Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Male Trailing Spouse and his แม่บ้าน

Clean-ing, iron-ing, cook-ing. No, not three cities in China -- just three things that a mae baan does well.  A mae baan is a maid, a Thai maid, quite literally a "mother of the house". And for 8 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 6 days in Bangkok, Thailand, I had a mae baan (and a bloody good one at that).


Until first posting overseas, I had not considered the use of servants. In London, I liked doing the skivvying at HQ. Cleaning windows, ironing the wardrobe and mopping the kitchen floor, with BBC Radio 4 or Radio 3 on in the background, was a twice-a-week chore in Notting Hill. I did have a maid but she was an impertinent Yorkshirewoman, and I had to set the dogs on her.  This is because the English make lousy servants (this generalization includes ones of the civil and diplomatic variety). Take P.G. Wodehouse. The creator of Jeeves the butler did not have an English manservant. His butler was German.  Why? Because the English are no bloody good. And a Kraut butler is bound to do his job. And know his place.  

Soon after arrival in the Kingdom of Thailand, I was issued the "DFIDSEA Bangkok Welcome Guide". The biggest chapter in this tome concerned the employment of domestic staff in Thailand.  It was an amusing read. 

"The basic structure of Thai domestic staff is as follows..."

Who is No. 1 Maid and who is No. 2?

No. 1 Maid:"This lady will under take most of your house keeping, including cooking and market shopping if required. If you have the one maid she will obviously also deal with your house cleaning and laundry as well.  If you have 2 maids, your No. 1 must have a clear position of authority. In practical terms, she should therefore be the older and more experienced and be paid accordingly. Pay rates are discussed further on in this section. If you only have one maid, but decide you need a second, it is usually best to ask your No. 1 for suggestions. She will, after all, have to work with the No. 2 and this is the best way to safeguard a good working relationship. However, bear in mind, this is not always foolproof, and you should always interview candidates yourself and if engaged, give them a probationary period."


Maid for Trouble

No. 2 Maid: "Your No. 2 will usually undertake all the household cleaning and laundry. If you have children, this is the person who will also undertake most of your childcare requirements. If this is the case, you will need to be very sure that this person fits your very personal requirements and most especially what experience she has previously had working with children. A number of officers have previously sent No. 2 maids for extra English language or First Aid courses, if they are dealing with children. Again, this is very much a personal thing. If you are entertaining, your No. 2 will be expected to help your No. 1 with food preparation and do most of the cleaning up."

It was at this point that I put the handbook down to reflect. No. 1 Maid, No. 2 Maid, it sounded frightfully neocolonial. And, as a card member of the Labour Party, it was not really in keeping with my champagne socialist principles. Did I really need a maid? Well, yes. Our grace and favor pad was a huge 3 bedroom number in the Japanese quarter of the city (Soi 24), and hiring help was not as pricey as it would be in the West.  


I skipped forward to "Hours, Pay and Holidays" for more learned input.

"Hours: Domestic staff in Thailand are engaged on the premise of a 6 day week. In practice, people often go away for weekends, prefer staff only to come in for a half-day on Saturday or keep the weekend completely staff-free. The usual working day for full time maids is 12 hours with breaks in between, although this varies greatly. It is up to you to set hours that are convenient for your circumstances."



The Male Trailing Spouse didn't need a maid around the house 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, that was for sure. Just a lady to come in twice a week, put the hoover round and iron the wife's office clobber. How much would I pay the maid? I wanted to give the gal security of tenure, a good wage, above the average, to get her loyalty and give me some peace of mind. After all, I was employing this woman to come into the inner sanctum of the Male Trailing Spouse, and wash the skidmarks out of his undies.

"Pay: The CLO undertook a survey of Domestic Staff pay and Conditions of Service.  As a general guideline, you might expect to pay a No.1 maid between 8,000 and 10,000 Baht per month. No. 2 maid would be paid (according to duties) between 5 and 7,000 Baht per month. There are also variances between on and off compound. Staff discuss their pay and you will find that this is the one issue staff will raise with you, if they feel that their pay is out of kilter with colleagues. Please speak to the CLO if you have any queries on this, and also discuss with colleagues and neighbors what their pay rates are, but bear in mind that their requirements may be different from your own."

I consulted the CLO. "Don't feel bad about having a maid," she said, "it's not like England, it's quite normal, here." Not like England? Her England, maybe. But not mine.  She suggested 500 baht per visit. I upped this to 700 baht per visit, 1400 baht for the week with a view to reviewing pay on an annual basis, etc. The CLO told me that pay was "based on a 13 month year in Thailand". And at Xmas and New Year , I would have to pay my Thai maid an extra month bonus (in our case an extra 2800 Baht).


"Any problems you have," she said, "just look at the welcome guide."

I went back to the book and scanned through. The chapter had a section on hiring additional staff for staging lavish functions at home. 


"Your kitchen staff may require an extra pair of hands, depending on the size of function/number of guests. Kitchen relationships are delicate and it is probably best to tell your No. 1 to find the extra staff she requires. On these occasions, you must be clear about how many extra staff you are prepared to pay and at what rate."

These "officers" must have done some fancy pants entertaining at post to merit this detail.    


Below that, a note on on the hiring of a driver. They were classically labelled.

"Chauffeurs: Until 1995, it was impossible for foreigners to obtain a Thai driving license and virtually no expat or diplomat drove their own vehicles. Times have changed and these days very few personnel require the services of a personal chauffeur. If you do wish to engage a chauffeur, the advice again is largely common sense. Check credentials and experience."

Home Parker!

Having my own "chauffeur" was quite a temptation. But it would have helped if I had my own car. What was the point? The traffic in Bangkok was permanently gridlocked. My house was close to the Embassy, the Muay Thai gym in Klong Toey; a BTS station was at the top of the soi and cabs were abundant. More pertinently, I hate cars. Bloody dangerous things. Always getting into accidents. Outside of a sordid murder,  dying in a traffic accident was the most common cause of death for a British Citizen at one time in the Kingdom of Thailand. Chaps I knew, who did drive in the capital, often complained about having to bribe Police officers at road stops. Some local expat businessmen complained of having their passports confiscated by Police officers at road stops and on traffic duty. You get stopped by the Cops a lot back home in the UK, for all sorts of petty offenses on the road -- why put yourself through the agony of driving in Bangkok and having to grease the palms of foreign Cops on less than living wage? 


Some tings are universal, blud. A black chap I knew used to drive his own Merc around Bangkok. But, because he got stopped by Cops every day for the first two weeks, he decided to hire a chauffeur.  

"It was worse than driving a flash car in London," he said. "But it's great, now that I have a driver, I don't get stopped one bit. He's a good bloke, my driver. I refuse to call him a chauffeur! He's very polite, very punctual, gets me to meetings and the golf course on time. I couldn't ask for more, really."

Getting too close to the help can be a bad thing for an expat. My old neighbor had a driver. "Khun Nick" was his name. He started off as reliable and as attentive as the next corporate wheel man. Khun Nick knew his place. Everything was rosy until the Boss got married to a lady from Issan. Khun Nick didn't like the Boss's wife, and he used to stick the knife in her rep with  domestic staff at the condo residence we all lived at. I once saw Khun Nick, shouting in Thai, at the top of his voice, about "the Boss's bar girl wife." Eventually, the Boss got wind of the bitching and fired him.  


Back to the mae baan. According to the manual, holiday time for a maid was "2 weeks paid holiday a year." Thais had as many public holidays as us Brits (perhaps more) and I had to give the maid Songkran and Loy Kratong off.

"Keep a Thai calendar, so that you know what holidays are coming up (in addition to the British ones) and agree with your staff what you are going to do..."





Er, go on holiday? 








At this point of the hiring stage, I had my criteria but no candidate. Chai Yoot, the head of security at our condo, had a girl in mind. I read the section on "Dealing with Staff Problems."

"The Thai people are non-confrontational. It is not within Thai nature to approach the boss when there is a problem, and certainly, your No. 2 will not go over the head of the No. 1! Often the first inkling anyone has of a problem is when a member of staff doesn't turn up for work! If you follow the suggestions for engaging your staff, there is less likely to be a problem in the first place. Thereafter, it is a question of becoming gradually attuned to the personalities of your staff and the way they work. Problems amongst staff are thankfully rare and are invariably personal, rather than technical. If you do find yourself with a significant problem, contact the CLO, in the first instance, who will endeavor to help you."


Maid just right

Chai Yoot sent a lady named Khun Oravan for interview.  I went into the kitchen to sort out a brew and returned to find the woman kneeling, in a manner most servile, on the wooden tiles of our luxury pad. I was shocked. There's no need for that, I said. Oh no, she replied, it's quite OK. No it isn't, said I, the big Olive Boss Man, I am (supposed to be) a socialist and I do not like people kneeling down at my feet. Khun Oravan got up from the floor and took a seat. 

Three weeks into employment, Khun Oravan handed in her notice. The reason? She was leaving for Canada with her Boss for 3 years. Fortunately, she had an understudy, a lady from Issan called Toy. I took her on immediately and Toy was our mae baan (and our friend) from 2003-2012.


Khun Toy did not speak much English but that was incentive for me to get cracking with Thai studies (and learn how to order her about). 










Male Trailing Spouse at Work, Allegedly.

Very quickly, she got used to hoovering and dusting  around my eccentricities. Writing 3000 words a day. Playing loud music on the stereo. Cheering whenever she broke a glass or a plate. Beautiful expats (always ladies) coming in-and-out of the flat. And witnessing the occasional Skype row with media wankers in London and elsewhere. Yes, she sure got an insight into the lifestyle of a Male Trailing Spouse, alright.    


I spoke about my mae baan with some of the diplomatic spouses of the UK mission and swapped notes. One lady, a high maintenance, Guardian reading, post-colonial, hypocrite of a DFID spouse, had gone through seven maids in 2 and a bit years. We had been entertained at her house and could see why. She worked her maids to the max on rock bottom wages. Some were lured by better paying jobs with less hours (and stress). Others were fired for stealing. One maid stole clothes, cash and a camera. One day, the DFID spouse left a 100 Baht bill in a pair of trousers to go in the wash.  The entrapped Mae Baan took the bait and was later confronted by the spouse.


"What have you got say for yourself?"

"Oh," said the Mae Baan, a middle aged Thai lady with Deirdre Barlow spex, "I am glad you remind me. I find in trouser. I give you now."


"What about the camera?"


"Oh, I find that too."


"And my daughter's coat, the one that she bought in South Africa?"


"Oh, I think that somewhere...I find for you."


"Well," said the DFID spouse, hands on hips, nose aloft, "you'd better find them quick..."


"How quick?" The Mae Baan interrupted.

"Before the Police get here."

 "OK," said the Mae Baan, "I go find for you now."

This canny DFID spouse got her kit back pronto. But she should have known better, and paid her Mae Baan a wage she could at least get drunk on.  But that's the English for you.  Not only do they make bad servants, they are lousy to their servants. 


Nothing ever went missing in our house. And, unlike some "officers," we made a conscious effort, from the outset, NOT to exploit the wage labor of the indigenous population. But here in the USA, far from the sweaty climes of Bangkok, I do miss Khun Toy the mae baan. These days, the Male Trailing Spouse does his own washing, drying and ironing. The detergents here are much kinder to the colors than they ever were in Thailand. And I do not have to worry about constantly maintaining a "smart" appearance (men in the West can get away with scruffy, to a point).  

Some habits from Khun Toy, our beloved mae baan, can never be unlearned. Not even from the distance of culture and time. In honor of the belated mae baan, whose services are sorely missed, I fold my underwear into neat, anal triangles, match socks (white) accordingly, hang up the polo shirts (Lacoste) and keep an extra can of easy starch in the larder, just in case of ironing. RIP the mae baan. The Male Trailing Spouse has to do his bit without.