Saturday, August 9, 2008

Helping hands

There are many things that are much easier in Hong Kong, but none hits you as a parent like having cheap, experienced, full time childcare. It is a sad fact of economics that thousands of women from South East Asia can make much more money working as housekeepers, nannies and carers for the elderly in Hong Kong or Singapore than they could make at home even in professional jobs. Hence H, our nanny, who has a university degree, lives in our home with us for less than half of what it costs my sister to put my niece in nursery.

The conditions for these women in Hong Kong are often very tough. Contractually they have to work 24 hours a day, 6 days a week for a pittance. The government stipulates that they live in with a family, but we are only legally obliged to provide a private sleeping area and in many instances this amounts to a curtain in the corner of the living room or a child's bedroom.

Aside from the conditions and appaling treatment some "helpers" get at the hands of employers and the government, I find the role they perform in many families to be quite odd related to the children. There seems to be a culture here of giving the child to the helper even when the parents are not at work. I find this wholesale outsourcing of parenting very odd and rather worrying.

For example, yesterday the Boy and I were out shopping. Shopping for the Boy is a tedious exercise as he hates making decisions and will never compromise on anything. Between the two of us we negotiated 3 hours of shopping centres, with the buggy. However, a surprising number of families had their helper in tow. Sometimes the helper was carrying the child, sometimes carrying the bags, sometimes just pushing the empty buggy behind the couple and their child. This posed the question "why?". What is so difficult about taking your own child shopping and carrying your own bags?

Then, in the evening at our pool we took Eve swimming. We were the only couple with a baby who did not have their helper with them as well. One couple brought their baby and helper with them - that is 3 adults to take one baby swimming. In one case only the helper was there with the child (it was a Saturday).

When I talk to H, our nanny, she is really surprised that we do so much for Eve - in her former jobs she has variously slept in the baby's room to do overnight feeds, taken the children swimming at weekends, and even gone on holiday to look after the children. It would be easy to think this is a Chinese culture thing until I recall two English couples I know who think nothing of giving their baby to a helper for the weekend so they can play golf or go on a junk for the day.

I just don't understand the concept of having a child and then not spending time with them. Aside from building a healthy relationship with your child, it is simply fun doing things with Eve. I try hard not to judge the choices of others, but this is something I can't help but do in these instances.


Sabina said...

Al - I remember having a number of conversations on this topic with you over the years, and us both being in agreement with the views you express here.
The point remains: why bother to have children if you cannot bear to change/modify/readjust your lifestyle so they can fit in it too? You don't have to rotate your world around the child(ren), but you do need to rearrange priorities.
Or maybe having children is just another item to tick off the list for those who seem to have more money than sense?
Pity the children. If this is the example their parents are setting them, what hope for the future (aside from the thought that "what goes round, comes round..")?
At least my lot will be able to blame us in later years if they loathe water sports...("I had not choice Mummy, you made me come along!").

Mummy said...

The point about setting an example is true. I have seen children talk to their helpers in the most unbelievably rude way. There was a story a girlfriend of mine told me when her little boy came back from a birthday party in tears (he was 5) because he had automatically got up after the tea party to help clear the plates and was pilloried for doing so with comments like "I don't do that, my helper does" and "don't you have a helper - are you poor?".

I am trying very, very hard to ensure Eve sees Mummy and Daddy doing all the things H does too. Each night before bathtime we say thank you to H for a lovely day, and ALWAYS say please and thank you if she does anything.

This culture is probably the thing that will drive me away from HK as Eve gets older

Anonymous said...

My wife used to live in Japan and, at age 15, came home to ask her father the following.

"Are we poor?. How come we don't have a driver to take us to school?"

At this point he packed up and got transferred to Belgium