Indonesian culture has a long history of employing domestic staff within Indonesian and expat homes. The term ‘pembantu’ is derived from the term ‘bantu’ meaning ‘help’ and I tell you that our pembantu (Ibu A) is more than ‘help’ she is a godsend.
Employing domestic staff is quite foreign to many expats as culturally it is not the norm at home. Getting used to having a stranger in our home to begin with was quite uncomfortable and sometimes quite well..awkward for me initially. The loss of privacy, negotiating work hours, conditions and salary in addition to feeling like a lazy westerner were just a few things to overcome personally. Ibu A just got on with doing her job.
With her quiet, non intrusive behaviour we began the dance of getting used to one another, expectations for the household and how to be in a space respectfully together. After 2 years we have developed a mutual affection for one another while maintaining a professional distance. We swap stories about family, our countries, cultural expectations and life in general and this has impacted most positively on my world view. Pembantus become family members – if you allow them.
(image: Machael Fanny via Facebook, October 2016)
And that sentiment leads me to this photo. The sight of a pembantu, often a young woman, sitting at a separate table and sometimes even the same table, watching and waiting for her host family to finish eating is quite common in Jakarta. Often we have dined out and witnessed the family all but ignore the pembantu as they tuck in and enjoy their meal. This disturbs me at a basic human level – these women are not well to do and often come to big cities from rural villages to seek emplyment to support their own families. Quite frankly, what’s one extra mouth to feed? The message is that you’re not of value. You don’t matter. Perhaps this signifies placing my own values and beliefs into another cultural context; the fact that this image has been shared via FB 57,000 times may indicate that it hit a nerve with many Indonesians too. Just be prepared to see this – a lot.
Whilst we pay Ibu A above minimum wage, we often throw in an extra bag of rice when grocery shopping, give her unwanted clothing, household appliances or give her our unused and perfectly fresh fruit and vegetables if we no longer need them. We value her and try to demonstrate this by small acts of gratitude. In return, we have found an honest and loyal employee and friend.