Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Mama is "One of Those," Part One

This is very much a work in progress, but here is the first installment...

I met this Filipina woman once, when I was working in DC at the tail-end of the Clinton administration. When I told her how my parents met, she replied, "Oh, she's one of those." Never before or since has anyone implicated my mother in such a way right to my face, but the comment sticks with me.

I am spending the next month on Baloy Beach, which is just at the northwest edge of Olongapo. The whole beach is about a mile long and portions have been sold to Westerners, primarily Australians, Germans, and Swedes, all of whom (Filipinos included) earn income from tourism. Altogether, it's a chaotic jumble of relatively schwanky joints, shanties, and stuff in between, which is just as easily said about the entire country. Where I am staying is literally the in-between: next door is an eight story hotel, the Wild Orchid, and the neighboring property is occupied by my uncle Pitong’s in-laws. Baloy Beach is mostly owned by descendants of Old Man Baloy (my mom couldn’t remember his name). My great-grandmother on my mom’s dad’s side was Martina Baloy, and this is how we came to posess our portion of the beachfront.

Olongapo sits just outside the perimeter of a former US Naval Base (now Subic Bay Freeport Zone), where my mom waitressed in her early 20s (I was born at the end of the Vietnam War, and now you get the basic plot of my parents’ story). So I suspect, in that woman’s eyes, my mom is one of those Filipinas who married an American and moved on up, Jeffersons-style, to the US. I can’t argue too much with that, except that the woman leveling the accusation was what my mom would call a “showy” Filipino – lots of jewelry, heavily made up, expensive-looking clothing, and the type of Filipina whose family in the PI would probably have a houseboy or maid. Think Imelda Marcos knock-off. In my eyes, she was “one of those.”

By contrast, my mom and her family were of a class likely to be hired as houseboys and maids. But she married her American sailor and moved to the States. She came back in the late nineties, built several rooms to rent on the beach property allotted to her, and hired a series of caretakers over the years (Rony is the current one) to help with the business.

When we arrived, she made him clean my room – scrub the shower, kitchenette, mop – things I felt guilty for having him do when I could easily have done them myself. To me, the space isn’t a hotel room but my home, for the next month anyway. Despite being relatively moneyed in the Philippines, in the US we were still the kind of family who would have been hired as maids. My dad was a mechanic, and my mom worked a series of service jobs when I was growing up. When my mom’s siblings stayed with us as they immigrated to the US, there was a time in high school when I had at least one relative working in every McDonald's in town.

Since Rony didn’t seem to have much else to do anyway, I quit objecting and Mama and I sat in two plastic chairs on her porch while he cleaned my room.

“Hey, that’s what I’m paying him for – he needs to do something to earn it,” my mom told me. “You know, when I was younger, we wanted to do our job – these people just want to get paid.” She grew more agitated. “Because we were hungry. We would go to our aunts and uncles and say, ‘Auntie, let me do that for you, and you give us fruit’ or candy or whatever. Oh, sometimes she had the Baby Ruth. You know this Baby Ruth?” Her fingers indicated what looked to me to be the fun size. “Anyway, not this ‘gimme gimme gimme.’ Oh, like Krissy!” and she slapped my arm with her fan and cackled with laughter. I admit, I could see the comparison coming. “Yeah, sometimes we would steal fruit from the fields, we were so hungry…”

Mama grew up in a small barangay called Pamatawan, about three miles from Baloy Beach. They did their laundry in a nearby river, and were told never to leave their panties drying on the line overnight “because that’s how you get pregnant.” When I visited in 1982, they were still pumping their drinking and cooking water from a well. The second of ten children, my mom was responsible for contributing to the household income when she was old enough to work, and helping to care for her younger siblings long before – and after – that.

“In Pamatawan, we had one bedroom, two living rooms, and one kitchen. All open; no privacy. We sleep on woven straw mats on the floor. All of us. Until we’re old enough to go to work ... I started waitressing on base when I was 17, and all my money went to my family. Then I thought, ‘how long do I have to keep doing this? I give them all my money and there’s nothing left for me!’ So yeah, I was looking for a husband.”

The first world feminist in me – the one who had been told by this very woman not to depend on a man for anything – cringed. She had been one of those.

She abruptly changed topics. “I think I might fire Rony and bring back Beth.” I was aghast at how casually she pondered it. “Well he doesn’t do anything!”

In his defense, I didn’t see that there was all that much to be done. She had no guests besides me, and save the few odd jobs that crop up here and there, there doesn’t appear to be a steady stream of daily activity, so I'm not sure what her actual beef is with this guy. Plus, wasn’t he counting on this as income? And she was just going fire him willy nilly?

“Besides, they hate Beth.” She motioned toward the shanty that stands about twenty feet from her porch.

“Who are they again?”

“They’re your Uncle Pitong’s in-laws. They built that after his wife went to rehab. But she was crazy before that.”

“What’s she in rehab for?”

“Drugs. And then she went crazy over the drugs.”

“What was she addicted to?”

“Oh I don’t know. Cocaine? Or something…”

By the look of that shanty, I couldn’t imagine that she could afford to even try coke, much less support a full-fledged addiction.

“Was it meth?”

“No, I don’t think so…” she said, tentatively.

“Crack? Heroine? Opium?” My mother’s face fell a little as I rattled off a stream of addictive drugs.

“I watch a lot of Intervention,” I assured her.

She called Rony over and asked him in Tagalog about hardcore drugs.

“Ah, shabu. Tama.” She turned back to me, “Shabu is the Tagalog word for it, but I don’t know what it is.”

Hop, skip, and a Google later: meth.

“There’s no way I could have found that out by myself,” I tell her. "People would think I was looking to get some."

Just then, it began to downpour – we are transitioning into monsoon season, after all. Though Mama has a covered porch, summer rains are hard enough to produce spray that wets everything under the eaves, so we went inside and started dinner.

Tune in tomorrow for more on the microeconomy of the beach, my Mama the Capitalist, the fate of Rony's employment, and my evolving first-world guilt perspective on the whole shebang.


Anonymous said...

So fascinating! Can't wait to read the next installment. I hope you're having fun in between the feelings of guilt.

Jessica said...

I don't know if my mother would really know what meth was if it was set down in front of her. She's heard the word only because *other* people's kids get hooked on it (never mind the fact I had a little "speed" issue in my late teens).

I think your mom's naivete is sweet. It reminds me of the time before information overload via the internet. If you didn't experience it first hand, then you didn't know it existed. There's safety in that, and a sense of authenticity, too.

I guess ignorance really can be bliss.

Can't wait for #2!

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