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Dog is my navigator

Dog is my navigator

My poor blog.

I think of it often, but for some reason I just cannot make myself sit still long enough to sit down and write posts. There are so many things I want to write about, but I can’t get my act together. I feel particularly bad about this since I LOVE reading other people’s blogs, and almost feel guilty at my consumption-output imbalance.

But I don’t foresee my behavior changing anytime soon, at least not for a while. So this week, while I’ve scrounged up a bit of motivation, I figured I’d do a life update on some of the topics I’ve been meaning to write about.

  • We got a helper… about a year ago

I’m way overdue for a post on this, perhaps in part because I felt uncomfortable writing about it for a while. The subject is such a lightning rod, and I just wasn’t sure I wanted to enter the fray. Crystal at Expat Bostonians has covered the subject of helpers – pros and cons, government initiatives, local vs. expat attitudes, and much more – thoroughly and I highly recommend checking out her blog for more in-depth info. Her own experience with a helper definitely gave me a lot to think about before we made the decision to hire one ourselves.

Helpers are a big part of the social fabric here in Singapore, but I find it’s nearly impossible to explain their role to friends and family back home. I would never use the word “maid” because I picture someone from Downton Abbey waiting on me in a uniform. Generally, we tell people that we have a live-in housekeeper because that’s something they can maybe sort of picture, but LL is much more than that (if we’re extending the Downton Abbey example, she’s Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Anna & Nanny all rolled into one).

I think it’s fairly uncommon (though not unheard of) for childless couples to have helpers, but this all came about early last year when Avon’s doggy daycare informed me that they’d be shutting down. I’d had a tough time finding dog walkers on the East Coast to begin with, and dreaded having to reinitiate the search. Meanwhile, we were using the cleaning service Mrs. Sparkles to clean our apartment once a week. We were very happy with the job they were doing and the responsiveness of the management team, even if it did cost a bit more ($80/week) than what some of our friends were paying to people under the table.

We’re friends with a couple that also has a dog and had a helper, and they never stopped singing the praises of having someone to cook, clean and look after the dog. We started toying with the idea, particularly since the monthly cost of a helper actually came out to about the same (or maybe even a little less) than what we were paying for doggy daycare + once-a-week cleaning. So I put the word out to a few of the helpers and families in our complex, and asked other friends to be on the lookout to let me know if they heard of anyone looking for a transfer.

Right off the bat, my downstairs neighbor said one of the helpers in our complex who was working for a local family would be looking to move after her contract expired in a few months. The only problem: the helper didn’t have a day off, wasn’t allowed to have a phone, and couldn’t access her passport. Can you believe she was interested in changing employers?

I tried on a few occasions to talk to the helper – usually while I was out walking the dog early in the morning and she was hanging laundry – but she was so terrified of getting in trouble that we could never talk for long. I told her she could knock on our door anytime to come for a chat, and gave her my number if she wanted to text me, but after about six weeks of clandestinely trying to track her down the whole thing felt kind of ridiculous. Although it would have been great to easily hire her to transfer and live within the same complex, she ultimately decided that she wanted to go home to Indonesia when her contract was up, and I certainly can’t fault her for that.

In the meantime, I interviewed a few friends of helpers in our complex, as well as a helper who lived next door to a friend elsewhere on the island. Another friend mentioned to me that the niece of his helper (who worked for his family when he was growing up in Singapore about 20 years ago, and with whom he’s still in touch) was in Manila but looking for a position. She’d previously worked for a local family in Singapore but went back after her contract was up.

I started texting with this woman, and interviewed her over the phone. Of all the people I interviewed, she was the most prompt and forthcoming (a couple others flaked on me when we were supposed to meet up) and, unbeknownst to her, totally got my attention when she said she loved to cook and watch Food Network shows in her spare time. I also met her aunt, who is so sweet and lovely, and liked that she would have family here to help offset homesickness. Finally, I got a good reference from her previous employer (as any red flags would have of course given us pause).

Ultimately, the hubs and I decided to hire LL (I’m not going to share her full name), even though it added a bit of work and extra cost on our end to coordinate the immigration/work permit stuff in comparison to hiring a transfer helper already in Singapore. What shocked me most was all the stuff I was told by various employment agencies (it’s nearly impossible to coordinate the immigration stuff yourself); from what I can gather there just seems to be corruption and extra cost at every juncture, from the handlers in the helpers’ native country to here in Singapore (where we have to pay a monthly $265 “levy”). And the helpers see none of this extra cost. One agency told me we could avoid hefty charges in Singapore by having LL enter the country on a tourist visa (essentially she would have to lie to the immigration officials who apparently conduct sweeps of Singapore-bound flights in Manila). Another told me they had a priest in Cebu who could bring women into Singapore as “religious workers.”

This was all far too clandestine for our taste, as we certainly didn’t want to break laws nor get LL into any trouble. Ultimately we used Universal Employment Agency to coordinate the paperwork. I feel like we paid them an awful lot considering we hired LL directly, but they were efficient and above-board, which we appreciated. It’s still crazy to me that helpers are expected to cover much of these costs (often they pay the first 8 months of their salary directly to the agencies) in what basically amounts to indentured servitude. We didn’t feel comfortable with this and covered all the costs directly.

LL arrived last March, and pretty much from the moment she walked through the door (when she bent down, smiling, to meet Avon and happily scratched him behind the ears) she’s been wonderful. She really is an amazing cook (I can give her any recipe and, like magic, our kitchen is filled with delectable smells when we come home from work at night. We eat so much healthier because – unlike me – she can competently cook vegetables and put together tasty salads). She keeps the apartment tidy. She walks Avon during the day and at night when I have to stay late at work or go elsewhere (and he loves her). She has alleviated so much stress from our lives, and at the same time totally enriched them.

LL is honest and trustworthy and kind, and we feel very fortunate that the situation has worked out as well as it has (knock on wood!). Very rarely something might get lost in translation, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that I am managing an employee, but she is smart and has been patient enough to roll with my sometime-forgetfulness. I definitely want to give a shout out to Naomi, who provided me with lots of fantastic tips on setting the ground rules in our relationship and creating a structure and routine that works for everyone. Her tips have been invaluable and really helped us get off on the right foot.

There is still a lot about the helper situation in Singapore that baffles, even disturbs me. These are women who leave home (including, often, their own children) to work hard and support their families through incredible personal sacrifice. And yet local attitudes sometimes treat them at best like children who can’t think for themselves, and at worst like sub-humans.  I know some of our neighbors think we’re crazy for letting LL have a day off every week (um, it’s the law), or giving her a cell phone. They might be shocked to hear she has her own bedroom with TV and Internet. The way the hubs and I see it, we appreciate the hard work that she does, we want her to be happy and comfortable in our home, and it’s as simple as that.

  • We bought a car

It depresses me to think of what kind of car (or cars!) we could have bought in the U.S. for the same price as our used Volkswagen. As the hubs pointed out to his parents a few weeks ago, we could have comfortably purchased a house in Cleveland for the same price! But alas, Singapore’s got the 100% import tax, and the super-fun COE. As of a couple weeks ago, it costs between SGD $70,00-$80,000 to register a new car, and that 10-year registration is pro-rated even for used cars. We find it’s best not to dwell on all of this for too long, lest we fall into a deep depression.

So why did we do it? Well, we love it here, and don’t have any plans to move back home in the next few years. This feels like putting down roots. We wanted the flexibility to explore more on the weekends (especially with the dog), and to commute to work together. The lack of etiquette on public transportation has nearly made my head explode on a few occasions (more on that below). Singapore is already a convenient and efficient place, but having a car has so far upped the convenience factor considerably.

And last but not least …

Week 26 with Avon

  • We’re growing our family

Yup, much to Avon’s chagrin, we’re expecting a baby [girl] to arrive in a few months’ time, in early June.

The hubs and I are so happy and excited. Pregnancy is another thing about which I’ve wanted to write dozens of blog posts, but at the same time just didn’t feel quite comfortable going public with it. The first 12 weeks are so tough, because on the one hand the news is new and exciting and you want to scream it from the rooftops, but on the other you live in constant fear that you could lose the baby at any moment. (As an aside, I can’t recommend highly enough the book Expecting Better by Emily Oster, if for no other reason than the page 72 chart “Miscarriage Rates by Week of Prenatal Visit” provided a useful countdown to alleviate my fears as the first trimester went by).

A few of my close friends here gave birth in the past year, and a couple others are due right around the same time, so it’s been nice being able to seek out lots of advice and wisdom even though our families are on the other side of the world.

I think I’ll do a separate post with more pregnancy-related specifics and the requisite week-by-week (in my case it’s more like month-by-month) bump shots, but a few quick thoughts on being pregnant in Singapore:

Compared to the U.S.: Obvs I’ve only been pregnant here, but apparently the fact that we get an ultrasound during every monthly doctor’s visit is pretty crazy, since in the US most normal pregnancies seem to only entail two or three.

While there is plenty of baby crap available for purchase here, it is NOTHING compared to the U.S. I’m mostly thankful for this so as to avoid being overwhelmed, although stuff in the U.S. is also a lot cheaper and more readily available (part of why I’m going home next week for a baby shower/shopping trip).

Again I can’t yet say how people in the U.S. would treat me, but I can say my Chinese co-workers, neighbors and the security guards in our condo all clearly think I’m crazy for running on the treadmill (or really doing much exercise as all). I plan to do a separate post about exercising during pregnancy (spoiler alert: I’ve felt great throughout and I think it’s a big part of why I never had morning sickness and avoided the brutal fatigue that so many people experience) but needless to say I think it’s one area where Western and Eastern attitudes greatly differ. (Perhaps the most glaring example of this: in a childbirth class at a local HOSPITAL, my friend was told that the more soy sauce she consumed, the darker her baby would be).

The biggest difference from home, though, is the much-welcome presence of LL. All that scary stressful stuff you hear about bringing home a newborn – you never have time to sleep, or shower, or cook, or clean the house – seems a lot less daunting because she’ll be around. This is not to say that we don’t plan on taking care of the baby overnight and handling feedings around the clock or anything, but it’s SO nice to know that someone will be there to take Avon for a walk, or clean messy clothes or sheets, or watch the baby for an hour if I feel the need to take a nap. I feel so grateful knowing we’ll have that safety valve.

On public transportation: I briefly alluded to this above, but I would say that people offer up their bus/train seats (yes, even the specially-designated priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly, handicapped, and small children!) less than 50% of the time. I guess their mobile phones are just far too fascinating! On a few occasions I’ve just blatantly asked people to give up their seats, but sometimes I’ll just stand there and stare incredulously at the 22-year old guy who pretends to be so engrossed in his phone that he doesn’t notice my protruding belly inches from his face. Sometimes I’ll snap photos of these offenders and tell myself I’ll start a Tumblr of SMRT shame; even that doesn’t get their attention, though! This has by far been the most frustrating aspect of being pregnant in Singapore. I feel like people in New York or Boston would be more polite about this, but obviously can’t say for certain. I will, however, call total bullshit on the recent government claims that 94% of people would give up their train seats. The fact that the LTA even needs to launch a “graciousness” campaign speaks volumes about how rude people can be on public transport (yes, even when pregnant, I continue to get elbowed and shoved in the butt by old ladies who just HAVE to be the first one off the bus. KIASU OR DIE!). Ok, rant over. Like I said, having the car has ameliorated this issue and I’m grateful for it.

**

So yeah, I’d say our lives have changed a great deal in the past year, and they’re sure to change even more in the coming months. It’s crazy to think we’re approaching our 3-year Singapore anniversary, and even more nuts that we’ve now been living abroad for going on five years. Five years ago I never would have guessed this was where we’d be, but I can say I’m extraordinarily happy, and grateful, to be here.

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