing loans. It forever colors our perspectives on the prenuptial agreements discussed by our friends who are marrying only now…)
Anyway. Here’s the money question: Knowing what people are like, would I still choose to be the way I am?
I don’t think we should choose to be a certain way because we think people will be otherwise. It’s giving other “flawed” individuals way too much “power” over who we are, who we choose to be.
But knowing some people’s penchant for opportunism, at least we can endeavor to be “fast learners.” When we have helpers who take such blatant advantage, we inform immigration. I made myself available for interview with the church/ maid shelter that first recommended our pawn shop frequenting, hookie-playing, 30-piece-of-luggage-hoarding helper. It goes on their record for future employers to consider.
I snapped at building management to stop finding ways out of doing the jobs they are paid to do. “And don’t think I didn’t overhear the workman tell you he cannot rule out a ceiling leak before you shushed him, then turned to me insisting there is no leak.” I told the rest of our building management about their two colleagues’ behavior as well. “That is how unprofessional and unethical your guys have shown me you are to my landlord (who insisted on footing the bill when we wanted to pay for it ourselves to get it done quickly because the whole time building management is arguing with our landlord we have to live there and suffer them coming in and taking photos and flaffing about over whether the fungus can be wiped clean – for the record the workman already told them it was impossible to simply wipe off).”
Should I ask for my CNY lai-see/ ang pow back? Maybe a bit over the top. But just a tad. Tipping is for service. I’m sure that is a language they understand.
But for awhile I get real disillusioned every time this happens. The people who take kindness for weakness, thereby putting many more people off showing further kindness. All those bleeding heart rights activists who will never listen to the “big bad employer’s” side and instead are hurting their own cause by coming across as “partial” (who’s going to listen to them then?). When I first informed the shelter to make myself available for interview after we fired that helper, the response I got was “But you can afford to pay (1 mth compensation upon firing the helper), what. So no problem.” (She would later admit she’d given up on this helper’s attitude shortly after we hired her – and there she’d vouched for knowing this helper personally for two years prior.)
Christian author/ speaker Gary Thomas drew an analogy to running a marathon. Right then you’re thinking I’m never doing this again. It’s awful. I must be crazy. And then when you’ve had a moment to rest, you decide to do another marathon because it’s this disgustingly healthy thing to do and you’ve forgotten the immediate pain. You do things because you know it is the right way to be. Because He first loved us.
It’s not so much that I can’t help being this way, it’s that I choose to be. Better believe I can quickly correct a “mistake” I make about someone. After all, He never asked us to be stupid about it. It’s either that or I better not be this way anymore…
PS: Btw HKD 50,000 seems to be some kind of benchmark – our family doctor told us he wrote off the same amount after lending it to his helper over the course of a few years (after which he fired her when one day she said she simply had no idea how she would ever repay it)…..
Also, have your helper etc sign a receipt book when they receive salary, and the latest I learnt recently – have the helper put the cash in an Octopus card (also cuts down loose change everywhere) and then use it to pay for groceries. This is to reduce them “sharing” grocery receipts amongst themselves and then filching the grocery money, because the Octopus card number shows on the receipt…
And it only recently occurred to me why our driver asked me so much about my moisturizer and whether he could help me get it when I ran out. His wife is a beautician and I guess they could sell to me at the same price as me getting from Lane Crawford but maybe get it cheaper from the beauty supplier, thereby making a bit on the difference….. Which is fine as long as they don’t overcharge, I only mention to illustrate again the erm, “enterprising” opportunistic nature of even “semi-retirees” here…