I will not mention her name here. It was bad enough that I had to ask her what she was doing in Hong Kong. But then, how could I presume what job a B.Sc. in Agriculture graduate from UP is prepared to take on these days?
UP students have this illusion that they belong to a privileged stratum simply because they are at the State University. When they graduate, they are told that they can have any job they want in the market.
Sally (not her real name) majored in Plant Pathology, believing that this was what a developing agricultural country like ours needed. Upon graduation, she worked in a government laboratory. But what she earned – about P4000 a month — was not even enough for herself. And she wanted to help her parents support her brothers and sisters who were still in school.
That is why she took a leave and came to work as a maid in Hong Kong. “I earn about P12,000 a month here,” she told me, “but I know this is not what I studied in UP for. I will go back to my old job after I have saved enough.” She then showed me her ID, and asked me if I thought it was possible to extend her leave-without-pay. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that many of my colleagues at the UP had found themselves at one point in their academic careers working, in a manner of speaking, as OCWs — and they were not allowed to go on leave for more than 2 years.
But this was the first time in my travels abroad that I had bumped into a UP graduate working as a maid. I remember expressing mild shock in Japan some years ago when I ran into a Filipino entertainer who had attended UP. “I am a singer here,” she quickly informed me, “not a prostitute.”
I knew that Sally was slightly embarrassed by my having to ask what she was doing in Hong Kong. But in her eyes, I could sense that she was more sorry for the institution that had given her her education than for herself. I think that somehow she felt she was betraying the ideals of her alma mater by working in a job not fit for a UP alumna. How very Pinoy!
I assured her there was absolutely nothing to be apologetic about her present work. “You’re earning an honest living,” I told her, “it is provisional, and you’re not stealing. It is all that matters. I know you will go back soon to where you belong and resume your career as a young scientist.”
Meeting Sally and others like her filled my mind with uneasy thoughts throughout my brief stay in Hong Kong recently. Almost all of these kababayans were college graduates. They not only cleaned the homes and cooked the meals of their less educated employers, they also doubled as the children’s English-speaking tutors.
Mario and Betty (not their real names) are a young couple with three kids. The kids were left with Betty’s mother in the province. Betty is a commerce graduate, but in Hong Kong she takes care of her 2 aging retired employers. She shares a small room with another Pinay who cooks for the household.
Last year, Mario, also a college graduate, decided to join his wife in Hong Kong. He is employed as a member of an early morning cleaning brigade. The job begins after midnight, and it entails washing the floors, cleaning the ovens, the air-conditioning system, etc. of upscale hotels and restaurants. “It is dirty,” he said, “but it is not dangerous and difficult; and it pays reasonably well.”
He had to stay in a dorm for other Pinoy male workers during his first few months in the island. He would visit his wife every weekend, and together they would attend Sunday religious service and do some window-shopping. His wife’s Chinese employers took pity on him one stormy evening, and told him he could stay with his wife if the other Filipina, the cook, did not mind sharing the room with a man.
Today, he does not pay rent anymore, but more important, he can live with his wife. In return, he fixes things around the house. Of course, in this situation it is not easy to have private moments as a couple, especially since they have to share the double-deck bed with the cook. But they seem to manage quite well. They are much better off than other Pinay maids who, every evening, have to sleep on plywood boards perched on top of refrigerators or bath-tubs in the cramped homes of their Chinese employers.
I purposely took the late afternoon plane out on Sunday so that I could have time to meet these modern Pinoy adventurers who congregate on Statue Square and Chater Road on weekends. I ended up instead in Mong Kok, where about 3000 members of the Jesus Is Lord (JIL) fellowship met every Sunday morning. It was fascinating to see so many of our people re-discover a sense of community and identity in a far-away land.
For some curious reason, Hong Kong has always been a meeting place for Filipinos who care for their country. A little over a hundred years ago, Filipino patriots came here as exiles and plotted the overthrow of the Spanish colonial government. And over 10 years ago, Filipino democrats also met here in this island to plot the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship.
When things were quiet and life was easy at home, Filipinos came to Hong Kong as honeymooners and shoppers. But in the last 25 years, as the Philippine economy reeled from one crisis to another, it was the refugees from poverty who came in great numbers. As our nation prepares for its 100th birthday, and as the world enters a new millennium, my dream is for Filipinos like Sally, Mario and Betty to be able to come home from the Diaspora, and build their lives on the foundation of our country’s own prosperity.
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