“He’s extra and he’s upset the balance around here …. And when he leaves, he’ll make more money. He’ll work at the mill and buy a car and don’t talk to me –all they want is a car.” Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Displaced Person’ in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1988, p. 322)
Migrants are grotesque characters in the sense that they are caught in hybridity, cultural mixing or what Dirlik (1997 cited in Mendoza, 2002, p. 197) calls “in-betweenness.” They are spoken of in their home nations as striking it rich in developed societies where they have found employment. Filipinos, Chinese, Bangladeshis and Mexicans, who figure prominently in this writer’s poems, comprise of large migrant populations. About 100,000 Filipinos, for instance, work in Singapore, where this writer resides, usually as computer programmers, band musicians or domestic help.
Behind the veneer of upward mobility, however, could lie exploitation, bereavement and discrimination as a result of the migrants’ radical otherness. If migrants achieve success in their adopted society, it usually comes at a price: the erasure of in-betweenness and the abandonment of one’s native place, one’s people and, most dramatically, one’s voice.
The poem ‘Home Is Where Art Is’ delineates the journey of artists as economic migrants from their home countries to more advanced ones. They suffer hardships, especially estrangement from family, but find opportunities for self-fulfillment in their adopted societies.
I belong to a people on the move, with experiences and stories that cannot be fully explained by sociological theories and laws. How does one explain why a maid would kill her friend and her friend’s ward after a spat over presents for loved ones back home? How can one predict that a lowly fruit picker would become a celebrated brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins? More than nine million Filipinos, roughly a tenth of the population (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, 2004), work overseas. About 100,000 are in Singapore working mostly as computer programmers, band musicians or domestic help. Others are in cash-rich Middle Eastern countries, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Australia. A few eke out a living even in such unlikely destinations as Mongolia, Iraq, and Haiti. We are a rag-and-bone people piecing together scraps of abandoned homes, stitching threads of unspoken histories into one rambling epic.
Migrants’ discourses can be a rich source of imagery and mysteries that reveal in part our true identity, beliefs and values. Yet our state is what G.E. Marcus calls a ‘messy text,’ that is, exhibiting the qualities of ‘open-endedness, an incompleteness, and an uncertainty about how to draw a text/analysis to a close’ (cited in Mendoza, 2002, p. 35). Our situation is characterized also by hybridity, cultural mixing or what Dirlik (1997 cited in Mendoza, 2002, p. 197) calls ‘in-betweenness.’ Such a people whose existence rests on fragmentation deserves to construct or constitute its own poetry. Poetry is an apt art medium for migrants, for it is likewise characterized by ellipses (Pinsky, 2002, p. 9).
Many migrants are typically regarded and spoken about in our home nations as striking it rich in developed societies where we have found employment and new homes. Some of our employers and neighbors may look at us with suspicion and, like the farm owner in O’Connor’s ‘The Displaced Person’ in the epigraph to this paper, think that all we aspire for is material wealth. But hidden beneath the discourse of assumed wealth and status lie severe constraints, including a real loss of identity and family support. The latter could have dire consequences on our discourse and existence.
Migrants’ discourse—that is, a language for talking and representing (Mendoza, 2002, p. 36) varies according to context. Most Filipinos and migrants of all countries speak of a desire for greener pastures or, in cases of those adversely affected by a recent severe flood in Manila, to keep their heads literally above water. Many complain that their respective domestic markets are too small and underdeveloped to provide full employment to all skilled workers. Still, specialists and those with technical knowhow express the aspiration to being world-class and seek opportunities where their full potential can be tapped.
Varied migrant discourses can no longer be considered solely with one migration model or ‘laws’ in mind. The decision to migrate for Filipinos, for instance, is not a matter of taking a flight to the US and seeking help from relatives in the US for financial and other types of support. More comprehensive propositions characterize new migration patterns. In my case, I relocated to two countries where I have no relatives, first to Taiwan and then to Singapore. Immigration expert Elliott Robert Barkan of the California State University at San Bernardino identifies 27 of these propositions. Five of them apply most specifically to Filipino migrants:
- A migration decision is based on various circumstances;
- Critical factors include the amount and sources of information about possible roadblocks and destinations, the reach of social networks between the sending and receiving communities, and the degree of cultural, racial and linguistic differences between the sending and receiving communities;
- Access to information on affordable transportation, more distant destinations and availability of short-term foreign labor contracts encourages first-time migrants, particularly skilled ones, to move farther away from home;
- Women migrate based on their native culture’s tolerance of autonomous female activities, their age, level of skills and education, employment and marital prospects at home or in the receiving countries;
- And skilled workers as well as newly (or partially) trained professionals are encouraged to seek employment (or further training) abroad in order to reduce unemployment and to increase remittances from overseas workers (1992, pp. 33-5).
The government in my home country launches into encomia when it calls migrant workers heroes. This is mainly for the courage it takes not to splurge on their whims and remit over US$15 billion to the Philippines every year. This amount insulates the home economy to some degree from external pressures such as a volatile foreign exchange rate.
True to their idealized, heroic image, some migrant workers endure severe trials. If they are low-skilled and, worse, non-English-speaking, their ‘unemployment rates … [are] around double the national average’ in Australia (Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA), 2009). A few become veritable martyrs. Those employed as cockle pickers in the UK may get into an accident and drown; others who work long hours in UK sweatshops may die. But their families are denied insurance benefits, and the migrant workers’ rights are not protected if they are ‘illegal aliens’ (Pai, 2008). Some Filipino women working as entertainers in seedy bars in Japan live out a Cinderella dream by marrying Japanese men. But their domestic life comes to resemble that of the pre-ball Cinderella as they face discrimination from xenophobic in-laws (Hanochi).
It is inevitable that interaction among peoples of different cultures and interests leads to challenges, even outright conflict. This usually results from the desire of one group to dominate the other. Any accommodation could be painful (Barkan, 1992, p. xiii). Maria Reyes, a domestic worker in Damman, Saudi Arabia was frequently beaten and had her head banged against the wall by an Arab employer. She almost lost her eyesight. Glenda Giron-Lorio, a maid in Hong Kong, ran away after having been maltreated by her employer. But her employer found her and beat her up in front of the residents of that autonomous region’s Filipino Workers Development Center. Sarah Jane Demetera, a teenaged domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, was allegedly framed for the murder of her lady employer. She claimed an intruder had committed the crime, but signed a confession thinking that it would lead to her release. She remains in prison (Constantino, 2004).
Vulnerable to pressures both within and without, migrant workers risk being reduced to objects. They could get clinically depressed and commit felonies. A notable case was Flor Contemplacion, a domestic helper, who was hanged in Singapore for murdering another Filipina maid and the maid’s young ward. She and the other maid, her friend, had a petty quarrel over presents for Flor’s children. The murdered maid had reportedly complained that she could not accommodate the presents in her luggage. Portrayed on film by popular actress Nora Aunor, Flor has become a symbol for the millions of Filipinos driven by poverty to leave their families and take a gamble abroad. The significance of Flor’s experience is in many ways indecipherable, ambiguous and problematic. She, like Medea perhaps, as a murderess is also someone we extend understanding, despite non-acceptance of the murder itself. She also represents the sheer agonizing pain of a migrant being separated from her children who in this instance, are not able to be recipients of her hard-earned gifts.
Sharp inequality in wealth and limited social mobility back home trap many migrant workers and their families in a vicious cycle. Their pay abroad, a pittance compared to what others receive for the same, is nonetheless far more than what they could make (S$300 per month for a college teacher, for instance) in their hometowns.
Perhaps the biggest hidden cost of overseas work is estrangement from family. Erma Geolamin, a domestic helper in Hong Kong, visited her family back home no more than two weeks at a time for 14 years. She rationalized that she would rather save the airfare to buy goods for her family. In 1999, she returned home and found her husband with another woman. He had spent all her remittances on vices (Constantino, 2004). Erma’s relationship with her husband can be likened to the relationship between overseas Filipino workers and the Philippine government, with the latter not always being faithful to its duty to provide support.
One means of coming to terms with the complex reality of migrant living is to resort to figurative language. Barkan offers an analogy to explain the migrant experience: monkey bars or the jungle gym in a children’s playground. He said:
As the children decide to climb, several choices confront them in terms of direction and destination, although not all may be equally appealing or accessible. The jungle gym is also made to move somewhat (the instability adding to the adventure), and some paths are blocked by obstacles, others crowded by children who got there first, and on some of the bars are friends offering assistance (1992, p.36).
Such a ‘messy text’ is resistant ‘to this too-easy assimilation of the phenomenon of interest by given analytic, ready-made concepts.’ It is marked by ‘open-endedness, incompleteness, and an uncertainty about how to draw a text/analysis to a close’ (1997 cited in Mendoza, 2002, p.35). It demands a dialogue with people who offer alternative perspectives. Such a text is meant to be read, interpreted or even translated. Migrant workers and their hidden stories generate meanings. But these stories, in Gabriel Marcel’s language, are a Mystery. They make certain persons commit to or, at least, accept what the finite mind cannot fully grasp, a situation that demands not problem solving but involvement. In the case of the domestic helper facing capital punishment for murder, readers could imagine untold hardships that might have clouded her mind and distorted her self-expression during her trial.
This contextualization of migrants’ hidden stories as a basis for communal identification would not be complete without considering the other extreme of the foreign migrants’ spectrum. Successful Filipinos in Singapore include regional managers of IBM and other multinationals; media personalities in MTV and Channel News Asia; and skilled professionals such as doctors. Part of their success as well as that of other migrant peoples could be attributed to their assimilation or adjustment to the culture of their adopted society (Mendoza, 2002, pp. 140-1).
The story of Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa in the US is also worth retelling. He was a dirt-poor fruit picker in California who, by dint of hard work, graduated from Harvard Medical School. A celebrated brain surgeon and cancer researcher, he is the Mexican migrant poster boy whose brilliance makes his once hidden story the stuff of mythmaking. His story is repeated, though in less dramatic fashion, in the experiences of a few of my former high school classmates who have become US migrants. One of them is a Tennessee-based cardiologist, Dr. Joel Tanedo. He is no different from Flor Contemplacion and millions of migrant workers in his concerns and motivations. In an email, he writes:
We have a small Filipino community here, and we have a Catholic church run by Salvatorians. I hope to be back home someday and practice at a local hospital. I do miss everybody there and think of home a lot.
As long as certain domestic economies remain stunted by protectionist policies, that privilege an elite class, people will continue to migrate to seek better work opportunities and self-fulfillment elsewhere. A few do return home and, if not disappointed by sclerotic economic policies and infrastructure limitations, create jobs and contribute to the improvement in conditions of our countrymen. In the meantime, we will have to contemplate and endure the erasure of our in-betweenness and the abandonment of our native place and family.
As a final reflection on the migrant situation, I have written a poem. The viewpoint is an artist’s. It captures the anxieties, feelings and thoughts of those who struggle to cope with the complexities of migrant life. The artist here generates art from these conditions of life with an aim to draw attention via art to my peoples’ plight..
Home Is Where Art Is
Editor by day, poet of epic dreams
At night, I piled word upon word,
Tore them down and rebuilt next day:
A snapshot of a smug, literate island life.
But on a creaking seat on a bus,
Zipping red in clouds of soot,
I pondered my woes wrenching, staring back
From commuters gaunt and mute
In front of a decrepit Third World shack.
What comfort to laze in a white box
Observing clouds, tending bougainvillea
In Manila, Port of Spain or Suva.
But recession stilled presses amid flowers wilting,
A foreign shore’s siren song became alluring.
Home is kingdom come on earth,
But its hymns will have to wait till I am spirited
Where gold shines like cherub feathers,
A stage is wide enough to parade my talent.
This city breathes music, throbs with rushing blood
As I recast troubadour lyrics into a sales pitch
Beside the calm swell of the Singapore river.
Rapt Victoria Arts crowds patter about
Hypnotic patterns of a Melanesian painting
That sets spheres spinning, my verses floating
In the unstained, quiet hours of morning,
Multicolored under the glow of a bulb,
When I am most free and hear myself sing.
Rizal might have found here a haven
To write without fear of censure or bitter zeal
From the unlettered guardia civil. unlettered guardia civil.
Tu Fu would have been content
In his dotage to pick orchids,
Pour tea for poet friends from far away
In a house bathed in sunlight.
Writers and artists can dream easy
Amid rain trees, iron bridges, chrome sky.
Home offers a respite from flatterers,
Comings and goings, plunder by rain;
Where fortunes are made and enjoyed
Without noise and interminable flights;
I ought to lay my straw hat in glass towers,
Dip a brush into an inkstone in lush gardens,
Sing stories about storied lands
Where mountains are fragile, the lowly have visions
Fringed in shadows, given texture by my imagining.
1. The main city of Trinidad, home of newspaperman Mr. Biswas in V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. Mr. Biswas finds a house bathed in sunlight.
2. The capital of Fiji in Melanesia. It is home to abstract indigenous paintings.
3. Jose Rizal is a Peranakan writer and patriot who was executed for inciting a rebellion in the Philippines.
4. The police during the Spanish colonial era.
5. Tu Fu is a Tang Dynasty poet who retired to a small country village.
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