Foreign Domestic Workers - Read This and Try Not to Cry


Imagine you had to leave your family and the only world you knew to travel to a far and unfamiliar land. You need to do this to make enough money to give your loved ones the life you want for them. You’ll be gone for years if not decades.

Despite having a college or graduate degree, you have to do manual labor and menial tasks you find beneath you. You’ll face isolation and loneliness. You only interact with your spouse through occasional phone calls since dialing home isn’t cheap. You wonder if he or she is still faithful. You watch your children grow up, get married, and have kids of their own through photos and video chats.

If you’re lucky, you return to a home that still remembers and has a place for you. If you’re not, you die in an alien land.

This isn’t the job description of an extraterrestrial colonization mission. This is the life of hundreds of thousands of migrant female workers from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. They work as maids and nannies all across the world including New York City.

This is how I feel after reading “The Cost of Caring” in last week’s New Yorker Read the article and try not to cry.

My mother worked briefly as a nanny when she first immigrated to the United States. When she flew from China in 1989 to rejoin my father who had entered the University of Kentucky’s Ph.D. program in molecular biology, she didn’t speak a word of English. She left me as a one-year-old in the care of her parents. The plan was for me to rejoin them in a year once my parents had set up their life in America.

My father picked my mother up from the airport, dropped her off at the rundown apartment building where they shared a bathroom with another couple, and rushed back to work. She said she just stayed at home and cried that day.

She tried to make money by babysitting other people’s kids, but holding another toddler in her arms reminded her of me. She quit and worked as a waitress instead.

It is a tragedy that countless women like Emma in the New Yorker article feel compelled to choose between being with their children or providing for them. Emma said, “I took my love for my own children and I put it on these girls. I treated them as if they were my daughters.” The author Rachel Aviv describes how “When the youngest boy [of another worker in the article named Ivy] couldn’t sleep, he sometimes crept upstairs and slipped into her bed. She said, ‘The oldest keeps asking me, “Ivy, do you really love me? When I’m married, will you take care of my children?”’”

María Ibarra, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, calls [foreign domestic workers] “emotional proletarians”: they “produce authentic emotion in exchange for a wage.

If I had children and the choice, I wouldn’t want to pay a stranger to give them care and affection. For these reasons:

  1. I don’t want to be complicit in yet another system that exploits gender and class differences.
  2. I’m too proud and DIY to outsource such important work.
  3. I’m selfish and would want my kids to love their biological parents more than anyone else.