This week I hired a helper.
She (of course, she) will come to my place once a week to clean, take care of laundry, do my dishes, and run any errands that I may require. All for a fraction of the cost of a typical trip to Target.
Ok Americans, pick your jaw up from the floor.
Helpers are everywhere in Hong Kong, nearly everyone with a disposable income has one and anyone with children has at least one, if not one per child. Families have live-in helpers, providing them with room and board in exchange for them maintaining the household and taking care of the kids. A live-in helper costs more or less the same as a full-time daycare provider in the US.
Part-time help, like what I now have, is technically illegal but it's a win-win for both me and my gal: she earns some easy extra income, and my inner neat freak enjoys coming home to a spotless apartment.
The whole idea of having someone tend to my basic chores feels a little extravagant; especially since I know that I am fully capable of it all myself. However, it's kind of the way things seem to work here.
The majority of helpers are from Indonesia or Philippines. As far as I know, they're all women and they work six days a week. Sundays and public holidays are their days off. It's incredible how the city transforms on Sundays when all of the helpers socialize. Despite denser-than-usual crowds, it's my favorite day of the week to walk around and people watch.
Every public open space becomes a picnic. Each above-ground walkway, under every overpass, and on and around each public bench are good friends chatting and eating their favorite foods from home... or KFC. Each group sets down cardboard and blankets, some who are extra protective of their space even build cardboard walls.
They crochet, make crafts, or play games on their phones and loudly discuss the hot gossip. In larger spaces, they might group into large choruses and sing or dance. After dusk, guitars come out and it turns into more of a party.
For the helpers, it's the one day of the week where they can let loose and be part of their community.
On the one hand, the idea of it makes me cringe--elements of it certainly are reminiscent of the Victorian era--and the modern, independent feminist that I am feels a bit upset about the whole setup. As a society, we should be past this master-servant relationship dynamic.
But I also see the other side as well. Hong Kong is not setup for working parents and a full-time helper job isn't a bad gig, especially when with the right family. While there isn't "daycare" per say, kids start attending school well before their first birthday. As infants, someone must tag along with the child to school, thus a helper is required. As children grow, the school hours change but like the US, never really align to the hours of a full-time job.
In many cases, the helpers become part of the family because they're so well integrated with the kids. Sure there are some horrifying cases I've heard of mistreatment of helpers from employers or malice acts from the helpers themselves, but for the most part things work out quite well.
Part-time helpers are usually moonlighting in addition to working full-time for a family. The extra money earned from picking up a handful of extra apartments each week is a nice bonus to the monthly salary paid by the full-time family.
It's probably going to take me quite some time to feel ok about someone tending to my most basic needs, but I'm going to do my best to embrace it and be kind. After all, my helper could teach me a thing or two about figuring out laundry and scoring a top-notch deal in the wet market.