Beth’s Story

26 September 2008

Tribute to a Woman of Character

Good fortune comes in strange packages. I wrote Beth’s story earlier this week for the October newsletter of the Mission for Migrant Workers here in Hong Kong, trying to squeeze a great deal of detail into a small space, searching for the essence of what she has endured. Beth is a Filipino domestic helper who came to stay with my family and I after her employer’s fiancé abused and fired her. In trying to tell her story I came to realise that she not only had a hell of a heart hidden within a very shy and often withdrawn personality, but that she had given us a friendship to treasure.

Read on . . .

When Beth arrived in Hong Kong the situation seemed promising. Her employer lived with his fiancé in Discovery Bay, a tidy, quiet and often friendly district on Lantau island. But on the first night she had to sleep on the couch because the separate room mentioned in her domestic helper contract was a lie. And when her employer left for Singapore two days later her life descended into misery.

With the employer out of sight, his fiancé proceeded to assault Beth. The slightest mistake in any aspect of housework brought swift retribution, first in foul language and then in beatings on the arm. One day she was hit in the face with a book. Desperately worried about her own safety and how she would support her three-year-old daughter in the Philippines if she fled, Beth fell into confusion, made worse by constant hunger because she was only allowed one meal a day.

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Certifying the Curmudgeon

23 September 2008

Or, You Can’t Always Frame the Feeling

Certificates are a lot like currency – their value ebbs gently through the years until they’re little more than paper, slightly spotted and out of date. The inflation of our expectations drags us away from the places, moments and feelings that once meant a great deal, leaving a residue of pride or satisfaction half remembered. In 40 years I’ve collected a few certificates, for Australian rules football, running, school, university, even interior decoration. They’re the detritus of life, jammed into mainly forgotten places, carried across continents because they mark stages of my life so I only have to remember those days when I discover that tattered piece of paper in a box behind the bookcase, almost out of sight.

I do keep two in frames – my honours degree and PhD testamurs – because I still value the effort and dedication with which I gained them. In a way they define me more than all the previous certificates because I worked towards them, I spent almost 9 years of my life edging ever closer to holding them in my hand. Through sickness, health, delight and disappointment I made it. But I didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremonies because the achievement was internal, something I couldn’t share. Perhaps that’s why the frames are now receding beyond the clutter behind me as I type.

It’s hard to stay focused on yourself for too long.

I arrived in Hong Kong a few months ahead of my PhD testamur, single and somewhat singular. But things have changed as time has passed. I’m married to a woman at once honourable and mischievous, feisty and calm. I have two small kids and a step daughter now. They came with certificates too – well, all but my step daughter. In any case, I love them all fiercely and through them I’ve learned the value of helping others, the importance of change in an unjust world, the significance of rights defended each day, every hour. The world is a bigger place.

But I only realised the most telling change two days ago. On Saturday we spent time amongst friends; some we’ve known for years, others for months, a few for hours. The gathering had a purpose, to raise funds for Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic helpers over on Kowloon side, here in Hong Kong. I’ve written about some of these women before – the beaten and repressed, those stolen from and stabbed, abused and raped. They’re the dust of life, or they would be if they just settled, stopped agitating.

The day culminated in a charity auction preceded by a few formalities. A speech or two, some cultural presentations, a break for snacks. So it goes when people gather according to schedule – the prelude to the main event settles them down, prepares them for the action. Suitably prepared I was listening to a string of names called out, waiting for people to receive certificates acknowledging their efforts in making the day possible, and in allowing Bethune House to continue giving shelter when few other people care.

I was also thinking about my wife, crouched down on the floor in the dark two days after our wedding, crying because she had to be back at work in another, richer district by 6:00 am, would have to work until midnight or more, would have to endure three more months of domestic servitude and the aches and pains and demands. The perversity of it all is that she was lucky; her daily struggles against unreason inflicted no physical pain, no mental abuse.

And then I heard her name.

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Back to Bethune

12 September 2008

There’s Always a Helper in Need of Help

Sometimes a little good news can seep out of the most strained circumstances. Two weeks ago I wrote about Bethune House, a temporary refuge for mistreated and otherwise abused domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. Outlining their travails – which are very much those of an underclass, as I’ll have cause to mention again soon – I offered a worrying ratio. The House has 22 bed spaces but was accommodating over 60 residents. Most of the women slept on the floor, and the organisation was in dire financial need. Today I received an email from Edwina Antonio, who works tirelessly in her role as Director of Bethune House. Amid other, far less palatable news, was a morsel of optimism – the House now only has 42 residents, with 20 women having moved on.

There is sometimes a little hope to be had in this mad, mad world.

But tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Bethune House with friends and family, remitting the small amount of money we’ve collected and delivering more much needed rice. To say that the residents are facing times could well be an understatement – Edwina is still struggling to drag in the cash and food that’ll tide them over for this month and next. After that the fates will have to decide.

I mention this now because in the interim I’ve been doing what I hopefully do best – writing about the situation. After Edwina used my previous post as an article for the newsletter produced by the Mission for Migrant Workers (the organisation to which she belongs), I posted a more formal appeal for help on the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong. One of the users on an expatriate website, GeoExpat, reposted it and we received a mild but favourable response. That led me to writing a similar article for GeoExpat’s monthly online newsletter, highlighting more problems Bethune House residents were facing and announcing another fund-raising effort – an open house on the 20th of this month.

One of the GeoExpat users took almost immediate exception to my piece, writing a lengthy reply even before I had time to click on the email link and go to the site to read it in situ, so to speak. Admittedly, I don’t check my private email all that quickly during the day, but this user was fast. The three main points of objection were that most employers of domestic helpers in Hong Kong were ‘good’, that I had somehow erred in describing these women as “Hong Kong’s underclass” and that they should try to work elsewhere under worse conditions, perhaps the more exploitative of the Middle Eastern destinations.

Now the last of these objections is easy to dispel, because it’s not really an objection at all but a logical fallacy. The somewhat primitive ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ argument is played out time and again in disagreements between happy locals – or their near analogues – and disgruntled ‘outsiders’, however they might be defined. It also does absolutely nothing to address any of the concerns raised; it’s a red herring that at best distracts, at worst shows the desperation of a baseless argument. And that allows me to consider the first objection. How did the user know that ‘most’ employers are good? It’s hardly an effective quantitative claim, and I had already cited 62 cases against it – that being the number of residents then in Bethune House. Even an attempt to name a few people who were good employers might have made the argument credible.

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