They come in droves, buzzing in the humid air like hot flies. They are nubile young things, their bodies voluptuous in brown globes of fat. They smell of the Philippines; salty and lean. They do not speak.
These Filipino maids, the bun mui as we call them, have no engagement with the Western language. The creativity of their vocabulary lays in the repetitive ‘no m’am’ and ‘yes ma’am’ or else, a mute, dazed shake of the head. They are afraid.
During the day they congregate in their employees' kitchens, whispering and chopping scallions till their fingers run raw. Radio crackle mingles with steam: they are only allowed to listen during the preparation of supper between six and seven pm. Sometimes they sing along with the program whilst they sauté, slice and fry our dinners. They have thin, pretty voices; their singing represents a kind of short-lived happiness. Only for an hour a day.
We call them idiots when a plate is dropped or a shoe misplaced.
Not idiots – just girls. Homesick girls. On Sundays if you venture into Victoria Park you'll find them in tiny islands of home; they sit in cardboard boxes, sheltering themselves from the acidic Hong Kong air, exchanging stories and food, the older ones exhibiting photographs of the children they left behind. For all their muteness six days in the week, they are all the more verbose on Sundays: they squawk and giggle, chattering in loud and broken conversation. I avoid the park. It makes me uncomfortable, so many women barricading themselves from us, from their enemies. I think, I am not your enemy. But of course, I am.
Unlike many of my expatriate friends who had two or three, I only had one bun mui growing up. Her name was Patti. She had oiled hair always in a fat, pastry-like braid down her back; she wore loose t shirts and pants and bamboo slippers favoured by elderly Chinese men.
When I was three years old, Patti started learning to read and write English. 'A?' she would inquire as I scrawled the dribbling red letter in felt tip. I would nod, solidly. Then later, she would tuck me into bed and tell me stories of the East and their strange exotic animals, using my yellowed soft toys as props. I would tug at her, clutching the hem of her cotton shirt, please please tell me more. Don't go yet. And when she left the room, every night I’d lie there in the silence, the glow of the toys and her stories in my mind until I eventually faded into sleep.
One night when I was about 7 or 8, Patti showed me something. After wiping her hands in the kitchen, she pulled out a photo booth slide from her wallet, something like a series of passport pictures. A small girl smiled at me, eyes and hair dark just like Patti. She had tiny bright white teeth.
"That's my daughter." Patti said. I looked at her, slightly embarrassed that I hadn’t known she had children before, and in my shame blurted out ‘how old is she?’ To be honest, I had never seen Patti as a real person before; in those halcyon days of oblivion I selfishly thought she existed only to serve and entertain and love me.
“Ten years old. The same age as you.”
She glanced at me briefly then, and smiled, although it was a sad smile. She never mentioned her daughter again after that. It was then I realised that she was a whole person too, that she had a singular tender point that she barricaded against us: the enemies.
After that, my mother didn’t hire anyone else and she had a hard time dealing with me, which resulted in my being sent to boarding school in England, my supposed native land. I was raised, again, by people who weren’t related to me by blood. No one at school loved me as much as Patti did – or at least what I believed to be love, even though I think I knew then that love, for Patti, was a full-time job. I went to bed with only a cold alarm clock as a companion, remembering Patti's gentle smile as she soothed me to sleep.
I knew close to nothing about Patti: where she went after she left us, when she retired or how her health was. I never even knew her age. This is the way of these women. They linger in the backgrounds of our lives, dark stained hands offering tea or a towel, then they dissipate into the city like night owls, shrouded by thick fog.
Five years ago, I heard that she had died.
It was hard to explain to others. It was grief but also not grief. I would self- medicate by reaching into the inner crevices of my memories and plucking out the ones from childhood: Patti tucking me into my bed. Patti making me breakfast. Patti waiting for me by the school gates. Patti scolding me when I made a mess. Patti comforting me when I had a nightmare.
My mother tries to invade those childhood memories too late, perforating the picture with her lipsticked smiles. Remember you used to love this fruit? She would say, flipping through photo albums, tapping at particular photos where she’s holding me, feeding me fat dripping lychees.
Perhaps my mother has chosen to ignore her own mistakes, but the clues are there: her stiff smile, fingers squeezing the lychee into my lips, my eyes glazed with confusion. Even now my chest tightens when I look at those pictures, remembering the years of feeling a love that was difficult and strange. The years of longing for her. The one who would eventually leave, whisking away with her the Eastern promises of my childhood - my other mother.