Thursday, July 28, 2011

Women in Translation

It was tough going whenever I was left to attend to the household cleaning without a domestic helper. Although I could easily stay trim without having to go to the gym or any form of physical exercise, I did not feel good about the weight loss.  For a couple of days, I probably found the menial work refreshing or at least I could convince myself that these tasks could be meditative  and kept me grounded. Actually I have no patience for housework and to me these household chores are just tedious. After completing all the washings only to find  another set of dirty laundry or dirty dishes being piled up,  the cleaning cycles continue and  a never ending process. In a word, domestic work drives me crazy.

I have a habit of reading a few books any given time, some fictions, some non-fictions. I am addicted to purchasing books and reading be it fictions, non- fictions,  blogs, essays etc etc . If I have to attend to pedantic or routine tasks like the school runs and taking my children to the dentist or classes, I always make  sure that I have reading materials with me in the car so that it makes waiting a happy occasion and perfectly  legitimate time to be catching up with some leisure reading. I welcome the little time I could get just to be able to flick through one or two pages of words the author had carefully strung together.

I used to get worked up when these domestic helpers did not seem to follow my instructions, postpone in carrying out the tasks or omit to perform certain cleaning duties they had been asked to do. These days I get less worked up as I feel fortunate that if not for these domestic helpers I would not be able to have the freedom to pursue my interests such as reading, writing and playing tennis. These domestic helpers probably quite rightly assume that their “ma’am” is very hopeless in housework and they know better about cooking and cleaning the house, hence they sometimes ignore their ‘ma’ams’ preferred way of doing things.

Here is an exemplary illustration of the reluctant housewife in me.

This happened during one of those days when I had to do the laundry for my family.  It was one Saturday morning when I was half minded about whether to run a quick wash and tumble dry cycle of the small load of the dirty laundry.  I was eager to bring my laundry up to date so in my half awake state, I reluctantly picked up the laundry around the house. After I threw the lot into the washing machine. I  went to the garden to clear some of the poos our cocker spaniel did in the backyard. When I sat down and have my cup of coffee, I looked around for the novel I planned to read while sipping my coffee. It then dawned upon me that I had not seen the book. As I had misplaced it, I ended up reading another book which  I was also reading at the time. I then got myself ready for work and it was time to take out the spin dry clothes and leave them  out to dry in the sun. I was feeling congratulatory that I had been efficient until I lifted the top of the washing machine to find bits of  newsprint stuck to the wash. To my horror, I realized that I had thrown the missing book into the wash. The missing book was a  fiction entitled ‘The Dirty Girls’ Social Club’ and written by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez . It is about friendships between six Latina women who continued to meet up regularly after graduating from the Boston University. To my dismay,  I had to pick up the "washed" book which was rather mutilated and  end up having to spend another hour or more removing all the dried paper stuff.  At that time my elder daughter came to her mother’s rescue and she had a good chuckle. When I wanted to get a replacement copy of the novel, my elder daughter stopped me from purchasing the last available copy of the book at MPH bookstore as she had a plan of her own. My daughters had subsequently returned to the bookshop to get the last available copy  in the bookshop as a Christmas gift for their mother.

So you get a drift of my affinity with domesticity.

I have a live-in helper who had been with me for eight years now.  As she still has to support her sons for their college education, she intends to continue working in my home. I do feel bad about the fact that she had to miss out on the growing years of her own children and the limited time she gets to be with her own family. Whenever a helper first arrived, it would take her a few months to adjust and for me to negotiate how we could live together under the same roof without compromising too much of  our privacy. In the long run, these helpers know too well the workings of the respective family they work for, the fine line between insider and outsider is invariably blurred and a virtual stranger has now become more of  an insider than an outsider of the family she is  attached to.

Over the years, my family and I have grown too dependent of having a live-in help. Once over dinner recently, someone asked us if we still had our live-in helper, my husband said, “ Yes most important person” and the friend agreed and nod his head. Both men agreed that we could not be without domestic helpers. At that moment, the  little whisky I consumed could have kicked in thus prompt me to quip, “ Ha ha the second wife.”  The friend quickly responded by shaking his head vigorously,  “ Oh no no no …” 

When we take away the element of housework, we hope to achieve a better balance of power and respect between the spouses regardless of whether both the man and the woman in a marriage are working full time or building their respective careers. Although the women had fought for gender equality for decades, the men have not evolved much to change a husband’s expectations of a wife and perhaps vice versa. The general stand taken by most people is that the women may not rule but all that about cleaning and washing still falls under the purview of a woman. The expectations remain the same hence the constant juggling act between home and work for a woman so much so that I am not sure if working mothers can truly have it all : maintaining our individuality while   assuming the role of a wife and a mother to our children. Without getting a lot of help in the domestic frontier, it is not easy for  a woman’s identity to venture beyond that of a wife and a mother. While being a wife and a mother forms an integral part of a married woman with maternal responsibilities, it is not necessarily every woman’s aspirations to stay within that typecast. I appreciate all the help I can get around the house in order to allow me to have the freedom to pursue my career, hobbies and interests. However people who provide plenty of help in my household are primarily women whether they are paid domestic helpers or the female members of my in-laws’ family. Housework therefore remains the domain of the female members of the family.

Since domestic work has so often been frowned upon by  the local women who much prefer to get  employed as clerks, sales assistant or administrative staff , we have to bring in the less fortunate women from developing countries in the neighbourhood. In the past, a stay at home wife and mother is taken for granted and now that we are actually paying other women to do these work, it is apparent that the housewives are the unsung heroines and those who choose to stay home and tend to all the house work and care of young children must be applauded. Due to a demand for  these domestic services, a new kind of economy has opened up to the countries like Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines, where women ( some of them are college graduates)  would apply to work as housemaids in South East Asian countries like Hongkong, Singapore and Malaysia. By choosing to leave their familiar home grounds and work in some foreign land does require a great deal of courage on the part of these foreign domestic helpers who cannot be certain if their prospective employers would treat them fairly. These women are often required to repay a handsome sum of fee to the recruitment agencies for services rendered by having their pays deducted initially.  Maybe it is a calculated risk in view of the allure of the prospect of better earnings even after taking account the initial reimbursements they had  to pay the recruitment agencies in most cases. Invariably there will be some who have misplaced priorities and somehow end up with some wicked company who have misled them into believing that they could get out of their situations only to find that they  land themselves in ominous and dubious circumstances. But then life  is all about taking a leap at opportunities, is it not? 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Coffee or chocolate?

Choccywoccydoodah in Brighton
Coffee and chocolate are amongst my favourite things. When I need a pick me up, I make myself a coffee and when I want to wind down, I make myself a cocoa. For my choice of dessert, chocolate is a prime ingredient . Give me a few books, a laptop,  an espresso coffee and a piece of yummy chocolate cake, I can while away my time in a café all day long.

I am also one of those people who simply cannot have enough of her solitary moments. I dread shopping malls where there is a sea of people and I avoid hypermarkets like a plague. Last October, when I went to the World Expo in Shanghai, I cringed when I saw the queues and the huge crowds hanging around the pavilions. On October 16, 2010 when the expo set a single-day record of having over 1.03 million visitors that day, I was glad to be away from the Expo and  spend my day at Qizhong Stadium located in Ma Qiao town southwest of Shanghai. I was most delighted when I caught the Shanghai Masters semi-final tennis match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. A superb match to watch between the tennis greats, I count my lucky star to have witnessed it.

Until recently, after the morning rush in getting the children to school, I would get myself ready for work and on the way to work, I used to stop by either Starbucks or Coffee Bean outlet between home and office. Apart from getting the caffeine boost, I felt I needed the time to decompress before arriving at the office. On such mornings when I treated myself to that half hour of break time, I was inclined to be carried away by reading the newspaper or novel which I had with me. Some clients who had been given my mobile phone number obviously did not realize that the number was intended only for use when they had to contact me on an urgent basis. Invariably such mornings might be interrupted by phone calls from clients. To them the mobile number is for their convenience, that is to say, mobile phone is no longer a secondary means of contacting you, it is your direct line. In a way thanks to these calls, I would otherwise not have made it to the office sooner.

Since it was easy to lose track of the time, there were times when I got out of the coffee place, spirits lifted only to be met by the parking attendant who had since placed a new ticket on my windscreen. I had earlier on paid for only thirty minutes as I wanted to set my break time for half hour only. As the parking attendant appeared with a smirk on his face, he commented in Hokkien that I had to pay another thirty cents. My watch showed that I have exceeded by one minute. When I got into my car tucking into the coins tray to get the exact change, the attendant walked away. I could easily drive away as I had seven days to make the payment and I really had to get into the office soon.  However I did not want  to be burdened with the task of remembering to pay later on and if I overlooked and pay after seven days, it would cost me fifteen ringgit.  So I patiently waited for the parking attendant to return. When he reappeared, he babbled in Hokkien dialect about how he could not wait for me as I was too slow in getting my money.

  Dragon boat race in Penang
I refused to let him ruin my day so I ignored him as he rattled on about how he had worked for twenty five years and he was efficient at what he was doing and  he would always be on dot with the ticket when you exceeded the time even by a tick. Guess so often we had to amuse ourselves and at least appear upbeat to do the things we did day in day out. Maybe that was just his way of making his work more exciting. Whatever it is the particular parking attendant must be one of the fortunate ones who appeared to believe that he was good at his job. There was one time he pointed to the stray cats and say he had been feeding them and there were a few of them. I had since given in to paying for more than half hour even though I only spent half hour so that I could drive away quickly after my coffee. A school friend told me how one of her maids would be responsible for mopping the floors of her whole big bungalow every morning. Looking around her clean floors which measured about some 5,000 square feet, I decided that I would not be able to accomplish that task. I quipped and say, “ I would rather go to court every day.”

Qizhong Stadium 
When clients vented about their concerns for their children, they  sometimes said in a self-deprecating way that it was their destiny that they had to worry about their grown up children and grandchildren. Before the start of the men’s Wimbledon tennis final this year, I remember hearing the sports commentator remark this:  “ It all depends if it is his destiny to win this Wimbledon title this year.” I believe he was referring to the defending champion, Novak Djokovic who subsequently held on to his Grand Slam title. If it was to do with destiny, winning the title must have been in the stars for him never mind the fact that  the defending champion had worked hard for the title.

So often we like to think that  it is our destiny when things spin out of our control. Once a friend and I were supposed to meet up at one of the Starbucks outlets and she somehow had in mind a new outlet and got the venue wrong so we ended up at two different Starbucks outlets. She then said, “ Ah well just not meant to be , we are just not destined to meet up today.” When I narrated the incident to my younger daughter, she said, “ That is a misuse of the word “destiny”.”  Recently I watched the movie called ‘The Adjustment Bureau’. Both my daughters and I love the movie. Who would not be impressed and love the movie that centers around the concept that you can actually change the destiny if you want something badly and what’s more the protagonist actually said, “ All I have are the choices I make, and I choose her. The concept that a guy would forgo the presidential post of the United States just to be with the girl of his dreams was mind-blowing and that concept has kept our romantic hopes alive. My younger daughter reminds me that there was one time the "angels" were quoted as saying something to the effect  : Not everything happens for a reason, some things are sheer coincidences. Yes I cannot agree more.Not everything that happens has a reason, a lot of times they are just coincidences. Anyway “The Adjustment Bureau” is definitely a feel good movie that says “ Free will usually wins”. Serendipitous encounters are just what I love even if they are random and amount to nothing significant.  Whilst not everything that happens has a meaning, if we view life not too damned seriously, we may just enjoy each and every encounter in our daily lives!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Just Go with it

A friend was asking me about Eurorail passes and I had absolutely no idea. The last time I travelled by train in Europe was  from Dover to Ghent and Bruges in Belgium and that was three decades ago. One day later when I checked my mailbox , there was an article on Budget travel under with write-ups about train travel. What a coincidence. When I was thinking about the tennis games  I  had during the week, I came across someone’s rambling about how she was okay with losing a match in tennis although the writer regarded herself as ambitious. The writer has echoed my sentiments indeed. Not caring about winning or losing a game in sports and being competitive as a person are not mutually exclusive. 

I recently met a young couple from Nice with whom I had a  couple of meals and a tennis game. On the day after I had breakfast with the young French couple together with friends, there lay in my mailbox an article entitled : Back to Provence in New York Times Travel Despatch. Another coincidence. I had lunch with my younger daughter at a café the other day and when the food was brought to her , I asked if her hands were clean, she answered in the affirmative as she flipped through the pages of the Female magazine which she picked up at the cafe. I commented that she had been tapping on her phone ( meaning you probably think your fingers are clean but …) and at that moment, she turned over something she read  and yelp ,
 “ Oh Mom, according to this , our mobile phone is probably thrice dirtier than a toilet bowl …”  Subsequently, during our evening walk, I spoke to her about how it was a generalized statement when employees  would perceive that  “ women bosses are harder to work under”. When I got back to our house and as I checked my emails, I came across the trailers for the new movie  “ Horrible Bosses”.  Thought that was funny.

You may have experienced how you had to speak to someone and that someone happened to call you or you bumped into him or her. You may be agonizing about how to go about things and you come across someone who can provide you the link or the contact. Whenever I need to look for something that has been misplaced whether for myself or the office or my daughters , I have to try to visualize where it could be and there are times I manage while other times I cannot. If I wanted to find the misplaced stuff bad enough,  I would persevere and  I found that if I could step back a little, I might just have the hunch where I would find the missing stuff and it usually resurfaced. When I take things easy and relax, I can think better and ideas flow naturally.
I was telling my partner at work that I really wished I could hide away somewhere and go through all the books I had purchased recently. I found it difficult to explain why  I still do not seem to have the luxury to indulge in reading even though these days  I have more time at my disposal since I no longer have to ferry my children to and from classes and extra curricular activities.  In reading  what Stephnie Staal wrote in “Reading Women” , I am  grateful to come across  the following sentence: “ I examined my life through Beauvoir’s gimlet eye, I saw the trips not taken, the flirtations not followed up on, the adventures not experienced; I saw the many moments of my life claimed by others……. I saw the novels interrupted, ….the fights, the frustration, the laundry, the birthday parties, the time spent worrying about this , worrying about that. Such restrictions compelled by the responsibilities of family life are nothing new, but the ache of missed opportunities felt exceptionally sharp and undeniable at that moment.” It is uncanny that the Staal’s observations describe my reflections most aptly and sum up pretty much how time could slip away without much ado . Spot on.

Yes life is made of opportunities as well as coincidences. But it becomes too surreal when those thoughts of yours leap into view the minute you open the newspaper or turn a page of the novel you just start to read. Spooky maybe. So I am definitely one who believes in keeping our minds free in order to be in touch with our instincts and in tune with the present. What I have to keep reminding myself is to stop worrying. There had been times when I could smell trouble and there was trouble so I really like to avoid thinking about trouble. Call it professional hazard, after staying in legal practice for more than two decades, it is almost impossible to think the best of another person’s intentions or not worry about adversaries and conflicts. This is because when we choose to stop reading more into another’s actions, we have been proven wrong again and again.  I come to conclude that when we tell ourselves life is not complicated, we are really fooling ourselves. Nothing is absolute and one should follow one’s intuition.  Ultimately it is how we make out our lives to be and it is  our inner voice that will guide us to where we want to be so long as we are open to the journey.