Before you go off on that Twitter rant, maybe take a second to listen to what Filipinos have to say.
Alex Tizon’s long-form essay depicts the heart-breaking story of the life of a Filipino family’s domestic worker. But before you rage, you might wanna keep your opinions in check.
**Disclaimer: this Filipino writer does not, by any means, condone slavery.**
Hey. You. Have you read that article yet? You know, the one that exposed modern-day slavery happening right under the noses of the American public?
If not, read it here. Go on. Grab some tissues. I’ll wait.
Done? What did you think?
If you came away from that essay seeing the story of a family that enslaved a woman for over 50 years of her life, then you only really have half of the story. The rest of it lies hidden in the little details, entrenched in the culture of another nation.
But wait, before you join in on the conversation the internet is having, let’s go over some things.
You’ll probably see a lot of really strong opinions with people condemning the piece/the writer, or people going into depth about why Western people need to consider cultural context before chiming in. I’ll tell you now, it’s kind of messy. But I’d like to share with you why maybe you should take a look at the second type of commenter first. More particularly, the Filipino commenters telling Westerners to “stay in their lane.”
You’re gonna see a lot of Filipinos trying to explain the actions of the writer based on his culture. What the Tizon family did was horrifying and wrong, that’s a fact. But Filipino commenters will shy away from claiming that Tizon himself was evil.
Because we see the Tizon family—as well as Lola—as casualties of cultural and social struggles that a lot of us face too.
(Photo by Chris Lawton)
Classifying Tizon as a villain is not really a straightforward task. Humans are complex beings, driven to act (or not act) by external and internal motivators, including cultural upbringing. The purpose of looking at the story through a Filipino lens is to examine how the beliefs our ancestors passed down manifest themselves in our actions within the modern-day setting.
The Philippines was colonized for centuries by multiple (predominantly western) nations before gaining its independence just before the turn of the 20th century. Filipino people were subject to extreme class divides and extreme poverty, and upward class mobility was often chased after (at times, regardless of cost). And as a developing nation ruled heavily by conservative and religious beliefs as well as Asian values, a lot of emphasis was placed on filial duty.
Like, extreme filial duty. With an almost authoritarian rule, too much pride, facing one direction. But usually a lot of love.
In examining these cultural clues, the goal is to to unearth the complexities that led to this family’s dysfunctions that are very familiar in a lot of Filipino families; power inequalities as a result of ancestral relations laid a foundation towards the ghastly treatment of Lola.
Humans are complex beings, after all, capable of committing evil deeds regardless of how well-meaning they are. So we need to humanize the Tizon family in order to find common ground. What made them act the way they did? And what could potentially make similar-minded people with shared values do the same?
Lola’s case was specific to her circumstance. As Tizon’s story outlined, historical events and specific politics trapped Lola in her servitude in both the Philippines and America. However, it bears semblance of issues a lot of Filipino domestic workers still face today.
(Photo by Bethany Legg)
As domestic workers have historically become a familiar fixture in Philippine family units, issues regarding abuse have become prevalent within the Filipino society. Philippine government efforts have been made to protect workers, including the passing of the Domestic Workers Act in January 2013 by then-president Benigno Simeon Aquino III.
This does not mean that domestic workers within the Filipino context are treated like slaves.
Domestic work is usually occupied by those of a low-income background, so class discrimination does happen. However, it’s not just the rich or the middle class who employ domestic help, so at times the class gap isn’t as wide between worker and employer.
As live-in conditions are often set in place to provide food and shelter on top of wages (albeit usually low), a lot of times, domestic workers end up considered as part of the family. This is usually strengthened by the Filipino custom of using honourifics, which makes use of family terms to address elders as sign of respect (in the story’s case, Tizon addressing Eudocia as Lola, with Lola meaning grandmother).
Domestic workers are still allowed to leave the job when they please. Of course, working conditions vary depending on the employer, but these types of working conditions aren’t the same as those in the west because the Philippines is still relatively a poor country.
Long-term domestic work continues to exist as a result of extreme poverty in the country. The Philippines, a country of over 100 million people, does not have the resources to provide for its entire population. According to the CIA World Factbook, about one quarter of the population live in poverty as of 2016.
There’s a lot of work to be done.
As specific as Lola’s circumstance may have been, it’s not an uncommon sight in modern domestic work, especially those who end up working overseas. The Migration Policy Institute reported in an October 2016 article that foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, including Filipinos, are excluded from laws protecting foreign employees, such as receiving statutory minimum wages. Foreign domestic workers are also required by the Hong Kong government to live in the home of their employer, which blurs the line of working hours seeping into workers’ personal lives.
In November last year, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the number one export of the Philippines for the past decade had been its own people. The report states that one-third of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) are labourers, including domestic workers.
There are a lot of Lolas.
(Photo by Redd Angelo)
Look, we know there’s a problem.
That’s why we need a proper discussion. Abuse happens to Filipino domestic workers around the world, and a lot face worse conditions than that of Lola’s. Filipinos know that this type of treatment is wrong. We know. Those are our friends and family members out there.
Cases like these are appalling. The Filipino community condemns it. This is why it matters that Tizon acknowledged Lola’s employment as slavery. Because that’s what it was. We need to identify these things and work on fixing it. But in this instance, as it was done by our own community, we also need to deconstruct the situation to understand how and why.
Cultural context matters to provide better understanding. Just because part of the story happened on American soil, does not mean that it’s intrinsically an American story. In fact, it’s for Filipino people, and even more specifically, the often under-represented and overlooked Filipino diaspora. The origins of this story’s issues are specific to a nation’s culture, and not acknowledging it trivializes the seriousness of it. In order to find a solution that will make a big enough impact, we need to fully understand all factors that were at play.
We know the implications of it being published on an American publication. We know that America has its own dark past with slavery. But this story is detached from that.
As for Filipinos, we have to start asking ourselves the hard questions.
What things in the Filipino community can we collectively change in order to stop things like this from happening in the future? What kind of support can we provide? What behaviours can we change to protect our own people from being taken advantage of? This is where our discussions should lead.
Because we know that to an extent, it’s our culture that failed Lola. Our insecurities, our biases, our fears all rooted in a shared history. Our behaviours and our beliefs are what laid the groundwork to the way the Tizons treated Lola.
That does not take the blame away from the Tizon family. But that also doesn’t mean we talk about the family as anything less than humans for doing bad things. That doesn’t do us any favours.
Because the Tizon family could have easily been any of us.
Let us talk.
Filipinos need to be able to have these discussions without having others intrude. This is our pain, our story. Ending the conversation and just saying slavery = bad, Tizons = evil does not lead to a solution. We need to allow the Filipino community some space to discuss and figure out how to change the fundamental flaws of our culture.
But in order to do that, we gonna need non-Filipinos to back up a bit and respect us having to deal with our issues first.