Talking about Halo Halo on the TTC a.k.a. how Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown* came home to roost on my way home on Friday

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I rarely see men with exhausted babies or children on the bus or the subway after work. It’s pretty much a rule. Tired mom and exhausted baby, toddler or child. Mostly black women or women of colour on the route I’ve been taking of late. I don’t know why but it holds a certain poignancy observing them especially on this route when there is little light at five. Still there is joy here under the weariness at day’s end. Bonds of love, care and concern sometimes blurting out in mini-tantrums on the child’s part and flashes of desperate impatience from the mother. Yet tied together in reliability and dependence.

Occasionally I play peekaboo or secret hand-eye-signal games across the aisle with the little ones to cheer them up but mostly to pass the time; some days it works on others they are inconsolable or too exhausted to respond to my efforts. But mostly they are joyful creatures these tykes, angels and little professors. Perhaps as the days grow longer their lighter sides will become more evident.

But the bus on Friday, this past week turned out to be unusual. A little girl of nine or ten of angelic yet intelligent face and her harried mom. The bus was crowded. Everyone utterly exhausted. The conversation between the mother and daughter about having been to the doctor. The little girl found a seat between two passengers and mom stood next to her seesawing between concern and making sure she was stable on a moving bus. A few stops in a big hunk of a man with a piece of luggage the size of a carry-on-bag got on and rushed right past her. He rammed his body at the woman as he did this, pushing her aside. Yet he kept marching right on to the back. I glowered at him in anger as he settled into his seat entirely self-absorbed.

More bonds were formed. Invisible. Me, the little girl and her mom across the aisle of a bus. I was mightily exhausted myself and loaded down with groceries when the two seats by me became vacant. Mom rushed to grab them and won the race. Up close the similarities in their features were striking. The little girl’s still childish-angelic but the mother’s a wearier version of the tender and pretty flower she too must once have been. I blurted out that the little girl looked just like her, a carbon copy! She smiled back but mom declared she looked a lot like her father but was pleased to hear my observation.  “She probably has both your features but the similarity is striking” I said. Visions of friendly love-tiffs between loving parents in a Toronto apartment over how their little girl looks more like him or her happily flashed across my mind.

It looked like the little girl had eczema and was scratching away at an itch and despite the mom’s pleadings she could not stop herself. Norma’s concern and worry was weighing her down. To distract her from her itch we started chatting.

Let us call her Norma and the daughter Ena. Ena had been sick with flu and it has been very difficult with her. How she had long ago left Ena with her grandmother in the Philippines when she was an infant to come work as a nanny in Toronto. She looked pained and guilt-stricken explaining they had been reunited only since about a year ago and Ena was seven when she arrived in Canada. How it was a very difficult adaptation for both of them and her deep frustration and helplessness resounded. How Ena constantly reminded her that her family is back home in the Philippines and that Norma is not her family; despite her being Ena’s mom. Norma hoped things would improve when her husband arrived from the Philippines and that she was having his papers processed. That is when I realized how my fantasy view of a nuclear family in a Toronto apartment was only a fiction of my imagination. Perhaps it was the older child and older mother scenario which led me to believe the relationship was also as old and that any time as a nanny was way behind her. It wasn’t. Ena and her father too had been separated from each other while mom was away in Canada.

It was hard to comprehend though I knew the stories. Known them for a very long time. The havoc it wreaks. A little lost girl who was plucked from loving surroundings. A mother trying to assuage her guilt for having left her baby behind in ways that are desperately impractical. An exploitative system which keeps live-in caregivers like Norma forever desperate and dependent on their employers, for themselves and their families with few success stories. An inhumane economy and state, both here and in the Philippines, which perpetuates the break up of families without recompense.

I tried to explain to Norma that she was not alone and that her decision was sound and made for good reasons. How change is not always what we expect but that with care and commitment she could make things work and mentioned some organizations, including Kababayan. Ena recognized the word and was very open and started talking to Norma in Tagalog. Ena was comforted that I knew words from her home. When I asked which Grade she was in and told her that she must be doing very well in school because she is a very smart young girl; Ena was adamant to say she did not know English well and that she was not doing well in school here. Norma explained how Ena had been doing really well in school back home before she left and that everything was not working too well right now. Norma felt Ena’s English wasn’t very good, though it was evident Ena spoke well and with confidence. Although some theorize that working as domestics far from home gave women independence my observation in Canada has been this. These jobs of virtual servitude chip away at a worker’s self-esteem and keep racking up the guilt account.

Norma seemed entirely overwhelmed by her situation and was worried she would make matters worse when her husband arrived when they find out that they were no longer compatible. She had been away from him for the same time as she had been in Canada except perhaps for two trip she had made back home for  a few weeks at a time. Which was all she could afford. Just like on the bus seesawing between survival and the need to keep her family together. For Norma that was her child, herself and the child’s father vs. the reality that what she left behind was no longer there; except for the individuals. In this case a hostile and confused child and a complete stranger for a husband. And possibly Ena’s motherhood robbed by both systems.

The more we spoke the more Ena and Norma opened up. Norma speaking of difficulties and Ena warming at every mention of home. Ena is very smart and had clearly been well looked after by her grandmother for all I could tell. A confident, lovely, intelligent young girl fully able to speak her mind. When we started talking more about Ena’s home, the Philippines, and also because of my love for Halo Halo I decided to lighten up the conversation from difficulties to sweet drinks. Ena’s face lit up when I asked if she had yet had Halo Halo in Toronto. Ena blurted out that her mom had told her there was no Halo Halo in Toronto. I played along for a little while and Ena was waxing poetic about Halo Halo and I followed suit. She said she loved Halo Halo with ice cream and I quibbled back that proper Halo Halo did not have ice cream. We giggled in recognition and formed more bonds and any barriers we had fell down. We talked even more about Halo Halo about the purple yam ice cream-like ingredient on top. How I felt that Halo Halo was to me a combination of all the best birthday cakes you’ve had (on your birthdays) mixed with all the best ice cream you’ve ever had. Ena was delighted and wanted to know more of what I knew about her people, and of course, Halo Halo. She was keen to know if I had Filipino friends.

As we chatted up a  storm as the bus progressed towards our destination I had already made plans in my head to exchange phone numbers so I could see if there was anything I could do to help Ena feel more at home and to lighten Norma’s load in her transition from a single Nanny living alone in Toronto to parenting and being a spouse. She had her hands full, evidently. Ena was such a vivacious intelligent young child that I would have welcomed the opportunity to act as an aunty or an elder sister to her if it was useful.

I’d heard numerous stories through several organizations that help Filipina nannies or former nannies in their transition when their children arrive in Canada after separations as long as a decade or more. It is rarely easy. How could it be?

We talked about school in positive terms as the bus trundled on and more conversation ensued about Halo Halo. I had to break the news to Ena that there was Halo Halo, and very good Halo Halo in Toronto. How I had it as a treat on hot summer days at the Filipino food place at Dundas and Bathurst at Kanto and how it transports one to an entirely other place. Norma confessed she had kept the news away from Ena because she kept getting colds and did not want her to get sick. How there is good Halo Halo near Bathurst and Wilson at a Filipino place. In my head I couldn’t wait for summer so we could all go for Halo Halo and see Ena’s delight. But it was still February and freezing cold.

I have seen how Toronto nannies leave that work but still are stuck in low-paying low-skilled jobs. But at least when they leave nanny work they are not constantly under the thumb of a sole employer often working alone. But in Norma’s case she is still a nanny and supplements her income with part-time work in schools to cover for absences. She was not happy about this situation but hoped things would get better. Her immediate concern was making sure Ena was not sick, thus the visit to the doctor asking for antibiotics. Why? So she did not have to take time away from work being the sole breadwinner.

My hope that we might be living in the same area in proximity too was dashed when Norma said she did not live in this area but was on her way to an event which her employer wanted her and Ena to attend. Although Ena was sick and preferred to stay at home tonight Norma did not want to disappoint or to say no to her employers. So here she was making sure her daughter’s illness was manageable to make sure she did not have to say no to her employer.

I was pretty confused as to what to think and why and before we knew it the bus had arrived at the station and we started to disembark. I was overwhelmed with different thoughts. Why wasn’t her employer understanding of the fact that her daughter was not well? Why does Norma believe she could not say no to her employer simply because her employer had bought tickets for Norma and Ena? Does the employer understand that they too are implicated in this separation between a mother and a daughter and its inevitable fallout? Are they trying to pacify their guilt by buying tickets for events for Norma and Ena and do nothing more? Is this a never-ending cycle of deceit in an exchange of survival and servitude in the service of the wealthy or well to do professionals?

Norma’s life in Canada as a nanny or otherwise had also robbed her of her existence as a sexual being and also her motherhood. Both as Ena’s mother and the wife of the husband she left behind so long ago. Kamal Al-Solaylee in Brown talks in depth about this and the plight of domestics and nannies. He discusses how this exchange is akin to a form of modern day slavery which is destructive to individuals, family units and entire societies for the benefit of certain privileged classes. He also explains how money sent back benefits entire communities; but I question if these benefits are worth the price of dehumanization persons like Norma endure for decades and the heartbreak of children.

Before I could sift through my thoughts and as they whirled around in my head we had parted. In minutes I sorely regretted not having taken Norma’s contact information so we could meet again and become friends – and perhaps create an extended family of sorts. Although I have no Gods I pray, perhaps to the TTC, that I meet Norma and Ena again on the bus so we can all go for Halo Halo when the dog days of summer are here. Ena hates the winter. Who doesn’t when it is their first or second time and when you are heartbroken and homesick for your family back home. When I asked Ena if she doesn’t remember summer it seems she only remembers how awful winters are.  May be she might hate winter less with more activity and more friends and a support system to supplement everything that her mother clearly provides with great love. May be Ena’s teachers aren’t doing enough for her. May be someone can take her skating. May be I am talking complete nonsense. I came home and played that song by Paul Simon about a mother and child. I felt completely helpless at how invisible Ena’s and Norma’s suffering was.

by Renuka Mendis, Toronto, February 5, 2017.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

*Al-Solaylee, Kamal. Brown : what being brown means in the world today (to everyone). New York : HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Photo credit for Halo Halo – Renuka Mendis (Halo Halo by Kanto)

Photo Credit for TTC Logo : TTC.ca

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