My Japanese mind gets hammered inside my head when I deal with Indian maids and drivers!

“Oh, you have a “maid” and a driver? What a luxurious life you have! What do you do everyday then?” This is a common question from my friends in Japan. Few years ago I moved to Bangalore from Japan for my marriage, and my housewife life with “maid (domestic help)” and a “driver” started. For Japanese people “maids” are synonymous with live-in help, who are always at home to bring you a cup of coffee and do all housekeeping for you the whole day.

Having a “maid” and a “driver” is very common in India while very uncommon in Japan because only a few people can afford them. Actually I have never seen a maid or a private driver in my real life in Japan, except in films. My mother ran a house with a part time job. She did the never ending 24*7 housekeeping work for our family. She never used house cleaning service either, like a lot of other mothers.

Japanese children clean schools every day from the age of six (first standard in India). Teachers strictly instruct us on how to sweep and rub floors, clean toilets, even wax floors and wash bathroom fans at the end of semesters. There was no cleaning lady at school in my time at least. Housekeeping was a compulsory topic in public schools in Japan. (Private schools might be different, but majority of Japanese children go to public ones till junior high school.)

Meanwhile most of my housewife friends in India have either in-house maids or part time maids. Some have even a cook. I was shocked when my Indian husband told me that he had never washed a toilet till he went to study in the U.S, but soon I found that it was quite normal for less fortunate Indian children to clean toilets.

Keeping an outsider to clean my house was initially strange and uncomfortable to me. And I hardly had any idea as to how to deal with them. Luckily my mother-in-law stayed with us during my first few months in Bangalore. She taught me how to deal with them and also other survival skills in India.

We changed our maid at least ten times in the last four years. Some left the job as we were not happy with them or vice versa. Even my mother-in-law who was brought up in Mumbai and migrated to Europe only ten years ago was complaining that people in India have changed a lot; that there is no honesty or loyalty in maids and drivers now. She was also telling us that maids in Mumbai are more loyal and hardworking than those in Bangalore. (I am not sure if this can be generalised).

I am now going to reveal my experiences in dealing with them.

Mentality in money

I was surprised at how they asked me for more than average salary when they came to an interview. As soon as they saw me, a foreigner living in an apartment complex for expats, they demanded almost double the standard local salary. It seems that in India you can charge more from those who are richer, including foreigners, or those who do not know proper prices. Even public tourist places officially charge foreigners entry fee ten times more than Indian citizens.

I was upset that they don’t have a fixed price for all. I felt discriminated against. Later I started thinking I shouldn’t get offended by this mentality because I saw thousands of poor in the country and in general foreigners in India are richer than the locals. The gap between rich and poor is huge. Why shouldn’t we distribute some money among poor? However, if I agree on the prices they quote, I am considered a fool in this country, not a “good person”.

My mother-in-law showed me that prices are mostly negotiable in India. She never bought anything without bargaining at stalls in the local market. She told me that at least I should know a maid’s average salary, ask neighbors and then negotiate, and never agree with the first price they quote. It took me a while to negotiate their salary or prices at shops without hesitation as it is uncommon and even vulgar to bargain in Japan, except in business matters. I still cannot negotiate as well as the locals, but I try.

It is common here for maids/drivers to ask us for advance payment for their emergency needs. I used to feel sorry for them and gave them whatever they asked immediately, believing they would return that money to me. Before long, I noticed it was just foolish of me. Their mentality is to take money from the rich, and the lesson I learnt is that, that money would never come back. Some would honestly tell me the amount they needed but mostly they ask for more than what they actually need.

The amount should be limited to what we can give them as “gift”. We never know when they will leave us for good, no matter how much we trust them or how long they have worked for us. Some of them honestly return full amount little by little; we gave our maid Rs. 5,000 for her daughter’s admission to college and she returned Rs. 500 from her salary for ten months. On the other hand, my ex-driver who used to be very loyal, however, borrowed money for his surgery and we never saw him again. We didn’t hire any permanent driver during his recovery waiting for his return to work. His phone has been unreachable ever since. My husband was upset and shocked to be betrayed like that, but that kind of story is common here. Their life is much severe than I can imagine and they cannot afford urgent expenses. But the general rule of thumb is once your money leaves from your hand, it is not your money any more.

Mentality in time

I am from a country where you hear apologetic announcements at platforms when train is late by 2 minutes. I had been taught to be ready 5 minutes before scheduled time from the time I was seven years old. This made me crazy when maids came 30 minutes late or didn’t show up without any notice. Why can’t they think that I am wasting my time for them? Why can’t they just message or call me if they are going to be late? Why are their mobiles switched off? Where is the respect for other’s time?

Here is the answer. They just don’t have that mentality in punctuality. Their life goes in a slower time span, not like mine. My 30 minutes delay is just like 2 minutes for them. They jump on to a moving public bus on the road as soon as they find it. Time schedule just does not exist on bus stops. How can they plan to come at 8 am sharp every day? Yes, your life is long, will your life change a lot at the end just because your maid comes 30 minutes late or doesn’t show up for a few days?

Mentality in saying “No”

It seems that many people here feel ashamed to say “No, I can’t” or “I don’t know”. When I ask a driver or a maid “Can you come on time tomorrow?” They hardly say “No.” But the next day, there will be no one at the expected hour. Reasons usually are that their bus was delayed or water was not coming and they couldn’t take a shower, or one of my ex-maids even said it was cold in the morning!

My maid usually does not show up the day after her arrival, every time she goes to a family event by train. She promises to be back to work on the following Monday, but 95% she misses the train or the train gets delayed.

If they cannot keep their promises, why can’t they just say “No, we can’t” or “We don’t know yet” or at least they should call me! I cannot remember how many times I lost my temper on the phone. I now try to think that it is a shame to say “No, I can’t” or “I don’t know” for them. Some say whatever comes to their mouths to get through the situation and break their promise anyway, as that is not as bad as saying “No, I can’t”, whereas it is other way around in Japan.

I hear their excuses but I don’t care about it anymore. The fact is they do not come and I have to face it. Complaining about their irresponsibility is a waste of time.

Mentality about “Family”

My maids often take holidays for theirs or their sister-in-law’s father’s funeral, or brother-in-law’s admission in hospital or brother’s wife’s sister’s wedding. The last one is not called “family” event in Japan where not everyone invites their cousins to a wedding. Family is very important for Indian people. Cousins call each other “brother” or “sister”. When somebody in “family” (relatives) is hospitalized, their entire family (uncles, sister and brother-in-law, and cousin’s cousins sometimes) go to see that person. They care for each other so much and family is always a first priority, whether they are rich or poor.

However, sometimes maids make use of these as excuses. When I asked my maid why her brother was hospitalized again, she told me he was a different brother from the one hospitalized last month. When I told her that her father-in-law’s sister died last year, then she said this time her father-in-law’s other sister died. Their family tree is endless. I found it was not right to offend them for taking holidays or for their family’s issues. But after I started cutting their salary according to their absence at work, their family’s mortality rate went down.

Mentality in professionalism

I felt that I should tell drivers/maids how I want them to behave/drive/clean only in the first few days, not later. For drivers, their job is to take their employers from one place to another. Unless you tell them strictly they drive your car in their own style. We were unhappy with the drivers who didn’t come on time, drove fast or roughly, honking too much, ignoring traffic lights etc. I could not expect them to follow traffic rules completely as you have to be “flexible” on roads in India sometimes. Only if we warn them initially they listen to us.

It is the same for maids. For the first few days of their work, I have to be after them. Where and how to clean, with which tools are different from house to house. They clean houses using easier ways or past employers’ ways. Once they start getting used to the house, their work starts getting shoddy. I occasionally need to check their work. They usually say, “Yes, I cleaned everything!” if I ask them “Did you clean properly?” Sometimes I have to wipe corners of bathroom floors with tissue paper, to show them the dirt and tell them to clean it properly. It might sound too much, but unless I keep them alert, that I am watching their work, my house never gets cleaned. Some maids left work in the first few days of being micromanaged by me. That was fine, better than leaving later and complaining about workload.

I try not to think there was problem with me, but with work in the house.

Initially I was stressed out wondering why these people could not clean properly, or don’t have sense of hygiene. Why do they leave the toilet seat and bathroom floor wet? (Toilet and bathroom are mostly separated in Japan and toilet seats are dry as we use toilet paper after use). That was my fault. The houses here are different from where I used to live in Japan and their traditional cleaning tools are different from what I am used to. When the lifestyle is different, the way of cleaning is different. They know only their cleaning style unless I show them mine. I cannot just force my ways though. Sometimes I learnt better cleaning methods suitable to Indian houses and Bangalore weather.

Some readers might wonder why I still have a driver/maid, although I complain so much. I should maybe drive and do housekeeping myself. Yes, I tried them all. I got a driving license in Bangalore but I got stressed just after 15 minutes of driving with my all five senses fully on, sometimes even the sixth sense. I cleaned the house by myself for a week and then I got a cold as I was not used to washing the bathroom and balcony with cold water. Moping the floor was heavy workload and washing oily pots with cold water in low sink made me tired. While in Japan, houses are smaller and floors don’t get dusty in one day, vacuum machines are handy and light, wet moping is not necessary every day, bathroom floors can be easily cleaned with light touch. I could easily wash utensils with hot water from a tap (pots don’t get oily as we use less oil for Japanese cooking). I persuaded myself to appreciate that there are people who work for me with much less payment than in Japan and I could not enjoy this freedom from housework once I move to higher labor cost countries. All I had to do was understand their mentality and then, manage them accordingly. I could not be too nice or too rude. I should respect them but not be friendly with them. Balancing that line is still tricky to me.

I also found that understanding a culture is different from accepting it. I studied South East Asian culture in university; I home-stayed in a small village in Malaysia, I built an orphanage in the countryside in Philippines, and traveled a lot in Asia. It made me misunderstand that I understood different cultures. However, I just saw them and it didn’t mean I accepted them. I get very upset whenever maid/driver comes late, whenever house is not cleaned properly or whenever I am told a lie etc. but I know that I cannot change their nature, or mine which comes in my blood. If I want to use maid/driver in India, I have to just stop complaining about them. I just need to accept their mentalities and be physically, emotionally and mentally prepared for it. Arghhh!