I started thinking about Alex Tizon’s article in the June 2017 Atlantic long before we paid the $9 (“Nine dollars?!? I could have bought a book!”) to bring home a print copy last Saturday.
I was standing in the shower Sunday, arranging my thoughts as if I were writing them, when I thought:
The Tizons brought over one cultural norm too many.
In my corner of the social media, the June 2017 cover article for the Atlantic has blown up like a bomb depot. Written by a Filipino-American about the house-servant his family brought with them when they moved to the US from the Philippines, it was briefly lauded and then… BOOM. Because Lola Pulido wasn’t paid, not ‘back home,’ not here…at least not until after the author’s mother died. And kept here as an undocumented immigrant for a while. Which would make Ms. Pulido a slave. BOOM.
I’m Anglo. Of centuries-long ancestry in the United States. It’s said one strand of my family was brought to Georgia in the second boatload of criminals, a history now faintly amusing over the distance of time. I married, however, a Filipino who became a U.S. citizen, and—because this is how it works—I am a part of a Filipino family.
So the article ‘feels’ different to me than it evidently does to other people. Particularly other USAm people (US American, as opposed to FilAm—Filipino-American—or Filipino people).
One thing: I can’t bring myself to refer to Eudocia Pulido as “Lola.” Because she’s not my Lola… my Granny. Or My Sweetie’s—because lola is Tagalog for grandma. She’s Mr. Tizon’s Lola. So to me she’s Lola Pulido. And it bothers me each and every time anyone other than Mr. Tizon’s family calls Ms. Pulido “Lola.”
For people who claim to want posthumous respect for Ms. Pulido, it strikes me as disrespectful.
But then, people respond to my title of “Lola” (I’m a grandmother!) as if I were playing the lead in Damn Yankees! instead of just another Mimi or Nana or G-ma. It creeps me out a little.
Another thing: did you know there is a stereotype among Filipino-Americans that newly-migrated middle- and upper-class Filipinas are unable to function in the U.S.? In the Philippines, having household staff is the norm as soon as one has financial margin. So one doesn’t clean one’s house, or tend one’s yard, or drive one’s car. One has a housekeeper, a gardener, a driver. Who might ‘live in’ (have living space in your house), depending. When children are born, there’s then a yaya (au pair/nanny). So a middle-class girl in the Philippines wouldn’t need to know how to vacuum, or wash dishes, or make meals.
When I visited the Philippines in 2000, I was the only woman of my class I saw caring for my own children. It felt very odd.
On the flip side, in that moment in the shower, I wondered whether Mr. Tizon’s parents brought Ms. Pulido with them in part because they could not envision managing without her. As a medical professional, Ms. Tizon, Sr. would have been far more pressed than my mother-in-law, whose chief external responsibility was to be an amazing hostess for her spouse’s business colleagues and their friends. And my mother-in-law has pretty much always had a housekeeper. Who cooks, too.
Still, “everybody knows” that there aren’t servants in the U.S. the way there are ‘back home.’ Even at the time the Tizons moved. Most others managed to leave that particular expectation in the islands.
A third thing, and my last for now: in the Philippines, there’s a subterranean, implicit cultural contract embedded in having staff. As an Anglo girl of U.S. Southern heritage, I knew social narratives around being connected to one’s kinfolks’ former human property. About responsibility, and a sort of relatedness. But that’s a low-grade thing, lessening with every generation. Perhaps what I picked up on was family-specific, but the idea that with prosperity came the obligation of employment for the less prosperous was new to me. See, the persons you hire can then send money back to their families, trickling the money down the line.
It seemed ripe for abuse over a large scale, but there’s something interesting about employing a housekeeper as a form of social safety net. Something that clearly didn’t click into the other-ing narratives of American slavery and servanthood that I knew. Something more complicated.
Having married in, I’ve been getting extremely upset with much of the USAm people’s responses to Tizon’s article. I saw one Filipino commenter refer to these responses as USAm-splaining…people making statements that would more likely ring true if the slave-holding couple were white and lived in Atlanta. Or Boston. And their slave was imported. But in the particular all-immigrant context of this story, these respondents dilute their strong critiques with their misapplied flailing around.
You can deeply love the person who raised you from babyhood even when your parents and grown relatives don’t treat her with the same kind of love you feel. You can love your parents, too, even when they behave in ways that make you nauseated, and angry. You can hold these two loves inside you, and have utterly no clue what to do next. For years.
We are each and all of us dark, and mysterious. Incomprehensible.
To say that we would not act as Alex Tizon acted is ridiculous—we were not there, were not enmeshed with the ties he was tied with. To say that he should have acted differently is moot. And ignores, in a way, what he did do: shine a light into the clouded darkness within his family, and let us all see.
When I think of Ms. Pulido, I think of her cover portrait, now on newsstands and Facebook feeds all over the world. She looks both regal and huggable. She is now more widely recognizable than any of the people she cared for, and perhaps that’s the happiest gift the writer she reared could ever have given her.