Fdw Dear


Culture Gap

Customer is Always Right

Managing Stress

A Tale of Two Maids

Culture Gap
not culture shock

Dear FDW

If you have just arrived from the Philippines, Indonesia or another neighbouring country, you may not be familiar with the customs of different nationalities living in Singapore. So you have to learn about the culture of your employer to avoid culture shock. A first-timer, totally new to Singapore, is more vulnerable to misunderstanding with her employer.

Fortunately, since May 2012, first-time foreign domestic workers (FDWs) have to attend a one-day orientation seminar under the Settling-In Programme conducted by one of two training providers approved by MOM.

One obvious difficulty that often leads to misunderstanding between a Singaporean employer and a Filipino maid is communication. On the surface they both speak the same language, English. But this is often an illusion. Sometimes one speaks Singlish and the other speaks Taglish. Because both think they speak the same language, the risk of miscommunication is even higher. The good thing is that as time goes on, both parties adapt to each other's version of English and so the risk of miscommunication is reduced.

But at the beginning it would make a difference to the maid: she might lose her job! For example, a week into her new situation, one helper Maria (not her real name) who was busy doing the ironing for the week was interrupted by her employer. Madam wanted her to do something that would get her hands wet. She hesitated, explaining her reluctance by expressing her fear of being afflicted with arthritis later on in life.

Madam was unfamiliar with the accent of her new maid. She thought that Maria meant that she already had arthritis. At once she insisted on "returning" her to her agent, as if Maria was some defective merchandise. Luckily for Maria, her agent was familiar with this old wives' tale: "that immersing warm hands in cold water would lead to arthritis in time to come." He was thus able to explain Maria's concern to Madam's satisfaction. As it turned out, Maria stayed on and her relationship with Madam over the two-year contract was generally mutually satisfactory.

Another cultural difference between the host and the foreign maid is the two parties' attitude towards crying by adults. Chinese people are alarmed on hearing a grownup cry, for to them "crying brings bad luck!" A first-timer who is out of her country for the first time may be so homesick she may sometimes break down in tears for the most trivial reason, like not receiving a letter from home or a letter which reminds her of the loved ones she has left behind. While to the foreign maid, crying is natural, a Chinese equates "crying" with "mourning" for someone dead or will soon be.

But the problems caused by culture gap are not always so easy to avoid. Sometimes it is so difficult to explain and it takes time and effort. Not too long ago, Chinese mothers would often teach their children not to accept an offer of food or drink too eagerly. "People will say you are greedy or that your parents never feed you," she explained. This belief is more prevalent among the older generation who grew up poor or, at least, not rich.

What would such a mother (or grandmother) think of a maid who appears to her to be too eager to accept a good offer? Would she think that the maid's mother never taught her any manners or that she is greedy?

If the one making the offer is young, someone who has never known what it is to be poor, it might perhaps be okay. He or she will probably not view so negatively someone who accepts an offer of a piece of cake, say, readily. However, as a rule, you should not appear to be too eager. Better to say no first. A genuine offer will be repeated.

Generally, there are pitfalls and if you are at a loss, play it safe and act conservatively. Even the younger generation might have (without realising it) inherited their grandmother's attitude. If some behaviour appears odd, ask your agent or some other local to explain it to you.

Conclusion: Learn the differences between your own culture and that of your host family before culture gap turns to culture shock.

If you are currently having some difficulty in your current situation and would like to "talk about it", we will be happy to hear from you. Write to us and we will try to reply within 24 hours.

Yours truly,

Karl Tan,
MOM Reg: R1105061