Home Is Where My Heart Lies — Interviewing Rowena
李慧詩LEE Wai Sze
Many people say Filipino domestic helpers are clever and cunning, but from my point of view, Rowena Galamay Subia is an exception.
Rowena's employer has employed two Filipino domestic helpers and asked them to take Sundays off in turns. However, Rowena had only one day-off last Chinese New Year.
“I think that holiday was enough for me! I don't like holidays. Even if I am having a day-off, I am not like other foreign maids lying on the ground the whole day. That doesn't look good. I don't like lying around at those places. I love staying in bed till noon, and then I go to the church with my friends. We go shopping and I return home at sunset. After that, I do the chores and share the workload of my fellow Filipino co-worker.”
This reminds me of the recent survey carried out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) on foreign domestic workers’ long working hours. It mentioned 35% of these workers even have to work on holidays, but in Rowena’s eyes, having one less day-off is not a big deal.
Rowena has been a domestic helper since she was twenty years old. At this age of youth, she chose neither the academic pursuit or the search of romance. She decided to be the provider for her family simply because she is the oldest daughter. She has a large family, including seven brothers and three sisters. It was not easy to be the pillar of the whole family.
IBON Foundation has stated in their 2018 report that a five-member Filipino family has to afford a daily expenditure of PHP 995 (HKD 150). However, a domestic helper working in the Philippines only receives a daily wage of PHP 300 (HKD 45). As the oldest of the eleven children, Rowena opted to flew overseas. She first worked in Singapore for three years. Later, she moved to and worked in Taiwan for four years, and then she came to Hong Kong. The minimum wage of a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong is the top among that in all Asian cities. It is higher than the helper’s wage of the previous two countries and the triple of that in the Philippines. I guess she worked here because of the high salary, but she denied with a sweet smile.
“I left Taiwan because I was going to get married.” Rowena gave up her job as a migrant worker and threw away her recipes collected through the years of work. She quit her job, as well as Catholicism, which she believed in since a young age. She was converted by her husband to another branch of Christianity. However, she became a migrant worker again shortly after the wedding. “We lived with our parents. Our home was so compact and crowded. I wanted to own our residence and move out of my parents’ home with my husband. My Hong Kong employer possessed two horses, and the three daughters were equestrian athletes. My family told me this would be a good employer because those keeping horses and playing equestrian sports were rich. Therefore, I wanted to work here for two years.” I told Rowena it is also a luxury to own horses in Hong Kong.
Rowena’s employer sometimes pays for her round-trip tickets to the Philippines. The boss also travels together with her occasionally. Although the employer has hired two Filipino domestic helpers, every time when she left the town, she brought only Rowena. Rowena has travelled with her boss to Germany recently. Her fellow Filipinos were envious of her very much.
She originally planned to stay in Hong Kong for only two years, but the good employer and the high salary have postponed her departure until the Chinese New Year in 2012.
“I told my employer, ‘I am pregnant!’ She enthusiastically arranged a prenatal check-up for me, but I misunderstood her good intention. I thought she was forcing me to have an abortion. I called my family late at night for help and I could not pull myself together. I had a quarrel with my employer. After I returned to the Philippines, I realized that I was wrong, and I missed her. I wanted to come back so much and apologize to her.”
Rowena did not stay with her son after he was born.
“I can’t return home now. I have to earn more money, so my nephews can attend secondary schools. My little brothers and sisters wouldn’t stand it if they had to work. They would run away if they were scolded at work. That’s why it can only be me working for the family, and they take care of my child. I can bring home some candies from Hong Kong and the chocolates given by my employer, as well as the money and the Chinese dishes prepared by the employer’s mother-in-law.”
Suddenly, I recalled the bible quote of Matthew 23:11, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Rowena came back to Hong Kong and apologized to her employer. She forgave Rowena, and Rowena dedicated herself to this family with steadfast loyalty.
“I once took care of an old couple in Taiwan, so taking care of the employer’s mother wasn’t difficult. She didn’t know English. Therefore, we communicated in simple Chinese. One day, she didn’t come out of the bathroom after a long time. I worried if there was an accident. I knocked on the door and asked her, ‘Do you need any help?’ She was a bit shy, saying she did not want me to get wet, so she did not allow me to go inside. I kept saying, ‘It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter!’ She opened the door and let me in. I showered her from head to toe. She was so happy, “I am very clean now!” From then on, I washed her every day. She died from cancer last year. I am still very sad, and I can’t get used to losing her. I always feel that she is still sitting on the sofa reading newspaper. Sometimes I hear her ask me, ‘Rowena, have you eaten yet?’ or ‘Rowena, do you want some of this?’ Then I will reply, ‘Thank you.’ … The employer’s mother and her mother-in-law have always been treating me very well.”
Time flies and Rowena has served her current employer for seventeen years. She sees the employer’s family as her own. The employer cares a lot about her. This is why she works very hard for the family. She gets up right at seven every day and starts working after cleaning herself up. Before the employer’s mother-in-law passed away, apart from taking care of her and some chores, she has to cook and look after the three daughters and the two cats.
“When I was in Taiwan, I lost all my collection of recipes. I forgot how to cook nice Chinese dishes, so I often learn the skills from the employer’s mother-in-law. My fellow Filipinos are all good at cooking Korean cuisines, but I can only introduce the indigenous dish of my hometown adobo (Filipino stew pork). Fortunately, my employer’s daughters like it very much.”
Adobo is an indigenous dish in the Philippines and also Rowena’s favorite. She recommended it as a must-eat among Filipino dishes, hence she sometimes prepares this for her employer. Perhaps it is because cooking is not her strength, when she returns home, she passes the job to her husband. She smiled and said, “I don’t have enough time for it when I am home. Next time I will cook for him if time allows me to.” Rowena returned to her hometown in the Chinese New Year last year. Her husband caught some river prawns, plucked some moringa he planted and cooked her malunggay hipon (fried prawns with moringa). Rowena still misses its unique luscious taste.
She has been married to her husband for seventeen years, yet they do not spend a lot of time together. Her husband is a farmer. Similar to Rowena, he is responsible for looking after his mother and his nephew. He has to work in the field before dawn every day. The time he finishes working is when Rowena busy preparing dinner. Every night, they have to wait until very late to chat on the phone. Despite all these troubles, they insist to wait for each other, so they can listen to the voice of their love faraway.
She turned on the phone and showed me the photo of her husband and her holding their baby son when they parted. She told me her dream, “I just want to work hard until my family has enough money. I will go home. We will dine, go shopping and stroll along the beach together.” She later added, “I also want to watch my employer’s daughters growing up, see them graduate from university and witness their victories in all competitions.”
“I can bring home some candies from Hong Kong and the chocolates given by my employer, as well as the money and the Chinese dishes prepared by the employer’s mother-in-law.” Rowena’s words keep echoing in my head. I think that someday, her dream must come true.
Translated by YIM Yuen Hai, Carolina
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