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October 03, 2014

Life After Help: A Returning Expat's Account

Having left her tropical Downton Abbey life in Jakarta for home in the UK, it's time to make peace with dirty sheets, kitchen work, and a dishwasher named Doris Smeg. A tongue-in-cheek account of a returning expat.

by Rosaleen Cunningham

Well, hello housework, how are you? Long time no see. How lovely it is to spend time again with you; hours and hours of meaningful interaction and the satisfying feeling that we will get to do it all again the next day, safe in the knowledge that my family will notice and appreciate our relationship.
Said no returning expat. Ever.
Gone is the pernickety Ibu, head of the household, living in her own tropical Downton Abbey. Now I actively smell the sheets on the bed and think they can last another week without being changed. I purchase "easy-iron" clothing or even "no-iron" if I can find them. Electric appliances are my constant companions. I have even given the dishwasher a name (Doris Smeg).
As I consider what's for dinner tonight (we are working my way through our suitcase supply of Indofood Nasi Goreng paste), I pause to consider Life After Help.
Like most western ex-pats, I did not grow up with "staff" in our household. As a result, on first arriving in Jakarta, the thought of having people in my home helping me was mortifying, even scandalous. Yet also incredibly tempting.

Within a few months I had succumbed to the full package. Affordable, caring childcare, a clean home, and delicious Indonesian and Western food (better than anything I could make) served every evening. What's not to love?
I also had great company, someone who showed me the ropes, introducing me to the idiosyncrasies of Indonesia. If I had grown up with servants or staff I would have not thought this appropriate. Instead, I was, and always will be, filled with gratitude and respect.
While other people were cleaning up our mess, I spent quality time with my child, had another baby, worked in emergency teams in a few natural disasters, joined every school committee, classroom volunteer, wrote a bit and studied for a Masters. And became a Lady Who Lunched.
There may have been trips to spas, and malls, and fancy cocktail events. I learned that a creambath did not involve literally getting into a bath of cream. I was introduced to the concept of a Lemon Gin Sorbet. At lunchtime. All while people were cleaning my house.
While our Pembantu (domestic help) looked after our children, when she eventually married and had children, she struggled with her own childcare arrangements. Girls from the village can no longer be enticed to come look after her kids, they are all in the Middle East and Malaysia now. She can't afford to give up working, yet she can no longer find affordable childcare in Jakarta. Ironically, the same problem I struggled with 10 years ago in the UK. It has become a big issue for debate; behind every successful working mother in the new booming economies of Asia, how many other workingwomen are there?
Over the years I gave up trying to share some of my slacker housekeeping tips with my staff. I gave up suggesting that tea towels, underwear, and socks really didn't need to be ironed, and trainers didn't need to be washed weekly. But I also tried in Jakarta to instill some life-skills into my offspring. Two very small tasks; "take your plates to the kitchen, and clean the toilet after yourself".  Every other household task I eventually conceded to, but having someone else clean our poo off a toilet bowl was more than my usually dormant Catholic guilt could cope with. My typical rant began “when we get back to England...."
And now we are back. The good news is There is Life After Pembantu. There is a small feel-good factor attached to purchasing all my eco-friendly cleaning agents, strictly enforcing re-cycling duties, and turning boring chores into quality family time – Friday Night Sock Game, two teams, who can match the most socks. Funny how I always win.
Friends with small children talk about the initial shock of having no driver, or getting into cars and asking "what's the driver's name?" Mummy is the new Pak Trisno. It can be a huge shock. One summer back home for holidays, after several years in Jakarta, I got into the diver's seat. Immediate screaming ensued from the back. I turned around in a panic to see what had happened; big tears and wild panic in the eyes of a two and six-year old.
"Mummy's driving and we're gonna die!" They wailed.
As I stand here making a breakfast involving bacon (another previously guilt-ridden activity in Jakarta), slobbishly half-dressed, ranting back at the radio commentator, squeezing one more dirty mug into Doris, I have discovered that doing one's own housework brings it's own freedom.
Either that or I really, really need a job.
About Rosaleen Cunningham
Rosaleen is a freelance writer and communications adviser. She specialises in communicating in disasters, though communicating with her own children can be stressful enough. She is Irish, lived in Jakarta over the last 10 years and now lives in Oxford, England.