The Merchant and the Housewife

Once upon a time, when you and I were in primary school, and we sat on wooden chairs and tables writing on pulp paper that could tear if you rubbed it too hard, our teachers gave us forms to fill so they could know more about us.

These forms always began with Nama bapa (father’s name), followed by pekerjaan bapa (father’s occupation). Then came Nama ibu (mother’s name) and pekerjaan ibu (mother’s occupation).

Back in the day, schools liked to know what your parents did. If you went to my school, it was so they could know who had money and who didn’t, for that would be very useful when it came to painting the school walls or paving the tennis courts.

Many girls pretended that their parents didn’t have much money, but the teachers would know because they would’ve seen the forms. Other girls really didn’t have any money. And this was how the Merchant and the Housewife came to be.

On one such evening when we were required to bring the forms home, I asked my father, “Daddy, what is your occupation?”

“Daddy’s a businessman,” he said. “But write merchant. M-E-R-C-H-A-N-T,” he wrote in perfect capital letters on the pulpish paper I brought to him. A merchant, I whispered to myself. I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded magical.

“Daddy, what is Mummy’s occupation?” I asked.

“Mummy’s a housewife,” he answered. “Write H-O-U-S-E-W-I-F-E.”

And this was how the Merchant and the Housewife came to be (and how I came to love both these words as I filled in more forms over the next school years).


  1. Janice says:

    merchant definitely sounds more sophisticated than businessman albeit rather odd because no one says “I’m a merchant” these days.
    actually it reminds me of those malay-english storybooks where pedagang is merchant/trader where else peniaga is businessman. correct me if i’m wrong.

  2. wanphing says:

    I know what you mean! I was surprised that my dad said ‘merchant’ – I was only in Std 2. And yes I remember the difference between pedagang and peniaga. Oh what joy, Bahasa Melayu I miss you!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s