Margie tells me that Weng’s brother is downstairs.
“Weng’s brother?” I ask. “What is he doing downstairs?”
“He came from the Province. Weng told him not to come, but he wouldn’t listen. He’s matigas ang ulo [hard-headed]. He’s looking for work.”
I’m not sure exactly what I feel about this news: panic, annoyance, pity? Certainly, nothing compared to what Weng must be feeling. Weng is our “helper,” a woman in her 20’s without kids but separated from her husband, who hails from the island of Samar, one of the poorest and most lovely provinces in the Philippines. Weng lives with us and is the first domestic helper I’ve employed in my life &minus my mother had a hard-bitten Appalachian “cleaning woman” who came to our house once a week when I was growing up (my mother always cleaned before her visits so the house wouldn’t seem too messy), but besides her, I have no experience with domestic help. The joke goes (though it’s not particularly funny) that even the maids in the Philippines have maids.
The Philippines’ main export is its people, known as OFW’s (Overseas Foreign Workers) who keep this country afloat by going to Japan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and just about everywhere else, sending back monthly “remittances” to families they’re separated from for years at a time. 150,000 or so Filipino domestic helpers work in Hong Kong alone, many of whom are treated unconscionably by the Chinese.
Filipinos don’t need the Chinese to teach them how to dehumanize their fellow Filipinos. But Margie’s mother sends virtually all of her helpers to college, one of the signs that made me know I’d married into the right family.
I like Weng, though we have always been a little distant. Partly, that’s because she speaks little English and my Tagalog still isn’t that great. She’s attached to Margie, and when we go away for a weekend trip, she texts Margie constantly, saying she misses our youngest, Naomi, though it’s Margie she seems to miss just as much. Weng’s first employer locked her up with another helper in the house and didn’t pay her wages or allow her outside. Finally, she and the other girl pretended one day that they were going to throw some trash outside the gate. When the guard let them out, they made a dash for it, escaping with their clothes in the trash bags. Her last employer yelled at her constantly and monitored every bite of food she took from the refrigerator. Still, she was able to save money, which she sent home to her mother every month so that eventually she could buy a small house. But when she went home, she discovered that her mother had spent it all.
“What’s more important to you?” her mother asked. “Your house or your family being able to eat?”
When Weng first arrived, I tried out my Tagalog on her.
“Bigyan mo ako ng tilupong.”
She looked at me with her eyes wide and handed me a bag of chestnuts, the closest thing to her.
What I’d wanted was bread, or tinapay, but I’d instead said “tilupong” which means absolutely nothing. So she handed me chestnuts. Why not? At least, I hadn’t said anything vulgar, as is so often the case in these cross-cultural exchanges. One time I apologized to Margie and instead of saying “patawad” (I’m sorry), I said, “patuwad,” (bend over).
Such a request would not have played well with anyone involved had I said it to Weng, least of all to Margie, who warned me early on in Weng’s time with us for me not to be an “Atsay killer.” Half-joking, half not, this is the term for a man who sleeps with the help, and if you have a term for it, you know it happens pretty frequently.
But I am no Atsay killer and in this regard at least Weng is well off.
Apparently, Weng is well off in other ways, too. We give her room and board and pay her at the high end of the pay scale. In return, she cleans the condo, cooks, and sometimes looks after the kids. Lately, her family has had a hard time. First, her cousin’s baby got sick and was sent to the hospital. The child, almost a year old, still looked like an infant according to Margie. The family couldn’t afford milk and so Margie bought the child a can of milk for $20, and the child seemed to be getting better. But then the milk ran out and they started cutting it with the water in which they cooked rice. And now the baby’s pancreas is inflamed and its kidneys are close to failing.
The father, a government employee, was no help. When the mother went to his house with the Parish priest, the man hid while his mother scolded her for getting pregnant and bothering her son.
“Ma’am,” the priest told the mother of the government employee, “we did not come here today to pick up a fight. We just are asking for a little assistance because your son’s child is in the hospital.”
They went away empty handed, but soon returned again. This time, the father came out of hiding and grudgingly gave some money, but speculated that the child was not even his. Weng’s cousin replied that she had only been with one man before: him.
When Margie heard this, she told Weng that she and her cousin should file charges against the man, that as a government employee he could be fired and refused a pension for this. But Weng simply smiled.
Weng’s cousin is also a domestic helper. Now that she has a sick baby, the employer has told her he will only pay her $30 a month. Her brother is also “employed” by this man, who has decided to stop paying him anything at all.
When I heard this, I said to Margie, “Let’s go over there and confront this guy. He can’t just exploit people like that.”
“He wouldn’t understand you,” she told me.
“What if I agree to employ them for six months?” I asked. “Maybe they could stay with your sisters.”
“They don’t need anyone,” Margie said. “And besides, Weng’s cousin and her brother still owe their employer for their plane fare from Samar.”
“I’ll pay that then,” I said. Over the next couple of weeks, I brought it up again from time to time before finally dropping it.
One day, I overheard Weng in the kitchen speaking in Tagalog. I heard the word namatay, which means “died,” and I suddenly feared that the baby had died.
Well, yes, a baby had died, it turned out, but not that baby. Weng’s nephew, two years old, back in Samar, had died.
And now, Weng’s twenty-year-old brother is here.
“I told Weng he can’t stay with us,” Margie says, “And that we have no work.”
“I guess he felt that he could be unemployed in Samar or he could be unemployed here,” I tell Margie.
“At least he has family who could help back in the Province.” Margie says. “Weng told him to stay away, but he came anyway. He’s so makulit [stubborn]. But stay out of it. Let me handle it. This isn’t our problem.”
So I do. I stay out of it. I feel immobilized, overwhelmed, not sure how to react to anything anymore. Later, Weng excuses herself, tells me she’s going downstairs to buy some water for her brother.
Margie comes to me a few hours later and says she’s going to pay Weng her wages early. Weng is going to bring her brother to her estranged husband’s place to spend the night and then she’s going to put him on a bus back to Samar.
I nod but don’t say anything. I’m going out with a friend tonight and using the car that my brother-in-law has lent us for the year. I don’t dare drive in the chaos of Manila traffic, and so I have hired yet more help, a friendly driver named Rey, who doesn’t live with us.
But I have to wait for him to finish his dinner − he’s disappeared downstairs again. He prefers to eat downstairs in the drivers’ quarters. Margie tells me he shares his food with the other drivers, who tease him for being “spoiled.” Apparently, we’re one of the only a handful of employers in the 33-story building who don’t make our employees, like Rey, bring their own baon (meal). One poor fellow eats nothing but dried fish day after day. When they see Rey on the closed-circuit TV coming down the elevator with a plate of food, they all rush down to meet him.
When I leave our building to head out for an evening’s fun, Weng is there too, walking towards the street with her brother, a well-dressed boy who looks more like sixteen than twenty.
She turns around before I can disappear into the car. “Sir!” she shouts, smiling. “My brother.” She says this happily, proudly, as though he and I have both eagerly awaited this introduction, our last. He gives me a wave and a winning smile and there’s nothing else to do but smile back.