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Creative writing — a journey of self discovery and breaking stereotypes for marginalised foreign domestic workers

BY Katherine Li / Hong Kong Baptist University | 23-Oct-2019
In this competitive and vibrant city, the tens of thousand of foreign domestic workers behind the scenes are often not seen or heard. Facing both economic pressure from home and the local stereotype that they are not competent enough for intellectual tasks, some have turned to creative writing as their emotional outlet, resulting in poignant and unique stories of love, suffering, and perseverance.
Creative writing — a journey of self discovery and breaking stereotypes for marginalised foreign domestic workers
Most migrant workers are only free to study in TCK Learning Centre on Sundays when they have their only day-off, but this doesn’t deter their desire to learn.
As a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong, Anni Juliana works in her employer's home six days a week up to 13 hours a day. On Sunday, her only day off, the 37 year old from North Sumatra in Indonesia spends this time on studying English and participating in creative writing.

Ms. Juliana is one of the over 360,000 foreign domestic workers in this competitive city, around 41 percent of whom are Indonesian. She is also one of 10 whose work was featured in Java Tales and Voices, a creative writing magazine published last December by local charity TCK Learning Centre for Migrant Workers.

"Back when I was in school in Indonesia, I always loved to write in English," said Ms. Juliana, sitting cross-legged on a lush carpet in TCK Learning Centre's study room, while her friends outside put on makeup and sequined dresses in preparation for their angklung traditional Indonesian music performance later that afternoon. "I had to go find work, but I still try my best to find these opportunities."

Under the instruction of Becky Mitchell, their creative writing instructor, Java Tales and Voices was published as a compilation of creative works by migrant workers. Despite high operating costs, a number of workshops around the city have also been encouraging foreign domestic workers and ethnic minorities to tell their stories and take pride in their culture through creative writing.

In her personal memoir titled Rainbow, Ms. Juliana tells a poignant personal story of struggle and hope, about how she fought to keep her family afloat and give her three children a future.

"Tick tock… Tick tock… Days, months, years go by, my kids growing up. Time moves so fast. No one can control or stop it, or even push the pause button. A million tears fall. A million prayers I send up to heaven just for one reason," wrote Ms. Juliana.

Her two favourite poets, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes whose works discuss race and identity, have inspired her to write with her own voice.

"Before I thought it's just a sad story, no one wants to know it and they will judge me for my poor life, but their poems touched something deep inside and I can see their emotions within myself. It helps me to speak about myself when I know that other people in the world are doing it too. Now I know there is a great story out there that can come from the reality of my life," she said.

Life as a domestic helper is often turbulent with very limited upward mobility, said Ms. Juliana. Tearfully, she recalls how many domestic workers here are treated poorly and made to perform degrading duties.

"Yes, we come in here for work, but people here would be more grateful if they know about our lives through our writing," said Ms. Juliana. "We also have the same dream to make a better future."

Dwi Wuryaningshi, 32, from Semarang, Indonesia, also has a dream of her own.

"I dream of becoming a freelance writer who can write from the comfort of my own home and choose what jobs to accept," said Ms. Wuryaningshi, who published four works in Java Tales and Voices. She is currently interested in writing crime and mystery short stories.

Ms. Wuryaningshi said that most migrant workers in Hong Kong did not attend college and many have entire families counting on their income.

Despite their previous level of education, the workshop participants' enthusiasm and passion to learn has deeply moved Ms. Mitchell.

"These women are bright and able," she said. "They are willing to spend their only free time studying, and this perseverance is so difficult to attain."

Ms. Mitchell said she encourages writers not to worry about having "perfect English" and teaches them that adding their own cultural elements into their writing makes the story more personal.

"I often incorporate both Hindu and Chinese culture into my writing. I realised that there are so many shared characteristics between these two cultures," said Reena Bhojwani, an ethnically Indian creative writer and teacher who was born and raised in Hong Kong.

Her creative writing workshops include a mix of Chinese and ethnic minority children from local schools. She believes that the freedom of not having a fixed standard in format and language is what really fosters their creativity and self-expression.

"I have two horror short stories that explores the concept of afterlife, both based on the Hindu and Chinese beliefs and traditions related to death. Having both cultural backgrounds really enriches my imagination and allows me to incorporate these interesting observations into my creative work," says Ms. Bhojwani.

She said that the fear of "writing wrongly" is a problem among ethnic minority children in local schools, because lacking proficiency in the local tongue can easily deprive them of the confidence to learn anything, let alone create.

"Back in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert made the analogy in his Madame Bovary that 'human speech is like a cracked kettle', so the notion that human language and speech is inherently imperfect shouldn’t be a novel idea," said Dr. Jason Polley, lecturer of English literature and creative writing in Hong Kong Baptist University.

Dr. Polley, who writes poetry, has held several creative writing workshops for Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong over the past year, which he finds to be "culturally inspiring".       

"There is no such thing as 'perfect English'," he said. "Look at languages like Singlish and Taglish, and you will begin to realise that there is beauty and so much creativity in those so-called 'flawed English'."

To encourage his workshop attendees who may lack confidence in their English writing ability, he alternated between varieties of language in conversation and asked them to freely express whatever they have weighing on their minds. During this self disclosure process on paper to an imaginary audience, some participants may even shed tears due to traumatising experiences they have endured while working in this city.

"While the creation of poems and prose can often be their outlets of distress, I do realise that a few poems cannot change the fact that the Hong Kong mainstream culture here collectively turns a blind eye to their lives," Dr. Polley said.

He said that the purpose of these workshops are less to be recognised by Hong Kong people, but more for them to recognise themselves.

"The writing process is a journey of self exploration and awareness — it's reflexivity," said Dr. Polley. "Just by allowing ethnic minorities a chance to write and be published somewhere empowers them emotionally and shows them that they have agency over their creativity, and that is what really counts."

Feeling the joy of being published and heard, Ms. Juliana said that she would love to write more, even though her demanding job as domestic helper takes up the majority of her hours.

"We do what we do because we think about people we love back in Indonesia. Our family needs us and is waiting for us," said Ms. Juliana, "But publishing writing can really help show a different side of us, for people here to see us the same as they are — as a human."