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(Editor’s note: Michelle is a 44-year-old Filipina who has been working in Singapore as a foreign domestic helper for the past five years. This is her story, as told to John)
Few of us grew up wanting to be a maid. Well, not me at least.
All I heard about a better life in Singapore was true. But it didn’t take away the fact that (if I went to Singapore) there would be toilets to be cleaned, clothes to be washed, and floors to be vacuumed.
16 July 1990 was the day I knew what I wanted to be. I was waiting for dismissal in school in my hometown at La Union, on Luzon, when the earthquake hit.
As a 12-year-old, seeing the soldiers rescuing people hurt by the earthquake, watching them provide aid, I realised that was what I wanted to be — a combat medic.
But as Adele said when she was asked about why her previous album took so long, “life got in the way”.
Dreams I gave up
Not having enough money to send me for nursing school, my mother asked me to take up teaching.
That was the first time I saw my dream evaporate. It was painful. I saw my friends start their army training, and heard their encouragement to me to join them.
But I listened to my mother, studied to be a teacher, passed my exams and got my teaching licence at 23… and never became an educator.
After I graduated, my mother, who was working in Israel at that time as a caregiver, asked me to apply for a similar position there. She needed me to work to provide for my three younger sisters, who were still in school.
So I went. For 11 years, I worked as a caregiver.
Finally, I earned enough money to take another stab at my dreams.
This time, at the ripe old age of 36, I went home and enrolled in nursing school.
Then life got in the way again. My mum got sick. And one of my sisters too. The hospitals became my second home, as I shuttled between parent and sibling.
I missed my project deadlines, my lectures, and eventually dropped out of nursing school.
So my dreams of becoming a combat medic were dashed. Again.
Needing money to care for them, I applied to work, this time in Singapore.
But the initial application to be a caregiver here turned out to be housekeeping as well. I could care for others, but cooking? I was not confident of that.
Another dream, lost
I am blessed that my employer taught me patiently, helping me to get used to my duties as a foreign domestic worker.
Then life struck again, cruelly. In December 2017, three months after I moved to Singapore, my mother’s condition got worse.
I remember the day I received the news that my mum passed away.
It was like someone flung an axe at my heart, and left it to bleed. I was weak, broken, and not sure how to continue.
This time, it was a different dream that I lost. It was a dream I never knew I had, of spending beautiful moments with my mum, back in the Philippines, after all our work was finally done. It was a dream filled with moments where we could sit around the family table, laugh about random things, and share heartwarming food.
All that was gone.
Dreams of belonging
Then there’s the dream of belonging. Of having a home, and not just housed.
Because as nice as my employers are to me, as much as they say I should treat them like family, my employer is not my family.
And Singapore is not my home.
I know it from the times people roll their eyes at us when we sit on grass patches on our days off. Or when commuters give a tch of disapproval when they see a group of us talking cheerfully on the train. Or when people talk about how they “welcome” us, but deep within, I know and feel… tolerated.
I’m here because I’m doing a job that few people want to do, and not because I’m wanted.
Then I remind myself — people can take away everything I have, but they can never take away the sense of home I have in my heart.
Dreams I have lost
Someone asked me about the dreams I’ve lost, moving to Singapore as a helper.
Sure, I’ve lost many. The dream of becoming a combat medic, the dream of being with my mum, the dream of belonging to myself.
It’s not my dream to be someone who always has to provide for someone else, or to be someone dutiful enough to pick up the slack when others don’t.
It’s not my dream to have to worry about the money I need to send back to the Philippines for my family, or to care about my nephew’s school fees, or to feel guilty every time I think of spending on a nice meal for myself.
Dreams I have found
But life does find a way.
It creates new dreams, made of moments like these.
When my niece shows me over Zoom her new school books that I helped pay for. Or when I see the relief on my sister’s face when I assure her that I can help with her finances. Or when I get to go for a Sunday afternoon walk with newfound friends, laughing and remembering more good times.
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Life isn’t a dream. It’s reality. And reality is difficult. There are challenges along the way.
But life is made of choices. And in my life, I chose my family. I chose to support them with all I had, with all I have. Even if that means putting my dreams on hold, or gently burying them in my heart.
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