Being born to a Filipino woman who married my father, a white man, and raised in the United States, I have been curious about my blood kin – the ubiquitous Filipino immigrants. At first, I thought of them as no different from the Thais, the Malays, or the Indonesians who had brown skins and flat noses, although a large number of Filipinos have some Chinese and even Spanish mestizo features, descended perhaps from a Spanish colonial ancestor.
You meet them everywhere: in hospitals, hotels, factories, stores, households – working as musicians, caregivers, nurses, domestic helpers, utility workers, bellboys, cooks, gofers. It is obvious that despite their command of the English language and fondness for things American they have a vastly different culture. Because so many of them render menial work, they have been cast into a stereotype – that of the Filipino as overseas worker. There was an instance where the Philippine government cried foul over a new entry in an Oxford dictionary which defined a Filipina as a “maid”.
While the lexicographers meant no offense, the Filipinos who still smarted from centuries-old colonialism took it as an insult. Fact is, thousands of Filipino women are employed all over the world as domestic helpers. The Filipino stereotype has endured due to the widespread poverty at home that compels the unemployed as well as the new graduates to seek employment abroad. It is not uncommon for a Filipino college instructor to be employed as waiter or security guard, or for a doctor of medicine to work as nurse in U.
S. hospitals. Some Filipino agriculturists and veterinarians, forsaking their professional careers as teachers and managers end up in Canada and the U. S. shovelling animal manure in farms. Other professionals leave their low-paying jobs in the Philippines to work as baby-sitters, janitors, care-givers in facilities for the elderly. From my mother, a Filipina who is a native of Mobolo, Naga City, I came to understand why the Filipinos act that way, patiently working in sweatshops away from their loved ones.
I asked her why Filipinos take so much trouble working as domestic servants abroad when most of them have had at least a high school or even a college education. My mother told me Filipinos are deeply attached to their families. Upon the death of a relative, especially a parent, a child, or a sibling, they would hurriedly return home to look at them for the final time. Unmarried children continue to live with their parents, and it is not rare that married couples cohabit with their parents or in-laws. Senior citizens are cared for and remain so much a part of the family in their remaining years.
To Westerners, whose children live independently when they reach 18 years, that may be a bit odd. But Filipinos are known to be clannish: for them even distant relatives are people they can trust, and to whom they could go for help in times of need. Deeply ingrained among Filipinos is the so-called “utang na loob”, literally, debt of gratitude: a person to whom a favour is given will be indebted to the giver as long as he/she lives. Thus, a person who betrays the trust of his patron or benefactor is considered the worst criminal on earth.
My mother believes much of the trouble of the Filipino nation stems from this trait: politicians are known to distribute largesse (pork barrel) to their constituents, personally doling out money to the poor (of which the Philippines has plenty) for the hospitalization of the sick, the baptism of a child, or the funeral expenses of a family head, knowing that the recipients would never forget their act of “kindness” when election time comes. Leaders are chosen not on the basis of competence but of their gratitude to him for past favours.
Filipinos consider it their duty to repay their parents’ efforts to raise and educate them. The oldest child who finishes schooling is expected to help the family by earning a living, or perhaps by sending a sibling to college. In a country where schools turn out graduates by the hundreds of thousands every year, unemployment is a giant problem. According to my mother, the daily wage in the city of Manila is something like P125. 00 or only a little more than three dollars. A nurse in a provincial hospital earns about $250. 00 a month or $3,000. 00 a year. How on earth could a family live decently on such a small budget?
It is no wonder then that there is an exodus of the Philippines’ workforce, including its best and brightest, to other countries where they could earn the equivalent of a year’s salary in a single month or even weeks. This explains why they can tolerate even abusive employers, work uncomplainingly for hours, knowing conditions are far worse at home. I learned too, from my mother, that Filipinos of her generation looked up to Americans as their brothers in arms, having fought alongside MacArthur’s forces in Bataan and Corregidor against the Japanese during World War II.
Most Americans today are not aware the Philippines was once a colony of the United States – acquired from Spain through the Treaty of Paris following the Spanish-American War of 1898. American soldiers were the natives’ first tutors in the English language, and the Philippines has produced some fine writers, including the late General Carlos P. Romulo (known as Mr. United nations) who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I have read somewhere that the United States’ legacy to the Filipinos were: democracy, the English language, and Hollywood. This explains the fact that most Filipinos are more Westernized than other Asians.
In a land of midgets, the national sport is the tall man’s game, basketball, with streets in the back alleys converted into makeshift basketball courts. Mother said they studied U. S. History and Government in high school, and were made to read Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There was a time, Mother recalls, when every white man was for them an “Americano. ” The way my mother sees it, the history of the Philippines has been one long struggle to free herself from dependence to Mother America, which is ironic, considering that thousands of Filipinos are wanting to migrate to this country.
I mentioned that the Philippines was a colony – under Spain for 333 years and under America for a few decades (from December 30, 1898 to July 4, 1946). Filipino migrants, at least the older ones, still have this colonial hang-over: they suffer from an inferiority complex despite their adequate education and upbringing. For centuries they were brainwashed into believing they were not fit for self-governance, that their lot was to bow down to the vassals of a foreign power. In a land of dusky girls, the ideal woman is one with a white skin (that is, until dark-complexioned Gloria Diaz won the Miss Universe pageant in 1969).
Maybe this explains why Filipinos are not known to complain being assigned menial tasks, as long as the pay is good and they can always provide for their families back home. Mother once made an interesting observation: she could easily spot a Filipino at the airport simply by looking for the person who carried the biggest luggage. Returning Filipinos are allowed to carry the “balik-bayan” boxes, which they stuff with clothing, shoes, chocolate, canned meat, and odds and ends – anything that is “stateside” – which are guaranteed to delight the folks back home.
Filipinos may appear to be the humblest and obedient workers in a foreign land but at home they are the object of respect and affection. They are apt to impress their families and friends about their struggles and accomplishments in a distant land just so they could provide food for the family table, education for the kids, a decent home, a bright future. Filipinos are different from other Orientals not only by their Western leanings. Founded by Magellan in the fifteenth century, the Philippines is predominantly Catholic; the rest are Protestants and Muslims. I myself am a Catholic.
Because of their Catholic upbringing, Filipino women are traditionally known for their modesty. Although many Filipinos have distinguished themselves in various fields, some becoming army generals, archbishops, space scientists, world class athletes and musicians (like Lea Salonga of “Miss Saigon”), Filipinos are more often seen swabbing the decks of aircraft carriers or doing odd jobs everywhere. Looking at them, I realize I am fortunate not to be scrounging for a living in a faraway land: at 33, I own a security business in the city of Fontana, California. I am a student and a single mother, having one daughter.
Filipino overseas workers account for some ten billion dollars in remittances to the Philippine coffers, which is a reason why the nation has a strong economy. But the price has been so dear. It entails being cut off from their families for years, which is agony for families so closely devoted to one another. So the next time you see them silently toiling away the hours, happy and contented while thinking about the good things their hard-earned wages would bring to their families back home, you may do well to remember that theirs is a sacrifice for the sake of those dear to their hearts.