Posted by: Sam Olsen | July 30, 2013

YaYas; a guide for the uninitiated

Yaya is our Domestic Helper. Yaya means ‘Auntie’ in tagalog, which is the language of the Philippines.  We have learned some right funny words in tagalog from Yaya, such as making sure we put talcum powder on our Killy-killy’s (armpits), or how long to boil an etlog (egg).  Tagalog appears to be a funny mix of something Asian and a bit of Spanish thrown in. It always sounds  sing-song and cheerful. It is not actually our Yaya’s first language, rather like the way many Chinese speak Mandarin for official purposes they would speak a dialect at home or in their local region. Meaning that she speaks three languages fluently plus enough Cantonese to get by in the market and enough Mandarin to instil the vocabulary that Lawrence is taught at playgroup.  Thats starting to put pressure on Polyglot Olsen himself as to who is the most well-spoken in our house! 

A post about Yaya is timely since she will soon be meeting many of you as she’s coming to the UK with us on a bit of a holiday…. albeit a busman’s holiday since she is still on duty helping look after Lawrence and Dominic. There are numerous rules about the employment of DH’s here in HK and even more to have one accompany you over to the UK. Special clauses apply in the visa regulations of both countries. Yayas are the Philippines largest export (ranking ahead of bananas and mangos). Citizens working overseas contribute 12% of the Philippines GDP according to the World Bank and along with seaman that rove the oceans on oil tankers and cargo liners, domestic helpers make up the bulk of these. 

Anyway, our Yaya has lived with us for two years now and just renewed her contract for another two.   She has two grown-up kids in Manila, and a husband who lives on the family farm in a province called Bohol. When pressed for the home address in order to get the aforementioned UK Visa, she gave me the name of her husband, simply followed by Villafuente, Carmen, Bohol. ‘Street name?’ I asked, ‘House name’? ‘No!’ She replied, ‘Just send a letter to Albert in Villafuente, everyone knows who he is’. Yaya spends half her salary on fertiliser for the family farm. Her daughter left university a couple of years ago and her son is in his final year.  All funded by Yaya. 

Religion plays a huge part in the life of most helpers, many of whom are Catholic, although their brands of Christianity vary enormously. AS I think we previously mentioned, St. John’s Cathedral which is the largest Anglican church here in HK, also holds services in Tagalog.  Numerous other facilities and shops spring up for the helper population. I offered to open a bank account for Yaya when she first came to work for us, and she scoffed that she’d never get as good a rate as at the hole-in-the-walls in Kowloon on a Sunday. That’s the traditional day off for most helpers, when they can be seen setting up little camps around the city, parks, beaches, and bizarrely, underpasses.  Our Yaya does not frequent such lowly outdoor hangouts, instead spending the day with her church group that meets at a University. 

Yaya looks after our kids as though they are her own. Every Sunday she gets home from her day out and asks ‘Lawrence already sleeping?’ even though she knows it’s well past his bedtime. I think she’d like a chance for a quick cuddle. Or perhaps is checking that we careless parents have not left him in a pub somewhere.  She runs a tight ship around the house (something I have not interfered with too much while on maternity leave you understand!). Laundry days, shopping days, veg and milk delivery, outsourcing the car cleaning, organising playdates for the little ones. She doesn’t really like me getting underfoot in the kitchen but is very polite when I do the dinner; finally admitting, however, that cooked cheese is to her tastebuds absolutely disgusting and makes her ill! 

If you haven’t had the wonderful experience of having someone cheerful, intelligent, patient and jolly living under your roof and helping out with all things household, it may be hard to understand. People often ask, isn’t it odd, having a stranger living under your roof… My response is that cosy coupledom disappeared with the birth of our first child, and Yaya certainly doesn’t require as much looking after as he! Do the kids know the difference between you and her? Well, yes, I think so, although Lawrence is going through a phase of calling me Daddy and Daddy Yaya at the moment…. And don’t we feel bad, that she is here, earning not very much money in Western terms, and not with her own family? Well, we try our best to make her happy as well. The good helpers choose their employer just as much as the reverse! Her kids are now old enough to fend for themselves, and have been to visit her here for holidays when we go away and make space in the flat. The financial arrangement is not something for debate here, save to say that there is a minimum wage we pay well in excess of, and that she probably makes more than a schoolteacher in the Philippines.  

 In one generation, Yaya can honestly say she has lifted her family from close to subsistence farming to middle class office workers at international IT companies. That is an achievement that far outweighs what most Western parents do for their kids.  My only concern is that with both her kids out of university she decides she’ll head home and retire… But I don’t let myself dwell on that nightmare scenario often! 




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