Thursday, September 30, 2010

Au pairs in Denmark are now mostly Filipina

Published in The Manila Times, Opinion section, September 30, 2010


Nowadays when “Filipina” is mentioned in the Danish news, it is often in connection with “au pair.” The newspaper Politiken noted last week that 2773 persons received permission to work as au pairs in Denmark in 2009. Of this number, 78 percent came from the Philippines. You see her more and more in Copenhagen and its suburbs: the small Asian woman and her charges. With steady determination and downcast eyes, she maneuvers a huge pram down the pavement and into a bus: inside is a tow-headed child, sometimes two.

Her apparent alone-ness, the paradox of her nurturing role and yet the obvious non-blood connection between her and her charges, cannot escape notice.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plurality or assimilation (2nd Manila Times column: Sept 16 2010)

The Manila Times Opinion page column for Sept 16, 2010

Plurality or assimilation


THERE was a lady, Rukhsana Khan, who came to speak at the world congress of the International Board of Books for Young People in Copenhagen the other year. Her family migrated from Pakistan to Canada when she was three. Now in her 40s she is a well-known author of young adult literature: writing in a relaxed, idiomatic English she writes books that have, in her words, Muslim and international themes. “When we first arrived in Canada,” Khan said, “it was 1965 and it was automatically assumed that immigrants would assimilate. There was no choice in the matter. The message was, 'Shut up and be grateful for being allowed into this western country club and the way you show that gratitude is by adopting our values . . . If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.'”

It was a pre-US Civil Rights movement response to the question of plurality within a nation’s borders: the effort to extinguish differences between groups in favour of an amalgamated culture. This is the melting pot model of integration, and in the face of increasing immigration and globalization it seems the most obvious, most immediate line of action. It falls to the newcomers to make adjustments. They must learn to blend in.

Immigrants experience the pressures of living at the far end of a hierarchical yardstick, with the goal being to advance by becoming as much like the dominant group as possible, in terms of “values,” and mores of speech, dress and behaviour. Explicitly or tacitly is the idea, stemming from 19th century Darwinian theory, that all societies in the world are at various stages of evolution, with European society being the most advanced, and the “others” being half-formed, uncultivated, in need of improvement.

The problem is that the dominant culture imposes different standards of assimilation upon the newly arrived. Lucky the immigrant to Denmark who comes from Western Europe, North America, Britain or Australia, for he or she comes with unquestionable credentials and the presumption that any cultural differences there may be are negligible. Or at any rate charming. Ways worth imitating perhaps.

The new arrival from Asia, Latin American or Africa lacks the benefit of this respect. We are, on the whole, I think, judged not so much lacking in native intelligence as in education and exposure, in sophistication. We come to Denmark to fulfil ourselves. Denmark completes us, whether in terms of philosophies or musical tastes or learning to work the microwave oven. We come from countries, of course, that, in this era of globalization, offer Western education and churn out the world’s garments, mobile phones and microwave ovens. But so the myth goes.

There is the additional impediment of race: that difference in physical appearance that is hard to ignore. I attended Danish language classes a total of two years. At the start, every foreigner grappled with the embarrassment of new vowel sounds and missing consonants, but by the fourth level it seemed to me the students from Eastern Europe were more fluent and confident than those from China, Turkey or Peru who had spent the same amount of time in the country. Yet they did not have the benefit of having a Germanic language (like English or Dutch) as their native tongue. I conjectured at the time that people from Eastern Europe enjoy a tacit acceptance, because in the country of the blond they are non-exotic.

By contrast, I felt, a darker complexioned immigrant is never really allowed to forget her strangeness. In social situations she is called upon to relate (or embellish) what is unusual about her country. She is teased or made the butt of jokes to ease the strain of difference. Or, conversely, she is judged irrelevant and then ignored.

Race “is” a factor, not necessarily in how well one takes to a (Scandinavian) language, but because it seems the most obvious and plausible explanation for one’s difficulties. But the matter is really not that simple, and I hope to discuss it further in the future.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have some set cultural points to rally round, as has been the case with Khan, whose career direction, habits of dress (headscarf and long dresses) and the milieu in which she raised her daughters (all three eventually and independently made the decision to wear the burqa), reflect an early and long-running resistance to assimilation into the mainstream. Today she enjoys the benefits of living in a Canada that leans towards a different approach to plurality, that recognizes the individuality of groups and accords them legal rights based on their conditions.

“Following the American Civil Rights movement,” she said, “Canada would be multicultural. We would celebrate everyone’s culture. Nobody had to assimilate . . . as long as they followed the laws and paid their taxes they were free to live as they pleased.”

But in this new land I find it difficult to locate what is specifically Filipino myself, much less hook up with other people who agree on those cultural points and would be loath to abandon them. How should a Filipino dress, talk, worship? Should I, a Protestant, get in with the Catholics because they are the majority? Are we traitors because none of us wear the national costume, the long dress with butterfly sleeves so associated with Imelda Marcos? And must we gripe because our choices landed us in reticent Denmark, instead of the sprawling, freewheeling nation on the other side of the Atlantic?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I'm back as an opinion columnist for The Manila Times!



So, after a lapse of four years, I find myself writing a column again for The Manila Times. I’m greatly excited to be once more part of the life of this newspaper, with its long history and storied past, for which I anonymously wrote editorials for a span of time, and where my columnist colleagues and I sought to test the limits of free speech in certain ways, back in 2000 to 2001.

I am more cautious today, not just because I am older, but because greater responsibility is required in the internet age. These days, anything can be flashed around the world a second after it is completed: by the writer and, potentially, an army of supporters and detractors. (Though in reality, these would be one’s friends and un-friends with an internet connection and little to do on a weekday morning, half of whom the writer has never personally met). One does not really write commentaries nowadays. In place of “write” are a few new verbs: one links, forwards, “likes”, tweets.

In the past, we wrote to earn the kudos of our friends and relations. It was all we could hope for. Now the potential audience is limitless, a situation that demands greater precision in terms of language, and responsibility in the matter of content. An off-hand jab some columnist might have made in the 90s at some foreign nationality or socio-economic group might today be considered racist and unconscionable, cause for a host of letters demanding his/her removal.

When I started freelancing 15 years ago, I would have to make a run down to the magazine stand to buy as many copies as I could afford before they got sold out. Once an issue was sold, it was gone, just like the movies that came to town, played for three days at the local cinema, and were lost forever. Now nothing you ever write is lost. It stays in a corner of a hard drive somewhere, waiting to be dug up and released years later, for all the world to pick apart.

That is, if anyone cares enough for your humble little opinion. Because cyberspace offers everyone the opportunity of democratic expression, few people care all that much what you think, how you said it, and whether you said it first. Most everyone, it seems, are too concerned with how to present their own thoughts in as clever a way as they can. So there can be a paradoxical safety in today’s ocean of words.

Other things have changed. Due to the immediacy of today’s news, “scoops” are a thing of the past. Moreover, with columns immediately replicated on Facebook, in blogs, in other online newspapers—replicated and derived from—one has to rethink what is meant by ownership of ideas.

However, there has been an upside to this convivial intercourse of thoughts. The arrogance that marked the first voices coming out of the desktop-publishing 90s has largely vanished. As the neutral “link to” and “forward” have come to be the main methods of exposition, so have “rants” and “dissing” become pointless, obscure. Or so I hope.

So now one writes without the cozy sense of self-importance that marked many a journalist in my formative years: the notion that you could be welcomed anywhere as long as you flashed your press card, the knowledge that, in a gathering of strangers, at least one person would have seen your face in the paper and rejoice at having met such a distinguished writerly personage. Bloggers of all persuasions have shown that regular people can be as razor-sharp, witty and filled with inspiration as those who have been vetted by the editorial board of an ink-and-newsprint publication.

As one among the Times’ pool of writers I thought of myself as a faithful workhorse, endeavoring to produce an editorial in time for a deadline and, a day or so later, a column that would be printed beside the blandly smiling photograph that gave no hint of the ordeal of composing it. Thus I strove to put out uniformly high quality stuff not just for the sake of the newspaper but also for my own reputation—to build up a fanbase, so to speak. That goal is tough to reach nowadays. There is so much frenetic commentary out there, not all of it responsible—and in consequence, much of it rather exciting. How can anyone compete?

So here I find myself, essaying a task that in the span of little more than a decade has already become traditional. But I have been invited, and now feel motivated. I bring to my writing some of the insights (or baggage, if you like), acquired from living and studying in northern Europe: an awareness that I cannot really speak for all; a hesitance to judge; a desire to empathize; a habit of self-contradiction; and a dislike of rabble-rousing language. I try, self-consciously, to be broadminded, aware that in the worst case scenario, this could lead to paralysis. I’ll do my best, nonetheless.


Lakambini Sitoy is an award-winning Filipino author who currently lives in Denmark.


This column originally appeared in The Manila Times, print and internet editions, 14 September 2010.