Creative Non-fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

Labour for Love

by Mia Corazon Aureus

Titang sits on the marble floor next to the front door of our Ang Mo Kio HDB apartment in Singapore, cleaning her nails. She has just finished her Saturday's work of cleaning, mopping the floor, scrubbing the bathroom and doing the laundry. She still has a basket of clean clothes to fold and school uniforms to iron, but she takes a break from her chores to prepare for her day off.

"I'm going swimming with my friends tomorrow at East Coast Beach," she tells me, as she paints her toenails aquamarine blue. She loves blue. I have never known anyone who gets as excited about the many shades of blue as she does. When I gave her a cyan dress from Bali last year, she hugged me so tight I thought I heard my ribs crack.

She is a woman with a large build. When she embraces me, I am swallowed by her thick arms, her muscles made stronger by the years she carried my niece and nephew when they were babies.

My niece, Ichigo, is now nine and my nephew, Kai, is six. Kai occasionally still asks her to carry him when we walk home from AMK Hub. The walk is not very long, probably less than fifteen minutes. So, I tell Kai to stop whining. But Titang cannot bear to see Kai "suffering," so she obliges even if she is exhausted.

Titang thinks of Kai as her own son. He is one of the reasons she managed to overcome the gut-wrenching ache of leaving her baby with her mum in Bicol, Philippines, six years ago to accept the job as household help to my sister. She was thirty-three then and her son was barely two.

"I broke up with my partner—my son's father—of about five years. I got fed up with his mother's incessant nagging and meddling. I was never enough, I guess. So, I left. The job here in Singapore came at a good time. I wanted to flee from the pain, and I also needed a job. Letting go of my baby and putting him in my mother's arms … I felt like I would lose my sanity. But I had to keep myself together. We had to survive," she says.

For the first couple of months since she started working as a domestic helper, she says she had to hide in the bathroom and cry.

"Can't really escape from the pain, you know. You just need to bear it. Having friends here also helped," she tells me, moving on to paint her fingernails. 

"Does the colour suit me?" she asks, tilting her left hand towards the yellow light filtering through the door grills. I nod. "Are you sure?"

She worries the bright blue shade will clash with her coffee-coloured skin.

We often joke we are sisters: the way we seek each other's advice, banter, dance to her playlist of American pop and old Filipino rock in the kitchen. But she always quips: "But you're the color of milk. People can quickly tell I'm adopted."

Adopted. This word has hounded Titang since she was seven.

"I had four brothers and a sister. But when my mother died of childbirth, my drunkard of a father gave us away to his friends like puppies," she recalls.

She lived with three different families. The first family took her in for one and a half years. Titang believes they gave her up because of her bad grades in school.

"The mum was a teacher, and she had high expectations of me. But nobody had time to sit with me and teach me," she explains. 

She got passed on to a childless couple who were friends with her adoptive mum. "They were the worst," she says, recalling how devoid of warmth and love their house was. She did not want to call it a home since what she remembered were seemingly endless rebukes and cruel punishments for transgressions, some of them she was not even responsible for.

"I was eleven. A classmate accused me of stealing. So my adoptive parents put me in a rice sack and left me in the grain silo. My kind neighbours heard me crying and let me out," she recounts, her full lips slightly quivering. 

"Once, they also tied me to the dining chair and left me alone in the house for three days without food. I survived because my friend found me and fed me guavas and mangoes."

When the couple finally had a child of their own about two years after adopting Titang, they decided to give her away to a relative. 

She describes the third family as "the family she never had," and she feels grateful and indebted to them for keeping her. 

"They initially didn't want me because they already had five children. But the father, who was working in Saudi Arabia at that time as a driver and construction worker, said he might be able to earn enough to raise another child."

"Our culture is not kind to kids like me," she continues, shifting now to the living room chair to fold clothes. She blows on her fingernails and checks if they are dry. 

She says the neighbourhood bullies taunted her, calling her ampon, a Filipino term for adopted.

"They could have just thrown rocks at me. It's the same," she says.

But her adoptive siblings were always quick to defend her, and her foster parents treated her as if she was their own child. Their neighbours still pelted her with insults whenever she walked home from school, but she shrugged them off. Her new family loved her. That was what mattered.

"If you know yourself well enough, not even a boulder can crush you," she tells me.

"Wow! You sound like a sage."

She laughs. "But not when it comes to love."

"Love, love, love," I start singing Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." She sways to the beat, flips her long black hair and bats her eyelashes. We both giggle like high school girls.

Titang pulls out the Ninja Turtles t-shirt she bought for Kai from the laundry basket and folds it on her lap. She also bought one for her son, whom she cannot wait to see when she goes on home leave in May. "Someday," she says, "I will have a family of my own."

I tell her: "To me, you're family. I will slap anyone who says otherwise."

We high five. Her aquamarine-painted nails shimmer in the orange sunlight.


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