HONG KONG—Not long ago a Hong Kong magazine columnist infuriated the Filipino community in the territory, and some other expatriate Pinoys elsewhere, when he called the Philippines a Nation of Servants. His weekly satirical essays don’t always hit the mark, but that one about national servitude hit a nerve among Pinoys—even though some 80 percent of the migrant workers do indeed work as menials in the region. Nowadays of course the word “servant” has been replaced by the more politically correct “helper,” but it still carries vestiges of the stigma associated with belonging to the lower classes. That Hong Kong writer’s words were seen as insulting to the dignity of the migrant workers who often chafe at being treated like slaves by some Chinese—an irony since many of the Hong Kongers’ forebears were refugees from the mainland where they were once themselves enslaved.
In the late 1770s Napoleon is said to have denigrated the British by saying they belonged to a Nation of Shopkeepers, a people whom he considered unfit to fight the French. But he was proved wrong because Britain begun to industrialize and quickly developed into a prosperous world power.
During a crime wave in the 20s, the US gained a reputation as a Nation of Gangsters, but its steady rise to booming prosperity after World War II soon expunged that label as the country became famous for being the land of plenty and opportunity.
When the communists eradicated the feudal system that had kept China poor for centuries, the hard labor imposed by Mao Tse Tung on all citizens meant that both sexes toiled incessantly, dressed in drab blue uniforms. As the world looked on, some dubbed China a Nation of Blue Ants.
Now that writer Mona Simpson, the sister of the late Steve Jobs, has written a book in which a main protagonist is a Filipino nanny, one wonders if Pinoys would again feel belittled, just like when the Hong Kong columnist hung the servant label on our citizenry. But in this case Simpson has created a strong and admirable character in the person of the nanny, giving a different slant to the old mistress and maid theme.
Simpson’s book “My Hollywood” deals with the life of an American woman, a professional composer, with her television writer husband. Living on the fringes of Hollywood society, they hire a nanny for their young son. The chapters alternate between the voices of the American woman, whose life seems to be unraveling, and the Filipina, whose existence is the typical domestic-supporting-family-back-home. The writing is sociologically perceptive and skillfully catches the cadences of Pinoy English, though one wonders why Simpson chose the Tagalog word for grandmother for her protagonist, “Lola,” and why she made Tagaytay Lola’s hometown when it’s nothing like the barrios of Ilocos and Davao from where many of the migrants hail.
Well-off Americans have traditionally imported Irish au pairs (nannies) for their children. Today Latinas and Filipinas have taken on that role. A multitude of Hong Kong’s Pinay workers have migrated to Canada as well.
When the late President Cory Aquino went on her first state visit abroad, to Italy, she held a press conference on her return. This was when the term “national heroes” had patronizingly been given to the hordes of our migrant workers. Cory related with pride that the mayor of Rome told her he had a Pinoy cook. She seemed to show no compunction that the country was exporting human beings like commodities and encouraged the trade, as would her successors—and did Ferdinand Marcos before her.
Perceived insults to our nation produced an embarrassing episode during Cory’s regime. The embassy in London one day claimed that aspersions had been cast on Filipina womanhood in the new Oxford Dictionary, where an entry defined the word “Filipina” as housemaid. Incensed, our foreign secretary sent a letter of protest to London. A reply soon arrived, pointing to the French term “fille de chamber” defined as chambermaid. There was no mention of Filipinas, leaving our officials with egg on their faces.
Misplaced sensitivities over migrant workers strike a chord nowadays when depressed economies worldwide drive many to work in the service sectors. The “Upstairs Downstairs” syndrome is everywhere, indeed the hit British TV series “Downton Abbey” chronicles the lives of an aristocratic family and the events that impinge on them as well as on their platoon of servants.
There is no room for superiority or inferiority complexes in today’s world. And although the Philippines seems to be “falling off the Asian map,” as an Australian analyst has written recently, it survives and thrives. The perennial bad governance and corruption may persist, with migrants still seeking survival abroad. Such a reality means that other novels like Mona Simpson’s “My Hollywood” may go on being written, and not just by non-Filipinos.