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Jennifer Wong discusses her poem Maria

‘Maria’ is one of the newest poems in my collection. In this poem, I imagine and inhabit the life of a domestic helper in Hong Kong, reflect on what it feels for her to live and work in someone else’s home, so different from her own world. In Hong Kong, most of my friends have live-in domestic helpers. (When I was a child, my family never hired a domestic helper.) There are around 400,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, with nearly half from the Philippines. Every Sunday, a community of domestic helpers would gather at Statue’s Square and parks in Hong Kong, because it’s their only day off and they do not even have their own homes in Hong Kong to relax in and spend their weekends. In a city like Hong Kong where property prices are exorbitant, these helpers live in their employers’ homes, but then their room is usually tiny, with little space for anything more than a bed, a wardrobe and some storage.

One day, I went to visit Elizabeth, one of my friends and former colleague, and she told me how her helper, Maria, has a family of her own in the Philippines including a very young child, but Maria would only visit her own family once or twice a year. Some (or most) domestic helpers don’t have dinner with the family they work for at the same time: they eat alone, in the kitchen or in their own room, before or after cooking the whole meal for everyone. All these got me into thinking, what does it feel to be in Maria’s marginalised position? What does it feel to have to leave your family and your home behind? To live in a home that wouldn’t be so clean and tidy without you, yet at the same time, so extravagant to someone who is earning a minimal wage for a job that demands six days a week? To experience that solitude? To be expected to cook something that belongs to another culture, to call your employer ‘ma’am’. Maria’s own child could go to a better school—possibly, lead a better life—with the modest wages that Maria sent back home each month. But this arrangement meant that Maria would only see her daughter once or twice a year.

Writing ‘Maria’ makes me think of poetry’s ability to change the world: to let us imagine, to contemplate that things can happen differently, to change people’s minds.
***

Maria

In your home I only perspire. When I move about from room to room, dusting the shelves, shaking the pillows, watering the plants, I am a
mindful ghost you don’t notice.

Each morning when I bring Hazel to school at 7.40am, I feel the brunt of my conscience. Her trusting eyes, her well-ironed uniform, the words she
can spell.

Then there is Hazel across the ocean, in the country of mango trees. The Hazel I have not hugged for months and months, her school in San
Fernando that I knew nothing of.

Some days when no one is in, I gauge the weight of the house key in my pocket, think of how much I knew, your every single routine, all the silver photo frames on the shelf. I look out of the window—so spick and span—at the view of the harbour and the green hills I cannot afford.

I set down the bags of vegetables and meats from the market. This evening, I will make you stir-fried rice, some choi sum and green and
red carrot soup with pork.

As steam rises from the rice cooker, and the aroma of the soup fills the air, I try to dream back my own daughter into being. Last time I saw her was in spring, and she told me her best friend is called Angel. She wanted a
bob hairstyle.

.

JenJennifer Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong, and is the author of two poetry collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press 2013). She studied English at Oxford and received an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She is the recipient of the Hong Kong Young Artist Award (Literary Arts) and earned a PhD on the idea of place and identity in Asian diaspora poetry from Oxford Brookes University. Her work, including poems, reviews and translations, have appeared in various journals including The Rialto, Poetry London, Poetry Review, And Other Poems, Oxford Poetry, Stand, North, Wildness, Cha, Wasafiri, Voice & Verse, Warwick Review and others. Her works have won the runner-up prize at the Bi’an Writers Awards and have been long-listed in pamphlet competitions and National Poetry Competition.

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