A world without Filipinos

At the end of their brief June 24th meeting at the White House, US President George W. Bush and his visitor from the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, faced the press for a photo opportunity.  President Arroyo arrived in the US at around the same a powerful typhoon was battering her country, and a Filipino passenger ship carrying almost 800 people was reported to have capsized in stormy waters.

The American president’s opening remarks at the press briefing were reported in several US broadsheets, and drew some scathing rejoinders from bloggers.  They give us a glimpse of the state of mind of the world’s most powerful leader whom Nelson Mandela once called a “thoughtless man.”  Here is a fragment of the transcript:

President Bush:  “Madam President, it is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Oval Office.  We have just had a very constructive dialogue.  First, I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that – in which there’s a lot of Philippine-Americans.  They love America and they love their heritage.  And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the – of our

Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House.” (laughter)

President Arroyo:  “Yes.”

President Bush:  “And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President.”

The LA Times summed up the rest of the briefing thus: “Arroyo thanked Bush for the compliment, and for the offer to send two assets the Philippines need desperately now: U.S. Navy ships to help with ferry rescue, and rice to feed a country suffering a rice shortage. ‘We’re happy to do it,’ said Bush. ‘We want to help our friends in a time of need.’”

The Filipino-American chef that Bush was referring to is, of course, none other than Cristeta “Cris” Comerford. Many Filipinos greeted her appointment as White House head chef in August 2005 as a major national achievement.  Bush must have been reminded of the tremendous pride Filipinos take in the success of this compatriot in the American president’s kitchen. He might have been so captivated by this charming thought that he momentarily forgot he was talking to the president of a nation that had just been visited by a tragic calamity.  Reading the transcript from the Oval Office, one can’t help asking if this was the meeting that Ms Arroyo could not forego and for which she traveled all the way to America with half of her Cabinet at a time of gloom and mourning in the country she left behind.

All over the world, the nations that Filipino overseas workers have served well by their labor, talent, and dedication never fail to express their appreciation for the cheerful way Filipinos perform their duties while contending with the vicissitudes of living in strange cultures. While they note the immense contributions Filipino workers make to their countries, however, even the most appreciative among them tend to be oblivious to the personal suffering that migrant workers often bear as a result of their isolation from their families and communities.

Once in a while, one comes across a reflective piece that articulates the gratitude of host communities that have greatly benefited from the labor of Filipino guest workers.  Such is the short essay written by Abdullah Ai-Maghlooth for a local newspaper in Saudi Arabia.  The author muses: “Whenever I see Filipinos working in the Kingdom, I wonder what our life would be without them.  Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Filipino workers – 1,019,577 – outside the Philippines.  In 2006 alone, the Kingdom recruited more than 223,000 workers from the Philippines and their numbers are still increasing… .Nobody here can think of a life without Filipinos….We could die a slow death if they chose to leave us.”

These are heart-warming sentiments, and they could form the basis of a global solidarity with migrant workers everywhere.  But they are necessarily self-referential: they note the indispensable contributions that Filipinos make to the well-being of the host nation.  They single out Filipino workers for their skill, their tenderness, and their loyalty. But they do not see the human being that performs all these services and possesses all these traits.  They do not see the families these workers have left behind, the relationships they have put on hold because of migration, and the experience of humiliation and helplessness they often go through as virtual exiles in strange lands. Away from their loved ones and circle of intimates, their lives tend to be bare.  Wrenched from the culture that is their medium, their identities tend to wither.

They help maintain and reproduce the social systems that host them, but these societies do little to integrate them as members.  Their service is needed, but not their person, or — to be more precise — not the cultural practices that reproduce them as individuals with identities of their own.

A world without Filipinos may seem unimaginable to those nations whose lives have been greatly enriched by their presence.  But, impossible as it may be, a world that allows every Filipino to take his loved ones along wherever he may choose to work would be a far richer world.  Better still, a Philippine society that affords every Filipino the chance to grow and to use his talents without having to leave his country would be a far richer society.

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