“Where shall wisdom be found?” says Harold Bloom, the literary critic.
It can be found from people, no matter how low their stage in life. Take Glenda, a member of an 8-million strong Filipino diaspora scattered all over the globe.
She breathed life into my interest in migration, humanized cold analysis, acquired a mind, face, and body behind lifeless migration statistics that I have grown used to as an academic. Most of all, she gave me the opportunity to pay tribute to her because she, like millions of others, can often disappear behind our oftentimes superfluous quest for theoretical rigor even while women like her struggle daily to survive and transcend their personal circumstances.
She strode up to me after church on my first Sunday in Bangkok three years ago. She had just finished serving in the home of a US Embassy official and was in the market for a job. She was fast on her feet, ready with her references, and she breathed confidence. She handed me a cold soda as sweat formed on my forehead from the April humidity. All of five feet tall, Glenda oozed spunk.
She worked for me three days a week, ironed my clothes to a crisp lavender-fresh fragrance, mopped the polyurethane floors of my flat, cooked my meals, served drinks to my guests, ran to the store to pick up Gatorade.
She ventured out to Bangkok from her unknown southern village in the Philippines, because she had nothing else except her labor and her youth, and life held far too little opportunities for someone like her -- a restless girl with boundless energy and voluminous talent. She did not want to waste away.
She cajoled her sister into leaving behind the home of both their youth, to come to Bangkok and luck it out in the Thai labor market. Folded in between their simple clothes was a suitcase of anxieties of life ahead in a country of tonal sounds and scarce English. Her passport read a twenty-one day permit to stay. Twelve years later, Glenda and her sister stand proud in their captured little urban space, a thirty-three square meter room they call their home.
In the labyrinthine streets of Bangkok, she found her way into diplomatic circles. Over the years, the opportunities steadily unfolded. Her easy command of the English language was her best asset against the competition of Thai, Burmese, and Lao applicants. She had the swiftness of a gazelle, thorough in the ways of the household, a marvel with recipe books, a demeanor as cheerful as the blazing Bangkok sunlight. Always, she was the favored choice.
“I study their habits, their practices at home.” We were exchanging stories of her past employers. “Some like their toilets smelling of lemongrass, others prefer food with oversized chilies. The Australian director, he only ate brown rice. But he always started with whiskey soda on one cube of ice, and the table should be covered with Irish linen.”
She built her credentials on discretion and mastering other people’s idiosyncrasies. An impressive list of diplomats in whose homes she cleaned, cooked, toiled, and served is her armamentarium.
She reads the International Herald Tribune and the Bangkok Post, tells me the latest travails of politicians and the world’s woes as I munch on her freshly made salads.
She speaks Thai effortlessly, navigates the complex road network of the city with her expert knowledge of bus routes. She can cook up a storm, whether it’s Lebanese, Indian, Italian, or American cuisine.
On quiet afternoons when the work was done, she would sneak out on the veranda for a smoke. I blinked. Hers is a life of too few pleasures.
In another lifetime she might have chalked up enough Buddhist merit to be born someone else. But the cycles of rebirth are truly mysterious and so she heads off to Cambodia every three weeks, in an early morning van, to cross the border at Aranyaprathet and head back in the evening for another twenty-one day visa.
For nearly two years, this was her cat-and-mouse routine with Thai immigration, until the Asian Development Bank Resident Representative came and we shared her halftime. She flew to Singapore for a week and arrived with fresh documents from the Thai Embassy. On her passport was stamped Section 15. She was no longer an illegal alien, but a grateful gift-bearing woman with chocolates in hand because her anxieties had just been lifted.
Her wisdom, I decided, is brought on by raw courage and a stout spirit to face the everyday. She is unflappable, determined. Someday she will no longer be a maid, she proclaims. Perhaps a restaurateur, a chef, a maitre d’ all rolled into one. She wants her servant days to come to an end. And I believe her, because she has this steady refusal to surrender to her cultural “givens.”
There is wisdom in all her hopefulness, and I have faith in her dreams, to continue lubricating her spirit. To become her best, to use her personal circumstances and use them like Biblical talents, to light up the world, not to hide them in a bushel. Hers is a Homerian odyssey into self-transformation.
This world has seen me, sometimes with a backpack, other times with a worn canvas carry-all and a beat-up laptop to record my travels. And when I think this has got to stop from travel fatigue, I remember the sheer joy of discovering the courageous lives of other irrepressible Glendas the world over.
An unwitting teacher, so many shades deeper, like a red-colored sun setting over Hua Hin spreading her blood red beams over the Gulf of Thailand in late December, Glenda the maid, showed me where wisdom was to be found.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)