At last I was boarding my flight from Cebu to Manila in the Philippines. It was Friday night; the plane was full, and I was late returning to my unit in Mandaluyong. Sitting next to me was an American. He was dressed in a bib and braces, a bright floral shirt, a cap perched on unkept hair. A big man, possibly 50 years old. He was holding photos in his right hand, looking intently at each. I glanced across to the photos. They appeared to be of young women. I returned to the book I was reading.
I was interrupted by the American holding a photo in front of me. “I was in Cebu today and met Lulu. She spoke good American. I liked her a lot, but I am not sure about her. I am going to meet up with a couple of women tomorrow. I’m here for a couple of weeks before returning to the US. I am looking for a wife and don’t have much more time here”.
He continued to talk about his photos and the women he had met. I lost interest in the conversation. The more he talked the more uncomfortable I became. It appeared to be a lucky dip, or some sort of spinning wheel with a photo of a woman as the prize. Arriving back in Manila, I left the plane, was met in the airport carpark by Al our driver and driven to the safety of my unit.
A couple of days later I shared my experience with Junjun, a journalist with a Manila paper before being appointed to position of Head of Administration in a Vocational Education project in TESDA. I shared with her how inappropriate I found the conversation. A middle-aged American looking for a young Filipino woman to become his wife. Junjun did not comment as I continued to criticise this big American’s inappropriate behaviour in her country.
We were about to leave when she paused. “What do you know about poverty”? She asked, “As you drink coffee at Starbucks, live in a condominium in Mandaluyong and are driven around in a project vehicle. What would you know about poverty? What I hear is a middle aged American prepared to take one of those young women out of a life condemned to poverty. But you will not understand that, because you know nothing about poverty”.
“If you are truly interested in seeing the face of poverty, I will organise to take you to meet poverty on Smoky Mountain. Then we can have a conversation about poverty. Remember, you will only view poverty from a distance, for a moment. You will never experience poverty as the poor do”.
Junjun stood up and walked out of the Starbucks. The conversation was over. About 3 weeks later, Junjun came to me. “I have organised to visit with a family who live in the shadows of Smoky Mountain” she said.
Driving through the early afternoon Manila traffic, Junjun asked if I knew what Smoky Mountain was. Before I could answer, she explained. It’s where all the garbage collected from the city of Manila is dumped. It is literally a mountain of trash maybe 500 feet tall which continually smokes. At the foot of this smouldering mountain of trash live families whose only income is derived from that mountain.
We arrived at a Catholic church where a nun joined us. The smoking mountain was now visible. It was huge. I had never seen anything like it before. Leaving the car, we wandered into a small compound where home was a collection of old cardboard boxes, pieces of roofing iron held down by discarded car tyres. Children played with a toy car made from rusty wire. Assorted sacks were lying on the ground. A small boy was sorting plastic bags into different piles, stuffing each pile into bags. The only income for the family came from these assorted plastics bags. We were told the father was out on Smoky Mountain collecting whatever he could find to bring back to sell.
There was no running water, no toilet. The mission had organised a preschool where children were given food and bottled water. The stench was everywhere, in your clothes, stinging your eyes. “Why don’t they just leave and go somewhere else?”, I asked. Junjun paused, turned her head away and quietly said. “Because this is all they know. It is a generational thing. They talk about a pecking order where certain families have the right to rummage through the newly arrived garbage. Other families sort through what remains”.
On the way back to the car, Junjun told me she had covered a tragedy on Smoky Mountain for her newspaper. A typhoon passed over Manila. The heavy rain causing an avalanche on the mountain. Three families living at the foot of the mountain in cardboard humpies were buried alive. Two teenage girls the only survivors. They had been attending a vocational school funded by the mission.
Arriving back at the Catholic Mission, Junjun invited me to join her for a cup of coffee with the nun. She was a friend from her previous visit.
Later that day Junjun asked me, “What are your thoughts about poverty now”? I began to reflect on what I had seen, but Junjun cut in impatiently. “You remember the loud middle-aged American looking for a wife”? “Yes”, I said, “I remember him”. “If one of those women married your loud middle aged American, she has a chance to escape from her poverty. To live in America, to raise a family. To send small amounts of money back to her family in the Philippines. Remember, in the Philippines you never marry a wife, you marry the family”.
I protested, “What about the age difference? What about domestic violence?” Junjun continued. “But think about the fact that if she is married to an American, she will likely have three meals a day, and a roof over her head which does not get blown away in a storm, and an education for her children”. There was a long pause in the conversation. “Don’t get me wrong” she said. “I would not marry this American. But I will never be critical of a young Filipino woman who marries to escape her poverty and has an opportunity for a better life. Those in poverty are no different to us who do not live in poverty. We all seek a better life for our children”.
That conversation with Junjun has stayed with me. She challenged me to see life through a different lens. My criticism of the big American’s action was seen by another as a lifeline out of poverty. My cultural values were questioned, even challenged.
But then, perhaps the conversation with Junjun was less about poverty and more about my attitude to those around me, my arrogance. Is that what Junjun wanted me to hear?
What gives me the right to be critical of the big American. I have never been touched by poverty. Never been hungry at the end of the day, with no idea where tomorrow’s meal will come from.
Perhaps it is cultural – my value systems around injustice. The American appeared so casual about marriage, respect and relationships.
Simon Peter, because of his arrogance, did not hear Jesus say, “You will all become deserters because of me”. Not me” said Peter, as he turned to Jesus. “I will not deny you”. And a cock crowed.
At this time of Lent, I am drawn back to Simon Peter. I see in him a reflection of my own arrogance. I am reminded again of the need to listen, to respect, and not assume I have the right to make judgement about other people’s lives.
Junjun is correct. I have no understanding of poverty and therefore should not be critical of a big American. I am still tempted to say, “I know better”. But then, I need to own my arrogance.