So Your Economy Stinks?

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So your economy
stinks. It's not as bad as you think. Really.

Let me
explain the view from several cultures away . . .

About a month
ago, I got to chat with a friend who is currently on holiday in
her brother's home in Japan. She opened the conversation with a
very odd question: "Do you think cleaning for yourself is degrading?"

Since the alternative
is living like a slob, I replied in the negative.

Then she told
me the whole story. Since she arrived, she has been doing household
chores to help her brother out; and one of their uncles, upon learning
of the fact, said he found it shameful that she was doing the work
of a domestic helper. He'd had a similar reaction, my friend added,
when one of her cousins traveled to the United States and got to
stay with an American buddy in exchange for looking after the buddy's

Now, this uncle
wouldn't have cared if his two nieces had been doing something more
white collar. Typical of many Filipinos, he believes in a hierarchy
of jobs as imaginary as its effects are real. It's a sure bet that
if he got a flat tire, he'd pay someone else to change it for him,
like his driver or a mechanic at the nearest gas station. It's an
attitude to so-called "dirty jobs" that seems to be a
shibboleth of elitists in the third world. People in developed countries
aren't so snotty.

When I was
in New Zealand earning my degree, I had several part-time jobs involving
"menial" work. During one year, I was employed in a hostel
kitchen, peeling potatoes, chopping bell peppers, baking muffins,
washing dishes, wiping tables, mopping floors, cleaning windows,
scooping ice cream, and having the time of my life. All the other
kitchen hands were fellow university students happy to have found
such a good job. It was part of the youth culture — indeed, part
of the university experience — and one could not consider his higher
education complete without it.

Another year,
I was a baby-sitter who also had to cook dinner for an entire family.
My employer took me to task several times when I made a big mess
of her kitchen or when she thought I hadn't been supervising her
daughter closely enough. Yet when she learned I was returning to
the Philippines, she insisted that her whole family take me to dinner
at a fancy restaurant to say thank you. Obviously, she didn't look
down on me just because I did some "dirty jobs" for her
— and it was probably because she had done some baby-sitting herself
when she was a student.

A fellow Filipino
student was tickled to hear about the work I was doing, and at one
point even teased: "Does your family know that they are paying
hundreds of thousands of pesos a year so that you can be just another
Filipina maid abroad?" I laughed with him, knowing that the
joke was not on me at all.

Yet now that
I've been home for several years, it's hard to remember what the
right perspective is. Some time ago, for a variety of reasons, I
had to resign from my job as a Literature teacher in a private all-girls
high school and take a more "lowly" position as an EFL
(English as a Foreign Language) instructor in a language academy.
Of course, it was perfectly respectable work; but I still felt embarrassed
whenever someone asked me what I was doing, especially if he had
known about my first "prestigious" position.

Strangely enough,
this Filipino attitude towards so-called "dirty jobs"
may just be the evil twin of the Filipino "world class"
ideal. Everyone wants to run a "world class" business,
receive "world class" service, enjoy "world class"
entertainment, produce "world class" merchandise, etc.
Yet few people seem to have realized that "dirty jobs"
happen to be the cornerstone of a "world class" standard
of living — not in the half-baked Communist sense, of course, but
in the sense of being in control of your own life. Freedom is one
of the greatest luxuries there is, but it's not necessarily something
that money can buy.

A former student
of mine whose family moved to Australia figured this out very quickly
when her parents, charmed by their neighbors' yards, hoped to hire
a professional landscape architect for their own. This plan was
nipped in the bud immediately when they realized they couldn't afford
one. Yet neither could their neighbors, my student discovered: those
hardy, self-reliant Australians made do by sculpting and styling
their gardens all by themselves! That was certainly a culture shock
for her: in the Philippines no middle-class businessman will spend
the weekend hauling dirt around in wheelbarrows to save money, much
less to have fun.

My sister learned
the same lesson the first time a friend in the Netherlands helped
us out with a problematic PC. A firm believer in not hiring
repairmen, he insisted on giving her step-by-step instructions over
a long-distance phone call. The problem having been fixed, he pointed
out, "The problem with you Filipinos is that you're so used
to paying other people to do things for you that you don't know
how to do anything yourselves . . ."

At least the
tide may be slowly turning. It is currently cool to do volunteer
construction work for non-profit organizations like Habitat for
Humanity or Gawad Kalinga. (So I guess some middleclass
businessmen are hauling dirt around in wheelbarrows on some weekends.
They're just not doing it for themselves. Hmmmmm.) If we're lucky,
then this healthy attitude to humble work will find its way into
the professional world.

Before scraping
these scattered impressions into an article, I shared them with
an American friend who could probably build a house from the ground
up and who makes his own sourdough bread. His laconic reaction:
"The Philippine economy isn't that great, is it?"

Well, the
whole world isn't doing so well in that area right now; but
instead of quibbling over that, I really should get to the point
I originally wanted to make.

So your economy
stinks? As long as you and most of your neighbors are self-reliant,
capable and perfectly happy to do your own "dirty jobs,"
you're not in the third world and it's not bad as you think.

27, 2009

C. Espina [send her
] is a teacher and freelance writer. Visit
her blog.

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