Archive for March, 2012

A Personal Crusade

by on Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Friends among the "urban poor"

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend of mutual friends. He got to talking about what he was doing, and later in the evening I asked whether I could interview him. He refers to his going out with donations as “sorties” because he’s bombing with love. The photos come from his Facebook pages.

Homeless kids at James's dinner table

James’s story

It started when I was working for a call center. On my way home I saw people sleeping on the street, even in the rain. I wondered if they’d eaten dinner. So when I came across some money—I think it was a bonus from my company—I had an extra 1,500 pesos, roughly $40. Noodles were about 7 pesos a package. I bought about 200 pesos worth and cooked them up. That night I went around the community, waking up the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks. At first they might have thought I was a policeman trying to get them off the streets. They were surprised when I gave them some noodles. It became a habit every time I had extra money or my children give me some from their salaries. I’d go cook some noodles, then bring my children with me. It’s quite addicting. You see faces lighting up because they see there’s food in front of them and there’s still a person who seems to care about them. I think it gives them hope.

Then it expanded to bringing goods to the flood-stricken area in Bulacan. Calumpit [northwest of Metro Manila on the Calumpit River] was under water after a typhoon. I brought some relief goods which my family and I had packed up at home. I went there with my youngest child, who’s eight years old. She enjoyed it. I find it fulfilling to be able to help, however small that help might be. It’s my principle that you don’t have to be rich to be able to help people because there will always be someone poorer than you, there will always be someone needing your help. It’s just a matter of having the willingness to give and to make sacrifices. To me it doesn’t matter if they’re people I don’t even know as long as I can alleviate their suffering. It gives me joy and fulfillment.

Cooking noodles

I talk about it on my Facebook pages, where I put some personal quotes and my personal philosophy. I really don’t want people to know I’m the one doing this, so I use another name. For the pages in English I use James Braddock, the character from the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films. He was my idol when I was younger.  On the Tagalog pages I use is Mang Urot. An urot is something annoying. On those pages I also put in some humor about family life, married life, situations at home, other things I think I have some understanding of—whatever comes to mind, if I find it amusing or think it might help somebody.

After I went to Calumpit to distribute relief goods, my friends on Facebook—people I had never met in person—were asking me why I didn’t post some pictures. I told them I wasn’t doing it for publicity, I was just happy to be able to share. But they said, “Come on, do it. Maybe others will be pursuaded to do the same.” So I did. At that point in time I had no pictures of myself or my family in my Facebook pages. They called me “Older Brother” or “Kuya.” [The use of family terms for people outside the family is common among Asian, family-based cultures.] I know they benefit from my philosophy, and sometimes I give them some counseling. They wrote, “Kuya, we’ll be sending some donations.” Some of this money came from Saudi Arabia and Cyprus, one from the U.S. There might have been some from Canada. After that first sortie into Calumpit, they sent me about 10,000 pesos [$230] in cash. A week after my first trip, I used the money to buy relief goods, and I went back to Calumpit.

Boiled tap water for drinking

After that they were asking about my next project. I said, “I’m not used to accepting money from people I really don’t know. Are you sure you trust me?”

“No problem, Kuya, we’ll be send money.”

The next time they sent money, it totaled 20,000 [$450]or more. They said I should decide how to use the money. Feeding the homeless in my area would only cost about one or two hundred pesos a day. I wondered how I could use 20,000. So what I did was I organized my friends and my family, and we went to 168 Mall in Divisoria [a wholesale-retail mall] and bought school supplies. So for me, my contribution was making the trip to a place where the goods would be cheaper instead of just going to an SM mall. My contribution was to lower the cost so we could provide for 120 or 150 students instead of only a hundred. I brought my childhood friends along, including some from “the urban poor,” which gave them the privilege of being able to help people. So we went to 168, and we carried out twenty to thirty kilos of writing pads, notebooks and slippers [flipflops]. Then I coordinated with the schools in downtown Manila to make the donation.

A trunkful

It was quite a good experience. For us, what’s 100 pesos [$2.36]? It’s one coffee at Starbucks. A hundred 100 pesos per kid is not much—probably it’s not the amount. Probably it’s the kids’ feeling that someone cares. I hadn’t finished posting the pictures when another fellow wrote and said he wanted to support my next project. That was about 35,000 pesos. We were able to go to a school in Quezon City and give more than we had previously. I hope it goes on like this forever. It’s not my habit to solicit money from people, and I really don’t want to do it. But I hope it continues and people can see the beauty in what I’m doing and the beauty in doing it themselves.

I’m encouraging them: “You don’t have to support me. You can do it yourself. Why not do it in your own community?”

They insist on helping me. “Well, I’m in Cyprus. I’m in Saudi Arabia. How can I do it? I cannot help people here because they’re wealthy.”

I look at it this way: if I refuse the help they are giving for my projects, then I would not be able to reach out to the needy in the Philippines.

His daughter and her nanny packing up food

I’m gaining some friends—and yes, some detractors who accuse me of making money out of this. But I just have to go on because I know what I’m doing is good, not only for them, but also for me. It renews my spirit.

About a week ago someone sent me 5,000 pesos [$116]. I still have it because I was planning on doing something for the squatters in Makati. For 400 families that’s a small amount. One woman wrote to say her employer was getting rid of old toys and clothes, and she’d be sending them to me by FedEx. I wrote back that it would be okay to send them some cheaper way, like by ship. Otherwise the cost of sending the items over would be more than they were worth. It would be better to just send the money and we could go buy food or clothes for the children.

This has become a personal crusade, and my family is into it. When my daughter [a flight attendant] has some extra money she gives it to me. My son [an engineer] doesn’t usually give me money, but the funny thing is once after payday I saw that his bag was full of packages of noodles. So I think he’s doing something on his own. It really makes me happy that what I’m doing is rubbing off on my children.

There’s another thing that I can’t forget. One day when we were going to Manila, on a corner near our house there were my friends—I call them friends now, a family that regularly sleeps outside a bank. We know each other like friends. I noticed that the father was limping and that he had a very ugly wound, like a burn. I was afraid it would get infected. So I told my son, “Go home, get some Betadine antiseptic and some gauze.”

In front of the bank

Without hesitation, my son got the stuff and came back. “Well, what should I do with this?”

“What should you do? Look at his wound.”

So he took care of the man by putting some antiseptic and gauze on the wound. How many children—or how many men—would go out of their way to do that? For some it’s disgusting to be with homeless people, and much more so if it involves treating an ugly wound. I’m proud and blessed to have a son who also reaches out to the poor.

There’s something wrong with many rich Filipino families. They don’t seem to want to mingle with poor people. They look down on poor people. [This is probably the only way they can justify to themselves the enormous gaps in living standards.] I have to tell you, when my older daughter and my son were about six or seven years old, we were rich. They had no any idea that when I was young I was mingling with squatters. I enjoyed mingling with “the less fortunate,” as they’re called. I noticed that my wife and my children seemed to have a double standard when it came to themselves and to poor people.

In front of the bank

So I said, “Pack up some things for two days.” They thought we were going on a vacation, but I brought them to my friends in a squatters’ area in Makati—which is still there—and I had them stay with the squatters’ family for three days and two nights so they would know what it was like to live in those conditions. That worked pretty well. They still love the poor, and up to now every time they go there they feel the acceptance given to them by the people in the squatters’ area. There’s no animosity. There’s no fear. My Facebook pictures are proof of that. We’re a family regardless of whether we’re poor or rich. We are a family.

I only can do so much. Doing this work doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. But again, I took the advice of my friends that I should post the pictures because there’s a good chance that someone will follow suit or at least support what others are doing.

[I said I’d been told not to give money to children begging on the streets because they are run by syndicates, otherwise the children would be in school.]

Look at the smile on his face.

Well, I don’t give money to children on the streets. I believe most of them are handled by syndicates. But I doubt if they would be in school even if they weren’t. It’s quite a cycle. Their  parents weren’t able to go to school, and then they have children who aren’t able to go to school as well. The problem is deeply rooted, like only the privileged in the Philippines can go to school. Even if you provide free education, what about the school supplies? What about food, uniforms, shoes and miscellaneous expenses? What if these children have problems with their homework and their parents are uneducated as well? It would discourage the poor kids if they were unable to keep up with their classmates. There would be more discrimination because their classmates would have school supplies or good uniforms and shoes and they’d be wearing dirty clothes or torn shoes. That’s a very big problem. It has to be addressed not only by government but by every citizen who feels he or she is more blessed than those people. It would really take a very concerted effort from citizens, not only the government.

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Asking Questions of Chinese Women

by on Monday, March 12th, 2012


In 1986 Alice taught English for a semester at Xiamen University and did research for a project she had brought with her from the States. At home she has served as a college affirmative action officer, as the director of college programs for displaced homemakers and in other aspects of the college’s women’s program.  Alice is an active, vigorous woman in her forties who is concerned with nutrition and physical fitness. She could frequently be seen running along the beach road, enjoying the view while keeping fit.

Alice’s story

The standard of living here seems comparable to what we saw in Venezuela, where there was both more poverty and more wealth. A developing country is a developing country. They bring in ten million dollars worth of equipment which there’s no one to operate, repair or maintain it. Modern computers but no toilets that flush.  But Chinese culture is not so blatantly sexist. The second year I understood what was being said to me on the street, and it was very offensive. Also, Venezuela doesn’t have a long history like China’s, and where we lived was not nearly as beautiful physically as it is here. I love living by the ocean. Probably the only thing I don’t like here is the difficulty of the language.

Conditions for women in China are much better. Most women in Venezuela don’t work outside the home, have little education, and are economically dependent on a man. Venezuela is a Catholic country, and the birthrate is high. You see what having a lot of children does for women with poor nutrition and no education and no job and poor health. Although here women have a tremendous burden of work, having a job makes a world of difference with self-respect.

When I interview a woman for my research I ask how her life is different from her mother’s and grandmother’s. I focus on family background, education, work outside the home. I go into salary, health benefits, and housing. I look at the size of living quarters and indoor or outdoor plumbing. I haven’t started tabulating any of the data yet, so I don’t have any statistics, just general impressions.

One young woman I interviewed felt sexual intercourse was common before marriage. “A lot of people do it, but nobody admits it, nobody talks about it.” She talked about what premarital sex does to women, especially if the relationship doesn’t work out. Not being a virgin is still a big problem. She asked when that was going to change.

“Well, maybe in about twenty years. I think it took about that long in the United States. When I was growing up, everybody did it, nobody talked about it, everyone felt guilty about it, and your life was over if the relationship didn’t work out.”

I asked the young, unmarried women, “How many children will you have?”

They all said, “One.” Some said, “I’m only allowed to have one.”

“Well, if you had a choice, how many would you have?”

Some said, “Well, I just want one, and that’s enough.”

“What happens if it’s a girl?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

I don’t know if they believe it or not, but they’re mouthing all the right words.

The majority of women say that in China it’s better to be a man than a woman, women carry more of the load in the family, and on the job men have more opportunities than women do. Of course some women say there’s no difference. People have told me that the men who do the hiring specify that they want men. In some fields they don’t think it’s fair. To them it’s clear that women can work in an office as well as men and that the work unit should not be able to request men, but there are some fields where women think discrimination is okay.

No one—male and female, educated and uneducated—disagreed with the idea that some work is inappropriate for women, like lifting heavy things. I thought about the fifty-year old peasant women who are watering those trees on campus with the shoulder poles and those huge buckets of water, the women who are carrying around children on their backs. I wondered if the poor working in the fields out in the countryside divided the labor so the women didn’t do the really heavy work.  On the other hand, the issue of non-traditional jobs for women is not the same as in the States where heavy physical labor has been well paid. In China heavy labor doesn’t earn you much more than other labor. So should women be breaking their backs?

Business travel is considered inappropriate for women: it’s not proper to go traveling if you’re a single woman, and if you’re married you should be raising your family. Domestic travel might be okay, but not going abroad and having dealings with foreigners. In fact it is considered an insult to a foreigner to have to deal with a woman.

A great many women believe that there’s equality in China. In some ways that fits the Chinese view of the progress they’ve made since Liberation. They’re pleased to have 35% or 40% women at the university. As an American feminist, I say, “It should be 50%.”

With encouragement and role models I think Chinese women students would change quickly, but of course the majority of the teachers are men, and so the system just perpetuates itself. I have about only 20% female students in my classes. In my second year classes I shouldn’t have that kind of distribution. They’re law, business, and history majors, the kind of majors where—at least in the United States—there are a lot of women.

When I ask my interviewees how their legal rights might be different from those their grandmothers and mothers had, they don’t understand. I also ask about political participation. They don’t know what I’m talking about. Legal rights and political participation as we understand them are concepts outside their culture. I ask whether their grandmothers and their mothers had arranged marriages, how many children each of them had, and how it was decided how many children they would have. Then I ask them whether it’s preferable to be a man or a woman in modern China and whether women on the whole work harder or men do.

There’s a lot of similarity in responses, especially among the women teaching in the university. Housing, salary, health benefits are standardized according to what job you have. The young teachers I interviewed getting around 70¥ [$23.33] a month, and they all have health benefits. The housing basically depends on whether they’re single, in which case they’re living with two or three others in a dormitory room, or whether they are married and have a family, in which case they probably have two rooms and a kitchen. Most of them have one child, some have two children. Sometimes they have a parent living with them. A couple of women don’t live with their husbands because the state has shipped their husbands off to jobs at another location.

When I asked how their lives were different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ the university women talked mostly about education and employment. Typically, the grandmother was illiterate, the mother may have some education, and the daughter is highly educated. I’ve interviewed some of the women who were the cadre-peasant-worker types, and they came into the university through the Cultural Revolution. Even though they’re teaching in the university, they don’t have the formal educational background that the others do. I met two doctors with a middle-school education, but they must have gotten some training after school. One woman worked with her father, who may not have had any formal medical training.

Up at the retired workers’ activity center, I interviewed women who seemed to be in their sixties who were not university educated. They told me that the difference between life before and after Liberation was the difference between starvation and having enough. They’re strong supporters of the Communist Party. One woman burst into tears when she was talking about her mother, who starved to death when she was living up north with her mother-in-law. Even though the husband was sent down here on a job and the wife and daughter could have come with him, it was considered her duty to take care of her mother-in-law, who made her work like a slave. My interviewee talked about how much her mother had hated her mother-in-law.

Another woman was a strong advocate of the party because after her husband died the party found her a job.  She worked for years as a street sweeper. She didn’t make much money, and she had to work hard, but she had an income. She has a pension now, which she appreciates very much. At the time of the interview, she was fighting with her sons, so she’s happy she doesn’t have to live with them. The only criticism she had of the Communist Party [as moral educator] was that it should teach the children to be more respectful of their parents.

I also asked a question about domestic violence, but I think the results probably aren’t reliable, because the question is really hard to interpret. We have a hard time in the United States deciding when a parent is spanking a child and when a parent is beating a child. Making the distinction clear to someone of a different culture who speaks a different language is very difficult. A lot of people have told me that domestic violence exists here, but it’s not common. These people think it’s more likely to occur among the uneducated than the educated people, particularly if the woman isn’t working outside the home. For example, out in the countryside an abused woman might not have the option to leave. The women I interviewed said, “I have a job, I have an income, I have health benefits. If I could show that I was being abused, I think I could even get a divorce. I don’t have to put up with that.”

I have to laugh when what I think are simple questions get confusing and convoluted answers. I asked a woman how old she was. She’s really 36, but usually she says she’s 38 because you have more prestige if you’re older. The day she was born she was one year old [because Chinese often add a year for gestation]. The birthday is also linked to the calendar year in her province. Because she’s so close to the end of the year, the moment the new year hits she gains another year. So when she was two months old, she was two years old.

I interviewed one woman in an apartment with three rooms and a kitchen. It seemed  spacious until I realized nine people were living there. I have now done thirty-five interviews, and she was the only woman I talked to who was concerned about the repercussions of talking to me. “If there is another Cultural Revolution, what I say may come back to haunt me.”  In fact, many people did get into trouble for talking to Westerners during the Cultural Revolution, but her children, who weren’t old enough to remember, were not at all patient with their mother’s reticence. They were needling her for not saying more.

I said, “You know, she’s been through something that you haven’t been through. You have to respect that.”

One of her sons worked for the security police. When my interpreter translated the comments he was making to his mother, I turned to him and said, “You tell me how it was.”  He did give me some information, but nothing of much value. The daughter was more interesting. She had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, had married a peasant, and the two of them had managed to get back into the city. I haven’t met anyone else who has been able to do that.

There was an article in China Daily about the exploitation of the young girls in the factories that are starting up with the new free enterprise system. The journalist estimated that around 7% of the girls aged 7-12 are not attending school. They think there’s a lot of pressure to use these girls as labor in the factories. When I was up in Long Ai interviewing, we stumbled into a candy factory filled with young girls hand-wrapping individual pieces of candy. I’ve heard about this in the countryside, too. Now that the peasants can raise produce for the free market, people keep girls home from school so they can contribute to the income-producing venture.

The biggest limitation of my research is that it’s so centered in Xiamen. It has some diversity because some of the students are from other parts of the country, but getting a true cross-section of the population is certainly not possible while staying in one spot. Xiamen is unique in having the combination of a big university and a special economic zone. But I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, which is to learn a whole lot more about women in China, even if it’s one small segment of university women.

When I went to the women’s federations, I enjoyed talking to the staff because their work is similar to what I do in the States. At first I sat through the speeches they read to me, and I was only fed the official line. Later they came to my room, and I had a lot of questions for them—what do you do, what’s your biggest problem, how do you do that, how do you cope with this kind of situation. I asked all the really sticky ones.

They have basically the same objective as I do, trying to bring about equality for men and women by providing additional services for women. They talk to employers who’ve been reported to be engaging in discriminatory policies. They provide personal counseling and advice, they put on workshops and distribute information. They’re active in daycare. Right now legal rights is a hot item in Chinese life. So they might do a workshop to tell women what their rights are or set up a training class so that women can acquire additional skills or help a woman find daycare or get along with her husband. The women’s federations reflect the incredible bias in this country toward reconciling a married couple, and they make it clear that divorce is bad for everybody. The federations have lots of staff, and they work closely with the woman in charge of population control, which is seen as a women’s issue.

At the moment I’m waiting for a translation of the 1950 and 1980 marriage laws, which cover a lot more than just marriage. It’s a real hindrance not knowing the law. When was talking to the federation I said, “I’ve found that some say university departments will call up and request applications for employees saying, ‘We want someone, but we don’t want a woman.’  What do you do when something like that happens?”

They said, “Of course that is not supposed to happen, and we will immediately go down and work with the employer. If we do not get a satisfactory resolution, we report him to the labor department. The labor department has the authority to bring about sanctions.”

One of the federation women said that if a work unit is discriminating because some job is not appropriate for a woman, then you can suggest some reassignment. “Can you assign the heavy work to an existing male employee and give some other work to the new worker so that you can hire a woman?”

Usually, if I hammer away at them too long with questions about what I consider inconsistencies in their thinking, they will start to retreat to their memorized statement. I can always tell if I’ve gone too far when I get a statement like, “I’m sure with China’s future development these problems will be resolved.” But there are times when they agree with me, especially if I can give them an example of a problem I’m dealing with. Then their guard is down and it’s more of a sharing, and it’s not an I-point-my-finger-at-you thing.

Talking with the women from the federations made me realize how much I have missed my colleagues’ companionship and my work in the States. As much as I’ve enjoyed what I’m doing here, in the States I’m part of a network, I have people that I meet with on a regular basis to share my values, my goals and my work.

Response from a Filipino of Chinese extraction:

Thank you so much.  I found it interesting, and it made me ask myself who I would be today if my Dad hadn’t left China, where he was born. What if I’d been born there? What would my way of thinking be today? Hmmm….