detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, August 12, 2002


: . Weapons of the Weak:

The second half of Mona Simpson’s Coins. An excerpt:
    “They don’t think I will leave but I can leave,” Rita says. “Lots of people they are looking for Filipinos.”
    “The richest people all want Filipinos,” Kitkat says.
    “Like a BMW,” I say. “We are status symbols.” With only women, I can make them laugh.
    “No, you know why? You know what Prudence told me?” Rita whispers. “It is because we are quiet. Prudence told me in the hospital they have a joke: What does ‘yes’ mean in Tagalog? ‘Yes’ means fuck you.”
    “That is right. Fuck you.” Kitkat says out loud.
    “Shhh,” I say. Ricardo is a mynah bird, and sure enough the head springs up.
    “What?” he says. Always, What? He is very intelligent.
    I have never said out loud but I have thought before, I am not the same as other baby-sitters. A part of me, I want to be known for what I can do. I want to be seen alone. At a few certain things, maybe I am the best.
    The baby-sitters stand and brush sand off their laps, ready to go. “Tomorrow at the house of Rita,” Kitkat calls, hitting me in the stomach.
    “I want to go there now,” Ricardo says. “To Ritahouse.”
    In their voices, that is the only time it is our house.

Contrast Simpson’s fictional nannies and the way in which they negotiate with the tensions inherent in caregiving as wage-labor and in the commodification of love, with journalist Barbara Garson’s account of actual Filipina nannies in Singapore only a few months after the execution of Flor Contemplacion:
    The following Sunday I went to the maid’s mall…I had a nice chat with four [Filipina] friends who asked me to snap their picture together, first in front of the Kmart, then outside on Orchard Road. Though they had been neighbors on a small island and had signed with the same agent to go abroad, this meeting of all four in Singapore had been difficult to arrange because maids only get one Sunday off each month.
    Three of the women worked for Singaporeans. “My Mister is an American,” said the fourth. Everyone agreed that she had the best deal.
    All four had left their own children and come to Singapore “for the money.” Their families had decided that this was a good investment and pooled their savings to pay the agent’s fee. One woman’s family had borrowed the money. She was aware that they risked a crippling debt if for any reasons she didn’t finish her contract.
    As part of their investment, family members, including husbands in three cases, had agreed to take care of the children. The one single woman was worried, however, because her sister, the chief caregiver, was getting remarried. She feared that her 14-year-old son and his new uncle would get in each other’s way, and that her sister, with a new husband on the scene, couldn’t give the younger children enough attention.
    I asked lamely if the women missed their children. “Yes, very much,” they all said. They couldn’t seem to express it any better.
    “I miss my children but I also take care of children here,” said the woman with the teenage son. “The little boy I take care of was always frightened and crying when I first came. His mother says, ‘If you not good the policeman will come!’ or ‘Auntie broke her leg because you spit.’”
    Guilt evocation must be popular with Singapore parents, because the other women chimed in quickly with their own examples: “The lights went out because you were crying.” “The train is not coming because the train man knows, you are standing in front of the yellow line.”
    “I think the little boy is not so frightened now,” said the woman who was worried about her son.
    “Then you must be a very good nanny.”
    “Thank you.” She smiled unhappily. “But I will be glad when I can go home because here I am doing it just for the money.”
    These women can only enter the cash economy if they have a product that can be exchanged for money. But child-caring for cash seems stranger to them (and to me too) than pipe fitting for cash. In fact, it seems almost illicit. In the noncash economy they came from—that is to say, in the family—caring is provided for individuals one is presumed to love. Telling a woman that she does it well for strangers is not as welcome a compliment as telling [someone that] he pipe-fits well for many different oil companies.
    A product, whether it be a pipe fitting or child care, is not the same thing as the money it’s exchanged for. Bankers often talk as though they create things through their loans, when in fact they merely turn money into more money. Their vanity in taking credit for the product had sometimes annoyed me, but the opposite humble error disturbed me more. When a woman who takes care of children says that all she’s doing is making money, I think, “What if that was true?” Could a child survive if his caregiver wasn’t doing many, many things beyond her contractual job?
    “It’s too bad you have to come all the way to Singapore,” I said. “There must be houses to clean and children to take care of in the Philippines.”
    “Our own,” said one.
    “But the money is in Singapore,” said the second.
    “It is like the nurses,” said the woman with the teenage son. “People from home study to be nurses and they will go to New York. But there are lots of sick people on our island.”
    “Yes, but the money is in New York,” her friend reminded us.
    Right, I thought, some of it is mine. But how does that determine whose children get minded and which sick get nursed? Sometimes I understand this money trail, and other times I lose the thread and the results make no sense at all.

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