A Long Road Home
As the court case is still ongoing, names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the subjects mentioned in the story.
I still remember my first glimpse of her— petite and pretty, with her arms folded and a stubborn frown on her face. She’d held a strange defiance in the tilt in her head, in the flint of her eyes as she watched the world around her, and although I’d seen her around before, she’d always been quiet and subtly resistant to my attempts to begin a conversation.
I had smiled at her. With a frown, she’d looked quickly behind her, as if to confirm that it was she I was smiling at. She’d returned a small, hesitant smile, and then looked away very quickly. I immediately learned her name from another of the ladies, a tall Burmese woman named Mon. She had seen me looking and came up to me.
“Putri,” she’d said, with a small nod towards the woman, “We together make case. Same employer.”
Suraj—small and enthusiastic, our resident MC and host—had jumped up onto a table right then, shouting, “Come on guys! Into groups of six!” and Mon had smiled and melted away into the tide of scurrying, giggling women. Putri had come grudgingly attached at the hand with a tiny, widely grinning woman. She’d flashed me another short, brief smile when I made eye contact, before returning to her default scowl.
“Hello, sister!” said her cheerful friend, “Can we join you?” “What’s your...” I began, reading from the little cards we’d been given as conversation starters, “...greatest weakness?”
It had always amused me how like speed dating events our little gatherings sometimes were.
“Well,” I said, putting down the cards with a laugh, “I’m always at least half an hour late for everything.”
“Not late today,” one of the women noted.
“That’s because your bus from HOME came late,” I responded, “The other volunteers were here like, forty-five minutes before me.” The women laughed.
“I’m always late also,” one of the women spoke up, “But I think my biggest weakness is I sleep too much.”
“For me, I eat too much,” groaned another. “I’m like sotong, blur blur.” Another round of laughter.
“I forgive other people too easy,” someone piped up cheerfully, “But I not forgive my husband for finding other woman while I work here. No more husband now. I throw away, bye bye!”
Ouch, I thought, amidst the renewed laughter.
We looked expectantly at Putri, who had been silent the whole time. She shrugged.
“I think I’m too easy to become angry,” she said, “Very small thing, I can get angry. Sometimes people say some things, I get so angry I want to shout, but I cannot shout.”
“Who you want to shout at?” one of the other women asked curiously.
“My sir and ma’am lah,” Putri scoffed, “We go court now, I say sir and ma’am did this to me, did that to me, then they say, Putri lying, Putri not tell the truth. I tell the truth, you think I lie is for what? For fun?” She rolled her eyes and reached for the next card.
“Next question: what is your biggest difficulty, and what have you learned from it?” she put down the stack, “For me is, I last time everything scare. Small thing also scare, also cry, like a mouse. Now I am not scare, I not scare to talk for myself, I not scare to say ‘Why you treat me like that? You cannot treat me like that’. I last time just, okay, okay, I hide and I cry, but now I say it’s not okay. Now I can get angry.”
We soon exhausted our supply of conversation cards, and as the rest of the women ran off, giggling excitedly, to play on the swings, we sat under the shade of a sheltered walkway. We spoke quietly as another of the women laid her head back against a pillar, napping.
Putri, I gradually learned over the course of our quiet conversation, had been from a small village in Indonesia. She’d arrived in Singapore in her early twenties, and worked for a Singaporean family for a number of years, where she had taken care of the house and their children. She was now in her thirties and had been embroiled in a criminal case against her former employers for almost five years.
“My sir and ma’am is crazy one,” she told me, “When Mon come to work with me, her English not good. Ma’am say, you teach her English! Every night I never sleep, I teach her English, but when she cannot understand then sir and ma’am angry, sometimes they hit me also. They will say, why you never teach her English! I say you patient, you wait, I trying, but I am not an English teacher, I am only domestic worker. Sometimes not enough to eat. Only plain rice after work the whole day. They crazy one, no food how I work? One time, I use own money and buy own food, then sir angry, sir make me vomit out food.”
I was taken aback, horrified, and not entirely sure how to respond, but unexpectedly, her frown broke into a smile. “Sometimes the next day,” she confided, eyes sparkling, “The children see already my blue black they will cry. They will run to sir and say ‘daddy why you hit kaka, why you hit kaka!’ Sometimes he angry and put them in their room and hit me again. They will cry and shout ‘bad daddy hit kaka!’”
She laughed, and I was struck by how gentle her expression had become, accustomed as I was to her unapproachable scowls.
“Do you have children at home?” I asked. At her age, I had expected that she did, but she only shook her head.
“When I come Singapore I not even married, sister, how to have children?” she laughed it off, “But sir and ma’am’s children, when I come they are only a small baby. Is I take care of them. Is I raise them. Is me. I take care them so many years already.” She’d frowned, suddenly downcast.
“I still remember when I leave sir and ma’am’s house, the policeman say, ‘You don’t cry already, your sir and ma’am cannot hurt you.’ I say ‘What are you talking? I cry is not because sir and ma’am hurt me, but the children how? What they do without their kaka?’ Policeman say, ‘Why you care your sir and ma’am’s children? Your sir and ma’am never even care about you.'” She turned to me.
“How I not care about them!” she cried, “These children is I raise from baby. They are like my own baby, my own children, mine. How I not care?” The others soon returned, flushed and giggling, and we set off back for the house. The other women seemed to be in high spirits, still shrieking and chasing one another and bantering in rapid Bahasa, but Putri seemed pensive.
“Sister,” she began as we strolled down the road winding through the quiet estate, “Do you know how come my case take so long?” I was stumped by her question. I did not know much of the details of her case, neither could I tell why it was taking as long as it had. In the past, I had worked with construction workers who had filed claims for workplace injuries against their employers, and knew it could take years due to lack of evidence — but I did not know much about domestic worker abuse cases.
“Sometimes,” I said helplessly, “The law is supposed to work in a certain way. If people do bad things, they are punished. But the law has holes, and sometimes when people do bad things, you must show a lot of things to punish them. The law is not perfect. It makes life difficult for people like you.” I trailed off, unsure of what I was trying to get at, and knowing that what I had said wouldn’t be much comfort to her either.
“I want to go home,” she said, “I want to see my family. I see many girls come, finish case, go— but I’m still here. I think, ‘When my turn? Everyone come, everyone go home. When my turn to go home?’” She sighed.
“Sister, please,” she said, “Can you tell me why my case take so long?” I had no answer. A few weeks later, I sat in the same park with a different group of women. It was a sunny day, but windy, and there was a group of birdwatchers with binoculars set up on tripods by the playground.
I could see Putri sitting on the slides across the park from our table, her usual frown on her face. A little boy was running circles around us.
“Boy, you don’t run,” Mon called, tall and authoritative, “Later you fall down.” He stuck his tongue out and ran off to find his father amongst the birdwatchers.
“Do you like kids?” I asked Mon lazily. The day was nice and breezy, with the leaves spinning down from the trees and getting into our hair. It seemed like a day to just lay down in the grass and nap.
“Yes,” she said, “But I don’t have children.”
“Did you take care of any children while working in Singapore?”
“Yes, with Putri,” she said, “But when I come, Putri was here longer already.
The children like her more. They always follow her around. They close with Putri because she with them longer.”
Across the park, the little boy was attempting to climb the swings.
“Boy!” Mon called again, disapprovingly, and took off at a quick trot. I could picture her as a mother.
“You know Putri?” interjected the woman sitting beside me— small, a little plump, and with long lashes that curled prettily away from her eyes.
“Yes,” I replied, “Do you know her?”
“Yes, I always call her small chicken. Then she angry.” She chortled gleefully.
“Have you been at HOME as long as Putri?” I asked, “Is it nice there?” She shrugged.
“When I first come HOME, is a little lonely, a little quiet. But then I friends with Putri. Everyday we fighting fighting, make this one angry.”
She nodded towards the petite woman sitting opposite us, who did indeed look long-suffering. The chattier of the two looked quickly behind her and then scooted a little closer, beckoning to me as if to tell me some great secret. I leaned in obligingly.
“I think,” she told me in a hushed voice, “HOME got ghost!”
“Goes?” I repeated, having misheard her. “Ghost!”
“Like,” I began, “Hantu? Woooo~ ghost?”
“You talking about ghost again?” said a familiar voice from behind me.
It was Putri.
“You don’t talk about ghost already!” Putri snapped, “Later the new girls will scared.”
“But it’s true!”
“You scare the other girls only!” The woman opposite me, who had been quiet up till then, threw me a look filled with deep suffering as they began to squabble.
“Are you all friends?” I asked.
“We sleep together same room,” Putri answered, sitting down next to me, “Me, then her,” she pointed at the girl with the long-suffering expression, “Then her.”
“The two of them, very noisy,” the quiet one said suddenly, one of the few times she had spoken during the session, “Every night talk, talk, talk, like noisy
birds. And then me in the middle.”
“Putri, I call her little chicken, because she small and noisy. Like a chicken.”
“If I chicken,” Putri shot back immediately, “You is parrot. Every day around me quok quok quok. Aiyo, so noisy!”
I could not help but laugh as they began to argue in rapid-fire Bahasa. Later, I walked back with Putri, along the same winding stretch of road through the quiet houses. She was holding a long branch, which she used to playfully push the overgrown leaves dangling above us out of the way. She seemed in a much better mood than the week before.
“Have you known them a long time?” I asked, nodding to the two women walking in front of us.
“Since I come to HOME,” Putri replied absently.
“You are close to them?”
She huffed in annoyance. “They are very annoying,” she complained, “Everyday they annoy me. Call me chicken. I say, my name is Putri! And then I call her parrot, ha! They are like my annoying small sisters.” I thought about the way she had squabbled so comfortably with them, trading quips back and forth in rapid Bahasa, and I thought about her deep attachment to the children she had raised.
“Sometimes,” I reflected aloud, “When you’re a long way from home, you find family in the most unexpected places.” Putri shrugged.
“Putri, Putri, look!” called the chatty lady from before. She had a closed fist outstretched towards us.
Curiously, Putri stepped forward for a closer look.
“Lizard!” she shouted, opening her fist.
At once, Putri jumped back, shrieking. On a second glance though, there was nothing in that outstretched hand.
“You!” she cried. The other woman took off in a run, giggling maniacally to herself. With a stomp of her foot, and frustrated cry, Putri gave chase.
Underneath her feigned anger, she was holding back a smile.