Monday, July 17, 2006

Ampalaya and Hong Kong

16, July 2006, Sunday. After attending mass at the Hong Kong Cathedral, I walked down the escalators towards the Catholic Center at Central. At various sections of the way, whole stretches are lined up with newspaper, cardboards and plastic table cloth on which Filipinas sat enjoying their Sunday off with either family or friends. They were OFWs, our beloved grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, cousins, neighbors and friends.

They are in Hong Kong earning the mandated HK$ 3200 a month or roughly about P 20,000. I have seen similar sights before. I see this during All Saints Day in cemeteries. I see this on Sundays at UP, Diliman around the Academic oval blocked off from traffic, a brilliant concept of former UP President Dodong Nemenzo. The sights in Hong Kong and in the Philippines are similar but there is a not too subtle distinction. The big crowds in the cemeteries, parks and University gardens in the Philippines are relaxed and quite naturally blend with the environment, the crowds of OFWs either sitting or walking all over Hong Kong on Sundays seems to fit in but in a rather surrealist way.

Walking past the Pinay OFWs were local Cantonese residents, tourists from the Mainland and everywhere else. The OFWs as well as the tourists seem not to mind each other. The picture might have seemed strange only to me. It may really be quite natural. It may in fact be what Hong Kong is all about. One hundred twenty thousand OFWs is Hong Kong. Here, just barely a distance of a few hundred kilometers more between Manila to Zamboanga, they eat, sleep, work and earn a living.

All of them are here to find an employer, a job on which they pin much of their hopes, from sending siblings or children to school, supporting sick and elderly parents or saving as much as they can to start or sustain a little business in the Philippines. This little job is their hope for a better life than what they used to have at home. There is hope in Hong Kong, not an easy and often enough a bitter kind of hope. But there is hope in Hong Kong more than in the Philippines. This is what every OFW I spoke with would say in varying tones of joy and bitterness.

Ampalaya, bitter gourd is a popular vegetable in the Philippines. Ampalaya con carne (sautéed bitter gourd with beef) , ampalaya con hipon ( with shrimps), and ensalada (bitter gourd salad) are a few favorite recipes. The bitter vegetable is not so bitter when washed and cooked properly. Good Filipino cooks know how to gently squeeze out a little of the bitterness in order to bring out the hidden sweetness in the vegetable. Strangely enough, enough sweetness is hidden in the bitter vegetable. Bitter-sweet is the “ampalaya.” Bitter-sweet is life in the Philippines, in Hong Kong or anywhere else where Filipinos seek survival, meaning, joy and hope.

Every time spent with OFWs in Hong Kong is spent listening to bitter-sweet stories of despair and hope rolled into one. This can well be a full time ministry for anyone. Each of the 120,000 OFWs have a story to tell, and they do appreciate listening ears. But it is not enough just to listen. It requires a courageous, realistic and discerning type of listening. Each sad and bitter story is an undifferentiated mix of despair and hope. Like ampalaya, the bitterness seems to dominate but bits of sweetness seem to escape here and there.

I was listening to a bitter-sweet story of a forty year old OFW whose mother disappeared for sixteen years and recently reappeared. Her relatives call her up and happily tell her the news. She goes home immediately. When she sees her mother, she was not too sure what she felt. For sixteen long years, their mother did not communicate in any way. She just evaporated like water spilled on concrete during a sweltering day. The only one who seemed really happy was her youngest brother who was two years old when their mother disappeared. He was more than pleased to see the mother whom he vaguely remembers as an infant. Shortly after this OFW came back to Hong Kong, the mother disappears again without saying where she went and when she will return. Listening to her story were other OFWs who immediately concluded, your mother has another family. There’s where she went. It will be better to forget her.

I don’t know what this OFW and her family do feel about a mother who disappears for sixteen years and reappears for a few weeks only to disappear again. I wouldn’t know what to feel if it happened to me. When she reappeared, the OFW and her family felt a kind of guarded joy mixed with much uncertainty. When she disappeared, the short-lived joy must have melted into the usual bitter resignation. The Pinay OFW concluded the story with the typical self-assuring note of OFWs, “I am here, I am 40, unmarried, I think of my father, my siblings back home. I will continue to work and do what I can for them, for as long as I can…” In those words are trapped and mixed hope and despair, bitterness and sweetness. These words easily evoke the taste of ampalaya.

OFWs whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere will assure me and anyone else, “there is hope, but not enough. We hope against hope…and could only hope for the best…” Beneath all this hoping is an overpowering bitterness that they swallow anyway…the way we do both here and in the Philippines when we eat ampalaya….

Fr. Roberto P. Reyes
July 17, 2006


Post a Comment

<< Home