Immigrants in Canada, and the secrets some of us keep [servants]: Gelek Badheytsang

Interesting reflections if a bit over wrought:

“My Family’s Slave” came to me at a time when I was already thinking about immigrants and the intimate, complicated relationships many of us have with this notion of worthiness in our new homes—the entrapping idea of the “model immigrant”. The narratives that colour and contour our identities in Canada—of being resilient, enterprising, marginalized, inspiring, vilified, grateful, and so on—are underpinned by the subtle and not-so-subtle understanding that we have to constantly prove why we belong here. Our Canadian passports may feel solid to the touch, but they can also feel conditional and notional—even if you were born here.

And so, of course, it makes sense then that we are always trying to scrub clean the parts of us that we deem unsightly, and buff up our exceptionalism as much as we can. This is reflected early on in Tizon’s essay:

“To our American neighbours, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.”

That sheen only goes so far though. And as Tizon’s essay and the reactions it provoked have shown, there is an important, necessary conversation to be had about the lives of those who work for us, whose names we barely remember now even if we only called them by their nicknames, who raised us, and who continue to raise us. By confronting these secrets we think we’ve left behind—or in Tizon’s case, actually living with him and serving his family in various parts of the United States—we can participate even more firmly in discussions around poverty, class, racism, justice, and dignity. These are issues that arise and intersect as we talk about immigrants in Canada. Many of us, whether a skilled immigrant or a refugee, can come from privileged perches. But once here in Canada, we usually situate ourselves on the oppressed end.

We, after all, are the ones who made it. We process the traumas of displacement and cope with survivor’s guilt by various means, and one them may be to pretend that we don’t have demons of our own to reckon with when it comes to our connections with those who worked beneath us.

To a Canadian born here, the ethical dilemma about being a part of inhumane labour practices may start with fussing (momentarily) over buying a pair of sneakers made by sweatshop workers. For some us though, those sweatshop kids were a stark, pulsating presence in our lives back home. Some of them even lived with us.

Ultimately, the act of speaking honestly and compassionately about people like Eudocia Tomas Pulido humanizes the immigrant experience and narrative. We are complex. We have secrets. Just like anyone else.

The uncomfortable realities of domestic servants don’t just operate within the purview of recent immigrants, nor is it only subsumed by the distant hum of cities in faraway home countries. Pulido’s compatriots, from the Philippines and beyond, continue to be abused here in Canada, by Canadians, under the legal sanction of the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program. It was only eight years ago that Ruby Dhalla, then a Liberal MP from Brampton and herself a child of immigrants from India, was embroiled in a national scandal after the nannies that she hired to take care of her mother accused her family of mistreatment. The caregivers were hired under the temporary foreign worker program. They were from the Philippines.

In writing this piece, I’m aware of the fact that most of the voices that I came across, critical or not, were from those who were a class above or removed from the servants. It is important, then, to acknowledge the privileges I represent and exercise, and the ways in which I am complicit in perpetuating this imbalance of power—even if only written in this case, even if only temporarily when I visit my family back home or when I travel to places where it’s normal to see underage boys serving you tea.

I hear the voices that try to normalize these realities—of the dirt-poor conditions that the servants come from, and the indignities they have to accept as a consequence of colonialism, capitalism, traditional hierarchies, and the arbitrary distribution of dumb luck that allows some of us to hire drivers to drop our kids off to their tennis lessons and some of us to drive a car so that we can feed our kids.

In spite of that yawning chasm, the lives of the servants and their masters become enmeshed with each others’, no matter how hard we try to ignore or dismiss these tenuous threads that hold whole houses and communities together.

I am reminded, above all, of the poem by Waharu Sonawane, a Bhil Adivasi activist and poet from India:

We didn’t go to the stage,
nor were we called.
With a wave of the hand
we were shown our place.
There we sat
and were congratulated,
and “they”, standing on the stage,
kept on telling us of our sorrows.
Our sorrows remained ours,
they never became theirs. […]

With “My Family’s Slave”, Tizon has attempted to own this part of his immigrant story, and share his relationship with a woman who raised him and who he ultimately considered enslaved for much of her life. In doing so, the two of them have invited confessions, revelations, and reflections from those who are connected to worlds spanning diasporas, continents, and generations.

Stories like Pulido’s show us that dignity is a delicate matter. But its reserve is surprisingly deep.

Source: Immigrants in Canada, and the secrets some of us keep – Macleans.ca

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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