May 20, 2017: Postscript here.
Alex Tizon’s heartbreaking personal essay on his complicated relationship with his family’s katulong, Lola Eudocia Pulido, is making waves for all the right reasons. It is a brilliant piece of journalism. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air from the repetitive aspects of the 24-hour news cycle. It is a brilliant piece that serves us up the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Filipino experience in succinct, crisp slices of life all too familiar to anyone who grew up with a yaya. And that’s not just her: that story brings to light the plight of 40,000 Filipinos in forced labor abroad.
The buzz, of course, inevitably gives way to noise.
The nuances of the katulong should not be difficult to understand for Filipinos. It is, after all, the last holdout to the old ways. As a matter of critique, though, “katulong” does not lend too well to the word “slave.” The nuances of “katulong” are so varied. The word itself, translated, means “to help.” It can also be “kasambahay”—badly put, someone who lives in your house. To my mind, Lola Eudocia’s worst experiences put her squarely in the category of “alilang kanin:” roughly translated, a servant paid in cooked rice. Heck, even marketing-speak now goes for “household managers,” and the occasional notes on how to “market” to them.
Sometimes they are poorer relations taken in by wealthier kin, with the promise of giving them “a taste of the city” in return for the upkeep of the home. Sometimes they are young women often sent out by circumstances—often by poverty—to seek their fortune in the cities, and end up being all-around servants for a family of means. Mr. Tizon took pains to describe that situation in the first few paragraphs of his essay, perhaps (and rightfully so) drowned out by the poignant and painful memories of Lola Eudocia, with the guilt seeping in on almost every paragraph.
Yet many people—many of whom aren’t Filipino—take special and pointed offense to the story, perhaps because it evokes some of the circumstances that they themselves experienced. These include Blacks who experienced slavery, Whites who contrast their experiences with that of Lola Eudocia, and so on. The common denominator—and it doesn’t take much in the way of a Twitter search to find that out—is that these are elements of discourse put forward by people who don’t have a faint idea of how complicated the katulong relationship is.
The common thread: why somehow push aside the voices of these helpful, benevolent, well-meaning people at all?
I called it “Westjacking” on Twitter. Now Westjacking isn’t new: the idea of Western voices talking over non-Western cultural nuances and conversations is something you see everywhere. You see it in advertising, in aid, in international relations, and so many other daily aspects of daily life.
We talk about “globalization” a lot, and pretty much the same caricature figures itself in the imagination: a place a lot like America, with American fastfood and American coffee and American entertainment and American wrestling, and so on. A lot of things are framed on a Western lens, often lumped into the idea of “neoliberalism.” In some way, it’s Western exceptionalism that triumphs, and anything not from there is seen as something backward and indolent and simply not modern enough. And therefore, worth talking over.
This isn’t to defend Alex Tizon and his family, much less to justify katulong culture (never mind how many Western folk take in or look for their own katulong when they relocate here, but that’s tangential). It is, however, to complain that Tizon’s narrative of Lola Eudocia came from a special cultural experience that many of us share, and therefore is a conversation that we should take the lead.
Indentured servitude has had a long history in the Philippines; while it shares its parallels with Africans who were bound to the decks of the Amistad, or how poorer families become servants in America, it’s not the same. Katulong culture—at least to me—finds its roots in poverty, family relationships, attitudes about work, the inefficiency of the state to distribute development to rural areas, to hundreds of years of subjugation and serfdom under colonialism. All of these factors come together to create a very unique experience that deserves its own place and its own conversation. For the people who live in that culture to find solutions to it.
To Westjack the conversation is to take Western cultural norms, lenses, and other points of view and fit in the nuances on that frame of mind. It distorts the nuances, and therefore forces it to be solved by the Western frame of mind. That itself is problematic, because the experience ceases to be about katulong, but to lump them all into a narrative that anonymizes the struggle, making them just categories of the louder and more documented ones experienced in the West.
It becomes a faceless one among many. Its complicatedness gives way to black-and-white absolutes. It no longer becomes one worthy of a confessional or a conversation, much less a long hard look at the big cultural factors that make it happen. It becomes, instantly, a crime. Moral failures can be pinned on one’s own agency, structure be damned.
It’s not like a Martin Luther King would emerge from the huddled katulongs of Hong Kong, and declare her dream in Central. It’s not like the uniformed yayas who keep vast empty houses in Makati would come together at night to form an Underground Railroad. It’s not like the abused ate living in a home in a Singaporean apartment will finally have enough, and take her seat at the dining table and be the domestic helper version of Rosa Parks.
It sounds amazing. But it doesn’t work that way.
We acknowledge that there is something problematic and crisis-worthy about how the katulong is treated in the Filipino household, but that is not something that is up to the Western mind to point out. Nora Aunor’s “Atsay” remains as true as it was in 1978, in many households across the country. Entire soap operas are made around the topic of the downtrodden modern alipin in our midst. Tracts and volumes of treatises and academic literature exist solely to bring socio-political, economic, and psychological focus on the yaya.
It’s not that we’re not doing our part. Or maybe we aren’t. Maybe we’re not doing enough. Or maybe it’s social change at a grand scale that, like everything from women’s suffrage to the Emancipation Proclamation to immigration policy, is a long process. Long processes that aren’t somehow acceptable or fathomable in a fast-paced, highly-Westernized, homogenized, global, universalized world.
Often, the consequences for resistance and disobedience among katulong are tragic. The nation grieves when a domestic helper dies in some country after getting raped. The nation is torn when someone becomes a big sensation in another country as she gets fired for stealing meatballs. The nation gets pissed when a resort island has a menu exclusive only to the helpers and drivers of guests. All the nuances and factors that build into the very idea of a katulong would frustrate even the most dedicated lover of personal freedom, because you also somehow have to figure the unique Filipino work ethic in.
And to frame that on a Western point of view on the basis of historical parallels simply doesn’t work. Rather, it trains the conversation back to the Western view, back to Western conventions, back to Western ethics, back to Western ideas of freedom and progress. It ceases to become our story. It becomes Westjacked.
I could rail on about it, but Westjacking is something found in a lot of places and things we usually take for granted: Chinese food, Sriracha sauce, adobo, ube. Or clichés like aid policies to people in need. War. TOMS shoes. The list goes on.
Not because it’s convenient for us to frame the conversation as something hijacked by Western ideas, but because it’s convenient for Western ideas to pilot the conversation. Discourse only becomes “discourse” when someone else defines it, often the one who talks the loudest.
I have a suggestion: people who want to speak out on the matter are free to do so. But with that conversation comes the important responsibility of listening. The table is open for everyone to chime in, to speak their mind, to introduce a point of view.
But that comes with the implicit understanding that everyone seated around that table understands the nuances, grasps the complexities, and is willing to hear out others and talk things over, and not to talk over. I think that on that table we can have a truly global perspective with points of view well-represented and well-heard.
It’s something so deceptively simple it’s lost in the raging: when someone talks, everyone listens. It should be that simple, but based on the reactions, it really isn’t. Not when you think that your biggest contribution is what you have to say, and not what you can learn from all the voices and stories around.
Yet there are some voices in that conversation that should be there, but can’t. And perhaps won’t. And that’s the often meek and quiet voice of the katulong.
But that’s for another time.