This story was written by Janica Bergas, an 18-year-old student from the YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College.
This story is one of the finalists of Young Post’s 2017 Summer Short Story Competition. Each week during the holidays, we will publish one of the finalists’ stories. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 26
The wind creaked through the open window and sang me a bitter lullaby. I pulled my thin sheets tighter around me, attempting in vain to block out the icy chill in the air. The slim makeshift bed sheet did nothing to cushion me from the cool hard surface of the bathtub. Its coldness pierced every inch of my body.
I shut my eyes. Sleep, sleep, I told myself, knowing full well the repercussions I would face in just a few hours if I were tired. Think happy thoughts. Think of better times. Think of the life you had before you moved here.
The promise of a new life
Growing up in a developing country, I was constantly surrounded by family and friends pushing me to study hard and work harder because my future – and the future of my family – lay beyond the borders of my country. The dream of living abroad was stirred, seasoned and served deliciously fresh in the home of every family in my country. Working abroad meant that you could provide for your family back home, so they could finally live the life they deserved. It also offered the chance to see new sights and seize new opportunities.
This was not the case for me. When I packed my bags and bid farewell to my family to begin a new life in Hong Kong, they plastered broad, rigid smiles onto their faces, full of good wishes and assurances. Whatever any of us was truly feeling, we did our best to conceal it.
“Be careful there!” they had said in an offhand, cheerful way, but I wonder now if there was a serious undertone to their warning. Of what, or whom, I should be careful, I wasn’t sure at the time. Now I know better.
My job here consists of three main duties: take the kids to school and pick them up again, clean the house, and cook for the family. It sounded fairly simple on paper, but of course, this doesn’t take into account what kind of family you’ll be working for. The family, too, gave little away initially; they concealed themselves beneath a facade of smiles, laughter, and apparent decency.
The calm before the storm
When I first met them, they seemed like a typical two-point-four happy family. There was a man, a woman, and two toddlers. Their daily interactions and nightly mealtimes together gave me the impression that they were decent enough.
I was provided with a small room with an equally small bed – tiny, but just about adequate. My first couple of weeks working for them eased by gradually; I was able to adapt as best I could to my new living quarters, my job, and the distance between me and my own children. Whenever I had time to call my family, I would reassure them how easy my job was and how nice my employers were.
I didn’t know this was the calm before the storm, and that a hurricane was on its way. The first sign of the dark clouds came when one of the toddlers got a small bruise on his left knee; he had fallen over in the playground at his kindergarten. I did my best to treat the wound, but as all bruises really need a bit of time to heal, and there was no real harm done, I wasn’t too anxious about it.
However, when his mother saw it, she was furious.
“How could you have been so careless?” she shrieked. “Why would you let this happen to him? I don’t pay you for nothing!”
Then the first bolt of lightning struck, and her fist came down on me. I felt the shock of the blow before I felt the pain. Its mark lasted for days. I was so dumbfounded that I tried to rationalise what had happened to me. I remember thinking to myself that perhaps it was just the heat
of the moment and a mother acting out of concern for her child. I did what I could to reassure myself.
Then, it happened again, and this time it was worse. One night, the man and the woman had an argument in the early hours of the morning, which built into a crescendo of screaming insults and slammed doors.
I was in my room with my eyes closed and a pillow over my head when she came in. She screamed at me in a language I did not understand and pulled the sheets off me. The next thing I knew, her hands were gripped tight onto my hair, pulling me to the floor. I was too afraid of what else she might do, so I simply let the tears roll down my face silently.
This abuse continued for months. The man was either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. The women’s violent temper only surfaced after arguments with her husband, her children’s poor school reports, or simply a bad day. On top of my daily tasks, I had become the woman’s own personal punching bag.
Any attempts at contacting the agency for help only led to three words: “Where’s the evidence?” I would show them the marks on my skin, but they wanted concrete evidence.
I would feel my blood run hot through my veins with a mix of frustration and despair. How was I supposed to provide evidence? I couldn’t take a video of her yelling or flinging household items at me, and I certainly couldn’t film her hitting me. How would I be able to do it without her noticing? How would I shield myself from her blows if I was holding a phone? And how was I supposed to anticipate when one of her outbursts was going to happen in the first place?
A turn for the worse
Calls to home had to be made surreptitiously during the night when the woman was fast asleep. Otherwise, she would take away my phone and keep it for however long she felt was necessary because it was “distracting me from my work”. This above all else was the one thing I had to avoid. If I couldn’t hear my children’s voices, I had nothing.
I didn’t tell my children about my suffering. I wanted them to believe that Mum was safe abroad, working in a job that would be able to pay for their education.
“Focus on your studies, don’t worry about me,” I would tell them.
Things became a little more bearable as I learned over time how best to avoid the wrath of my employer. However, just when I thought I was safe, something seemed to snap inside the woman.
With no warning, she declared that I would have a specific schedule to be able to use the toilet or drink water. She even denied me the right to a proper meal, instead allowing me only to eat the food that her children weren’t able to finish.
My status as a domestic helper was further degraded from a human punching bag to a dog.
I was so humiliated about my working conditions that I was afraid to talk to anyone about it. I feared the beatings that may be awaiting me if I ever dared to tell the police or the agency. My weight dropped so much over the next couple of months that the woman said I didn’t need a room to myself anymore.
“You, go move to the toilet and sleep in the bathtub,” she ordered.
It was winter, and the hard marble tiles of the room were icy cold. Without any insulation of flesh on my body or proper bedding, I was constantly shivering and suffering from a cough. The bathtub wasn’t much comfort as it was always wet and because, well, it was a bathtub. I had to force myself to try and sleep because if I faced them the next day looking tired and groggy, my cheek would receive an awakening slap.
Think happy thoughts
One night as I lay in the tub, the wind creaked through the open window and sang me a bitter lullaby. I pulled my thin sheets tighter around me, attempting to block out the icy chill in the air to no avail. The cool surface of the bathtub pierced through the slim makeshift bed sheet beneath me, its coldness embracing every fibre of my body.
I shut my eyes. Sleep, sleep, I told myself, knowing full well the consequences awaiting me in a few hours’ time if I were tired.
Think happy thoughts. Think of better times. Think of the life you had before you moved here. I thought of my children’s smiles and the sound of their laughter.
I thought of how every ounce of pain and suffering I endured was in some small way worth it, because every cent that I earned went to their well-being. The thought of being able to provide for them was all I had to keep me going, but I told myself it was enough.
I smiled weakly and willed myself to sleep, thinking that if another terrible day for me meant a step closer to my children’s bright future, each day would feel slightly less painful.