My thought-provoking encounter with a migrant worker

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 6:10pm

A little background about myself: I’m Chinese-Canadian, born and bred. Where I come from, I’m (for the most part) a minority. And so, coming to a place where I was part of the majority was a shock, as was how few my encounters with other ethnicities were.

This is one such encounter.

One afternoon, I was walking along the streets of Central. When it began to pour with rain, I ducked into the footbridges on my way to Central MTR Station towards my next appointment. As I turned the last corner towards the escalator, I saw a Filipina woman at the bottom of the stairs, mumbling quietly into her phone and sobbing.

It felt wrong for me to keep walking, and so I waited until she got off the phone. By this time, she was staring at me, puzzled, and she didn’t seem to understand my English at first.

“I noticed you were crying,” I said, and noticing that the rain was coming down more heavily, invited her for a coffee at a nearby coffee shop. It took a couple of tries before she reluctantly followed me – and more oddly, looked warily at the police officers standing in front of the building. On our way up, she glanced at me several times, but never when I caught her eye.

“Where are we going?” she asked, her eyes downcast.

Just to the coffee shop, I answered, and on a hunch, I added: “I don’t mean you any harm. I promise.”

“I just need to check in with my friends,” Megan* replied. “To tell them I’m all right and you’re not going to do anything to me.”

I wish I didn’t have to be here, but I’m the only way my family can survive

At this, I felt surprise and shock that she had considered thinking that I might be kidnapping her or coercing or harming her in any way. I heard her phone ring while I bought us drinks, and she waited behind me, chatting quietly. As I lifted the tray off the counter, she spoke up, suddenly,

“Please, let me take the tray. Chinese people shouldn’t have to do this sort of work.”

We made awkward conversation.

“People don’t do things for nothing,” I remember her saying. “You must want something from me.”

But the longer we sat, the more I heard of her life, of her experience in Hong Kong, of her family back in the Philippines. She cringed every time a Chinese person sat down near us, and she spoke in a hushed tone, always alert, paranoid even.

“I have a domestic worker visa,” she told me. “But... I don’t have work in a home. I work in a restaurant for twelve hours a day, and then I stay in Wan Chai with some other girls. Sometimes I have to work at night, too, in Wan Chai.”

(Wan Chai is an area known for its large number of migrant sex workers.)

I asked her if she was ever lonely, if she missed her family. All the time, she replied wistfully. “I wish I didn’t have to be here, but I’m the only way my family can survive. I wish my husband would work and not gamble money. I miss my children, and I wish I could be with them.”

But before I could ask any more questions, her phone rang – a different ringtone to before – and she cringed. Answering almost subserviently, and even quieter than before, while the other person on the other end yelled at full volume. “I’m coming, yes, I got off work already,” she said, and seeing the questioning look in my eyes, she mouthed: “My boyfriend.”

Once she had got off the phone, she answered my unspoken question: “He just wants me home”, and began hurriedly putting on her sweater. I said to her that I had concerns for her situation, but she just shook her head in response. “He’s Chinese... if we get married, I can have better opportunities for myself and for my children back home. He probably wants me to work tonight.”

She didn’t mention her husband.

“Am I allowed to leave?” The panic was clear in her voice as her phone began to ring again. “Can I please go? I have to go!”

Saddened that she felt that I was keeping her, I shrugged. “I’m not keeping you,” I said, and tried to muster up a friendly smile. “Thanks for having coffee with me.”

Within seconds she was gone.

Megan could not be contacted at the number she gave me.

*Megan is a pseudonym