by Rose Churma
This is Wendy’s memoir, tracing her life as the youngest daughter of a tenant farmer in a remote village in Leyte province in the Philippines to her migration with an older sister to Manila to work as a domestic servant for a politician in then Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet.
With the help of her sister’s husband, she was petitioned to migrate to Canada, where she eventually brought her children to join her and build a new life in their adopted country.
When she moved to Canada, she married a retired high school teacher and writer, David Owen, the person noted as author of this book. In an unusual twist for a memoir, David wrote the memoir as told by Wendy.
Unfortunately, a lot is lost in the re-telling. The nuances and quirks of the Filipina’s voice are lost: it certainly does not sound like her. But fortunately, her story has been told as eloquently and truthfully—a gain to all of us in the Filipino Diaspora.
The book consists of six parts. “Part I: A Girl from the Provinces” chronicles her life as a young girl in Bacolonad, Leyte.
These first chapters capture the rhythms of the life in the provinces where she describes how her nanay extracted pure coconut oil to be used as compress to her head and body sores, and that her parents’ drink of choice was the tuba—a clear coconut wine that was sweet but potent.
Her parents worked in various landlord’s rice fields because only peanuts, cassava and sweet potatoes were planted on their leased plot of land. In payment for their labor at the rice fields, the landlords either shared a fifth of the harvest, or a fourth—from the kinder landlords.
Wendy did well academically in school in Leyte, but when her nanay died, her life’s trajectory changed. She had to leave school and and work to help support the family. In “Part II: Maynila,” she narrates her experiences as a domestic servant in Manila.
She was seduced by a driver in one of the homes she worked for and quit in shame when she found out she got pregnant. In “Part III: A New Family,” she chronicles her life as wife, mother and step-mother to a young family living in the suburbs of Manila.
Part IV and V of the memoir describes her early years in Canada, after her older sister’s husband petitions for her to migrate. In these chapters, we catch glimpses of the hard work and loneliness that migrants encounter, especially when separated from their families and children. Wendy eventually brings her children to live with her in Canada, except her Filipino husband who preferred to stay behind.
In Part VI, she eventually marries a Canadian resident and brings him back to the Philippines to visit family and gives him “an intimate view, from the inside, of a large working Filipino family.”
Her husband in the foreword thanks his Filipino in-laws “…for their kind, tolerant acceptance of someone, who through the fortunes of a Canadian birth, has avoided the privations which comes with life for working people in the Philippines.” This provided the impetus for him to prod his wife to tell her story.
This is not the first book published by David Owen. His first two books detail the lives of what he calls the “nanny phenomenon” of Hong Kong where virtually most were Filipina caregivers. He further notes that an occupation survey done by students at a Hong Kong university gave prostitutes a higher social status than domestic caregivers.
Unlike in Hong Kong, migrant caregivers in Canada could eventually gain citizenship, and the country took a more progressive approach to employment conditions for live-ins, but the feudal nature of the arrangement still makes them extremely vulnerable. This book, written from Wendy’s perspective provides insights in the challenges faced by migrant women in that country.
The book’s formatting needs improvement. Some names are pasted over (perhaps a last-minute move to protect privacy), but still disconcerting. Chapters are mislabeled and don’t match the table of contents. However, the writer tried to be as authentic as possible by “checking and re-checking” the narratives being told. The book is liberally illustrated with photographs from Wendy’s personal collection, and helps provide context to the narrative, but—less would be better.
Wendy is typical of countless Filipino women who left home and loved ones to forge a new and better life in a new land. The real value of the book is that it documents the struggles—as well as triumphs—of a Filipino migrant, with her own recollection and her point of view. For subsequent generations, this would be the source of information about the history of their ancestors as told by them, and not someone else.
One piece of advice: write your own memoir. If you don’t want to write, get someone to write for you, or tape your recollection and have it transcribed.
If interested and intrigued by the prospect of seeing your memoir in print, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for the schedule of workshops being planned on the subject.
ROSE CRUZ CHURMAestablished Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at email@example.com.
by Rose Churma