WHEN Lea Salonga and company took the world by storm soon after “Miss Saigon” debuted on West End 25 years ago, not a few Filipinos basked in the afterglow of their success.
Suddenly, the global spotlight had been trained on the Philippines, a land supposedly rich in song and laughter where every man, woman and child could sing. Music is in these people’s blood, declared not a few foreign observers.
Of course, we all knew that such a stereotype was far from accurate (if you still insist it is, then you haven’t heard me sing), but never mind. We all gladly rode on the crest of Lea’s unprecedented achievement.
Partly because of the well-deserved reputation earned by “Miss Saigon’s” Filipino cast, Filipino actors and musicians suddenly found gainful employment in hotels, cruise ships and theme parks big and small the world over.
At one point, it became quite common for hotels in the Asian region to insist on hiring Filipino bands. Not only did they have stage presence, they were also total performers who knew and could ape chart-topping songs by heart.
Everybody was proud and happy for them, and no Filipino ever dared spoil the party even if deep in his heart he knew that some of his countrymen’s musical abilities were at best mediocre.
It also wasn’t uncommon in gatherings abroad for locals to ask their Pinoy guests to lead in the singing and even render a song number or two.
Since they’re Filipinos, they must be gifted with golden voices and flawless timing. As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m just too glad no one was foolish or clueless enough to push me in the spotlight during all my overseas trips. Otherwise, the much-vaunted Filipino musicality would have taken a severe blow. Patay ang reputasyon ng mga Pinoy!
Opportunities and caveats
Such are the dangers as well as the opportunities posed by stereotyping. And like all sweeping statements go, it offers no room for a middle ground. Depending on how it plays out, it can either be a boon or a bane.
Now comes the latest stereotype being advanced by foreigners on Filipinos, which again has been generating considerable chatter among Filipinos here and abroad, including a number of my friends on Facebook.
The issue stems from a social studies textbook allegedly used by Hong Kong to teach “racial harmony” among the Chinese territory’s elementary school students.
The page offers a series of brief descriptions opposite corresponding illustrations, including a dark woman supposedly representing a Filipino.
“I am Filipino. I am a domestic helper in Hong Kong,” says the book, referring to the dark woman.
Using the same format, the book goes on to describe other nationalities living in the former British colony: British-English teacher; Japanese-sushi restaurant owner; Chinese-Shanghai native; Indian-international school student.
Although the chapter, as some of the book’s critics insist, reinforces certain stereotypes, it also presents a sliver of truth: a considerable number of Filipinos do work in Hong Kong as domestic helpers.
Cluelessness or malice
I don’t know where the book’s writers are coming from. Whether their motivation for producing such a page was borne out of cluelessness, or deliberately tinged with malice, I don’t care. They’re free to stunt and even poison the minds of their youth.
What I found really disturbing was the reaction shown by not a few of our countrymen. They bristle at the thought that Filipinos in Hong Kong are identified as domestic helpers.
True, it’s a stereotype, but I’m willing to bet that they wouldn’t have raised such an uproar had the book lumped Filipinos together as doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses and even singers.
I can’t remember any Pinoy getting livid for being stereotyped as the musician of Asia. But a domestic helper? Excuse me!
It’s as if being one is bad, shameful and a blow to national pride. Well, I have news for you. Domestic work is an honest, honorable and integral profession.
Without maids, toilets would stink, dirty laundry would pile up and children would go hungry and turn into emaciated, more dysfunctional versions of their parents. And they do backbreaking work day in and day out while leaving their own children in the care of relatives and friends back home.
Deserving of respect
Imagine the loneliness and guilt these homesick women go through every single minute of the day. If only for this, they deserve our appreciation and utmost respect. Hindi sila dapat ikahiya! Bagkus ay dapat silang ipagmalaki sa buong mundo.
It would have been funny had it not been so ironic that some of these Filipinos who feel ashamed to be identified with domestic helpers are the very ones who point out how essential maids are in putting order to get-up-and-go societies like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Meanwhile, Filipinos in the Philippines praise these Overseas Filipino Workers to high heavens and call them modern-day heroes for pumping in more than $10 billion annually to the local economy.
Malls are built, condominiums rise, children are sent to school and jobs are generated on the back of remittances from these OFWs, many of whom work as maids, drivers and laborers in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Bristling at the mere suggestion by other nationals that Filipinos work as maids within their societies is no way to treat modern-day heroes. So, start showing some respect, people!
Whether we like it or not, our collective reaction to being associated with maids reveals more about us than those who supposedly belittle and stereotype us.
Where am I coming from? No, I wasn’t raised by an absentee mother eking out a living as a maid abroad. My backstory is far less colorful.
Having had no maids to turn to while growing up, I only gained a genuine respect for the work they do fairly recently. Now that my parents are getting on in years, I have become dependent on maids to help me run the house. Without them, I don’t know where we’d end up.
So, the next time a stupid book or article starts associating Filipinos with domestic work, let it be. That’s their problem.
Just pray for the day when our economy would be big enough to absorb our huge population and provide everyone with decent-paying jobs. When no Filipinos would have to live abroad doing low-paying backbreaking work while leaving their families behind.
When that day comes, then, perhaps, it would be our turn to stereotype authors of such books and articles as people from the land of stinking toilets and lonely, snotty children.