‘Singapore is a city of glass and light but it isn’t friendly to us. The Ma’ams stare us down like lions and work their maids too hard.’
Extract taken from Bitter Leaves
By Tabatha Stirling
Published by Unbound
19 Sabre Green
The black clouds gather in the distance over the South China Sea. The storm comes here soon; I can smell it in the steamy air and the overheated frangipani in the garden. My throat chokes on homesickness. I miss the fresh air of the Leyte Mountains and the cool streams of the gorges there. I miss my mother and her smell of banana leaves and woodsmoke.
Ach! This missing will do nobody any good.
Here it comes. The rain. It bloody pours down, as my Ma’am would say. She is making bread and kneads the dough with a wistful expression. My Ma’am says it remind her of her mother who died five years ago and my Ma’am still misses her with much pain. Sometimes, I find her crying softly and I tell her, mahal kita, Ma’am, and she reply, mahal din kita, Lulubell. And I hug her and her perfume smells like Moh jasmine. She has black hair too and green eyes like mossy rocks in the river back home. And her smile is light up the world smile. And her heart is God filled.
Other days, she has the sad sickness and sometimes she stays in bed all day. She never closes her door though. Ma’am say she always wants her little boy to know she is there for him. Ma’am loves her child more than rain in a desert. She is like a Filipina in that respect. Not like the other expat ladies often drinking and having parties. And she has good figure not like other western Ma’ams. They look so old with their wrinkle skin, cloud-white hair and bones sticking out like hungry branches. My mother always exclaims, ‘Who would choose to be thin when you have so much food available to you?’ And I have no answer for her.
Asian woman are naturally slender. Our frames are small and our smiles are big. Some Sirs have an agreement with the maid and pay headache money to them. When the Ma’am has headache the maid keeps their Sir ‘company’.
My Ma’am and Sir are very in love. They cuddle and kiss all time except when Ma’am has her sad sickness. Then Sir brushes the hair gently from her face and his face loses sun too and becomes dark like night. And he don’t smile properly until Ma’am feels better and begins to smile again. I will know she is better because she will sing down the stairs and hug me and cry, good morning, Lulubell, and smile that big smile and hug me again and all the sparkle returns to the house in a blink. And she has energy to do her yoga or running.
But not today. Today Ma’am is in the grip of the sadness so I chop some fruit and arrange it prettily for her and make a cup of tea. Ma’am prefers strong black tea from the terraces that line the mountains in her homeland in Sri Lanka. My Sir met my Ma’am in London and they fell in love. But my Ma’am’s father was very angry because he wanted his daughter to marry an older, wealthy man who had been chosen when my Ma’am was just a little girl. Her jadestone eyes and skin just a few shades darker than mine are much prized in her homeland.
But my Ma’am refused and eloped with my Sir and they married and had Rory. And this beautiful boy’s grandfather was so in love with the baby that he forgive my Ma’am and welcomed Sir to the family too.
Sometimes my Ma’am shows me pictures of the big cities in Europe where some of the women look like me. Ma’am says that is because my ancestors were Aztec princesses. She sighs that my hair is like a midnight waterfall and my skin like cafe con leche. I think I look ordinary like all girls from my village but my Ma’am is right because I do have good hair. It is silky and shines in the sun. Western men like it very much and always want to touch. They see women like me as exotic butterflies. My friend says the ang moh like to capture butterflies and stick pins through their wings. I’m not going to let that happen. That’s not love.
I let myself wander slowly round the house. It is not a big house but still takes some cleaning. With my beloved little boy, Rory, running here and there pulling the world’s dirt behind him, like a baby elephant hard at play. Today I find myself in his bedroom and I let my fingers trail over his bed covers and smell his boy smell. Sweet and sour; delicious like mangosteen. And I love him like a bleeding heart. He has many toys and every Christmas time he chooses some to send to my village. And good ones too. This boy is full of spirit and God’s love. He will grow into a man who respect women and do not fear them.
My Ma’am says that western men here see us as fresh starts. That most of them would never get a girlfriend back home unless they pay for it. She says they are disgusting and wrinkles her pretty nose. We were shopping last week on Orchard Road and we pass many old men with young young girls. The men are sweating with pride and the girls look pleased with themselves. Ma’am says that they should be ashamed, strutting around like peacocks, and that these men are no better than slave traders, buying girls with diamonds instead of shackles. I smile small at her because no ang moh can truly understand how poor we are. My village in Leyte is a bamboo-shack village. No electricity and no medicine. Some of the kids don’t have slippers and walk to school barefoot. Barefoot is okay, but there are snakes and creatures that bite in the jungle. Sometimes a child steps on spider and it is a long time to the doctor on a moped.
Ma’am wants to visit the village but I keep making excuse because I am both ashamed and proud of my village. I don’t want her to see our shabby clothes and the dirt. The cockroaches that run up and down the walls like drain water. The toilet is a hole in ground. But I am proud of the love and laughter. And that I am a fortunate daughter indeed to have Rodrigo and Mayella as my parents. My mother stifflimbed but full of grace and my father, handsome still and proud of his family.
My Ma’am cannot understand. Praise God! How could she? I look around my room which is much bigger than other maid rooms and I have a double bed with a soft mattress. I decorate the walls with stickers of free, pretty things. Butterflies, flowers and birds. My friends are so jealous. Let me work for your Ma’am, they cry, and sigh over the maganda leather shoes my Ma’am gives me for Christmas and tiny bottles of pabango from France.
My Ma’am gives me all her little creams. She calls them samples. I have Chanel and Lancôme and Guerlain. They smell so good. Most I send to my mother in the big boxes back to the Philippines to my village that smells of dirt and rain and banana leaves. Where hope dies for many. But not for me! I have hope. I’m not going to become angmoh weekend girlfriend. Or China man’s mistress.
I have a boyfriend. He is China Malay. He is kind. Sometimes too jealous. He tries to read my texts on my phone and demands who that, and who this? It wears me down but it’s so lonely here and worse if you are single. Sometimes, he takes me for seafood on the East Coast and we watch the shipping lanes and listen to the foghorns. When there is a sea fog the big container ships look like ghosts in a strange dance and we play a game guessing where each ship has come from and where it will go to next. But when I see the word Pinoy painted onto a hull homesickness haunts me for the rest of the evening. Sometimes my boyfriend is understanding but often his face sours like old durian and he lights another cigarette and sighs heavily between puffs.
Singapore is a city of glass and light but it isn’t friendly to us. The Ma’ams stare us down like lions and work their maids too hard. The Indo and Myanmar girls get a much worse life than me and they are paid less. Like sad Shammi who lives next door. She is paid 350 dollar one month. But until her debt is paid off to her agency she won’t get paid at all. Eight months, no day off, no wages. And now she looks like a multo, a pale, slow walker living between two worlds.
I see her washing that damn car at 5am every morning. What is the point of cleaning a car in Singapore? Bloody rains, lah! Every second. My Ma’am says it’s about oppression. The employer make the maid clean the car simply because he have the power to. Ma’am’s face darkens as the light leaves. Like when she grieves her mother. And she mutters about modern-day slavery and bloody Nazis. And she sigh very deep like it hurts. And I say, oh, Ma’am. And her clear eyes mist and she trudge upstairs as if her heart is broken.
And I so want to make her smile again so, like I say, I prepare the fruit the way she like it. I arrange the blueberries and strawberries like a flower, and cut up the cantaloupe into sweet wedges and perfect mouthfuls. And the longan that my Ma’am say are like delicious eye- balls. I’ve never eaten eyeballs and I’m too scared to ask Ma’am if she has really eaten one. If a person can eat an eyeball what else could they eat? I cross myself quickly and offer up a prayer to Jesus and St Jude and take the bowl up to my Ma’am. The bedroom is dark and breezy from the fan but she lie still and sad and I hover like a worried Mama until she gently ask me to leave.
Later, I move slowly up the stairs, sweeping gently. Ma’am has beautiful wooden stairs although it keeps dust too close like lovers who can’t let go. But I find the sweeping a peaceful job. My Ma’am is not fussy and she never checks or runs finger over the furniture to look for dust like Chinese employer, and my face sours at the thought. Even the Singaporean taxi drivers complain about the China man, and their fists clench and their mouths screw up into a tiny ball like a baby wailing. The Uncles, they smash their fists onto the taxi steering wheel and whine like dogs. Damn China man this and damn China man that. And also I have a friend who like pretty Filipina. You want give me your number? He very rich.
They never say my friend is very nice or my friend work in an animal shelter on the weekend. Never, my friend will read you poetry while dusk settles or look after your family forever. Being wealthy is the prize to the China man more than beauty or happiness.
It is everything.
And it is nothing.
Ashes in mouth nothing.
Sour yam nothing.
Child cries nothing.
Bitter Leaves by Tabatha Stirling is published by Unbound, priced £10.99