Thursday, January 17, 2013

mbak mi's organic garden

Our backyard in indonesia used to be a feature garden, with palm trees and colourful tropical plants in bright yellows and reds. But since a few years ago, we did a very Michelle Obama thing and turn it into a vegie patch.

Though it wasn't me who did it. It was our live-in maid who planted and carefully tended to everything in the patch. The soil is enriched by pure manure, the plants watered every day, resulting in a healthy, happy, and green bunch of plants. She was deservedly proud of her work as she showed me around the patch. And in turn, we get to appreciate that hard work on the dinner table. I have to say that she is quite an amazing cook, using spices intuitively, knowing beforehand what works and what doesn't in a dish, churning out beautiful javanese dishes as well as chinese ones. My next post is about the first (and  so far, only) recipe I learned from her.

I know some of you reading this might be slightly uncomfortable by now, or dare I say even indignant from my mention of the word "maid", a live-in one at that. Unlike in western countries, in asia, the employment of a maid is quite normal. Although in indonesia the word for maid is pembantu, which literally means helper, in english speaking asian countries "maid" is always the word used by both employer and employee, not housekeeper, not the help, most certainly not butler.

A normal middle class family would tend to employ one maid, who would do the cooking and cleaning in the house. And when there are small children in the house, she would tend to them as well, but usually more than one maid would be required in this instance. I have consistently been using "she" in describing the maid, because a live-in maid is always of the female gender, as butlers are always of the male gender.

A larger family would employ a few maids, a cook, a driver, and for the very well-to-do family maybe even a security guard. When me and my sisters were growing up, we used to have three maids living with us, mostly to help with raising us. But now that we have left the house, my parents only employ one maid by the name of Mbak Mi. The closest term to "mbak" I can come up with in english is the honorific "miss". And "Mi" is the shortened version of her name.

Chinese okra

Her story with us began with the heartbreaking decision of leaving her own kampung (village) almost 20 years ago, in search of a better way to earn a living for her family. Her husband passed away leaving her the sole breadwinner for her two young sons. She came to our house, not as young as some of the other maids, already somewhat experienced in life. She left her own family to raise the kids in our family, me and my sisters, and help with the housework (along with the other two maids, at the time). And at the end of the month, she would remit a sizeable part of her salary back to her kampung for her kids' education and living expenses.

After about 5 years working for us, she decided that it was time to try out something else. Being the sole breadwinner, she needed something more. During this period, there was a huge surge and promotion in the exporting of labour from indonesia to other asian countries, mostly singapore, hong kong and taiwan. This export labour is officially called TKI (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia) and a special term TKW (Tenaga Kerja Wanita) is used to describe the female component since a huge part of the export labour were maids.

Mbak Mi left our family to work for another family in taiwan. Since her departure, we never quite found her replacement, we had a roster of a few maids going through our house at the time to try and replace her. Although, we were quite lucky that the other two maids stayed with us for quite some time, 10 years or more, until they got married and had their own families. One got married to one of my father's employees at the shop, last I heard she has two kids. The other went back to her kampung, also to get married and have kids.

Green beans
After working in taiwan for about 3 years, Mbak Mi returned to indonesia, though perhaps not as stable financially as she hoped. She trusted the wrong people and lost a sizeable amount of her savings in a ponzi scheme. Though, I should clarify that she was always treated well by the taiwanese family that employed her. This is not always true for all maids, there are a lot of cases where maids have been abused by their employer, and perhaps this is what caused some of the discomfort in talking about the employment of maids, the negative connotations of it, the assumptions.

When Mbak Mi returned to indonesia, the first family she applied to for work was our family, and at that time only my younger sister was still living with my parents. My parents were more than delighted to take her back, they know of her work ethics, and she knows what our nuances and quirks are as a family. And she's been with us ever since. These days she is not as busy as she used to be, she is chatty and sometimes even nosy, her favourite question is to ask how us kids are all doing.

I'd like to think that for her it was a happy ending. She made tough decisions for her family, but she persevered. Her sons are now all grown up and not in small part was helped by their mother to be where they are now. One son is married and is thinking of going to korea to work, the other is helping to take care of their grandparents who raised them while their mother is working away from home. And our family grew up too, also not in small part was from her help. In a way, she tended to us the way she tended our organic garden, with care and sometimes with a bit of toughness.

Choy sum flowers
Our organic garden harvest: chinese okra, chinese okra leaves, papaya, tomatoes, bird's eyes chillies, red chillies, bitter melons, eggplants, and green beans
"Ginseng" vegies
Choy sum
Bok choy

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