At Home but Not at Home: Filipina Narratives of Ambivalent Returns

Essay Excerpt

Although my focus here is on Filipina domestic workers, it is important to briefly point out that 1997 had different implications for them as temporary migrants or "Overseas Contract Workers"(OCWs)2 and for Chinese locals. To some Hong Kong Chinese, reunification represented a desired end to foreign rule, a returnto the "homeland"or the "motherland." Yet not all Hong Kong Chinese (openly) expressed such unambiguous optimism. Many viewed the change over with apprehension or nostalgia or considered it simply a shift from one sort of colonizer to another (Chow 1992). A Chinese school teacher, explaining her ambivalence toward reunification, said to me, "How would you feel if your adoptive parents (the only parents you've everknown) returned you to the natural mother who wanted you back and had given you up long ago?" Hong Kong, as Rey Chow writes, "knows itself as a bastard and orphan"(1992:157). Hong Kong Chinese might see themselves as returning home or, in a sense, in exile at home. One Chinese employer, commenting on the difference between her own situation and that of foreign domestic workers, noted bitterly that "at least they have a home to go back to." 

Filipino OCWs would unanimously agree that they do have "a home to go backto,"yet home is not, as I argue here, as simple and unambiguous as the Chinese employer's comment implies. Many concerns were raised in 1997 for over-seas workers, the most obvious being financial. A Tinig Filipino article entitled "Are You Preparing for Your Future" captured a common feeling: "Everyone of us dreams someday of going home to the Philippines to be with our loved ones-far from the daily toil of cleaning toilets, washing other people's clothes, living with strangers who look down on us. But what will happen to us when we go home? ... Many of us are trapped by the realization that, once we go home we would have no source of income" (1995:36).  (Constable, 204-205)

About the Author

Nicole Constable is a sociocultural anthropologist whose interests include transnationalism, migration and mobilities; the commodification of intimacy; gender and reproductive labor; ethnographic writing and power.

Her geographical areas of specialization are Hong Kong, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. She has conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong on constructions of Hakka Chinese Christian identity, on resistance and discipline among Filipina and Indonesian domestic workers, and among migrant parents. Recent publications have focused on cross-border marriages, internet ethnography, the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, religion and labor protests among migrant workers.

She is currently working on a new book project entitled, Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers, Babies, Law and Reproductive Labor in Hong Kong, about Filipina and Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong who become mothers, and the legal and personal struggles they face regarding migrant work, intimate relationships, and parenthood.  

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