My computer at home having gone kaput, I adjourned to a café the other evening, asked for a tea and got online on one of the machines on offer.
After a while the person two screens away asks me for help in changing her facebook password. Volunteers that her ex might’ve hacked into her a/c. A little while later she wants to borrow a pen. And then says she’s having trouble adding friends. Her ex to blame. Wants to add me as friend to see if that function works, says she has many “injun” friends. And then outa the blue announces she’s single. Repeats for effect.
I gulp down tea, log out and scoot.
Why this kaadhaleri di?* Do I and my grey hair make for an eligible hunk?
I’d feel flattered if I don’t suspect the intent. But a moment’s reflection leads to the thought that I know the situation she’s in. I’d probably be similarly inclined if I were her.
That Filipino person is a domestic worker, meaning a member of the lowest caste in Hong Kong’s status hierarchy. She’s probably in her late 20s or early 30s, but appears willing to hit on any age group to try and parlay a more respectable visa status.
In Hong Kong there are holders of Chinese passports, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports, British National (Overseas) and permanent residents with different star ratings based on race. Chinese race on top. And then there are residents with visas linked to their regular employment. The last crowd can apply for perm status after seven years’ stay. (This brief paragraph is an over-simplification of all the various visa and passport statuses that obtain in Hong Kong.)
But the pariahs are those with foreign domestic helper (FDH) visas: Mainly Indonesians and Filipinos with a sprinkling of Indians, Sri Lankans and Thais. However long they stay in Hong Kong — making crucial contributions in the form of freeing up a family member or two to go out and earn, taking care of children and the elderly, making millions of phone calls, buying and shipping home containerloads of clothing and all kinds of gadgets and knickknacks, propping up entire rows and buildings full of shops and eateries, banking and remittance businesses as well as rapacious moneylenders/loansharks — they can never hope to become residents, let alone permanent residents.
They’re subject to verbal and physical abuse and overwork, plus machinations on the part of agencies. And they have to get out of Hong Kong within two weeks of losing a job.
They’re a permanent underclass in a place that preens itself as “Asia’s World City”. A small number have gained resident status by marrying up, often much older men. As residents, they can apply for jobs of restaurant waitresses or baristas.
(It’s a bit like India’s caste system, with its Anuloama-Prathiloama (अनुलोम – प्रतिलोम) rules, the former grudgingly acknowledging the acceptability of letting women marry up the caste ladder to improve their status. Phew!)
Recently a few FDHs in Hong Kong filed court cases asking for permanent resident status, testing the constitutionality of the institutional discrimination and thus sparking another bout of racist wrath. Politicians vied with one another in displaying patriotic fervor against what they deemed an unreasonable demand. That old scarecrow, the floodgates bogey, was raised. Someone came up with a figure of 100,000 applications should the FDHs’ cases succeed. That the immigration department has the full discretion to block their paths on other grounds was blithely ignored. It’s a constitutional case and Beijing has let it be known that it favours apartheid.
It’s in this context that the young person the other evening was acting. And so while I went on my way, I was not unmindful of her predicament. I could’ve been in her unenviable shoes!
* For the benefit of non-Indians, the reference here is to a song, “Why This Kolaveri Di” (Why this murderous rage, girl?) that went viral on the Internet. By “kaadhaleri” I mean romantic urge.