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Manuelita Contreras-Cabrera

Of Coming and Going

I left Singapore without heavy emotions clinging to me and my already bloated luggage. I did ache at the thought of leaving my sister behind. But we, my sister and I, were no novices to saying goodbye. Having moved from place to placefrom our town island to a big city and on to another, busier cityat times together and other times separately, we knew the drill of getting over melancholy and getting on with our lives.

But a few years ago, living a largely isolated life in what was a new country to me, I had time to attend to some of my private ghosts. And one of the things I thought about was C’s situation.

Now, it wasn’t a life-or-death situation. There wasn’t even a cause to worry, you might say, in the grand and not-so-grand schemes of things. But I thought of it, C’s lot.

C was one sturdy woman, physically and figuratively. Although small, not above five feet, she “descended from sturdy Ilocano farmer stock”, just like how the writer Kerima Polotan described her Ilocana mother-in-law. C was rather pale when I first met her. But she had big hands and muscular arms that made her a perfect fit for caring for my then one-year-old Cello, who loved to be carried and had turned plump from too much love for cow’s milk. 

C came to us through an Ilocana recruiter whose runners in some towns of Isabela, north of Manila, would go around the barrios enticing women to leave their villages (and often young children) and earn dollars in speckless Singapore. So C followed the dollar, leaving behind two small children, the youngest having just turned a year old.

But C’s misfortune came early, too early. She ran back to her recruiter weeks after joining her first employer in Singapore, fearing she would die a slow death from starvation.

Instant noodles and an egg, that was all madam allowed me to eat every day, she said. And when madam’s husband let C eat some rice, madam went berserk.

It was untenable obviously. And seriously, depriving a Filipino of her rice was no better than depriving her of her right to eat at all.

That was how C came to appear at our doorstep one Saturday morning with her recruiter. I took her in almost immediately. I was desperate for help, and C looked like someone I didn’t have to constantly manage. And I thought, recalling a previous experience, she didn’t seem the type who would carry a child in her arms while holding a mobile phone in each hand.

The start had kinks like many other starts, and had me calling the recruiter one Saturday morning. C, I said, couldn’t fry an egg without burning it. Didn’t you say she had basic cooking training?

I know it sounds ridiculous to involve a third party just to get someone to fry an egg properly. But I didn’t like being told lies. And the recruiter used the term “training”, which I foolishly imagined to be some serious cooking demonstration at someone’s kitchen.

There were a few other issues in the cooking department, which I later thought must just be how people back in C’s town or village did their cooking. One was too much use of salt. And then there was dinengdeng. I just couldn’t bring myself to like it, so it didn’t make a second appearance on our dining table. We agreed (not explicitly) to have pakbet instead for our Ilocano dish.

The cooking didn’t subsequently turn great. The dishes were edible at best. But I mostly didn’t mind, though I complained, Chicken afritada na naman? whenever I saw a bowl of chicken parts and cubed potatoes and carrots drowning in tomato sauce. 

Other than that, all was fine. It wasn’t a perfect employer-employee relationship, but it was largely drama-freeuntil I brought Cello and C with me on an extended business trip to Manila. I let C see her family in Isabela one weekend that November. But that quick visitand this is all I can sayended up cutting short C’s stay with us.

A few dreams were dashed. But two years later, after I wrote her a letter asking if she wanted to come back, I found out that she chased them elsewhere. I thought it was her stubbornness to earn her keep or perhaps her disappointment with her part-driver, part-farmer husband’s barely-there income that quickly sent her overseas again, this time to Abu Dhabi. But I learned it was because of fear of spiralling into depression and being unable to dig herself out of it.

About my question in my letter, C said she had five months left in her contract but that she would like to re-join us at the end of it. That started C’s process of joining us part two. A month after going home to Isabela from Abu Dhabi, she told me she was ready to leave again. She flew to Singapore a couple of months later for what I thought would be a much longer stint with us.

But it was my and Cello’s turn to leave three years later. I was sorry to let C go and to see her and Cello part ways. By then they had become good friends, bound by secrets they whispered to each other and their almost daily trips to the neighbourhood playground. But we had a new life to start elsewhere.

I worried C would end up in an uncaring home again. Being a domestic worker in a foreign land was precarious enough. To end up with an abusive family was just reprehensible. So I tried to look for a new employer for C, and I managed to find onea former colleague’s friend, a former journalist like me. A decent person, my ex-colleague assured me.

I wasn’t around when C flew to Manila for a break before starting at her new home. I was on the last leg of my last work trip and too busy with all the business I needed to finish and deciding which baggage to bring with me and which to ditch forever. And from the time I landed in my new, temporary city, I dove right straight into the reality of having to do everything myself. Since I was home based, I automatically became the homemaker despite still working (but that’s another story). I had no C to help me look after Cello and with chores. But that was fine. I was borderline obsessive compulsive when it came to home cleaning anyway, and it was about time I took care of Cello myself.

But the resentment of giving up a life I had carefully built creeped up on me like a long-kept ugly secret. I was home alone most of the day. I lost the ability to go where I wanted or disappear on a weekend or fly to Manila as often as I could without having to worry who would look after Cello. 

With that resentment came a reminder that I had this ability only because I had support from other womenC and my sister. I had freedom and mobility, while C was stuck at someone else’s home (my home), running someone else’s household and taking care of someone else’s child. I thought of the cycle C was in and the role I had in it, and I wondered, could she ever break out of it?

C added me on Facebook more than a year ago, and I saw pictures of her from her Sunday breaks. She was well dressed and well kept, smiling like she had no strenuous work waiting or that perpetual problem of countless overseas Filipinasthat money sent home was never enough. I was happy she looked happy (and slightly fleshy, so she must be getting her rice regularly).

Last December, C sent me Christmas greetings on messenger and asked how Cello was. Any plans of going back to see your family? I asked.

Wala pa po. Wala pa pong ipon. I don’t have savings, she said.

I remembered that local non-profit group that offered courses to foreign domestic workers about handling money and financial planning. 

Do you send all your wages home? I asked. You might want to try joining this program. It might help. Let me know if you’d like to enrol? (What I wanted to add but did not: I can help with the fee.)

I saw that she saw my message but didn’t reply. I don’t know if she bothered to open the link I sent her. But it was fine. It was good in fact. It meant she was in charge of her decisions now. I, meanwhile, I still wonder if I should have done more for C.

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