Encountering yourself :
A reflection of creative writing workshop with
Filipinos domestic helpers
The Participants: excerpts of the work and draft from the workshop participants.
Anna: “My house is a special place for me. At night, it’s T.V. time, my neighbor would came to my house to watch ball games with my family. I have a father, mother, 2 brothers and 2 sisters. Next to my house is an over 100 years old mango tree. Its branches are very fragile. I remember the days when i and my siblings love to eat skyflakes crackers. I remember going to to school my mother give me 5 pesos for our daily snack. I want to buy more, but i need to budget it for the whole afternoon, so i bought only bought ice candy and skyflakes.
When i was at the agency, my friend was hungry, so i hand-over my crackers to her so that she would have energy for our interview. I first worked in the Middle East. Every morning i wake up with a dusty smell. When i open the window the dust smell was everywhere. I remember one time there is a sand storm. Oh! The whole city is covered by a golden sand. They goes inside the house through the small opening at the door. The next day i looked at the balcony, it was covered with 1 inches thick golden sand. Again, I'm gonna spend an hour to clean the dusty balcony.
I like to talk and don’t want being alone. I would need to die back to my lovely environment.”
* * * *
Caroline: “Happy, joy, i feel calm. Happy, seeing the sky. Colourful. It was a slow breath, betraying eyes, but…...Sweet, maybe i am sweet, maybe not. They call me sweet. What is my responsibility in this pandemic? I have to wear masks. I have to keep social distance. I have to get vaccinated. I can never imagine that i am the people who experience a pandemic. This word is new to me. Now, every day my life is ‘wash hands’, ‘Don’t forget to wash hands’ and ‘Always wash hands’ ! The image of the hand sanitizers are always with me.
We are cheerful Filipinos. We allow our kids to play after school. Our children, adults and old people smile a lot on the streets. I grew up in the countryside of Cedu where have a lot of mango trees. They are so big and easy to climb up. The mangos smell so good and very sweet and big.
Sunday! I love Sundays! It is a rest day after 6 continuous days of working. I have been joining a lot of workshops and classes. I also do voluntary work on Sundays. I want to learn how to write better, learn to dyeing a cloth and learn to make special festival food and ……”
* * * *
GBM: “This is a mango tree that grown up in my grandparent’s house. I don’t exactly know how old it is, but for sure it was already there when i was 5 years old. It brought us a lot of memories with my cousins and family. It stands by a river that we used to swim and play. Grandparents are nearby that’s why we used to have a night gathering under the moonlight, under the shadow of the mango tree.
I remember my brother fall from the mango tree bruised and bloodied nose staring at me. I feel like the world stop spinning knowing what awaits us at home. My father is a disciplinarian. As expected, cold and pierce eyes are waiting for us....
Domestic helper is a job that are being look down. As i remember one acquaintance kept on boasting about her job or position in the Philippines and hesitant to admit that she is a helper in Hong Kong. When i first accept the job offer, i admit that i was reluctant but i didn’t have a choice during that time. I can say that at first it was just a way to escape from home, to escape in order to protect my parents from the bad decision i’ve made. Working as a domestic helper at that time help me to cope with the betrayal i received from a friend. A betrayal that lead me to a dead end. The only way out for me was to leave my country as soon as possible and to leave my family and abandoned my dreams and plans. i felt that iciness drowned me....
During my first 6 months in Singapore, toilet was really my comfort room and i think most of the helpers as well. During that time, i don’t have a holiday and phone was not allowed. The four corners of the comfort room was the sole witness of my agony and battles. I remember one helper opposite our block before, we manage to communicate through sign language.
In 2010, i surrendered my work permit in Singapore and bound to Hong Kong……
COVID-19 caused a great dilemma to most of the helpers in the city. I remember one helper crying desperately who lost her father but can’t go home to attend the funeral because of the lockdown. I remember….
I hope that COVID-19 will go home so that i can go home.”
They wrote letters.
They talked about dreams.
They wrote “automatically”.
They shared the childhood food.
They wrote memories.
They were surprised by the Calligrams from Apollinaire.
The read I Remember by Joe Brainard.
They smelled The Diary of a Young Girl.
They touched a bit on the Exercises in Style.
They chewed “The Gift of the Magi”.
They tried, for the first time in life, to write a short story.
Though the workshop might not serve as “Living Twice”, the participants, at least, had the chance to fast-backward once for their life from childhood in the Philippines to now, as domestic helpers in Hong Kong. The exercise House-Tree-Person surprised me a bit in that all the participants added fancy surroundings next to their houses, trees and people. There were little rivers, bridges, fish, swings, birds, clouds, suns, mountains, narrow roads and broad roads, etc. I saw then the artists’ lives were full of hidden golden memories and dreams they wished to express. The diverse personalities they possessed really made the process of the workshop dynamic.
* * * *
Anna has been working in Hong Kong for 10 years, before that she worked in the Middle East. She was like a little well-behaved student. She arrived on time and sometimes earlier than the facilitators. She was always happy with our comments and suggestions. In our second lesson, we talked about dreams and subconsciousness. After the exercise in Automatic Writing, we picked some repetitive words to form (write) a poem. GBM ‘s repetitive words were “dying”, “running” and “chasing” and Caroline’s repetitive words were "happy”, “Joyful” and “fun”. Anna did not express any obvious or consistent emotions, instead, her repetitive words were language tones, “OMG”, “Oh, no”, and “Oh my”. After picking up the repetitive words, together with GBM and Caroline‘s contributions, Anna wrote “The Poem”:
I keep chasing on my time
I keep thinking of buying clothes
I keep thinking of my budget
But i then i used a lot of my money
So its time to spare
maybe next time if I have extra cash
Oh i‘m dying to buy it, that lovely dress
OMG that’s keep pop up on my mind
But those betraying eyes is what i ‘m thinking
Does it serious
If i am you what can i do
If i am in your situation do can i survive.
In the third lesson, Anna wrote a poem-like short memoir entitled “My Memoir: Skyflakes Crackers”. ‘Skyflakes crackers’ had made her remember the amount of pocket money she received from her mother. As a little girl, she needed to plan how to spend the 5 Pesos she received for the whole day. The Skyflakes crackers have “lived” with her, giving her energy and even sharing the energy with others when she was waiting for a job interview after she grew up.
In the fourth lesson of the workshop, Anna was planning to write a short story about panic shopping during the pandemic. (This was something she already told us in the first lesson.) She combined her personal experiences of helping her employer to buy tissues paper and a funny video on Facebook to write up a short story called “Tissue in the Black Market”.
* * * *
Caroline is a smart and quick-witted lady from Cebu. She would raise questions without hesitation and shows a lot of interest in new things. Before the ice-breaking and self-introduction in the first lesson, Caroline took the initiative to ask us “What are we going to do?” She understood the exercises instructions quickly and finished the tasks the quickest. When she knew they were required to draw on the sketchbooks in the first lesson, her response was a big, “I don’t know how to draw! I have not drawn for over 20 years!” But she did draw; and while she drew, she kept sighing with a voice that everyone could hear. However, surprisingly, in the second lesson, she drew without conscious thought on the sketchbook when she was listening to our lecture! In the third lesson, Caroline forgot to bring her childhood food. To solve this “problem”, she said, “ I will draw the food on the sketchbook.” So, now in her sketchbook, there were a few big Cebu mangos.
Caroline likes to talk and has many ideas, but it is not easy to put herself into the state of writing. In the fourth lesson, she wrote down what she thought about the short story, theme, characters, but still, she did not dare to write. Like so many first-time writers, she had a concept, but did not know how to turn it into a story. We, three facilitators, suggested she start with a real-life trivial event. At the end of that lesson, she told the story but did not show the story. However, in the fifth lesson, she submitted a short story. She abandoned her original story idea and theme. The protagonist in this new story seemed to have become herself. The story showed the personality of the protagonist, the living and working mental situation (and feelings) of a domestic helper; it told especially of the sudden moment when the protagonist knew of the out-break of the pandemic.
I am very glad that Caroline spent her resting and cell phone time writing out the piece. She is an outgoing person, and it was not easy for her to write out her first short story, “Sundays”.
* * * *
GBM was the only one replying to the questions of House-Tree-Person in paragraphs. She was consciously writing the story of her family. Within a few paragraphs, she went from the mango tree of her grandparents and linked it to the natural environment of her home village, her neighbours and the memory of the sunlight shining. Though GBM immediately covered her drawing after hearing me admit the House-Tree-Person test contained psychological analysis, though she was quiet and slow in the first and second lesson, she “caught up” tremendously, and wrote a surprising short story called “Unwanted Gift” at home after the workshop. After all the sessions of the workshop, she voluntarily wrote one more short story about the pandemic, “The Mask”. It is a very short suspense story about a stranger’s mask was hung and stuck on a domestic helper’s backpack.
If you were a place, what would you be? GBM identified herself as Japan, since she loves quiet and politeness. She was a bit slow during the group tasks. She spoke the least in the lesson but brought the most childhood food in the third lesson. One memorable food she bought in Central was Indian Mangoes. When she introduced the mangoes, she said in an embarrassed tone, “it ‘s expensive…” The other two foods were Happy Less Grease Peanuts and lotus seed cake by Salazar. This was the first time GBM had spoken so much. She explained that the packaging of Happy Less Grease Peanuts was small, the local small stores in the Philippines would break them up into small single packs so that the poor children could afford them. As for the little square lotus seed cake by Salazar, Salazar Bakery is a bakery offering Chinese bread and cakes in Manila since 1947. GBM remembered that the paste cake could make her full for the whole afternoon during her secondary school time. So, the lotus seed cake was a good choice for teenagers who need energy quickly on a low budget. By telling her childhood memories, GBM relaxed so much. When I compare her at the end of the workshops to the quiet woman of the first and second lessons I see a remarkable change.
GBM did not choose to use a quick way to start her memoir, after reading I Remember. Instead, she tried to write out what she shared during the class, for instance, the mango trees, the home village, and childhood events.
In the fourth lesson, she started a short story about a Filipino mother and daughter. The plot of the story echoed her experiences of not being able to return home when her brother got a serious injury: because of the pandemic, the mother was not able to keep the promise of coming home to celebrate her daughter‘s birthday. GBM did try to take our advice on employing an unexpected ending. When the mother finally could go back home, the gift which the daughter received was an unexpected box.