25 April 2013
Calling home: filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong KC Wong under a CC Licence
‘Kabayan,’ they greeted me, the Filipino word for fellow countrymen and women. It brought me comfort to find a fellow Filipino in a Middle Eastern country I was visiting for the first time. Later in the day, when I went to the city to exchange some dollars for local currency, I saw more Filipinos, my beloved Kabayans.
They were everywhere, sweating in the scorching desert heat, toiling a living for their loved ones at home. I saw them behind the wheels of the hotel’s shiny black Audis, behind bank counters, inside exhibition halls of Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, inside the hotel’s luxurious spa and in the hotel’s lobby lounge.
Two hours from Doha, in the industrial city of Ras Laffan, I boarded a hulking black LNG tanker and saw them staffing the kitchen, cooking for the rest of the ship’s crew.
Overseas Filipino Workers, they all are. Our government calls them unsung heroes and rightly so, because the dollar remittances they send home keep the economy afloat. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), recent data shows that remittances from overseas Filipino workers rose by six per cent to $1.68 billion in February from $1.59 billion in the same period last year.
The BSP expects 2013’s total remittances to grow by five per cent from 2012’s figure of $21.4 billion.
According to government statistics, there are 2.2 million overseas workers scattered all over the world, from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong and the US.
For many of these overseas Filipinos, however, working abroad is no paradise because they are separated from their children. Indeed, the social cost is high; children have to grow up without one or both parents.
Groups that promote the welfare of migrant workers have been calling on the government to provide gainful opportunities in the country so that Filipinos do not have to seek jobs abroad.
Migrante International secretary-general Gina Esguerra says the government must change its labour policies so that people can find job opportunities at home and wouldn’t be forced to leave for abroad.
What is happening, she says, is that the government is too focused on promoting labour export policies – or policies that encourage Filipinos to work abroad – instead of providing better job opportunities in the country.
And yet, the unemployment statistics in the country are stark and telling. According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), the unemployment rate was nearly unchanged in January at 7.1 per cent compared to 7.2 per cent in the same month last year.
Furthermore, the NSO noted that the number of unemployed Filipinos rose slightly to 2.894 million in January from 2.892 million a year ago.
The numbers tell a sad story, as sad as the stories of overseas Filipinos who long to be with their loved ones instead of toiling in distant lands.
But this is the story of my many kabayans, millions of them, scattered around the world. They long to come home but for many of them, such a dream remains elusive.
In Emma’s first year at San Isidro College, in the Philippines, she saw her name on a bulletin board in the registrar’s office, on a sheet of paper titled “Promise List.” It showed the names of fifteen students who owed tuition to the school and the dates, long past, that their money had been due. Emma and three friends, who were part of a clique of seven girls known as the Ringlets, for the initials of their names, were shocked that their debts had been made public. The Ringlets crossed out their names with a pen. Within an hour, the college’s guidance counsellor had called Emma and her friends into her office. “We only did it because we were so ashamed!” Emma confessed.
Emma, who grew up on a farm with eleven brothers and sisters, paid her debts by working in the college’s library during the day and taking classes at night. Her job gave her an edge, because she could read her assigned textbooks the moment they arrived at the library. Few people could afford to buy the books, and as many as six students would stand at a library table, crowding over one text. Although Emma majored in accounting, she felt that she was best at reading. In her English elective, as her classmates got lost in flashbacks and extended metaphors, she could follow the plots of American novels. During breaks from work, she sat in the library reading and exclaiming, “Oh my God, oh my God!”—a heroine had been raped or unjustly imprisoned. Her classmates couldn’t understand how her reaction could be so visceral. “Just read this story!” she urged them.
Emma’s teacher in Personality Development, a class on manners and hygiene, was so impressed by her reading and writing that she asked Emma to be her assistant. Observing that Emma was popular and confident, the teacher joked that within a year she would be married, an idea that Emma, who was seventeen, found insulting. She was too ambitious to assume the duties of a housewife. But she enjoyed the company of her boyfriend, Edmund, a handsome student who made the other Ringlets jealous. “I wasn’t thinking of marrying,” Emma said. “It was just, Oh, there’s somebody who will bring an umbrella for me when it’s raining. There’s somebody who will go to the movies with me on Saturdays.” Within a year, she was pregnant. Her teacher said, “Do you remember what I told you?” Emma wondered if her teacher’s prediction had been a kind of curse.
She married Edmund, and returned to school two weeks after giving birth. She was frightened by the size of her daughter, who she thought was about as small as a plastic bottle. She and Edmund moved into a two-bedroom wooden house with a thatched roof made of palm fronds in Malaybalay, the capital of Bukidnon, a mountainous, landlocked province. She made her husband coffee every morning and did all the cleaning and ironing. She considered herself “a little lucky,” because Edmund’s parents ran a restaurant, which relieved her of the need to cook. But the restaurant went bankrupt, a common fate for businesses in the Philippines. Wages are low—the average annual salary is thirty-five hundred dollars—and more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
Raised Roman Catholic, like eighty per cent of Filipinos, Emma knew nothing about contraception. By the time she graduated from college, with a bachelor’s degree in science, she had two daughters. Within fifteen years, she had seven more children, all of them girls, who slept in bunk beds and on the floor. Emma paid two night-school students to care for her daughters while she worked for the government of Bukidnon, in the office of nutrition; she devised policies and classes to prevent child malnourishment. She made the equivalent of fifty dollars a week, which was barely enough to feed her own children. Edmund worked on his family’s farm, earning money only after harvests. Every week, Emma held a family meeting to discuss the household budget. After each daughter summarized her needs, Emma gave her money, but it was rarely enough. Emma kept asking for advances at work. “At some point, it just looked like I was begging,” she told me.
Emma’s oldest sister, Virgie, a teacher, also struggled to provide for her children, and in 1999 she moved to New York, where she became a nanny. With the money she earned, she sent her three children to college and bought a new house. Virgie was known as an O.F.W., an overseas Filipino worker. The label confers status in the Philippines, which receives more money in remittances than any other country except India and China. Since the nineteen-seventies, the government of the Philippines has promoted labor exportation as a strategy for relieving poverty and alleviating the national debt. A tenth of the population now works abroad, supporting nearly half of the country’s households and leaving some nine million Filipino children missing a parent. In the past decade, three-quarters of O.F.W.s have been women; former President Corazon Aquino has praised them as “the heroes of our country’s economy.”
By the spring of 2000, Emma’s neighborhood was being emptied of mothers. One of the Ringlets had left for New York, as had Emma’s home-economics teacher, a college classmate, and several members of her church. That year, after her two oldest daughters entered college, Emma, who was forty-four, realized that she could never afford to pay tuition seven more times, so she applied for a tourist visa to America. At her interview, at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, she said that she wanted to go to California, to visit Disneyland. The official asked her how many malnourished children she worked with in Bukidnon.
Emma, who has a deep, metallic voice, said, “Four hundred plus.”
“O.K., four hundred,” the officer said. “Then why are you wasting your money taking a vacation to Disneyland?”
Emma paused, flustered. “Oh, I didn’t think about that,” she said.
Her application was rejected. She waited three months and applied again. This time, she paid a wealthy friend to provide her with “show money”: the friend temporarily deposited half a million pesos, roughly twelve thousand dollars, into Emma’s bank account, so that officials at the embassy would believe that she was a wealthy tourist. The friend owned a rice mill, and she created papers for Emma that made it appear as if she were the owner of the business. On the day of the interview, in July, 2000, Emma fasted and prayed all morning. Her sister Nella, who accompanied her to the embassy, said that after the interview Emma ran toward her shouting, “I got it!” “She was jumping,” Nella said. “She was so happy. I said, ‘Go, go—before they take it back.’ ”
Emma knew mothers who were too ashamed to explain to their children why they were compelled to leave, but she was accustomed to discussing everything with her daughters, down to their menstrual cycles. When she returned home, she held a family meeting and told the children, “Mama is going to go to America for a better job.”
Her youngest daughter, Ezreil, who was eleven, shouted, “No, Mama!” Her fifth-oldest daughter, Eunice, proposed that they all walk to school, rather than take a pedicab, to save money for tuition. The older girls were more cavalier. “Are you going to send us plenty of money?” one said. “So we can buy the Levi jeans?” Emma said that Ezreil told them, “I don’t need the Levi jeans.”
On August 21, 2000, Emma borrowed two service vans from her office and, with her daughters, her husband, and her brother-in-law, drove two hours to the city of Cagayan de Oro, which has a small airport. She took one suitcase containing four pairs of pants, a sweater, two pairs of shoes, two nightgowns, and a hairbrush. Virgie had told her not to take any dresses; there would be no occasion to wear them. In the terminal, all her daughters were crying. They would be cared for by their father and two “helpers,” whom Emma had hired for the equivalent of twenty dollars a week. Emma went to the bathroom to weep alone in a stall. She said, “My conscience was telling me, ‘Don’t leave your kids. Don’t leave your kids. They are young and need you.’ ”
Emma moved into Virgie’s studio apartment, in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood known as Filipinotown. More than thirteen thousand Filipinos live in the blocks surrounding Roosevelt Avenue, under the tracks of the No. 7 subway line, which takes them to Times Square. The avenue has evolved to meet the needs of female migrants: there’s a shop specializing in uniforms for nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides, and several freight and remittance centers, where workers send their earnings and gifts to their families. In the seventies and eighties, most O.F.W.s were men, who worked in merchant shipping or construction, but since the nineties migration has become increasingly female, both in the Philippines and throughout the world. Mothers and daughters leave their families so that they can do the type of “women’s work”—caring for the young, the elderly, and the infirm—that females in affluent countries no longer want to do or have time to do. They function as what María Ibarra, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, calls “emotional proletarians”: they “produce authentic emotion in exchange for a wage.”
Emma shared a bed with Virgie, who was so exhausted from work that at night she demanded that Emma, who always wanted to chat, be quiet. Two friends from their province, a nanny and a housekeeper, slept on a pullout couch. On Emma’s second day in New York, after submitting her résumé to a Filipino agency for nannies, she shadowed Virgie at work and took notes as her sister demonstrated how to clean the American way, with bleach instead of soap and water, and how to use an electric iron, rather than one heated by the kindled ashes of a coconut shell. On Emma’s third day, Virgie told her to practice riding the subway alone. Emma couldn’t understand why her subway car was filled with people who appeared to be from Mexico and China. “Where are all the Americans?” she asked her sister.
The agency found Emma a job as a nanny in Chappaqua, and she felt that she had discovered the America she had imagined. Her employers’ house resembled pictures that she had seen in a calendar that her father, a Second World War veteran, had brought home from duty. Each month featured an American mansion with a chimney or two and an expansive lawn.
Emma was paid three hundred and seventy-five dollars a week to care for two girls, who were one and three years old. She slept in a room in the basement five nights a week. On her first day, she was confused when her boss returned to the house wearing gym clothes after being gone for only a few hours. Emma called her sister to report that her boss didn’t even have a job. “Don’t ask,” Virgie said. “You’re just a helper.”
Emma fantasized about what she would have done with all that leisure time—she’d teach her children to read, she decided, rather than let their teachers do it—until she realized that she would fail at her job unless she practiced a kind of displacement. “I told myself, ‘It’s time to take care of these kids,’ ” she said. “I took my love for my own children and I put it on these girls. I treated them as if they were my daughters.”
She read to them every night, encouraging them to elaborate on the stories and to repeat the sounds of the alphabet. In a spiral-bound notebook, she wrote down the titles of the books she liked best. On the weekends, she bought them at Barnes & Noble and sent them to her second-oldest daughter, Roxanne, who had a one-year-old son. Roxanne was especially impressed by Clifford—in the Philippines, children’s books didn’t have such glossy pages and vivid pictures—but when Emma told her to read to her son every night she replied, “You didn’t do that for us.”
During meals in Chappaqua, Emma sometimes felt guilty and lost her appetite. “If you are a mom, you want anything you eat to be shared by your kids,” she said. Sometimes, as she dressed the girls in the morning, she cried as she imagined her youngest children preparing for school with the assistance of the helpers. One of the helpers had a young son. Emma asked her children who cared for the boy while his mother was at their house, but her daughters didn’t know. Emma imagined a chain of mothers parenting other mothers’ children around the globe.
Using a thirty-dollar phone card that she bought once a week, Emma called home every day for fifteen minutes and spoke to three daughters at a time, five minutes each. Sometimes she could hear Ezreil shouting, “I didn’t get my time to talk! It’s still my time—they took my time.” Eunice said that their father had told them not to report bad news on the phone. “We tell her, ‘Good, good—everything is good,’ ” she said. Emma loved to garden—she grew jackfruit, eggplant, okra, chili peppers, and rows of dahlias and red flamingo flowers—but within a few months her friends reported that nearly all her plants had died. When Emma worried that her children were keeping secrets, she called her nephew, a police officer in Malaybalay, and asked if any of the girls were using drugs. He assured her that they weren’t, but he told her about the children of many O.F.W.s in Queens who were.
Emma’s daughters wrote her long letters to privately express their complaints. “You’re the only one who defends me when my sisters gang up on me,” Ezreil wrote. “I’m lost without you.” Her oldest daughter, Mae Ann, wrote her, “It is so lonely without a mother!” She also reported that their father was spending too much time at parties. “Do not keep sending money to Papa because he continues to drink,” she wrote.
Emma put Roxanne in charge of the bills, but the other girls said that she was abusing her power. “She computes while I am eating,” one daughter, KC, wrote. “Sometimes I would just push aside the food because she nags.” KC said that she was being made to feel that she didn’t deserve it. “I will remember everything that happened in our family,” she wrote in a ten-page letter. “Someday, when I have my own family, I will bring this pain with me.”
Emma wanted to go home before her visa expired—the maximum visit was half a year—but she had spent so much money on her airfare that she felt trapped. In 2001, a headline in the Philippine Daily Inquirer read, “OFWS Told: Stay Abroad.” The article quoted President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo saying, “We are depending on the people outside the country. If you can find work there, and send money to your relatives here, then perhaps you should stay there.”
Emma persuaded two of her friends, Espie and Delia, whom she used to pray with every Saturday, to follow her to New York. She pretended that she was pleased with her new life. Espie, who had four young children, said that she had always “wanted to go somewhere—I don’t know where, I don’t know what. The only word is ‘abroad’—that’s my dream.” Once Espie and Delia arrived, in 2001, they found jobs as nannies. When Emma’s employers went out on Saturday nights, Emma lounged on the living-room couch, talking to Espie and Delia on the phone. They addressed one another using the names of their employers. “Hello, Mrs. Bella!” they joked. “Good evening, Mrs. Schwartz, how are you?”
On her day off, Emma went to the Philippine National Bank in Manhattan and sent all her earnings home except for twenty dollars, her weekly allowance. Most of the money went to her daughters, but she also fulfilled requests from her sisters, colleagues, and friends. “Please have mercy on me!!!” one sister wrote. Two friends asked her for “show money” so that their family members could work abroad, in Kuwait and in Italy. “Any amount, Emma,” one of the friends begged. Distant acquaintances found circuitous ways of enclosing their bank-account numbers while complimenting Emma’s fortitude and imagined wealth. “I heard that you’re now a millionaire,” one friend wrote. A former colleague told her, “I’m sure you’re already very beautiful with lots of diamonds.”
Virgie and her friends called Emma “soup girl,” because for nearly all her meals she ate two-dollar bowls of take-out Chinese chicken-noodle soup, which she considered a good deal because the fried-noodle crackers were free. Espie adopted the same approach. “We just put it in our minds that we need to sacrifice ourselves,” she told me. “That is the job description.”
Every month, Emma bought a cardboard box from a shipping business called Johnny Air Cargo on Roosevelt Avenue, in Filipinotown. The box was the size of a small refrigerator, and she spent several weeks filling it with coffee, Spam, chocolate, powdered drinks like Nesquik and Tang, toiletries, and clothes from Costco. Like nearly all the Filipinas she knew, she always had an open balikbayan, or “repatriate box,” in her apartment. When she could barely close the lid, she sent the box home. It cost sixty-five dollars to send, regardless of the weight, and took two months to get to the Philippines by container ship. The process was the most concrete way she knew of showing her love. When her daughters said that she’d sent them unfashionable clothes, Emma told them to have a garage sale, and sent more.
After nearly two years with the family in Chappaqua, Emma learned of a housekeeping job in Long Island that paid fifty dollars more per week. Fifty dollars each week, for a year, was enough to put one daughter through four years of college. She didn’t want to leave the two girls, so she asked her employers for a raise, but they refused.
Emma dreaded saying goodbye to the children. “I’d fallen in love with them,” she said. On Emma’s last day of work, her employer drove her to the train station with the children, who had been told that Emma was taking a vacation. Emma tried to act as if it were a temporary parting, but she couldn’t hold in her tears. “The separation was harder, because I’d already done it with my own kids,” she said. “I thought, My God, I don’t want to feel it again.”
Emma’s daughter Eunice said that her aunts advised her and her sisters, “You have to be good, so that your mother will come back.” Eunice couldn’t help wondering if her mother’s long absence was the result of something that she and her sisters had done. She said, “You keep asking yourself, ‘Why did it happen like this? Why don’t I have a mother?’ ” Eunice kept thinking about an angry comment that her mother had made years earlier, when she and her sisters were misbehaving: “If I have the chance to go to another country, I will not come back here.”
When Emma’s own mother became ill and appeared to be dying, in late 2003, Emma’s daughters assumed that Emma would finally fly home. “If it were me and this happened to my mother,” Eunice said, “of course I would want to see her for the last time.” But Emma felt even more bound to New York, because she had to pay for her mother’s medical treatment, which ultimately failed; the doctors couldn’t diagnose her illness. She and Virgie paid for their mother’s embalmment, the funeral, the flights of relatives who attended the ceremony, a nine-day wake, and food for the guests. Emma didn’t attend the funeral, because she worried that she would find herself in a situation that she and her friends called “A to A,” for “airport to airport.” Emma knew women who flew from Manila to the United States, but once their travel histories were inspected by New York customs officials they were sent back to Manila. They ended up paying for two international flights and losing their source of income.
To make up for lost savings, Emma picked up part-time work in the evenings, sometimes sleeping only two hours a night. It was easiest to fill in for friends and acquaintances who worked as home health aides. They often called Emma and asked her to “take care of my lolo,” a Tagalog term for “grandfather.”
Elder care is the fastest-growing occupation in the country—the number of Americans older than eighty-five has risen more rapidly than any other demographic—but the salary is meagre: home health aides make an average of less than eleven dollars an hour. They receive little or no training. “I just read some books, any books,” Emma told me. “Oh, this is the sickness called Alzheimer’s. Oh, this is M.S.” A friend taught her how to use a colostomy* bag and a Hoyer Lift, a hydraulic-powered machine that moves patients out of their beds. One of her clients had dementia and insisted on calling her Mary. Sometimes, when she gave him a bath, he resisted, yelling “Police! Police!” or spitting in her face. “Don’t worry—the police are coming,” Emma told him. “They are picking up Mary.”
In 2004, Emma got a permanent weekend job working in Manhattan for a woman with muscular dystrophy, and she learned to dissociate herself from the most unpleasant aspects of the job. “You forget yourself,” she said. The smell of the woman’s body became as normal as her own. She felt that she’d been hired to love this woman, and for the most part she did. Emma adopted the woman’s favorite TV shows and her loyalties as a sports fan. They enjoyed sitting on the couch together, watching the Boston Celtics, rooting for Paul Pierce. “Our favorite,” Emma said. The woman wore eye shadow and blush every day, and she expected Emma to do the same. When Emma explained that she didn’t have time to look pretty, she said that the woman responded, “The time that I am putting my makeup on—that’s the time that you put on your makeup.”
Emma kept waiting for the woman’s children or grandchildren to visit and offer their assistance, but it gradually became clear that this wasn’t their role. One time, she became angry at the woman’s demands and told her, “Even your kids don’t care for you!” Emma said that she responded, “Because my kids are not from the Philippines.”
Emma’s second-oldest sister, Nella, the principal of an elementary school in Bukidnon, envied her sisters. She kept comparing her salary with what she would be making in America, until the process of multiplication—dollars to pesos—became almost compulsive, and she decided to join them. In 2006, when Nella was fifty-seven and trying to put her grandchildren through school, she moved to New York and found a job as a housekeeper and a home attendant for a woman who was dying. Nella lived in an apartment in Queens that she shared with five other female former teachers, three of whom had taught at her school.
Nella was impressed by Emma’s adjustment to American life. She had been alarmed when Emma had nine children in rapid succession (“like a staircase,” she said), and she used to call Emma Cinderella, because she was so pretty and harried. Nella would urge her to go to the beauty parlor and do something with her hair. Now Emma had red highlights, a Victoria’s Secret bra, and a bangle bracelet—indulgences that she had decided were important for her mental health. “For five years, I didn’t leave anything for myself,” Emma told me. “After all that time, I said, ‘How about me?’ ”
In letters, Emma’s husband repeatedly instructed her to “always be a good girl” and “be a good wife,” and Emma wondered if his admonitions were a kind of projection. When Emma asked her children if he was seeing other women, they told her, “Oh, don’t think about that. Forget it.”
Many of Emma’s friends had husbands to whom they were only nominally attached. A few had come to the U.S. for adventure or self-improvement, or to escape abusive or failed marriages—divorce is not legal in the Philippines, and migration is referred to as the “Filipino divorce”—but the majority were here to support their children. They quickly became accustomed to making decisions without consulting their husbands. “It looks like we are already feminists,” Emma told me. “It looks like we want to be the boss.”
Emma was offended by employers who repeated their instructions, as if she didn’t have the mental capacity to remember, or insisted that she wash the floor using a sponge, on her knees, rather than standing and using a mop. Nella, who called her employers “ma’am” and “sir,” urged Emma to be less vocal. “As long as they do not hurt you or hit you, just let it pass,” she said. She often repeated a Tagalog expression: “If the ganta”—a box for measuring grain—“is full of rice, then you can talk back. Until then, be quiet.”
Emma and Nella found that in the eyes of many employers Filipinas were at the top of the ethnic hierarchy for domestic workers, as if their nationality had become synonymous with family duty and deference. Some two hundred thousand women are employed as domestic workers in New York State, a number that is expected to rise in the next decade, owing to the aging of the population, the entrance of more women into the workforce, and the lack of publicly funded services for the very young and old. A 2012 survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that two-thirds of nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides were immigrants, half of whom were undocumented. Through their work, New Yorkers are free to have a public life, while the women working in their homes remain invisible: domestic workers spend long hours in private apartments, and are often paid off the books, with few of the legal protections afforded workers in other fields.
When the first major labor laws were passed, in the nineteen-thirties, Southern lawmakers fought to exclude domestic work, a largely black profession, an omission that allowed states to maintain racial hierarchies and a cheap pool of black labor. A 1938 letter to Eleanor Roosevelt signed by “Fifteen weary housemaids” demanded that “we girls should get some consideration as every other labor class has.” Their request wasn’t heeded, and within thirty years many African-American women had moved on to more lucrative positions. Immigrant women of color filled the roles they had cast off. Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said, “A lot of these immigrant women are fleeing economic situations in their home country that have created an impossible set of choices. The women who care for our loved ones simply can’t take care of their own.”
New York is one of six states that have passed legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers, giving them a minimum wage, overtime, and protection against harassment. But few workers and employers know about the laws. Linda Oalican, the executive director of Damayan, an organization that advocates for the rights of Filipino domestic workers, said that workers fear that if they take advantage of New York’s law, which was passed in 2010, and challenge the conditions of their employment they could be reported for working illegally, sabotage their opportunity for a reference letter, or abruptly lose an income on which their families depend.
Oalican, who became a domestic worker after she left the Philippines, in 1994, thinks that the culture of remittances breeds political complacency: families of O.F.W.s are less inclined to organize against the Filipino government and protest corruption, because they are shielded by the money sent from abroad, even as their communities remain impoverished. Oalican gets frustrated when she hears policymakers speak of migration as if it were always voluntary. “They choose to forget about the origins of these women and the economic and political reasons that they left their countries,” she said. Many members of Damayan have doubted their decision to leave, especially those with young children. “When you are a nanny, you see how critical the early years of childhood are,” Oalican told me. “They inform the values of the child and set the conditions for their personhood.”
Oalican’s daughter, Riya, followed her to New York after graduating from college, and she now works at Damayan, too. Riya, who is thirty-eight, told me that her relationship with her mother is strained; they can connect only through discussions about politics. In the Philippines, her mother had been a leading activist against the military regime of Ferdinand Marcos, and when Riya first saw her mother at work she felt that she no longer knew her. “I have this really vivid image of her walking in front of me in Central Park, pushing this stroller with a white baby in it,” she told me. “It was fall, and it was a bit chilly, and I thought to myself, You lost your mother.”
Emma’s growing comfort in America made the purpose of her journey less clear. Her goal had been to return home as soon as she put her children through school. By 2013, all of her daughters had graduated from college, but four of them couldn’t find work. The others complained of low wages: one worked as an administrator in the governor’s office, another as a secretary for the commission on elections, and a third as a manager of a convenience store. Her most financially successful daughter, Eunice, had become a secretary in Abu Dhabi and sent money to her sisters and their children. When Eunice asked her mother when she would return home, she usually said, “Soon, soon, not now,” and then talked about an expense that had yet to be paid. Emma and her daughters now communicated almost exclusively through Facebook. Her daughters uploaded photographs and videos of their weddings and of their newborns seconds after birth. On Emma’s birthday, they baked cakes with her name written in frosting and posted videos of themselves singing.
In 2014, when Emma was fifty-eight, she divorced her husband, so that she’d be free to meet American men; that was the only reliable way to get a green card, which would allow her to visit her daughters without forfeiting the chance to return. Since the nineties, a series of laws have made it increasingly difficult for low-wage workers to obtain green cards through employer sponsorship. Although her employers paid her in cash, Emma, like many of her friends, paid taxes, so that she would be in better standing if immigration laws were ever relaxed.
After her husband signed the divorce papers—the agreement was not recognized in the Philippines, only in the U.S.—Emma went out at night more often, to take her mind off her grief. At a party she met a Filipina nanny named Ivy, who was thirty-seven—a year younger than Emma’s oldest daughter. Ivy was affectionate, exuberant, and highly competent; at times, though, she had the air of an abandoned child. She seemed continually shocked to find herself stranded in New York. “We both feel lonely in the same way,” Emma said. She found Ivy’s presence comforting. “Her face is like my daughter’s,” she told me. “It looks like we are family already.”
Ivy, a former midwife, was determined to be faithful to her husband, who lived in Zamboanga City, in the southwest Philippines. Her friendship with Emma helped her resist the desire for intimacy with other men. “My personality is that I get too attached to people,” she said. Her husband had quit his job as a nurse when she left for America, in 2010, and though he cared for their three young children full time, he complained of feeling useless. He told her that he felt like palamon, the Tagalog word for “animal feed.” “Because he says I am feeding him like a bird,” Ivy said, “and he just keeps opening his mouth.”
Ivy slept over at Emma’s apartment so often that last summer Emma invited her to move in, replacing one of her roommates. They share a twin mattress on the bottom of a bunk bed in a living room that Emma turned into a bedroom by installing a wooden partition from Home Depot. Emma’s niece, a home health aide, sleeps on the top bunk. When Emma snores, Ivy tries to make her stop by hugging her. She’d used the same technique with her mother, with whom she’d shared a bed through her second year of high school.
Emma’s sister Nella said that Emma began telling people she had an “adopted daughter.” Then she stopped using the word “adopted.” At times, her use of the word prompted delighted exclamations from acquaintances who assumed that one of Emma’s daughters had got a visa. Emma’s daughter Eunice was surprised, too. On Facebook, she saw dozens of pictures of Emma and Ivy labelled “Mom and daughter.” “She misses you guys very much,” Ivy assured Emma’s daughters on Facebook. “Thank you for allowing me to borrow her as my NY mom.” Although Eunice wished that she were the one “feeling that mother-image,” she was grateful that her mom had a loyal boarder. “At least there is someone there for my mom who is like a daughter,” she said. “And I think Ivy, for her part, is looking for a mother.”
In the Philippines, Ivy used to talk with her mother many times a day, even when she was at work, and she did the same with Emma. Five nights a week, Ivy slept in Chappaqua, in her employer’s house, and she began setting her alarm clock for 5 A.M., so that she could call Emma to wake her up in time for her nannying job in Manhattan. “What will you be having for breakfast?” Ivy asked, as a way of urging Emma out of bed.
At night, if Ivy went to bed before talking to Emma, she kept her cell phone by her pillow and woke up periodically to check for messages. “If I don’t talk to her one day, I’m not comfortable,” Ivy told me. “I feel like there is something missing.”