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A response to the ‘love letter to Filipinos’

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A recently published “Love Letter to Filipinos” (PDI Opinion page, Feb. 18, 2013) must have lifted the spirit and filled the heart of every Filipino reader with joy—with good reason. We are a people much given to self-denigration. Heaven knows we could use a well-deserved pat on the back, almost as much as we occasionally do deserve a well-placed kick in the butt!

In his letter, retired academic David H. Harwell speaks in glowing terms of the endearing qualities of the Filipino, both as an individual and as a people.

He makes special mention of our enduring traditions—especially the ties that bind us together as families—whether remaining homebound in the Philippines and blooming where we were planted, or laboring in some distant land as part of the overwhelming OFW diaspora (currently estimated to be in the region of 10 million) scattered across the world.

While it is heartening to read/hear praise such as this from the receiving end of the country’s worldwide network of OFWs, our continuing identification as “caregivers to the world” has not done much to lift our national pride, though it has obviously served to top up the national coffers.

As former Filipino overseas residents (pre-OFW diaspora), my late husband and I had the opportunity to sample life away from home as “expats,” with some—though not all—of the perks associated with this privileged status.

Mass exodus

We were part of a very young (average age 29) group of journalists and media practitioners, mainly from Asia, Britain and the United States, who gathered in the early ’60s in the then British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to pioneer the publication of The Asia Magazine, the first—and still the only—regional Sunday supplement in this part of the globe.

The mass exodus of Filipinos as economic migrants had yet to take place, the Philippines of the ’60s being regarded as an Asian Tiger, second only to Japan in development. My husband and I left the country not as economic migrants, but as refugees from the grief of losing our first baby, which left us bereft and open to the idea of escape, solace and distraction via overseas work.

In fact, we may have been instrumental in throwing open the floodgates of the OFW diaspora when we applied to “import” the first two Filipina domestic helpers to Hong Kong to replace our Chinese amahs in the early ’70s. Friends followed suit, and soon the tide was unstoppable, not only in Hong Kong, but elsewhere in the world.

Just as visiting and living in the Philippines for brief periods of time opened the letter-writer up to the welcoming embrace of the Filipino family, giving him intimate glimpses of the Filipino psyche, our virtually uninterrupted stay in Hong Kong—originally intended as a two-year stint which stretched to more than three decades—became a journey of discovery of the different cultures, traits, character, eccentricities, charms, and food of the various nationalities and races that made up our little “United Nations” at work.

I came in time to identify with and to value the candor and forthrightness of the American and the Canadian, the dry wit and stiff upper lip of the Brit, the industry and work ethic of the native sons and daughters of Hong Kong, the industry and business savvy of the Peking native and/or Shanghai refugee from the Mainland, while discovering the difference in the degree of chilli hotness between the Sri Lankan and the Indian curry, not to mention the marked distinctions between Indonesian, Thai and Korean cuisines, and the subtle French and Chinese nuances of Vietnamese food.

The downside of the flood of Filipino DH (domestic helpers) into Hong Kong was that there came a time when each mention of the word “Filipina” in the local papers and social circles invariably meant Filipina OFW. The practice somewhat abated when I wrote to the leading Hong Kong daily (South China Morning Post), pointing out that the word “Filipina” is generic, and refers to all Filipino women, as opposed to “Filipino,” the designation that applies to the Filipino male.

‘My Filipina’

I called attention to the fact that nobody ever refers to the English nanny as “My English,” or to the Chinese amah as “My Chinese,” while “My Filipina” was almost always invariably used when speaking about the Filipina domestic helper.

Likewise, I thought I scored an important point when I mentioned that their own Business editor (the late Dende Montilla) was a Filipina, and that the then Philippine consul general to Hong Kong (the late Fely Gonzalez), was a Filipina! Neither one was qualified to be referred to as “My Filipina”!

Sadly, a Hong Kong-based Filipina OFW responded, accusing me of demeaning their ranks and of snobbery, while at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), favorite watering hole of HK journalists, my husband faced ribbing. “And how is your ‘Filipina’ doing today?” asked gadflies around the bar.

Returning and adjusting back to life in the Philippines after a long absence was difficult. There were new realities to contend with even as, thankfully, some of the old values, including family solidarity, remain. A major cultural shock is the Filipino’s newfound taste for sugar in almost every Filipino dish, from the once savory but now sweetened  tapa, to—horror of horrors!—sweet bagoong. Yikes!

Is the politically correct word “kasambahay” (housemate, co-tenant) more honest than the traditional “katulong,” meaning helper? The word kasambahay may seem to be well-intentioned, but it cloaks an insidious message of deception. It implies that there is something demeaning or wrong in being a katulong.

Why? Is being a katulong something to be ashamed of? Is it not an honest and respectable job? By mandating a switch to the politically correct kasambahay, are we not robbing the honest work of the katulong the dignity it deserves?

Harwell mentions that in the countries he has lived and worked in throughout Asia and the Middle East, it is the Filipino who does the work and makes things happen. Of course! And, why not? In those places, OFWs are accorded the dignity of labor. Crowned with affirmation and recognition for work well done, they are able, not only to live up to, but to even exceed expectations.

As hardworking, gifted, talented, professional, “nice” and obliging the Filipino stay-at-home Juan/Juana, or global OFW might be, in the Philippines, he/she has yet to learn to value honest work. And while laudable in itself, the unfaltering devotion and commitment to family and clan is an impediment to the development of a national awareness of social responsibility and good citizenship.

We focus not on the good of all, but on our myopic vision of serving, protecting and caring only for our own—first, second, and last. Alas!


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