Monday, June 9, 2008

Welcome to Club Diaspora

It's a rare moment when our laptop is free for me to use. Sharing it with an eighteen year old really means 95:5. She has it 95% of the time while I'm on it when allowed. Which is when she's sleeping.

So all these blogs that I have incubating inside my head never make it to my fingers until rare moments such as these. I'm stealing time. While there is nothing like writing in the moment, the compositions in my mind get edited and take a different shape as I type. But I'm not complaining. The light of day is the light of day.

There is a large table at our hotel's employee cafeteria where the Filipinos find themselves at lunch. We're all from different departments - Housekeeping, Concierge, Front Desk, Stewarding, Kitchen, Storeroom - yet there is no such thing as rank & file or manager among us when we are together. We are just Filipinos who now call America home and who long for the Philippines in varying degrees. The streets of Cubao, the posh of The Fort and Alabang, the quiet of Ilocos drift into our conversations always followed by the question: "Kelan kayo huling umuwi sa atin?" ("When did you last go home?")

(I have come to terms with calling myself a true Filipino-American. Not an American of Filipino descent like others who spent their childhood or entire lives here but equal parts American - courtesy of my father and childhood in the Pacific Northwest - and Filipino - courtesy of my mother and my twenty-seven years in Manila.)

Who we were back home doesn't seem to matter to any of us here in the US although little hints and traces of our lives in the Philippines slip into our conversations from time to time.

"Saleslady ako ng sapatos noong araw!" ("I used to be a shoe saleslady!") Said a bathroom attendant to me one day when she was resting her feet in the changing area and realizing that at her age, the long hours prove her feet can't keep up with her.

One busy noon at the table we share, exhausted from a hundred percent occupancy, a wardrobe attendant and I sat in silence together, lost in our separate thoughts while eating the day's free meal voraciously.

I broke the silence in between bites. "Grabe, pagod na pagod ako." ("I am so tired.") She agreed. "Dito lang ako sa Amerika nagtrabaho ng ganito kahirap!" ("Only here in America have I had to work this hard!")

I smiled. "Back home we at least had an hour for lunch. And then of course there were all these little breaks in between! Dito, thirty minutes lang talaga ang pahinga." ("Here thirty minutes is all we get to rest.")

"Akala ng mga tao sa atin we're so rich because we're earning in dollars. Hindi nila alam bawat sentimo, pinagpapaguran natin." ("People back home think we're rich because we're earning in dollars. They just don't know that we work hard for every cent we make.") She commented.

We finished our meals in silence and wearily dragged ourselves back to our floors and duties. As I took the elevator back to the seventh, I couldn't help remember the season in my life as a Training Manager. A boss. And how cushy life as a manager in the Philippines was like - not in the trenches but calling the shots from a nice office with a view. Some days I remember my sixteen-twenty hour days/nights at the call center and regret wishing for a job that was eight hours and simple. Nowadays, while I'm so thankful to have a job, I'm reaching the point of wanting more of a challenge beyond making coffee and dinner reservations.

But such is life in the diaspora. It's damning and it's a blessing. Here we are all on equal footing. It's what you do with your steps that makes a difference. The choices are easy - long for what you once had, or make the best of the cards you've been dealt.

"In my country, I was a lawyer." Said a Haitian recently. "Then why don't you just go back home if you don't like being a guard?" Came the reply from a Latino-American face. The Haitian didn't reply.