The Migrant's Hometown

The Migrant's Hometown
Credit: Mu-yi Lee
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A Taiwanese and an Indonesian family reconnect in the Javanese countryside.

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Anny, from Indonesia, had lived with my family for three years as a domestic helper, but her contract was coming to an end and she was finally going home.

Today, we went to wander through Taipei together one last time. At Taipei 101, we watched planes take off from Songshan Airport and sat by the window, reminiscing about our three years together.

In the three years since she left Indonesia, Anny had fallen in love, broken up and fallen in love again. I had graduated from university and was just entering the working world. We often had to rely on Google Translate to communicate, but had nevertheless become receptacles for each other’s thoughts and feelings. There were so many small moments between us over those short three years, and the day that we had to leave each other had come sooner than we expected.

We made a deal. In March, my mother and I would go to Indonesia and meet her,and let her bring us to her hometown. It felt so far from Taipei, physically and culturally. Anny kept pestering me with advice; to dress conservatively, not to wear short skirts. I thought, “Of course I know this. You’ve lived with us for 3 years and dealt with our culture, we should be capable of experiencing yours.”

What could we possibly expect?

When I quit a job as a flight attendant and joined The News Lens, I asked for a month off to bring my mother to Indonesia. Our luggage was packed tight with gifts for her Anny’s family and her favorite brands of things from Taiwan, including her favorite sunscreen.

Two connecting flights later, my mom and I finally arrived in Yogyakarta Airport, our luggage piling up around us as we waited in line to exit the airport. We could already see Anny waving spastically in the distance and bouncing up and down, wearing a qipao my mother had given her some time before.

She was a flurry of speech when we finally got close to call to her, “Your skirt is too short! You’ll have to change it before you come to my house? How’s your grandma?” She was so caring — our grandmother was still in her heart.

She said that no employer had ever come to visit their hometown before, and the whole village would be waiting to welcome us. After a seven hour drive, we finally arrived in Anny’s village of Layansari. The trip there was incredibly bumpy, the road full of mud. Sometimes, it looked too rough to walk on, much less drive.

Anny’s parents typically went to bed before 9 P.M, but we arrived in the dead of night. The whole family was awake in anticipation of our arrival, excitedly stoking fires.

It was admittedly a bit of a shock to enter Anny’s house, I’d never lived in a place with stacked, unpainted bricks, a patched tile roof, and bamboo outbuildings. If you wanted to take a bath, you had to go to a well, draw water and carry it by bucket into the house. If you wanted hot water, you needed to heat It yourself over a wood fire; they didn’t exactly have hair dryers.

In Taiwan, we would pray together before every meal. Before going to bed on our first night, Anny’s dad also took us to pray together. Although we worshipped a different god, didn’t it give us all the same sort of feeling?

We then slathered ourselves with mosquito repellent and slept. We were all so tired, my mother’s snoring nearly shocked the whole village.

Village Life

When we got up in the morning, we saw a crowd had gathered; the whole village had come to the house early to see what this super rare foreign mother and daughter looked like.

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My mother and I waved and smiled as best we could, but Anny whispered to us, “Their hands! Their hands,” until we remembered the custom we had learned the day before of putting elders’ hands on our foreheads and our hands on our chests.

We rode in a bicycle rickshaw and began what our friends called “the journey of the good employers from Taiwan.” We ate a bag of delicious oranges called Jeruk along the way, and went to see Anny’s grandfather’s town.

He lived in a simple house that they said flooded with mud every time it rained, but that he refused to leave because it had always been his home. Anny said that although her grandfather’s family was very poor, their well water was the cleanest in the village, even on rainy days. Family members would sometimes come to his house just to take a shower.

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Maybe this wasn’t the most livable place on earth, but in these places you can find something unique and beautiful.

Sending their Daughters to Foreign Lands

When we went to another relative’s house, we heard stories about some other migrant workers. Her mother-in-law said that there was another girl in the village who had worked on Singapore for three years, fallen in love with a boy, and returned to Indonesia to marry him. Only when she returned did she find out that the man had married and had children.

After listening to this story, I sadly realized that when a migrant worker’s contract is finished, they often don’t go back to the same home that they left. Many try to ignore it, but they have to build up the courage to go home and face their loved ones with a broken heart.

Our family’s current helper, Ika, was a close friend of Anny’s when they were in high school. When Anny went back it Indonesia, she introduced Ika to us, so now we have a new Anny in our family. We brought a lot of gifts for her family, including Ika’s favorite Taiwanese sweets.

I heard that their family had been cleaning for a week to receive us. Ika’s relative said that they were so worried that we were coming in the rainy season; the road would be full of mud and no motorcycles would be able to get in or out. My mother said, “No matter how heavy the rain is or how much mud, we would still come to see you.”

Ika’s mother was so moved to see us and would secretly use her hijab to wipe her tears. When we were chatting, I showed them videos of Ika practicing Chinese and trying to imitate the characters in films. Her mother couldn’t help but cry. Laughter and tears mixed in the living room, her mother’s face full of thoughts of her daughter.

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She said that she had always been worried about sending her daughter abroad to work, but was relieved to meet her daughter’s Mamih, her employers. Tears once again ran down her freshly-wiped face.

Back on the road, talking and laughing, our arms were full of things to bring back to Ika.

I’m unmarried and don’t have any children, so it is difficult to imagine what it must be like to travel across an ocean to work without one’s family. This is part of why we wanted to visit them, in the hopes that we could bring Ika’s family a sense of peace and safety.

We are now friends and family

Even when we were just going to a market to buy vegetables, it was hard to keep down the enthusiasm of locals who were excited to see us. Street vendors would follow behind us, but wait for Anny to stop and ask her where we came from. Kids from Anny’s high school had even heard of these rare visitors and invited us to come visit the school. We were maybe the first to go to that school, and they treated us like celebrities.

That same day, Anny and I went to the beach and the two of us went for a walk, soaking up the sights.

I told her, “Anny, when you went back to Indonesia, you said that your house was dilapidated to the point where people couldn’t live in it. When I came to see you, I saw that the house was a repaired and now has a kitchen and two other rooms. It’s hard for me to imagine you, 21 years old, already having this much responsibility.”

She said, “If you were born here, you would have done the same. Now, I’m in my 20s and about to go get married. It was my duty to help my parents and sister.”

On my last night at Anny’s house, we had Soto Ayam, my favorite Indonesian food. Anny and I painted patterns on each other’s hands with henna.

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Credit: Mu-yi Lee

Anny’s mother said that Anny was a rebellious girl before she left for Taiwan. When she came back, she felt that her daughter had changed. She thanked my mother for treating Anny as her own daughter and coming to visit and continuing to care, even after their contract had expired.

My mom told them that, “I can’t so much, but I sincerely feel that she’s my daughter. When we watched her leave our house, I felt as if it was my own daughter leaving on a long trip. I was so reluctant to let her go.”

Anny have her two moms a big hug.

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Credit: Mu-yi Lee

Late at night, with only frogs and insects for company, I wrote a letter to Anny’s mother to give to her when we left the next day.

Dear Mama,

For three years, Anny told me that mothers were the most important thing in a family, especially when I was fighting with my own mother. We still fight, of course, but I don’t get as angry now.

When I came to see you in Indonesia, I finally understood what Anny was saying to me. Although she is like a sister to me, sometimes I feel like we are somehow even closer than sister. You have a really great daughter. Thank you.

I secretly took a picture with only the small light shining in the corner, which unexpectedly shone in the shape of a heart on the wall. I think this is was the perfect place to spend my last night with Anny, under her Allah and my God.

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Credit: Mu-yi Lee

The time to leave always comes too fast, and the next day we got up and had breakfast with the whole family before leaving. We said a long, long goodbye to the family. I don’t think I will ever go back to that village; Anny is about to get married, and won’t be able to roam about as freely. Once she becomes part of a family, this might be the last time I see her.

Anny’s mother said she never expected that her daughter’s employers, who had never met her in her life, would be willing to fly such a long distance and drive far into the countryside to drink water out of a simple well and sleep inside an orchestra of insects.

My mother thanked them for raising such a good daughter, and that it was great to finally meet her family and her fiancé. She said that starting today, they were no longer an employer and migrant worker, but friends and family.

Anny’s parents were both crying. Anny’s mother had changed into her most beautiful clothes; she said she wanted to leave us with a beautiful photograph to remember her by. She said she had practiced smiling in her room, because they didn’t get photographed very often and didn’t know how to act in front of a camera lens.

Anny’s mom is typically a very strong person, and Anny said that she had never seen her mom cry before this point. She certainly never expected it would be for us. We were already in the car, but I couldn’t help but jump out and hug Anny one last time before saying goodbye.

She wiped the tears from my face and sobbed, “Don't cry so hard, acting like we're never going to see each other again.”

She patted my back, put me in the car, and waved to us as we drove off.

During my time in Indonesia, my friends had been sending messages praising my mother and I for being such “compassionate employers.” I don’t think that’s the right way to describe it. I don’t think I’ve ever taken pity on anyone, especially Anny’s family. She was a migrant employed by my family, but we certainly didn’t treat her simply as a “foreign worker.” If I were in her situation, I would like to be held to the same standard. Our roles weren’t too different; I was also a service worker during my time as a flight attendant.

Anny was like a companion to our family, and in some sense, we worked together to make our communities better. Sure, I’m happy my friends complemented me, but is that sort of attitude is just discrimination in disguise?

I remember Anny used to say to me, “I never thought important people would speak to us lowly people.”

I would ask her, “What is high? What is low? The only sort of normal is in our hearts.”

When these hard workers need more material things, they to Taiwan not searching for blind sympathy, but heartfelt empathy. My mother and I came to Layansari carrying some expensive things, sure, but also empathy for Anny’s hometown life.

On the plane back to Taipei, I chatted idly with the flight attendants and saw a familiar sight – a migrant worker holding a large paper parcel, her worldly possessions pinning her to her seat.

Her eyes looked tired, filled with a little bit of fear and a lot of uncertainty. I looked at her and remembered the trip I had taken, and sincerely hoped everything would go well for her once he reached Taiwan.

The original version can be found in The News Lens ASEAN Edition here.

Translation: Morley J Weston