When I found out I was pregnant, my mind immediately began preparing for a girl. My sister has three girls; my cousins are a dozen or so girls with my brother and one other male thrown in, and so I never thought about the other 50%.
The 50% that people all over Asia aspire to have because they will grow up and take care of their parents (meanwhile as children the girls drop out of school to help parents take care of young siblings).
The 50% that are so favored many Asian countries have stopped allowing sex tests or sonograms because of the rate of abortions of female babies.
Imagine my shock – my husband said I went white – when the doctor said, not only once, but twice, I was having boys. That’s right: me, the mother of two boys. I did the right thing and paid lip service to the fact I hoped the babies were healthy. Deep inside, I tried to manage the shock.
What would I do with a boy? How would I avoid the Asian tendency to favor and indoctrinate them with male privilege?
This Mother’s Day, I’m happy to say my boys are a delight. And I’m back at work with a second newborn and toddler at home.
Why? Because, as I explained to my colleagues, my mother sacrificed her entire life, not finishing high school, in order to get married and raise us. She’s now finishing a university degree, one course at a time, in her 50s. If that taught me anything, it’s that children need strong role models. And strength comes in different forms. Her sacrifice will not be wasted.
A friend also offered this great perspective:
I know you wanted a girl the first time, and you probably wanted a little girl the second time too. You say you wanted to empower her, to strengthen women. But you know, you've been blessed with a way to empower women in a greater way. On my mother's side of the family, women were to be seen and not heard. It's the hillbilly way. But on my father's side, as you already know, women are the leaders. So my father taught my mother how to be strong, to think for herself, and to lead. And that value was then passed to all of us kids, even the boys. I've seen it where a daughter marries a male dominated household, and the sons grow up with the male dominated view. Sometimes the girls are lucky to be empowered at all. And sometimes the households fall into a lot of conflict, especially if the boys are not taught to respect women. In my own life, my son does not respect me. He never did and that's why I lost him. His father is and always will be a poor example. I should have chosen very carefully and researched his father's family well. I did not, to my regret. So maybe this is the powers helping you in your mission, with a very strong weapon indeed.
In July 2012 I published a book I had worked on for three years. Love Comes Later is the most expensive title on my list of eBooks, not to the customer but to me.
Editors’ fees, a failed cover design, and proof reading time pushed the launch date again, then yet again.
Imagine how thrilled I was to find out this same title won in the Romance category of the Best Indie Book awards!
I could say how patience pays off, or how long a lead time you need for people to realize you’re a writer… but for now, I’ll simply celebrate.
“You’re bossy,” someone said to me in the cafeteria. I laughed because I had read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s commentary related to the “Lean In” project.
Women are bossy; men are thought to have leadership potential. Funny, but true, that even as adults we can’t invent new labels but revert to the ones we used on the playground.
I was reintroduced to human dynamics in employment issues – i.e. personalities – when our nanny went on vacation.
She’s very capable, in her mid forties, clean, honest, and hardworking. She also looks at me like I’m crazy whenever I deviate from our daily routine.
Can she take out all the buttons from the extra button pouches and consolidate for a children’s craft activity?
Maybe. If she has time.
Our temporary house help is the exact opposite. She forgets things – like turning off the stove – and she says she understands (taking out the base of the car seat along with the carrier) when she doesn’t. But. She has a terrific smile. And she always says yes.
The two are like the twin halves of my personality. I have a living lesson of the impact temperament makes on a work environment.
Our temporary helper is eager to please, enjoyable to be around, and willing to learn.
Our nanny is experienced, capable, grumpy and distant.
Who do I want to be when I go back to the office after maternity leave? Which woman would you like to have as a co-worker?
Two days before our second son was born, April 12th, the New York Times published a piece about “Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf.” The piece was categorized as news analysis. For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf (since Persia, or Iran, is a known competitor with the GCC), Richard Morin’s piece might as well have been published thirty years ago. After all there was little in the way of news or analysis.
Qataris, he stated, are known to under pay and often abuse their domestic help. Qatar is very wealthy. People are brought to work here under false promises and then have difficulty returning home.
All of this you’d know in the first four weeks of living here.
What I wish Morin had taken time to discuss is all the areas of grey. These areas of mistreatment, racism, and classism have danced around my mind as a South Asian American who has made her home in Doha since 2005. As a wife in a racially mixed marriage and the mother of two boys of multicultural background, I can’t escape the nuances of the layers of race, gender, and class in everyday life in Qatar.
Nuances that are missing from Morin’s piece but which are the chief subject of my third novel, The Dohmestics, about housemaids in an unnamed Arab emirate. Not only the housemaids, however, the
book examines their employers. This is where the NYT could have asked for more in-depth reporting. Because as both the novel and lived experience show, Qataris, are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.
The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.
You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m. and hit your much smaller in stature and status worker.
You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying 25 QR an hour for part time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.
You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.
The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.
Our nanny requested to take two months vacation on the eve of the arrival of our second child. We were dismayed at her request because no family was able to attend the birth. We mulled it over. After all, we ourselves, as white collar professionals, had never had a two month vacation. But how could we deny someone else her right to be with her family?
She traveled and I scrambled to find someone to help with our two year old as I lumbered around, 38 weeks pregnant and still working.
In the search for another short term employee, I spoke to no less than 15 women, all of them with different situations, considerations, and stories. No two were the same. Yet they had all received some kind of mistreatment – whether being asked to share a room and a bed with the ailing grandfather they were taking care of – from low wages, to yelling, to hitting, to that ultimate violation, sexual assault.
We managed to find someone who was shy, full of smiles, and whose antics made us laugh. She cooked steak for dinner, leaving it in the oven for 40 minutes. Needless to say it was more like beef jerky when it came out. Is this what you would shout at someone for?
I went out with her and my two boys one morning, only to discover we had left the diaper bag at home. I thought she had it. She thought I had it. Is that what you would hit someone over?
This same woman was paying half her salary to rent a room from someone for whom she woke up at 4:30 everyday so she could make her landlord’s breakfast, iron her clothing, and anything else she needed. She sent home 100 QR a month to her teenage daughter (the equivalent of $30 USD). No abusing Arabs in sight in this scenario.
The one commonality of the ‘maid’ stories I have heard during my interview project (The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition) is that the nationality of the perpetrator changed. Sometimes they were Arab. Other times (to my horror) Indian. Occasionally British. Not unusual for a non-real American, or the way someone who has a Western passport but isn’t white is often referred to (my husband and myself included).
The fact is the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.
What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.
Each of us knows only in the quiet of our own hearts whether we really would want to work for someone like us. And that’s regardless of where we come from. That’s an angle the NYT could have used if they really wanted to show the extent of abuse possible for these women who put their lives in our hands and homes.
We had our second son last week. You would think 9 months of pregnancy would prepare you to name someone. And yet, my husband and I could not agree.
We are both Asian Americans, me from India, he from Laos by way of his parents. Some names were too mainstream and others too niche. I wanted something distinctive, he wanted something that wouldn’t keep the kid from being hired (yes, 20 years from now).
Arabs loved the more obscure of my suggestions; my husband’s Caucasian co-workers balked at those ideas.
Here’s a snapshot of our process and how our El Segundo (the second in Spanish) finally got a name.
Last week from a sofa in a hospital room, after having delivered our second baby boy, I woke up at 1 a.m. Adrenaline or jetlag like false sense of sleep saturation had me reaching for my phone in the pitch black of the room. Across the coffee table, a good friend who had volunteered for night duty was resting. The baby was in the nursery. I went on Facebook.
The news feed of many of American friends, at home and abroad, was filled with the news of the bombing at the finish line of the Boston marathon. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the photos and had to turn off the phone to stem off the hormonal induced shock at the images, facts, and sounds.
As the facts unfolded – 3 dead, many more wounded – a puzzled reaction swept the part of the world I live in, the Middle East.
What about people in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, was the question circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. Where is the empathy, shock, horror, concern for them?
A former student and now friend posted “I’m sorry to hear about Boston, sorry for all the casualties. Pray for Syria, it deserves far more sympathy. Pray for Syria twice as much!”.
Having studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I have been watching the escalating tensions there with dread and anger at a “leader” who would treat his people as pawns.
But the assertion of my student made me uncomfortable.
Can we weigh on a scale those who are more deserving of empathy? Is it judged by the number of causalities?
Or, as mainstream American media seems to suggest, do we rate based on a scale of how the tragedies happen? Are civilians in peace time, running a marathon or going to work, more deserving than those who are living in a country entrenched in civil war?
I don’t know. I do know from my hospital bed, recovering from having a baby, that most frail and dependent of creatures, the symbol of all that is possible of humanity, I resisted the notion that my loyalties predict my sympathies and said as much to my friend on his wall:
“I understand what you are trying to say but let’s remember our hearts can juggle compassion for all. Clearly the media, government and politics cannot. I stand with Syrians as the land where I learned Arabic and hope that governments will stop turning blind eyes. Sympathy is not a competition. The more we learn that, the more we can come together as one. (not intending to lecture, your post did strike a chord with me as a new mother X2 from this past Sunday). I want my children to live in a compassionate world, better than the bi-partisan one I inherited. Now we pray for Iran, regardless of how we feel about nukes/presidents/etc.”
We had a great discussion (yes on Facebook wall posts as he was abroad).
Later in the week the question came again on Twitter: “Boston boston. Pls send your view: rape in Delhi why again and again?”
The commenter was talking about the rape of a 5 year old girl whose body had been dumped in a dumpster and found with foreign objects, including a candle, inside. I had read of the case with horror and posted about it on social media as well. As an Indian woman, mother, wife, and daughter, I was ashamed, distraught, and troubled by not only this incident but all of them since the watershed December case with a pharmacy student on a bus. Indian media commentators were asking: why did we care so much about her? What about the 5, 6, 10 year olds (and the ones we never know about about)? Don’t we care about them?
All of which brings me back to the same question: how much room do we have in our hearts? Can we only care for those who know immediately? Or is there some larger, universal ability to feel compassion that comes with our “advanced” technologies in the era of 24 hour media?
I do know when I saw the photo of the 19 year old, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining bomb plotter, my heart clenched. Somewhere, something went horribly wrong for this younger brother. I couldn’t help but think of my own boys, presently 2.5 and 1 week old. What would they grow up to do? Would the older one mislead the younger? And could the younger use this as his excuse for wrecking havoc?
In the end, it all comes down to relationships. Right?
Shocking to most of the residents in Qatar yesterday was the sensation, yet again in less than a week, of earthquake tremors from a second Iranian quake, this one measuring nearly 8 point on the Richter scale. While most people missed the first one, the second was noted by people in almost all neighborhoods across the city of Doha. Coming as it did on the heels of the bombs planted at the end of the Boston Marathon, everyone was literally shaken.
“The world is changing,” people kept saying all day. “Qatar is changing.” Will we still be the sleepy place everyone thinks of as ultra safe, laughing at presenters who suggest earthquake preparedness or other hazards?
One thing is certain, people rushing out of buildings like the Tornado tower, will have to think twice about what to do next if there is an emergency. Glass falling all over the area known as West Bay is likely in any real quake or other incident in that neighborhood.
Yesterday there were several earthquakes in Iran. Across the Arabian Gulf in Qatar at 3pm Doha time people felt the some of the aftershocks. Nothing like what they had in Iran, with over 80 deaths, 800 plus injuries, and many, many more after affects.
But our buildings in the business district were evacuated all the same. The mood in the elevators, parking garage, and on the street was somber. Here’s what I was looking at while the tremors were reverberating through our floor and the city.
I found this image on Google at about 4pm on Monday when I decided being 9 months pregnant meant I needed to take advantage of April Fool’s Day to get a joke over on my husband who is a notorious prankster. The only reason I-had-the-baby-come-to-the-hospital message worked is because it was so last minute (I’m a terrible pranker and dissolve into giggles). Unlike his pranks – which this year included hiding in a friend’s car and then jumping out to scare him – I didn’t make him go all the way to the hospital to find that I wasn’t there. I let it go about 10 minutes.
I got him so good, I decided the joke was too good to waste and shared with my family, co-workers, and friends via email/Facebook, saying “Mohammed is here!”.
Half the people thought it was hilarious.
The other half were utterly confused when I showed up on April 2nd with my protruding belly.
Some in each category even wrote back and said “Oh, is that his name?”
I guess this goes down as one of the best April Fool’s jokes of all time for me. Spontaneity rules.
Did you prank anyone? Were you pranked? What’s in your hall of fame?
My fourth installment in the series of interviews that let’s domestic workers in Qatar tell their stories. I imagined the emotions, aspirations, and motivations of these women in my novel The Dohmestics. But in this case, real life beats fiction.
The more I hear about these women and their willingness to sacrifice years of their lives for their children, extended family and friends, the more humbled I am.
We both qualify in the category of expats. And yet their lives are so different from the considerations of mine.
What would you do for your family’s future?