Happines Is Power

YESTERDAY'S column was titled "Happiness is power.” Yes, it is power. Not just as a "saleable" trait for Filipina domestic workers whose cheerfulness is an unstated but sought for quality among foreign employers, but also as a personal bulwark against the vicissitudes of loneliness and alienation.

It is a power that can be harnessed not just for personal protection and morale boosting, but also for organizing and consciousness raising. And it is a power that is puzzling for, according to an article in The Economist, in Hong Kong at least it is wielded by those who should by all rights be the most miserable. (And the planned reduction in the minimum wage for domestics should make them all the more miserable.)

Why are the Filipinas of Hong Kong, majority of whom work as domestics under often harrowing conditions, so happy? The Economist wanted to find out why and sought answers from both the experts and the subjects themselves.

"The usual hypothesis puts it down to the unique ethnic and historical cocktail that is Philippine culture: Malay roots (warm, sensual, mystical) mixed with the Catholicism and fiesta spirit of the former Spanish colonizers, to which is added a dash of western flavor from the islands' days as an American colony. (UP Professor Felipe) de Leon, after a decade of researching, has concluded that Filipino culture is the most inclusive and open of all those he has studied. It is the opposite of the individualistic culture of the West, with its emphasis on privacy and personal fulfillment. It is also the opposite of certain collectivistic cultures, as one finds them in Confucian societies, that value hierarchy and "face.'

"BY CONTRAST", Filipino culture is based on the notion of kapwa, a Tagalog word that roughly translates into "shared being.” In essence, it means that most Filipinos, deep down, do not believe that their own existence is separable from that of the people around them. Everything, from pain to a snack or a joke, is there to be shared. "The strongest social urge of the Filipino is to connect, to become one with people", says De Leon. As a result, he believes, there is much less loneliness among them.

"It is a tall thesis,” admits the writer, so for confirmation a little "field research" was done among the Filipinas who every Sunday turn Statue Square in Hong Kong into "a map of the Philippine archipelago.” Here and in other gathering places, "Hong Kong's Filipinas...replicate their village communities, and these surrogate families form a first circle of shared being. Indeed, some of the new arrivals in Hong Kong already have aunts, nieces, former students, teachers, or neighbors who are there, and gossip from home spreads like wildfire."

"What is most striking about Statue Square, however, is that the sharing is in no way confined to any dialect group,” notes The Economist. "Filipinas who are total strangers move from one group to another always welcomed, never rejected, never awkward. Indeed, even Indonesian maids (after Filipinas, the largest group of amahs), and Chinese or foreign passers by who linger for even a moment are likely to be invited to share the snacks.

"The same sense of light-hearted intimacy extends to religion. Father Lim, for instance, is a Filipino priest in Hong Kong. His Sunday service in Tagalog at St Joseph's Church on Garden Road is, by turns, stand-up comedy, rock concert and group therapy. And it is packed. For most of the hour, Father Lim squeezes through his flock with a microphone. "Are you happy?' he asks the congregation. A hand snatches the mike from him. "Yes, because I love God.' Amid wild applause, the mike finds its way to another amah. "I'm so happy because I got my HK$3,670 this month [$470, the amahs' statutory wage]. But my employer was expecting a million and didn't get it. Now he's miserable. "The others hoot with laughter."

This "intimate approach to faith," is one reason Father Lim believes there is virtually no drug abuse, suicide or depression among the domestics, "problems that are growing among the Chinese."

An even more concrete form of "sharing" are the money, goods and little luxuries, like t-shirts, toys, perfume and chocolates that the women send home regularly. Many of the DH's, says the writer, borrow to send home money to their families, "often with ruinous financial consequences."

Father Lim shares a story that is both amusing and appalling: "An eminent Filipino died while abroad, and it was decided that local compatriots should bid the coffin adieu before its journey home. So amahs showed up to file past it. When the coffin arrived in the Philippines and was reopened, the corpse was covered from head to toe with padded bras, platform shoes, Nike trainers, and the like, all neatly tagged with the correct addresses."

It is with good reason that the domestics have wholeheartedly adopted the concept that they are the bagong bayani or new heroes of the country. "Bayani" is also the root word for "bayanihan," the communal exercise of moving home that has become for us a symbol of national togetherness.

In "Bayanihan House," a center for Filipino workers in Hong Kong, the writer chances upon a beauty pageant where one of the contestants was asked how she overcame homesickness, and why she thought the people back home considered her a hero. "She looked down into her audience of amahs. "We're heroes because we sacrifice for the ones we love. And homesickness is just a part of it. But we deal with it because we're together". The room erupted with applause and agreement.

"Nowadays, bayanihan really means togetherness", says De Leon, and "togetherness is happiness.' It might sound too obvious, almost banal, to point out--had not so many people across the world forgotten it."