A huge industry in Hong Kong and an indispensable economic pillar for many nations in the region, domestic work is largely taken up by OFW (Overseas Filipino/Foreign Workers) hailing from South(east) Asia. These workers, the majority of whom are female, are often the sole breadwinners in their family; yet, it is also tragically true that they bear the brunt of much implicit and explicit racial prejudice in Hong Kong.
In the valedictory address I gave to Princeton’s graduating class of 2017, I talked about a group of people I call “our unsung heroes” — they are the figures in our lives who have contributed so much to our wellbeing, our successes, yet remain largely invisible and anonymous. When asked to give a version of this speech at my high school in August, I tweaked the text so it would speak to and resonate with teenagers who grew up in the particular cultural context of Hong Kong. The editing process made me realize, not without shame, that I didn’t have to go all the way to the United States to learn to express humility and gratitude to those who have done so much for me but who remain completely underappreciated: I have lived with two unsung heroines my entire life — a fact that took 4 years abroad and a bachelor’s degree to realize. So much for being an intelligent and promising scholar, eh?
Here’s a snippet of what I said on August 18 to a group of wide-eyed teenagers who attended this school year’s opening ceremony:
Like many of you, I was born in a relatively privileged family and I was raised by domestic workers from the Philippines. My friendship with an employee at a library café at Princeton University made me realize that I had absolutely no idea what these domestic helpers have been through, who their family members were, and what it was like to grow up in the Philippines. Whether we like to admit it or not, Hong Kong is rife with insidious racism and implicit discrimination, and it is my hope that respectful communication and genuine compassion can remedy the situation.
I realized that while my helpers had been there with me every step of the way, patiently coaxing me back on my feet after every difficult math problem, every break up, every hiccup in life, I knew close to nothing about their lives. I knew they were from an exotic-sounding region in the Philippines called Pampanga, and I could pick out certain words and phrases here and there as they chattered in Kapampangan and in Tagalog, but if you had asked a year ago how many siblings they each had and what their childhood was like growing up in the countryside, I would not be able to give you an answer. Ashamed by how little I knew, I decided to change things for good this summer. I wanted to spend quality time with my nannies and I wanted to give myself the chance to get to know them as well as they got to know me.
For the first time in two decades, my family and I planned a short weekend getaway trip to Macau for my nannies on August 19-20, 2017. Macau, though only a short ferry ride away from Hong Kong, presents a dazzlingly foreign world of glamor and glitz. Somewhat of a Las Vegas of the East, this city is packed with casinos and sprawling hotel complexes. Yet, much of the old town still harbors traces of 19th century colonial architecture, Portuguese food and bilingual street-signs. This makes for a rather surreal and mindboggling experience where cohabitation of cultures and juxtaposition of eras permeate the atmosphere. We spent those two days roaming around the city, weaving in and out of many casinos and winding streets, and we also spent the evening of the 19th watching the spectacular House of Dancing Water show in the Galaxy hotel complex.
As we screeched with laughter when the performers splashed water all over audience members at the House of Dancing Water show, I caught myself wondering what took me so long to do what I did this summer. All those lazy summer days Rosita, Florencia and I spent in the house together, all those hours spent waiting at the dentist’s clinic, all those minutes spent at the bus station at the crack of dawn – why hadn’t I thought to ask them about their lives, their family, their hopes and aspirations? Instead, I was mostly sullen, my mind whirring, hoping for the time to pass by quickly as I contemplated my next math problem set, my next date, my next scholarship application. It wasn’t until Macau that the following dawned on me: They may be hired by my parents and their stay at our home may be temporary and contract-bound, but as I sat in my seat soaking wet, watching gymnasts fly elegantly through the theater, I realized that I was much more than an “alaga” (ward or the child of the employer ) to Rosita and Florencia and they were much more than “helpers” to me. We were family to each other.
In Hong Kong, it is all but too easy to get lost chasing after ethereal dreams and setting ever higher expectations, only to succeed in taking for granted some of the most important people in your life. Rosita and Florencia are two women who love me unconditionally and who have given the best years of their lives working for my family at the expense of spending time with theirs. They were unable to hold their parents’ hands as they took their last breaths, unable to fall in love and have children, unable finish college because they needed to work and because it brought them pleasure to raise me. These are all very uncomfortable thoughts to entertain, and it’s very hard to entertain them without being attacked by waves of guilt and helplessness. But I’ve shied away from these emotions for too long and the least I can do is to put pen to paper, fingertips to letter keys and show the world how much nannies do for countless children in Hong Kong.
In addition to expressing my gratitude to my own helpers, I’ve also embarked on a project to document the stories and lives of many other OFWs in my native city. A friend I met at Princeton helped me conduct a series of interviews this summer in Hong Kong, where we talked to numerous domestic helpers from the Philippines and asked them about their life stories and their experience working in Hong Kong. With the help of Rosita and Florencia’s network of friends, my friend and I have done over 10 in-depth interviews where we gathered anecdotes of all kinds and shared both tearful and laughter-filled moments with our interviewees. Although we still have much work to do before our material is ready for any sort of publication, this process has already taught me the power of humility and patience. Many of these women were flattered by the mere fact that two strangers were interested in their lives and their experiences. Conversation and time – just about the only free things offered by humans on this planet – are the first simple steps one could take to show respect and care to someone so used to being taken for granted. It continues to baffle me how simple it all is but that it took me more than two decades to get to this conclusion.
I leave you with a personal note to my own two unsung heroes: Rosita and Florencia, thank you for loving me as a mother would her child, for accompanying me to the school bus station at 6:45 am rain or shine, for designing cool hairstyles on me every morning, for cooking delicious meals day in day out, for changing the cold towel on my forehead every time I came down with the flu, for staying in my room at night until I was sure the monsters went to sleep, for handing me a plastic basin when I couldn’t make it to the bathroom to puke, and last but not least, for raising me.
I hope you know that I love you, too.
Jin is currently a PhD candidate of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She grew up in Hong Kong and was raised by two Filipino OFWs, both of whom are still with her and her family to this day.