When We Say ‘Housemaid’, We Really Mean…

By Leaderonomics|07-02-2014 | 1 Min Read

Mbak / Mba’
noun, plural

1. a title prefixed to the name of an older sister or a female of seniority in Javanese (an Indonesian dialect)

2. a title used to address a young woman in many Indonesian areas; Malaysian equivalent of ‘Kak’

3. a title generally prefixed to the name of a domestic helper in Indonesian households

Mbak Yatini has been with my family for over 12 years. Before her there were also Mbak Tur and Mbak Ipar, all of whom are sisters. In Indonesia we would refer to them as ‘pembantu’ (‘housemaid’ in English), which literally means ‘helper’. But like many other Indonesians, we are rather careful to use the term freely in conversations. Referring to them as ‘pembantu’ almost has some sort of an indelicately condescending connotation to it; so we more often refer to them affectionately as ‘Mbak gue’ (my ‘Mbak’), ‘si Mbak’ or ‘Mbak-nya’ (the ‘Mbak’), or simply their name.

Two of Snow White’s seven dwarves’ statues, difficult-child me, my big sister, Mbak Ipar

There are a number of reasons why this makes sense:

1. While we go about everyday attending classes, meeting deadlines at work and running errands, our ‘Mbak’s are the ones who ensure that our houses are secure and sight-friendly after hours of bearing a traffic jam show on the road, that our dining tables are nutrition-graced after a MSG-heavy mamak lunch and that our wardrobes are well-stocked with ‘Comfort’-scented pressed suits ready for another day outside tomorrow.

I believe we’re careful about how we refer to someone who does so much for our good because we understand that contrary to common conception, they are not holders of a ‘lower-status occupation’; that we all simply play different roles in running the world together and like Alfred Pennyworth (in Batman), theirs is smoothening our saving-the-day operations.

2. Back when I was a toddler, I used to have major crying fits. I was so difficult to handle that my mother would come to a point where she gives up on me. It was at these times that Mbak Ipar would pick me up and relentlessly strived to calm me down despite all my tantrum-throwing. For whatever reason she sayang-ed (loved) me so much that I used to call her ‘Mama’. My younger brother and sister had this similar relationship with Mbak Tur and Mbak Yatini respectively. To us, it doesn’t make sense to refer to them as just ‘my maid’ because they are also our care-takers and even, almost, half-mothers.

3. At any day (except during Raya and other miscellaneous ‘balik kampung’ occasions) I can almost always find my ‘Mbak’ in the kitchen. She is there when I need help finding my favourite blue cardigan, she is there when I need someone to talk to, she is there when I need someone to simply accept me and let me be. She is there no matter who I’m not and what I haven’t become. To me, it doesn’t make sense to refer to her as just ‘my maid’ because more than anything, she is a family and a friend.

My ‘Mbak’ is preparing our dinner right now as I write. Normally I would come down to the kitchen and help out, but today the deadline is approaching fast to me like a train running on a track.

So this is for her, her sisters and all the ‘Mbak’s and the Alfred Pennyworth’s out there in the world.

Thank You. I appreciate your Help, your Love, your Friendship.

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