An essay on poverty and migration: Noel Bautista (Wellington, New Zealand)
WRAPPED AROUND A HUMAN TABLEAU
It wasn’t by choice, but neither was it completely by accident.
My family lived in a depressed urban area in the Philippines more popularly known as a ‘squatter community’ twice in my so-called ‘life’.
The first instance was in 1988 as head of a young family struggling to survive, foolishly avoiding the well-meaning ‘I-Told-You-So’s’ and assistance of re-latives. The second time was during the early 1990s as part of an immersion activity in fulfillment of a university course.
I don’t deny these circumstances nor am I ashamed of it. They are all part of my conscious being. But neither do I wear it on my lapel of life experience as a badge of honor.
There is nothing glamorous about poverty. It is a reality of hot, angry and dirty surroundings too overpowering to romanticize. I lived with that every day.
All the clichés’ you hear about urban poor are true. Alcoholics starting their daily reunions at 8 in the morning; couples embroiled in shouting matches (some-times unfortunately degenerating into violence) within meters of your own shanty; intimidating gangs fighting over territory and the spoils of crime; and, the unlucky stray dog unfortunate enough being roasted over a spit for dinner. I beheld all these visual delights not unlike a morbidly watchable train wreck wrapped around a human tableau.
A TENUOUS TENURE
Since then, life has improved somewhat for me, yet hardly forgetting those rough times. In these last few years, I’ve been fortunate to have come to New Zealand as a migrant worker, albeit under a tenuous tenure and at the mercy of the prevailing state-of-the-economy driven political winds.
I draw from this experience when asked: why in the ointment of all these personal difficulties, did I choose to strike it out in a strange new land with all the uncertainties of keeping a job here and hoping to be qualified someday to apply for permanent residency.
Please don’t misunderstand me. All things being equal, I would still like to return some day and grow old in my country of birth, the Philippines. It remains the only country I’ve known as home. But most of us guest workers now here in the Land of the Long White Cloud know deep in our gut (but are too prideful, naïve, or ignorant to admit), that it will take more than a generation of inspired political leadership for our compatriots back home to reach the Promised Land.
In the meantime, you pocket your 30-pieces of silver (wherever you find it), disregard the perpetually disjointed feeling of being uprooted (and living in the statelessness-like status of limbo) to face all other strangely unfamiliar elements of being away and being unable for the moment to get back home and sift local gravel through your fingers once more and savour the breeze of one’s own sky.
SCALDING SOULS IN PURGATORY
Knowledge of similar yearnings of other guest worker-migrants can but only alleviate my own misery –not unlike angels carrying pails of water to the parched mouths of scalding souls in purgatory. But this much I know. Against the barometer of the reality of utter poverty I faced back home I try to assess just how hard life is too for me in the land of my host country. The legislated minimum of NZ$ 12/hour, many of us here lament, can hardly feed or support the standard of living to which most New Zealanders are accustomed.
In Philippine currency terms, this hourly wage projected to a day’s whole labour, can manage to support as much as three families’ basic needs back home – food, clothing and shelter for two parents and three children. Given this backdrop, it’s hard to be outraged about my lot in life here.
In a similar vein, the locals here oftentimes ask me why people from less-developed Asian countries like to wrap the remnants of restaurant meals for consumption later, when such remains are usually viewed as table scraps not even fit to be eaten by their own pets.
In response, I am reminded of a TV documentary about how whole communities of urban poor would wait for rubbish trucks to unload their nightly deliveries, from which would be sourced their much-needed sustenance. The contents, usually leftovers from fast food chain outlets like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC, might contain some rancid-smelling bags leftovers from a multitude of more well-off diners but as long as it fills hungry bellies, nobody complains. This might be unthinkable for most living in the First World, but it is a fact of life nevertheless for those living in poverty across the world.
It comes to no surprise for an individual like me that many of my compatriots’ back home living in poverty share my quixotic dreams of finding their fortune at the end of the First World rainbow. After so many tries, many job-seekers have long since given up the ghost, and only a passport and visa provide redemption for years of de-humanizing deprivation.
HOPE NEVER DIES
The promised paradigm of a better life abroad is eloquently simple and inviting; but, the formula is too efficient an argument against all the socio-eco-nomic dilemmas they face.
Not even all the legal obstructions, time and dis-tance standing in the way of their goal of eman-cipating themselves from the grip of poverty and finally, the reality that even First World Eden’s must look after their own poor first, are enough to stop them from achieving their life-long dreams.
On the other side of the devalued coin, people who have lived in poverty like me know only too well that, no matter how vicariously sumptuous a noche buena (Christmas) dinner might appear one back home, they are nevertheless still precariously only a few days removed from the most destitute and deprived of circumstances.
While employed here in New Zealand, most migrant workers can manage to themselves a little more than the most basic necessities for children and loved ones. But take away their hard-earned minimum wage and their all-important J-O-B that provides for paying their living expenses here and the dreams of all their family members back home, what would you have? A future as bleak as it is opaque.
Like them perhaps, whenever I ponder even the slightest thought of giving up and going back home, I merely look back at my poorer-than-poor days and realize that, when you have seen rock bottom, hope never dies.