Sunday, June 06, 2004

June 7, 2004

She is Delia Pucay, a licensed chemical engineer, a Filipina gifted with four children, an innate intelligence and a natural grace.

Delia has been dreaming every night for one year. Dreaming the same dream and waking up with the same pillows of dissonance and dejection. Asleep, Delia's heart conspires with her mind; she is in her home in Benguet having a languid chat with her sons and her daughter. Awake, just before the sun rises, Delia recognizes the suffocating silence of her cramped room - in Hong Kong where she has been working since 1998 as a domestic help.

In 1997, Delia's only daughter Marie Lou was diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease. Malou, as her mother called her, was only eight years old at the time. Delia died a hundred deaths that year as her daughter's physical condition deteriorated and her vital organs came close to collapsing.

For months, the medical specialists that Delia consulted in Manila and Baguio City were unable to identify what was causing Malou to progressively limp and to cry out increasingly in pain and fear; unable to determine what had caused Malou's body to swell in a week's time and to shrink almost as rapidly as her appetite vanished. Mercifully, a hospital in Baguio City was able to identify just in time what was wrong with Malou. The young girl's condition stabilized and in time the hospital managed to nurse her back to her former vigor.

Less than a year later, with the family coffers emptied by the medical bills and with Malou still needing expensive maintenance medication, Delia makes up her mind and goes to Hong Kong to work as a domestic help.

"My first job was difficult," said Delia as she recounted her first contract. "I'd wake up at 5:30 in the morning every day and go to sleep at one AM. The day began with cleaning the toilet and then making meals. The family of my first employer had their breakfast separately. First the kids, then the mother, and then the father. In between the parents' breakfast I had to do the laundry and clean the kitchen. In the middle of all this I had to clean their two cars. Only then would the first half of the morning conclude. And the rest of the day was just as grueling."

Delia was unable to send right away the money needed to buy the medicine for Malou. The family had to borrow from different sources as the money Delia earned in her first five months in Hong Kong was used to pay back the foreign employment-related placement expenses she had incurred in the Philippines. Eventually, after a few years, Delia managed to earn enough and to send enough. Enough to pay for the education of her children. Enough to maintain the good health of Malou. But not enough to provide for other essentials.

Malou turned fifteen the other month, said Delia. She brought out her wallet and proudly showed to me her daughter's picture. "She's lovely," I gushed unexpectedly. "A gap has grown between us," said Delia as regret and sadness wash over her equanimity. Her voice is steady but her eyes begin to water. But no tears ever fall. "Malou's schooling is coming apart. I'm worried. Suddenly there is this big distance between us. I miss her. I miss my sons."

Delia Pucay, licensed chemical engineer, another desaparecido of the Philippine economy.

Such is the fate of millions of Filipinos today who can't afford healthcare and who can't find the jobs at home necessary to sustain the wellbeing of their families. But what does that make of successive Philippine governments whose economic programs have stood on two horrible pillars. The export of Filipinos and the re-export of what they have earned through the blind, immoral automatic annual payment of millions of dollars of ill-gotten national debts incurred in the past by crooked officials, robber banks and criminal corporations.

Delia Pucay. Her life reads like a painful novel. She hails from a village in Benguet called Bulalakaw which, in Filipino, means shooting star. Today, far away from her family and her roots, Delia lives in her employer's apartment in a district called Happy Valley and spends her Sundays at the Hong Kong public library reading self-help books.

"I give massages to my 75-year old employer, who rarely smiles and whom I know looks down on me," said Delia. "I prepare his golf bag. I make breakfast the way he likes it, a strange way. I have to serve it in small separate batches. First the orange juice, then eggs, then soup, then fruits, then toast. I clean his house. You know the rest." said Delia. Mind-numbing, repetitive, back-breaking work. "If he is mildly displeased at me," Delia adds, "I don't get my salary on time. He just gives it when he feels like it."

Does your employer know you're an engineer, I asked. "No. I hide it," Delia answered gently. "If my employer finds out, I can get fired. They don't like domestic helpers with high learning. I also won't likely be hired if an employment agency finds out about this. It sounds bad but because there are too many Filipino teachers working as domestic help in Hong Kong today, I also just say I'm a teacher and then somehow for the employer and the agency it's ok." And there you stay.

"Once you are employed in Hong Kong as a domestic help," a Filipina once told me in Kowloon, "your future employment is restricted to domestic work, whether you finished community development, engineering, education, or business administration. That's just the way it is."

Not always. One mother is determined to write another ending for herself.

"I want to go home soon you know," Delia said as we got up and walked across Chater Garden in the Central District of Hong Kong. She is wearing a faint smile.

"Malou's ordeal seems to be over," said Delia, "I have put away a little, not much but something useful I think. I can't rely on my husband, who keeps rewarding the sacrifices I've made with increasing indolence and God knows what. I may have wasted my years away by being here but I can still try to teach math and chemistry back home to earn something. Maybe I'll go into buy and sell. It will not pay much but I will be with my kids."

Because no matter how hard you hug your money, said H. Jackson Brown, Jr., it never hugs back.

"I think this is why I have been dreaming the same dreams over and over again," said Delia. "I just want to be close to my kids again. But not with dollars. This time I really want to be there for them."

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