Sweat lingers on Yanti’s face on this hot day. And I know that I, in part, put that sweat there. I thank her, and hand over her month’s salary, a stack of blue Indonesian bills that may go far for her here. But it is still an amount I used to earn in one day in the States. And I didn’t make that much money. So, I thank her again.
She is my house helper—that’s the benign word we use in both English and Indonesian. But really she is the maid who irons my clothes and mops my floor and cleans my toilets.
Six years into this culture, I still feel embarrassed and find myself thanking her for every little task. I remember learning the expectation—that as a white, “rich” person living in Indonesia, I should give people jobs in my home. I resisted at first, starting here on my own, cleaning my own toilets, while I’d turn away person after person who would knock on my door, asking for a job.
But then the single mom whose husband left her needed a job. And I said yes and let her into my house. She worked hard, but eventually moved on, and I hired a 22-year-old woman who lived in a room in her brother’s house and needed work. My kids loved her, and two years later, she moved and got married and we cried when she left.
Then this summer, I hired Yanti. And two kids into life here, with a plate full of volunteer opportunities, I am no longer self-sufficient. I need her. And I think and hope she needs me, too.
Yanti has been married twice, and twice, left. She has a son who lives with her parents on another island because she feels like she can’t take care of him on her own. She repeats her own life story with her son. She was sent to this island as a young child to live with her aunt. Yanti doesn’t even know her own birthday.
I drove her home last week to the room she rents in the shack next to her aunt’s house. The road turned from paved to dirt, and eventually we had to park the car and follow the narrow path on foot. Evan pointed at the chickens and was excited to see where his Aunt Yanti lives. We poked our heads into the simple house, and I tried to keep smiling.
The room was empty—no mattress, no TV, no dresser. Just a pillow she borrowed from her aunt. The ceiling is made up of empty burlap rice sacks. When she’s not sweating over her work at my house, Yanti reads her Bible and listens to music on her cell phone in her small room.
She says she’s happy. But I ask her again and again because it’s just hard to believe. And I hire her, though I wish I didn’t have to. And I wonder at this system where a woman who may just know the Bible better than me is the one who scrubs my trash cans and will probably never have more than $50 to her name.
My Indonesian friend who is wise and generous and understands both cultures—hers and mine—tells me this—this uncomfortable hiring of a house worker—is one of the best things we can do to help the poor. Bring the poverty into our homes, she says. Handouts can sometimes be demeaning, she continues. And work gives a salary and food on the table, or in Yanti’s case, the floor.
Another thing my friend tells me--we must know people so we can really help them.
And the lack of a bed or a mattress or furniture? Not a problem, and not necessarily a sign of poverty—more a show of priorities, my friend explains. Many Indonesians like to sleep on the floor, even when they can afford a bed.
I have to take her word for it because I still had trouble sleeping last night, thinking about it, in my mostly comfortable bed, with the air conditioning unit blowing on me during the hot night.
So, I look for excuses to pay Yanti a little extra, passing on rice and fish and vegetables, and other little extras here and there. I will pick a day and make it her birthday, and attempt to make a cake, hopefully one that doesn’t fall apart.
But really I still believe it is Yanti who is doing me the favor. She gives me more than just a clean house, an occasional baby-sitter, and a great example at hard work. She gives me a chance to know poverty by name. Thank you, Yanti.
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