It was one of those rare beautiful afternoons in Dubai.
The sun was out, not with guns blazing, as it usually does in the desert city. It was a perfect day to have lunch outside, under the shade of the palm trees, with my usual lunch buddies, colleagues from all over the world.
I loved our lunch table because it was a retreat from the silent battlefield of the politically charged, multi-cultural corporate world. We could talk about anything and everything on living in Dubai as expats, no holds barred.
And today, the topic of Filipino women was on the table.
“Filipinas are just maids, who fling themselves at us, desperate, wanting to marry out of convenience to get out of their sorry state,” my Lebanese colleague stated matter-of-factly, as he leaned on the back of his chair, head cocked back in laughter.
I stopped mid-chew, hearty appetite lost. There I was, in front of him, the antithesis of his racial stereotype.
My European friend’s face flushed red with anger. My calm, mild demeanored South Asian friend raised his voice, fists clenched in defense at the tirades hurled at my fellow Filipinas.
But I was silent, nodding at every word said.
The conversation moved on and lunch had ended.
My two defenders and I separated from the bigger group to discuss what happened.
“I will never have lunch with him again!” huffed the European lady.
“I never had a good feeling about him,” echoed my South Asian friend.
And I kept walking in silence. “But everything he said was true.” I said in defeat.
There are Filipina maids in Dubai.
At least once a week, I would retrieve a piece of paper slipped under our apartment door from Filipinas looking for part time household work. I’d see and hear them every time I sat down on a bench in Mall of the Emirates, exchanging stories about the kindness or despicableness of their amos (employers) and how they are paid in peanuts, sometimes as much as they could earn in Metro Manila.
Then there are the desperate and lonely Filipinas in Dubai.
I could never forget this South Asian man who expressed his satisfaction with some of our kababayans, exclaiming “Pilipinis, very tight!” with thumbs up, showing photos of his “Pilipini” conquests on his mobile phone, recounting how he enjoyed illicit moments of pleasure in exchange for a two-piece fried chicken meal.
Once, my favorite falafel men turned on me, going beyond their usual “Hi! How are you?” to be uncomfortably friendly, chiding me on how it was okay, as a Filipina, to have a husband #2. A seemingly harmless, yet loaded banter.
And the numerous times I’d run into groups of scruffy, bearded men who would stare rabidly as if I were the last woman on the planet, greeting me with a sleazy “Hello Pilipini!” even though I looked asmanang (dowdy) as I could be in oversized eye glasses, long sleeved blouse and non-skinny, full-length jeans.
Now, how could I contest that?
As my staunch defenders launched into another argument on how that comment was uncalled for, I realized that we, OFWs, not only carry the already heavy burden of scouring and scrambling for every dirham or dollar, breaking our backs and spirits from working and living away from home; but we, also, unknowingly carry the additional load of being flag bearers for our country.
We all are.
No matter what you do – engineer, househelp, interior designer, cook, nanny, architect, nurse, no matter where in the world you are – as long as you are identified as Filipino, you have a glaring invisible Philippine flag tattooed on your forehead.
Every move I made and every word that came of out my mouth was not just mine, but of the Philippines. I was a walking, talking and videoke-singing representation of what the Philippines is and how it would mean to them.
Their personal interactions with other Filipinos and I dictated; shaped their perceptions of my country and my people.
It was still a perfect Dubai afternoon – sun shining and breeze blowing. I should’ve relaxed after lunch and conversation. But my shoulders felt heavy with the extra responsibility that I never knew had I signed up to.
How do you rise up to the challenge of shedding light to others who’ve only seen darkness? How about to those who’ve seen light in front of them and still refuse to see it?
Is there no dignity in earning a living from taking care of someone else’s home or children? Is there no respect for maybe, just maybe, wanting to truly love and be loved in return?
I wanted to smile, poke fun at it, shrug it off and say “Eh, sa ganun talaga ang takbo ng buhay (That’s how life goes),” and then move on with the daily grind, as we Filipinos do.
But all I could do was cringe as I swallowed the bitter cocktail of confusion, pity and sadness – one that opened my eyes to how parts of the world saw my countrymen and I.
I wanted to smile, I really did, but sometimes I think that it just is not funny anymore.
Originally published on Rappler.