I have now been in Singapore for two months. The joys of fieldwork have now kicked in and I have formed many wonderful friendships. The struggle I now deal with is realizing that I may never again see some of the participants whom I have become quite close with. Since my research delves into deep issues and explores the layered and rich experiences of domestic helpers from an emotional perspective, it is only natural that close bonds develop between my participants and myself. I struggle with not being able to help them in a direct way, as well as with the fact that I will be very far away and I know that it is likely that I may not see them again. I have found myself lying to both my participants and myself about when I will be coming next, simply because I do not want to face the reality that this might be the last time we see each other.
The emotional fear of my departure is a good experience for me to have, as these women have to face this all the time, and with people who they are much closer with, such as their children and parents. One of the way in which I have not been able to relate with the women in a direct way is the pain of having to leave their children. I experienced this with my little brother, but since I do not actually have children of my own, I really do not know how hard it is for these women to leave their children to work in a foreign country. I made a small trip last week and met an 8-month-old child who I instantly became attached with while waiting in transit. When my bus came, I was very sad because I knew that I would never see the child again. Although I only knew this child for a short period of time, I was crying for a large portion of my bus ride. I then thought, “How do foreign domestic helpers do this with their own children?” The age of the child I met was around the same age as the children of the helpers are when they migrate for work. This experience allowed me to realize how strong these women truly are. And not only do they leave their children to get themselves out of poverty, but they also become breadwinner for their entire families, including parents and siblings. Many of the women have paid the school fees for all of their siblings and have built homes for their family memebrs. As well, many have saved up enough money to start a business back in Indonesia, and are actually maintaining their businesses back home, while they are working in Singapore!
One of the ways in which migrant workers overcome the pain of leaving their families behind is through forming new bonds with other migrant workers and engaging in group activities, such as playing music. Tuesday was National Day in Singapore and I attended a migrant worker’s showcase, where male and female migrant workers showed off their musical talents. A choir made up of Indonesian domestic workers sung about their experiences in Singapore and a band made up of Bangladeshi construction and marine workers performed beautiful Bangladeshi songs in honour of Singapore’s birthday. The male workers had a band of about 11 members, each one with an instrument in hand, and the two singers were unbelievably good. I could not believe how talented these guys were…if I hadn’t known, I would have thought they were professionals. The women had beautiful, angelic voice, but filled with depth and soul. Both performers wrote their own songs and poems, which were better than anything I have heard on the radio in the last coupleof decades. The passion was bursting out of these performers, in a rich and beautiful way. I had not heard such passion from a performer in a very long time. I was in so much awe that I cried after the performances! The amazing thing about how talented these performers were is that the workers are only able to practice on a Sunday and many have other activities that they are involved in on Sundays as well, so their time to practice is very limited. Many of the workers actually end up working on their day off as well, so many will only practice once a month. They all had been through some very rough times, and are very far away from their families, including their own children, and somehow that pain is transformed into pure, soulful art. One man said that playing music is a way for them to relieve the stress of working so hard and the sadness of being far away from his family. Both foreign domestic workers and migrant construction and marine workers work extremely hard and for long hours, doing the jobs that most people would not to do if they had a choice. Yet they do it with pride, strength, and perseverance. Though both the men and women voiced that they have a very hard life and experience sadness, they demonstrated that they are very proud to be able to support their families. The showcase was a way to give voice to these workers, which was really important for a day like National Day.
There are a few organizations around town which also aim to provide foreign domestic workers with the platform to express themselves through art. One of the ways in which art becomes an apparent way to relieve the stress of living in a foreign country is through dance. Many domestic helpers take dance classes or teach each other how to dance on their day off. One NGO provides a “dance studio” for the women to practice for free, and many other organizations provide dance classes for these women for a small fee. Around the public spaces on Sundays, one can see the domestic workers practicing their choreography, dancing a varied range of styles, from traditional Indonesian dance to Bollywood. Many of these women also learn how to play musical instruments and sing. The women have told me that dance and music are really important for them while they are in Singapore. Not only do they feel happier when they are engaging in these activities, but the community atmosphere also brings joy to their lives.
I hope that my work will be another platform for some migrant workers to voice their experiences.
Alright, until next time, Selamat tinggal!