Thursday, October 20, 2011

a helper

"Never do for yourself
what you can hire someone else to do."
-Delores F.

These words slammed into my consciousness, outrageously contrary to all of my ingrained American principles. They were spoken by a colleague, an amazingly energetic woman whom I had grown to respect very early on in our first weeks in Davao.  But her words came as a shock to me.  I had just stepped out of a country where independence and the do-it-yourself mentality are worshiped, so why would I hire someone else to do a job I'm able to do just as well, thank you very much?

Almost every American home overflows with cottage industry tools used exclusively for each individual family.  Ovens to bake our own breads, jacks to change our own tires, trucks to haul our own mulch, hammers and saws to build our own decks, sewing machines to sew our own clothes, washing machines to wash our own clothes, ladders to clean our own gutters, and grills to barbeque our own steaks.

If you don't grind your own flour, whip your own lattes, power wash your own siding, grow your own organic vegetables and remodel your own bathroom, others look askance, wondering why you fall so short of the American ideal.

Delores' statement flew in the face of that pattern of thinking.  
"Never do for yourself what you can hire someone else to do."

It has taken me some time to come to grips with this counter-cultural thought process.  Here in the Philippines, jobs are scarce and labor is cheap.  We are most definitely among the rich as expats in a developing economy.  As such we have a unique opportunity to offer a bit of employment to people who are working hard to earn an honest day's wage to provide food for their families.  We have the ability, and perhaps the responsibility, to help just a little by outsourcing what we otherwise would have done for ourselves.

It sounds great - altruistic, and freeing, too!  Who wouldn't like to have someone else clean their toilets?  But in all honesty, I still struggle with this whole economic model.  I shudder to think that I might come across as lazy or spoiled, so I hesitate to take my clothes up the street to the lady who washes and irons.  I am embarrassed to allow someone else to clean my space, someone who will see into the corners filled with dust and clutter and realize that I'm not really Martha Stewart in disguise, with everything in picture-perfect order.

Maybe it's all just filthy ugly pride.  Knowing me as I do, it probably is. But I do think there's a measure of ingrained culture going on here too.  After all, I've spent 18 years of married life doing all the toilets and laundry and cooking and painting and it's part of my identity.  Even more, I actually enjoy caring for the needs of my family.  This new paradigm takes some adjustment.

I have found that in the Philippines there is a different level of labor required.  Our windows all over the house are open 24 hours a day, trying to capture any airflow possible.  Furniture, windows and floors collect dust like magnets and must all be swept and washed regularly.  With no hot running water, cleaning presents new challenges. All our wet laundry is hauled upstairs to our solar clothes dryer on the deck. The heat is often grueling, and you all know how invigorating it is to do simple daily tasks on a very hot and humid day!

So I braced myself to do what just about every expat in this community has done; I hired a Filipino helper, or 'katabang' to do some of our household chores.  Bebing is a young single woman who has been with us since January of 2010.  She works a total of nine hours a week for our family, and she earns the going wage, which is right now about $1 an hour. 

Please understand that this is an excellent job for her.  Also understand that although she works very hard for every minute of those 9 hours because she is a hardworking person with lots of integrity, it would be a financial disaster if we chose to pay her above the going rate, even though it seems like highway robbery to pay her such a small amount.  Higher wages would potentially upset the local economic balance, and create discontent and anger in others who do similar work.  Bebing is content.  And we work to find other ways to help and thank her for her labor.

Bebing came from the country where she grew up on a farm.  Her earliest work was in the rice fields: back-breaking, exhausting work.  When her older brother came to the city for a job, she tagged along, hoping to find employment to assist her family back on the farm.  She was not tall enough to find work in any of the stores since there are physical characteristics required to apply even for retail positions, and height is one of those. 

She eventually found work in the home of another expat where she worked full-time. When that employer moved on, Bebing had training in both housekeeping and in English, enough to make her an asset to other expat employers.  Currently she works for a total of four families, a few hours here, a few hours there, and she enjoys the variety.  Bebing's work includes jobs like cleaning our dusty window slats, scouring our bathrooms, sweeping our dusty driveway, going to Bankerohan Market to purchase our produce, washing some of our floors, cleaning our deck, folding dry towels and going in to town to pay our bills.

Bebing washes the kitchen floor

It's a fine balance. Though Delores' motto is 'never do for yourself what you can hire someone else to do,' I'm still not 100% convinced.  For one thing, I don't want our family to be spoiled beyond repair.  It's important for our children to remember how to wash dishes and help in meal preparation and clean their own rooms, and to suffer the consequences of disorder and mess when they don't. If I followed Delores' motto to the letter, I would tremble at the potential impact on their developing characters. 

Somehow though, having Bebing in our home three afternoons a week is character building for us, too.  It's humbling to watch her do our tasks so diligently, for such little reward.  Observing her contentment has diminished Michael's expected value of the 'extra' jobs that he sometimes likes to do for additional spending money.  It's increased our awareness of Filipino culture as we listen to her stories, and we are constantly reminded of the dramatic contrast between our lives and hers.  We've had occasion to bless her, and through her, the entire family on the farm, and her friends, too.  Before working at our house, she never had a birthday party, or a birthday cake.  We had the chance to surprise her with her first ever.

A few of us at Bebing's surprise Birthday Party
Having Bebing in our home is also an opportunity to live out our faith right in front of her eyes, and to encourage her in her faith.  We have been able to pray with her, cry with her, and laugh with her.  And she's cried with us, laughed with us, and then turned around and gone back to do the work that she takes so seriously.

Bebing kindly helps Michael to plant a new flower she brought from the farm for him.

 Some days it's really hard to give up our privacy.  There are times when I inwardly cringe to hear the creak of the gate and Bebing's sweet, small voice calling out a greeting.  I'd rather just do the work myself because I'm weary of being in a fishbowl; tired of having someone regularly infiltrate the sanctuary of our home, closely observing all we do and say. 

And yet...Bebing is an amazing gift in my life.  I'm not sure what I would do without her, or without her help.

Bebing and I, and the beautiful flowers she bought for my birthday

Maybe my faithful Father is at work through her presence in my life to teach me to know HIM better.  Maybe He knew that my old American ideals of independence and self-sufficiency needed a radical shift.  Maybe it was time for me to begin learning to accept help with grace; most especially HIS help.

For the past few years I've held fast to this promise from Psalm 73:28,

but do I truly believe it?  Or do I sometimes shrink inwardly at His presence, and at His infiltration of the private, cluttered corners of my heart filled with the grime of sin?  Do I inwardly rebel at depending on Him and admitting any weakness?  Does my filthy ugly pride bristle just thinking about letting go of my control?

Having a house helper gives me a gentle nudge toward being real and admitting my needs, toward accepting help, and toward not trying to do for myself what only God can do for me.

How has He nudged you toward greater reliance on Him?

11/9/11 eta: I just found this quote by Agatha Christie...I guess Delores was quoting her!

“Never do anything yourself that others can do for you.”

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