Wati: Breadwinning Mother & Maid

interview by marie chung

Btl's first story: january 2014

Nannies in South-East Asia are shunned away and live in shoebox rooms, eat leftover food and use separate toilets to their host families. These nannies continue to work for a few dollars a day, long extended work hours, and they are commonly spoken down to because they come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Through another lens, we could almost say it is modern-day slavery.

It was fortunate enough to come across Wati for my first BTL story. Wati is one of many house nannies living in my home country, Brunei Darussalam. She is one of the more dynamic women of the house nannies in the country and I could safely say, most of South East Asia. Her character intrigued my preconceived thoughts of all house nannies as timid, reserved and obedient.

Wati’s story is comparably different to other nannies, she is grateful that her employers take her out for dinner and they respect her as an equal. Thankfully, Wati’s employers have nourished the conditions for Wati over the last 19 years to allow her to speak as an individual and share her story. At the home, I found Wati in the bedroom, ironing clothes for the family. It was here that we decided to take the challenge of overcoming an English-Indonesian language barrier, and an even bigger challenge of beginning a reflective process of her own life.

How many times do you go back home to Indonesia?

Once every two years for one or two months. Every two years I go home to Indonesia, I can see my son get bigger and his attitude is different each time – so I’m happy with that. My son and my family are very important to me. He motivates me to keep working. What’s important in my life is work, and earning money for my family and son. My younger brother also goes to school and I’m responsible for paying for his fees.

And working here has changed your life?

Yeah, of course. It changed my economic problem. I’ve been here for 15 years but I’m happy staying with this family.

What did you do before you came to Brunei?

I was working as a waitress in Jakarta at a Korean restaurant for 6 months.

Oh that’s short. You didn’t like it?

No I didn’t like it because during that time it was the start of the Soeharto period, the government was like a business monitor.

Employer joins in conversation: There was a Crisis in that time.

It was the start of the crisis. Semua harga start to naik (all prices increased) around 1998.

People migrated out of Indonesia. Then why did you choose to come to Brunei?

Was it I chose to come here or was it my takdir (fate)?

How do you advertise to be a maid overseas? How does it work?

E: She goes to the employment agency, gives her details (bio-data) and an agent there contacts the agents here in Brunei. The agent here deals with that, and they contact me.

E: When she just came here, she was just 18 or 19”.

Yes, I was 19 and a half.

E: The mother was pregnant when she just came here about 4 or 5 months. When she arrived, she found out that her mother was pregnant.

When I came here, 6 months later I got a phone call about my mother: “your mother has a child”.

Since working, how do you feel you have impacted your own family?

My children can go to school, my sister can finish high school and my brother too. I can also help my parents finish the house. My family, not just my parents, my sister can eat, my brothers can eat, and my son. I am the tulang punggung (breadwinner).

All fathers are breadwinners, but I am the breadwinner for the family.

Just you?

My father is working also but he only earns enough for everyday expenses.

And they live in Jakarta?

In Jawa, Jawa Cilacat.

You supporting the whole family is a big responsibility.

If I am no longer working here, I want to open a restaurant in Indonesia. That is my goal. Now I can work, I have a good boss, and I can earn money every month – and sometimes my boss gives me a bonus.

There has been a lot that you have gained since coming here. What else have you learnt since you’ve come to Brunei?

Last time I came, I didn’t know anything about the language or cuisine. The work is fine, because working as a maid is common. I learned how to cook from my boss when they took me out to restaurants. I can taste the food and I taste the ingredients, and then I learn how to cook that at home. If my boss says it’s not nice, I’ll fix it and improve it again.

E: She is a quick learner.

E: Last time she needed a lot of encouragement.

What are some other challenges you have had to deal with Wati?

I miss my family. When I am by myself, I cry for my anak (children).

When my son was 16 months old, I stayed with him at the house, but now I cannot be there to support him.

How do you manage to still work here whilst he is over there?

Because I’m a single mother, I need to do it to support my son. I am the one that is responsible.

Wati, the purpose of this interview today is to let others know about your story and learn about who you are. I want to share stories of people from different social backgrounds and economic situations. It will help others to be less quick to judge and perhaps encourage empathy in others to understand why individuals have the life they do.

When you meet people for the first time, what do you think they see in you?

Many people, when they look at me they say I’m not Indonesian, but from the Philippines. They also say I’m friendly and a good joker. They don’t think that I’m a maid.

If I see you and you are friendly with me, I’ll be friendly with you. When you are sombong (arrogant), I try to balance that. If they won’t take me as a friend, it doesn’t matter, because there are so many people in the world.

When we finish this interview, what do you want others to get from our conversation today?

I don’t want to sound arrogant but this is really my life. I want them to look at me positively, not negatively. My message to other workers is to learn what to do and what not to do. If your employers are angry at you, you must understand why they are angry at you. You must accept it, say sorry and just be patient.

What I’d like to do is interview many others and share their stories, so that we can encourage society to look at you differently. What would be your message to everyone else?

Don’t think about the negative qualities in a person but think about the good things in the person. Think about what they have for themselves. Not all of us workers are bad people.

Wati finished her ironing and we left the conversation as it was. Upon observing her gestures, our conversation had indeed been a very reflective process and perhaps enough thought for one day. Shortly afterwards, she was happy to take some photos around her workplace and enthusiastically offered to pose in the kitchen to seem like she was doing work. It took also to my surprise that her employers suddenly became interested in what I was doing and extended the theme to others who also experience disadvantage.

The unusually tall uncle began talking about the time when Vietnamese refugees came to Brunei and how poorly they were treated as they were forced to take refuge on the beach, only to be deported shortly after. Then my grandmother without much exposure to the asylum seeker debate mentioned that it would all be okay in detention centres due to the fact that they all can grow vegetable and herb gardens – she was rather shocked to discover that their basic needs were barely being fulfilled. This was the first time I was able to diplomatically discuss real life problems with some politically charged family members who were happy to listen – what triggered this important process started with sharing Wati’s story.