The Help

My sister’s family has a wonderful maid/nanny who is very well paid in terms of her peers. She is sweet, friendly, intelligent, hard-working – and she knows how to stay out of your way, which is important, I came to realize when she spends the greater part of each day in the same apartment with you. I am not criticizing my sister for hiring help, in fact, I didn’t meet a single family in Bangkok who didn’t have at least one hired nanny or maid. Besides which, I appreciated p’Pa’s work every day that she was there, and especially on the days she was not. It was heavenly to have a squeaky clean bathroom and all my clothes laundered and ironed for me.

But consider the lay-out of Sue’s apartment: The front door accessed the main part of the house and in the main part of the house every room was outfitted with a air-conditioning unit.

The side door opened directly into the kitchen, the muddy room, the laundry room, the maid’s room and the maid’s toilet. There was a locking door between the kitchen and front door (which my sister’s family never locked). None of the maid’s quarters, not even the kitchen, was air-conditioned. There was no air conditioner back there at all – but it was still where all the ironing was done. (This is also why Sue and Joss rarely cook at home – when you reach a certain income level, Thai culture presumes a cook.) The back part of the apartment is where the maid is supposed to be. The front part is where the family is supposed to be.

Furthermore, the maid’s room, barely larger than Sue’s walk-in closet, did not have a regular door, but sliding GLASS doors. That’s the kind of status maids have in Thai culture – they get limited amenities and no privacy.

So, whenever I was sitting out in the air-conditioned living room reading Wolf Hall with my feet up – or knitting while watching the last few episodes of Lost, I felt slightly guilty whenever p’Pa passed by with her cleaning supplies. It was worse when we’d be eating a couple of kilos of peeled rambutan – that she’d peeled for us and served before slipping back to her area.

And worse, she was there 4 1/2 days a week to clean and watch Noi naa – but she herself had TWO CHILDREN. Two babies who until recently lived with their grandmother in a town north of Bangkok. I’m guessing that when her kids were younger, she saw her kids once a month – actually I’m hoping that’s the case, in reality it was probably far less. (Now, her kids are older, and the 12-year son lives in Bangkok with her and her husband and goes to school. The 8-year old daughter is still north with grandma.)

Also, I had difficulty with the lack of privacy issue. If you have a full-time maid, no matter how discreet you are or they are, THEY KNOW YOUR BUSINESS. Heck, they do your dirty laundry. Which is why my sister won’t even consider cloth menstrual pads – I mean, where would Sue even keep the dirty ones? There’s not many hiding spots in a house where the maid puts everything away for you. The maid knows exactly how much you drink, how late you sleep in, how you treat your husband, and how short your temper really can be.

No thank you.

With those thoughts on my mind, it’s no wonder that I completely lost myself in Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help. Granted, the Thai culture of servitude is different from the American history of slavery-cum-servants, but there are common threads when dealing with mistresses and servants.

Told from the perspective of three women in Jackson, Mississippi during Martin Luther King’s glory (jeee-sus, that means black people were routinely getting lynched in my lifetime… *shivers*), this story reads like a memoir, but has the tension of a mystery thriller. Because two of the women are black and hired servants, and the third woman is white and wealthy – you get a gripping flux between the perspectives of both sides.

Damn, it was so dangerous in those days. I mean, the kind of danger a slave risked by learning to read kind of danger (does everybody know that the traditional punishment for a slave caught reading was the loss of a finger – for the first offense?)

Above all, this book is about the power of WRITING and the value of struggling to think things through, despite the pain you risk.

Stockett says that there is one line in the book that she truly prizes:

“Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”

She wrote this book in memory of her family’s own domestic servant, Demetrie, who died when the author was sixteen years old.

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