Yani

The girls — Luna, Eva and Isa — on the beach with Yani, June 2022.

There is a real tedium and grinding labor to parenting small children. It involves hassles like bottle washing, endless loads of laundry, or contorting your body to pick up the crayon that fell underneath the plane seat in front of you, again and again and again. For the past seven years, most of that labor has been borne by Yani, our caretaker, cook, cleaner, pet sitter, gardener, travel companion, and friend.

Born and raised in East Java, Indonesia, on lush farmland that grows bananas, papayas and other fruit, Yani moved abroad when she was 18 to take on more lucrative work than she could find near home. She worked as a domestic helper in Singapore, then returned to Indonesia briefly to await another placement, which led her to Taichung, Taiwan, caring for my grandparents. My grandma taught her to speak Mandarin and to make all kinds of Northern Chinese dishes and dumplings from scratch.

She ended her stint in Taiwan after a few years to return to Indonesia, where she got married and eventually had a baby, in 2015. That year, I gave birth to Isabel, in Seoul, and, given my unpredictable travel schedule as a foreign correspondent, needed additional help at home. We filed papers to sponsor Yani’s visa and boom, one day she arrived at Incheon, dazed and confused from a long flight, moved in with us in our 35th floor apartment, and instantly charged with the most tedious tasks of caring for a newborn, save for nursing, which only I could do. Luna arrived less than two years later. Yani has nurtured Luna since before she was born.

Yani and Luna in the kitchen in Seoul, summer 2018. My memories of Luna during that time were always of her plopped on a counter.

As we transitioned from a family of four, to a family of five, traveled constantly across the Asia region and beyond, hosted numerous guests and gatherings, marked birthdays, holidays, lost tooths, and other passages, grieved various cat goodbyes and welcomed new kittens, managed the international move to Los Angeles, two house moves since coming back, a COVID crisis, lockdown and the logistical hassles of divorcing amid a pandemic, Yani has stayed the steady presence.

She makes all the lunches, mops all the floors, cooks all the dinners, puts away all the groceries, waters all the plants, changes the litter, makes all the beds, and always knows where all the loveys are. She is the night time sitter when we all go on vacations, unpacks my suitcases every time I return from a trip, makes all the scallion pancakes from scratch.

She embodied so many different and significant roles, during the years I really built my career towards greater flexibility, and during crucial developmental time for the girls. It is no stretch to say my career, my children’s perspectives, and my life as i know it would not be possible with Yani. No one asks me “How do you do it all” because the answer is simple: Because I have Yani.

All dressed up and nowhere to go. Dressed up for dinner in lockdown, April 2020.

Thanks to my stint at NPR a few Thanksgivings ago, while I was nursing Luna, Yani was granted a business visa to come with me to the states, and it had five years on it, so she could come again when we moved here as a family. She has encountered so many places and people that she would never have otherwise, something she appreciates, as she likes to explore and expand her horizons. Quick to pick up languages, now she speaks Indonesian, and Mandarin, and English. But being with us has meant being away from her own family — namely her daughter Intan, who is seven, the same age as Isa. Yani’s visa is up next month, so Friday she goes home. My sadness that she’s leaving our family is streaked with a happiness she will reunite with her own.

No one carves up the leftover Thanksgiving turkey like Yani! Thanksgiving 2017, in Washington, DC.

My loved ones all worry for me, saying things like, “You are going to need to be on lithium” without “ayi,” which means auntie. I have stayed up late at night, wondering, how will we cope without her? Luna was so overwhelmed at our last Thanksgiving, knowing it would be Yani’s last, that while sharing our gratitude for Yani, Luna crawled under the dinner table and silently sniffed her stuffed bunny lovey.

The only option is to take it one day at a time. Though I will say, we’re so blessed to have had her for this long. The youngest is now five years old and can fend for herself in ways that were impossible just a year ago. And we’re beyond privileged to have had Yani at all.

Yani has braided so much hair over the past 7 years. Glamping, summer 2021.

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