When I first came to Singapore as a graduate student in 2002, I was completely naïve about the migrant situation in the Philippines. I knew we were exporting workers in droves and I have worked long enough at the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues (albeit with the urban poverty, housing, and informal sector desk) to be familiar with the plight of migrant workers. Still, this knowledge did not prepare me for the tsunami of Pinoy “DH” that engulfed a popular mall along Orchard Road during one of my forays there.
The minute I landed in Singapore, the taxi driver immediately recognized that I was Filipino. “It’s the slang, you know,” he remarked. On the way to the dorm, he told me that if I ever miss the Philippines, all I have to do is go to Lucky Plaza, a mall where “the Filipinos hang-out.” It impressed me that Filipinos in Singapore must be a sizeable lot, and, as the taxi driver knew that I was a student and he pointed out my slang, that these Filipinos who patronize Lucky Plaza would perhaps be like me – middle class and educated. There certainly are many of those. But there is an even larger segment of the Filipino population in Singapore that I failed to anticipate.
The Sunday I decided to go with fellow Pinoy students to Lucky Plaza, I brimmed with excitement and expectation. After all, Lucky Plaza was the only mall where you could find Filipino goods and Filipino restaurants. What the taxi driver said about Lucky Plaza being the ‘hang-out’ of Filipinos intrigued me as well. As a new temporary migrant – I had to stay for a year to complete my degree – I felt the need to assert my Filipino-ness and my sense of belonging to the Filipino nation. I wanted to look for people I can identify with – the other Filipinos who are here, whom scholars maintain as being part of the Filipino diaspora, and who are reconstructing Filipino culture in small things like hanging out (tambay) at Lucky Plaza and selling Filipino products. I wanted to be part of it. This need to assert was intensified by a sense of alienation from the culture and people of Singapore that marked the first few months of my stay in the country. I realized that the Philippines was my home, something I have always taken for granted.
Being besieged by Filipino domestic workers in Lucky Plaza, however, was an overwhelming experience. Every space in the mall was occupied by loud and overly-adorned domestics who had the Sunday off. I heard the Filipino language, be it regional or Tagalog, spoken everywhere. But I could not, as a Filipino with a middle class upbringing, relate to the people there. My first reaction was to immediately dissociate myself from the crowd. An encounter with difference does make you realize that sameness is not necessarily nationality-based. That being in a different country does not automatically blur the lines of social class so pervasive and divisive in the Philippines. It was conflicting.
On the one hand, I felt ashamed that the majority of the Filipinos here are low-tier migrants who form a community with a social space and an identity as domestic workers. I considered it an insult that such an identity is imposed on other Filipino women who are not part of that community, or who are not DH. On the other hand, I felt ashamed that I was ashamed and insulted. That Sunday, I did not encounter a Filipino who was like me, apart from my fellow students. It made me wonder about the spaces that other Filipino migrants occupy. Do Filipino students and professionals regard themselves as more esteemed, and thus, strive to assimilate with Singaporeans? What then of the Filipino diaspora? What then of being Filipino when the larger community itself is torn between class loyalties and identities?