Our destiny is ours to shape, as two inspiring Hong Kong domestic helpers show

Kelly Yang is inspired by the grit and passion of two domestic helpers who pursued their interests despite the limitations of their job

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 2:09pm

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having lunch with domestic helper Xyza Cruz Bacani at the Macau Literary Festival. She shared with me her incredible journey going from maid to photographer.

She first came to Hong Kong when she was only 18. For the last nine years, she had been working as a domestic helper, cleaning and taking care of the children for a family in Mid-Levels. Before coming to Hong Kong, she had no photography skills. It was by sheer happenstance that she picked up a camera.

"My employer did not give me Sundays off. She gave me a weekday off, and that day kept changing," she explained. Because she didn't have a consistent day off, it was difficult to socialise with other helpers.

Other helpers might have baulked at such an arrangement but Bacani saw it as an opportunity to do something other than sit and chat. She decided to try her hand at photography. She saved up money to buy a point-and-shoot, which she later upgraded with her employer's help. In January, her groundbreaking photographs won her the prestigious Magnum Foundation Human Rights scholarship to study photography at New York University. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

At the time of writing, another helper, Liza Avelino, was climbing the 6,200-metre Island Peak in the Everest region, after having saved up money over two years - and enough days off - for the expedition. In addition to Island Peak, she has also scaled Japan's Yarigatake, and plans to climb the Alpamayo in Peru. Avelino says that scaling peaks keeps her motivated.

Women like Avelino and Bacani remind us that our starting points in life may be different but our destinations don't have to be. It's up to us to shape our own destinies. Within minutes of talking to Bacani, I was struck by her fortitude. We were sitting in the grand ballroom of the MGM Macau, surrounded by famous writers from all over Asia. I asked her whether she felt part of this new world, or whether she still feels she's of her old world of helpers. Neither, she said. She felt in-between worlds.

Therein lies the secret to success: the ability to forge ahead when you've outgrown your past, even though you're not quite used to your future. It can be a lonely journey. Bacani admitted that many of her domestic helper friends don't understand her, don't get why she spends all her time taking pictures. No doubt, many in the cutthroat literary world also won't understand her. At the MGM lunch, I noticed that few writers came up and talked to her, even though her story was hands down the best I'd come across in years. But I have full confidence Bacani will adjust to her new future, just like she adjusted to being a domestic helper in Hong Kong.

The success of women like Bacani and Avelino should remind us employers - lest we forget - that our helpers are individuals with hopes and dreams, just like us, and we should encourage them to develop their talents and interests. Believe it or not, the person cleaning our floors today may very well be tomorrow's Pulitzer Prize winner.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk