Monday, December 06, 2004

Op-Ed, Today/
December 6, 2004

There was of course no need for an apology but Joyce said sorry nonetheless. That really is my name, she said sheepishly.

My last name is Jimenez but aside from this, said Joyce, she had little else in common with a similarly named young Filipina actress who not too long ago had taken rapt Filipinos on trips down mammary lane.[1]

She is Joyce Jimenez, twenty eight years old, a wispy and articulate Filipina mother of four, a domestic help in Hong Kong. Or, rather, was a domestic worker in Hong Kong.

We met in the majestic Chek Lap Kok airport of Hong Kong the other week. Joyce was having trouble with the Chinese woman manning the Philippine Airlines check-in counter. The woman was insisting that Joyce pay a considerable amount because the bags she had checked-in were over the prescribed maximum weight per passenger.[2] But of course. Joyce was bringing home everything she had. She was terminated last November.

Joyce graduated from the Far Eastern University in 1997 with a degree in nursing. But she never got to take the board exams; she got pregnant, which in this fair and just world is somehow often equivalent to a career-ending development.

Hong Kong was the first overseas work of Joyce. Before that, she was a tired mother working as a pharmaceuticals saleslady in the province of Bulacan, a job which yielded little income. Before that, Joyce was a full-time tired mother struggling to make ends meet based on whatever her frequently missing husband would bring home.

One day, as many similar stories go, the ends just would not meet. Joyce decided it was time to try her luck abroad. She went to an employment agency to apply. There she was told that she had to take out an outrageous loan of 75,000 pesos from the agency itself before her papers would be processed. The loan, she was told, would be repaid through her Hong Kong salary.

"I went for the loan. I've some FEU classmates working as nurses in the US," Joyce recounted. "They told me some time ago that if I was able to accumulate eight straight months of employment as a maid in Hong Kong, they'd be able to get me a job in the States as a nursing assistant."

After only one month of work in Hong Kong, Joyce was fired.

"From the very beginning, she never liked me," said Joyce of her employer. One of her employers at least, to be fair. Joyce worked for a middle-aged Chinese couple with two girls; the husband was a kind lawyer in a prosperous Hong Kong firm. His wife worked as a secretary in a small trading company, and she despised Joyce.

"I don't know; she must have gone over my biodata," said Joyce. "Our first meeting, the wife was already angry. She pointed her finger at me and shouted that she didn't care if I was a nurse." Joyce often worked till two or three in the morning and would wake up at five but nothing Joyce did satisfied the wife.

Nursing insecurities, the wife would shower words of abuse on Joyce daily. "Except for one time when things got physical, I think I'm lucky I only received bad words," said Joyce. "That one time I was boiling water. The wife shoved me hard from the back because I didn't arrange the food in the refrigerator to her liking. I sidestepped the stove in time," Joyce said.

The feng shui of believers in Hong Kong: invite luck by choosing your domestic help well - a maid with a round lucky face or a maid born in the year of the dragon. The working class feng shui of Arroyo's Strong Republic: roll the dice; luck is a sane foreign employer.

After a day's grueling work, Joyce would confront her shadows in silence. "I hated the silence the most," she said, her youthful face framing her listless eyes. "It's when I miss my children the most."

"My employers doted on their eldest girl and they didn't hide their bias from the younger daughter," she told me at the waiting area of the airport's Gate 16. "What a shame," said Joyce. "They were both good children and we got along quickly even though the older one was starting to emulate the rudeness of her mother. Nothing I did ever pleased their mother. If I did the laundry she'd shout at me. If the girls ask for me to sit beside them so they could sleep their mother would hate it. But I resolved to endure it all just to complete my eight month employment."

After a month she was ordered to leave.

At least you will be with your kids this Christmas, I said softly but Joyce was no longer listening. "I wanted them to have something," she said more to herself.

In her first week away from her country, she said she feared her first impending Christmas away from her children. And yet now, apparently defeated and waiting for her flight, she dreaded returning from nothing with nothing.

She knew her kids looked forward to seeing her again after her absence. But she also dreamed of sending home a little more instead. Maybe a few new clothes. A little special food on the table. Perhaps some toys. A little more - just a little more - of what they haven't had.

[1] "A trip down mammary lane" is from the writer Jessica Zafra.
[2] It was the evening of November 25 to be exact. I was behind Joyce and I didn't have any baggage to check-in. I asked the Hong Kong airline official to just transfer the heavier bag of Joyce to my share so that she wouldn't have to pay overweight charges and to just paste the baggage claim stub on Joyce's ticket. We talked soon after and did not finish till it was time to board.

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