Sitting in a hotel in Hong Kong, I wait to call my former yaya—the one who took care of me from the time I was born, and who moved with us across continents. For a generation, different members of her family have worked for different members of mine, and it feels as though I have always known her, though in reality I sadly know so little about her.
When we moved to the US when I was fifteen, my yaya could only obtain a one-year visa, after which she left us to move to Hong Kong where she would begin working for a family friend of ours. At that point, when she left our employment, the children she had spent her adult life raising as if they were her own had grown, and had not grown up to be her sons and daughter. She never had children of her own, moving around with us so much, but she had become the primary supporter of her extended family in Bacolod.
This fact of her sacrificed life first occurred to me when I was ten years old. We were living in Hong Kong and she had gone to the US to accompany my lola to San Francisco while my lola underwent treatment for cancer. Any time a family member went to the US he or she went with a long list of toys and candies we wanted that were only available there. One afternoon a few days after my yaya had returned, she sat next to me and slipped me a little box. It was a video; she told me that she had bought it for me in San Francisco. I looked up at her and suddenly realized that she didn’t have her own child to give presents to, that she didn’t have any family in all of Hong Kong, in fact. I realized then that even despite the embarrassment of toys she knew I had, she had chosen to spend part of what little money she had to buy something for me.
I still see my yaya every now and then and my brother and I write her letters. Now that we’re Facebook friends, I send her any picture I find of her in my mother’s albums: her sitting on my parents’ dorm room bed at Wharton, her making scrambled eggs in Virginia—scraps of the scenes of her life lived alongside, yet not fully with, our own.
There are so many things that one never really knows about one’s parents, at least not until one is much older, if ever. What are the contours of their private emotional lives, and what did they give up in order to be your parents? Yet, the things I don’t know about Ana run so much deeper than that. For many years she lived with us and yet I wasn’t even certain in exactly which room she slept, what that room looked like. I saw her writing letters all the time, but could barely fathom what stories they contained. I only saw her eating twice in my whole life—once when I was five and didn’t yet understand the separation of our quarters and marched directly downstairs to sit next to her as she and the maids ate dinner. I don’t know if she ever had air-con in her room. Now that I am grown and that she is no longer in our employ, perhaps we have more room to know each other better, and I write this for her now in commitment to that end.
Ana is but one of the now overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) whom our country has failed. Our political-economic system has not provided adequate resources and support to make upward mobility possible, so those without opportunity have voted with their feet and left our country. Invest Philippines writes: “Remittances from the nearly 10 million Filipinos abroad are the biggest change of the past decade in the Philippine economy…Remittances from Filipinos working abroad have become the economy’s second largest source of foreign capital…They have created an underlying floor for the economy that some economists believe accounts for about 4% annual economic growth and shielded the conservative Philippine elite from pressure to reform the status quo.”
Given the continuing and egregious inequality in our country, we likely would have already had a revolution had employment abroad not created a valve to release such social and economic pressure. Yet, even as the sweat of our overseas workers—who endure predatory exploitation and sacrifice their lives—provides crucial ballast to our economy, inclusive economic growth eludes us. The government hails the OFWs as the “bayani” of our country, and they truly are, yet such heroization of and support for the massive exportation of our people does not absolve our government and society from their duties to provide opportunity for Filipinos in their own country.
A friend in Hong Kong calculated for me what her maid earns working 4-5 days a week for her there. After subtracting the cost of her Hong Kong rent, she has approximately P42,000 a month. A public school teacher in the Philippines teaching two shifts of kindergarten students for 12 hours a day may make as little as 6,000 pesos a month. No wonder our country’s teachers, nurses, and even doctors continue to prefer to live as second-class citizens in Hong Kong, Qatar, and still more distant shores. They live their whole lives away, in the borrowed quarters of somebody else’s life, with somebody else’s family, taking care of another’s baby, while their own children grow up not knowing their mothers. We cannot continue to allow them to prop up our country while domestic corruption and indifference to the plight of our impoverished both at home and abroad squander their sacrifice.
The elite get off easily in this. The poor just want to get by, and so the rich feel no true pressure from them to implement socially progressive reforms or to create the conditions for others to share in their good fortune. Some anomalous examples of wealthy, self-made professionals exist, but largely what we have seen over the last half century in terms of change and of true wealth creation are merely the up-and-down movements of those who already had some kind of foot in the game. The idea of doing well for oneself here–of becoming wealthy in a legal and plausible way–does not exist for the vast majority of our people. While I understand that the reasons our economic growth has largely been jobless growth are myriad and complex, and that a deepening manufacturing sector portends more inclusive growth in the coming future, our measure of success as our economy grows must be our ability to lift people out of poverty and to create opportunity and possibility here at home. This is particularly owed given the painful source of much of the economic growth enjoyed over the last decade, and the lives that were sacrificed for it along the way.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University