Adapting to new countries & missing her family: S’pore domestic helper on what it’s like to work abroad

She is doing whatever it takes to support her family.

Fasiha Nazren | January 6, 07:17 pm

Like most young children, Nur (not her real name) had big ambitions when she was a kid.

Nur, for example, thought she could become a teacher one day.

But Nur stopped dreaming at 15 years old, when she had to stop schooling halfway through her third year in high school.

“My family couldn’t afford to pay for my school fees anymore, it was only right to quit.”

Since then, she decided to do whatever it takes to support her family, even if it means having to leave them behind to seize greater opportunities abroad.

Now in her late 30s, Nur has worked for four different families in Singapore and Malaysia for over 15 years.

Earned S$160 per month as waitress

Without any proper certification, Nur doesn’t have a lot of opportunities when it comes to work.

She started off her career as a waitress in a restaurant in her hometown of Bali, Indonesia.

Serving hungry customers and wiping tables earned her a meagre Rp 1,680,000 (S$159.73) per month.

After two and a half years as a waitress, Nur’s friend told her that she could earn more by becoming a domestic helper overseas.

But it wasn’t just the bigger pay check that attracted her. Nur was also curious to know what it’s like to live outside of her small hometown.

She then began her basic domestic helper training course in a small town agency, which taught her how to communicate with her future employers, including English terms for various things like groceries and cleaning appliances.

After going through her training, Nur started her career as a domestic helper with a Chinese family in Johor and earned a monthly income of RM300 (S$98.77).

While she earned less than when she was in Bali, she’s happy to be able to remit her entire income to her family.

“RM300 may seem little, but I didn’t have to spend on food or lodging in Malaysia since it was all provided for by my employer.”

Seeing a washing machine for the first time

Living in a new country is never easy, especially when you’re not familiar with their customs and food.

During Nur’s first few days working in Malaysia, she was given roti canai (Malaysia’s equivalent of roti prata) and some fish curry and sambal for breakfast.

While it is almost second nature for most Singaporeans and Malaysians to dip the flatbread in the sauces provided, Nur didn’t know what to do with it.

“I have never heard of roti canai before I came to Malaysia. I asked the security guards (at my employer’s estate) how to eat the roti canai and they just laughed at me and said, ‘Look at this villager living in the city.'”

It was also as a domestic helper that she first saw electrical home appliances like washing machines and steam irons.

Back in her hometown, food is cooked on a charcoal stove, clothes are straightened with a coal-heated metal iron, and clothes are lovingly washed by hand.

Doing house chores with electrical home appliances she was not familiar with was definitely a struggle for her.

As she giggled reminiscing those times, she shared:

“I was told to iron some clothes and I didn’t know how to use the iron so I decided to ask my employer how to use it. Turns out, she didn’t know how to use it too.”

Thankfully, after a few holey pants and several shrunken shirts, Nur now knows how to use most electrical appliances.

A tourist on off days

Every job has its perks and for Nur, it brings her joy to explore the countries she has worked in during her off days or when out with her employers.

According to her, when she was told that she was going to Universal Studios Singapore with her employers, she got so excited that she almost forgot that she had to be there to care for her employers’ toddler.

On her off days, she usually spends her time with her friends at City Plaza (a common hangout for Indonesian domestic helpers) or have potluck picnics filled with Indonesian snacks at Sembawang Park.

Cries at night, longs for family

But Nur’s job is also not the average kind of tough.

There have been times where Nur just wanted to pack her bags and leave her employers, especially when she feels like she hasn’t been treated well.

“My former employer’s elderly mother would always pick on me and sometimes, for no reason at all. I’m human too, of course I will feel sad.”

Nur also used to think that she’s the only one who would cry at night whenever she becomes a domestic helper for a new employer. Turns out, she isn’t alone.

“Most of us (domestic helpers) would cry on our first few nights as we all share the same fears. Will our work ever be good enough for our employers? Will our employers like us? What if our employers don’t like us?”

Being away from her family for extended periods is also hard for her, especially when she has two young children to care for.

What keeps her going, however, is knowing that she’s doing all this for her children’s future.

“I try not to think of my family because it will just make me long for them. But as long as my children have food on the table and schools to go to, I know I’ll be ok.”

Self-improvement is important

While some (mistakenly) think that domestic helpers have limited skills, Nur will definitely make them reconsider that thought.

Working with several families with different needs, Nur has picked up various skills, including cooking Chinese dishes, caring for young children, as well as being trained in geriatric care.

She mentions that she is always eager to learn new things and has used her off days to attend baking courses at Sekolah Indonesia Singapura (Indonesia School Singapore).

“It’s important for me to always improve myself, especially when I’m lucky enough to have facilities and classes like these available in Singapore. Besides, it’s a productive way to use my free time.”

Nur went through a 10-week baking course with some of her other domestic helper friends.

Although Nur may not have the certification to fulfil her aspirations of becoming a teacher, her experience and grit have taught me several lessons to last me a lifetime.

Top image by Fasiha Nazren

About Fasiha Nazren

Fasiha is only afraid of three things - cockroaches, her parents and the deafening screamos of post hardcore bands.

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