The New Yorker’s recent restrained and beautiful article “The Cost of Caring” follows the life of Emma, a smart, persevering Filipino woman as she is forced to leave behind her job crafting health policy for the Philippine government, in order to work abroad as a maid. As do so many, she leaves her children to care for others’ children. “In the seventies and eighties,” the article notes, “most OFWs were men, who worked in merchant shipping or construction, but since the nineties migration has become increasingly female, both in the Philippines and throughout the world. Mothers and daughters leave their families so that they can do the type of ‘women’s work’ – caring for the young, the elderly, and the infirm – that females in affluent countries no longer want to do or have time to do.”
In various ways, the sacrifice and plight of our OFWs is well covered. I wrote about it myself in this column. That piece, “For my yaya and all our OFWs,” hoped to make the same political-economic point that a maid in the US, named Oalican, made to The New Yorker when she informed the magazine that she thinks that “the culture of remittances breeds political complacency: families of OFWs are less inclined to organize against the Filipino government and protest corruption, because they are shielded by the money sent from abroad, even as their communities remain impoverished.”
This time, however, reading about maids overseas, I found myself unable to move beyond the overlaid, contrasting cultures of home and of care involved – the alienness and unidirectionality of which you do not need to leave the Philippines to find. One of the maids from my mother’s house comes over to my apartment to clean once a week. It is an easy way for her to increase her salary by 25 percent, as she takes time out of her fixed hours at my mother’s house while still receiving her full monthly wage there. When she first came to help me in my new apartment, I felt that this time there was something different between us. Though she was very accustomed to seeing many of my things, having long arranged and tended to them at my parents’ home, there was now a direct, silent basis for comparison between us.
She and I are of the same age. We both live in Taguig. When she walked into my apartment, I felt that sharply and suddenly. That we were two young women, of the same age, same height, same country, same city, and that we were utterly alien. Indeed, the BGC portion of Taguig in which I live may very well be New York to hers.
I often wonder about her house while she cleans mine, but this is merely an exercise for me. While she is forced to live in my reality – to clean and to polish it – I am utterly shielded from hers. I never have to be made uncomfortable, and that false protection is a privilege for sale. In fact, I happen to live in an apartment facing diplomatic and kept lands. Looking toward the treetops of Forbes Park and Manila Polo Club, flanking my apartment are the Manila Golf Club, the American Cemetery and Memorial, and the Singaporean Embassy’s beautiful properties. Removed from meaningful interaction with the reality of my fellow Filipinos, of their altogether different Taguigs, and of what the Philippines is like for the majority of its residents, I can very nearly forget I’m in the Philippines at all.
When the article mentioned the work that “females in affluent countries no longer want to do or have time to do,” I didn’t think first of nannies in New York or caregivers in American retirement homes. I thought of our own chain of mothers stepping in for each other here in the Philippines, linking the province to the city, and the barrio to the subdivision. It is so easy to become emotional about the treatment of our OFWs abroad who too often are mercilessly relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Yet, is it not a greater injustice when it happens to someone in her own country? How many times have I sat for lunch at a restaurant and seen people fail even to make eye contact with the yayas, who enter the same room, share the same table, and feed our children. I’m so ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten to look up at times, too. Then on Sunday, I tried to make eye contact with one of the yayas who had come to Art In the Park, but as the beautiful kids ran circles around our legs and screamed in glee, she never lifted her gaze from them, being so accustomed to unacknowledgment by the adults.
Here we must return to the political-economic point, because of how numbed too many of us, lucky and wealthy, have become to living alongside such stark inequality. We’ve pushed it out of sight and shielded ourselves from meaningfully engaging with its reality. We often fondly recount how long a certain family has worked with ours – meaning worked for ours. But that only serves to show that there has not been wide, meaningful progress, if the children and grandchildren of those who served as surrogate mothers to our own children have not found other forms of employment. The divide between the two existences continues unabated. We may think too that we are giving our helpers a place to live, and we are, but as Emma recounts: despite the luxury and comfort opened to her by living at her employer’s home in New York, during her meals there she would often feel guilty and lose her appetite. “If you’re a mom,” she says, “you want anything you eat to be shared with your kids.”
The roadways out of such deep inequality are slow-going, but as we undertake the long work and bear the desensitized, technical discussions of economic policy, we can recover the moral component to this discourse easily and immediately. We can make eye contact, face the ethical weight of our privilege, and recover something of our humanity. Though we may be able to buy comfort, it shouldn’t ever actually feel comfortable.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University and co-founder of PAMPUBLIKO.com