Monette Bichsel, Lenny Kaye Bugayong and Lily C. Fen (editors), Bending Without Breaking: Thirteen Women’s Stories of Migration and Resilience, 2017. 189 pgs.
I came to Bending Without Breaking with mixed feelings, secretly dreading, with the word “resilience” on the cover, that it would be yet another bland positive-thinking-changes-your-life set of testimonies. But I was quickly assured by the direct and neutral voice in the Introduction. The collection opens with a sharp question: “How often do we actually think of migrants as individuals?” Readers from Hong Kong should be able to relate to this thought, especially because when we talk about “Filipinos,” we often immediately think of the hundreds of thousands of foreign domestic workers in the city. The question challenges us to examine our assumptions and stereotypes, and whether we perceive certain groups of people in terms of their occupation, gender, religion or nationality. The editors seem aware of such concerns and write that “rather than having them [the migrant writers] meet our expectations, we decided to work hard on unearthing what it was they wanted to tell. Our job was simply to assist them in finding their voices as authors.”
A sentence directly from the gut is the best way to start a story. Take, for example, “Remembering Gayumbayan,” where the writer ponders how to write about one’s life: “More than remembering the facts, the difficulty in capturing my migration that started over forty years ago lies in deciding where to begin.” Indeed, sacrifice is one of the major themes in these stories, and it takes courage for the writers to revisit memories of loss and regret and to write about them. Each author reveals details of her journeys and inner worlds to her audience, and each writes confidently in a non-embellished way. There are vivid scenes of fields and the sun; of clumsy struggles over language and translation; of a mother holding a tight rein over her emotions, resolutely turning her back and leaving her crying children in order to seek a better income in a new land. When one writer boards a bus in her new host country, we feel her sense of intense dislocation and claustrophobia, as she interrogates herself about her identity and who she really is. Some of these moments can be quite heart-breaking, others can be heart-warming and encouraging, but they are always heartfelt. Speaking of her pain in being uprooted from her homeland and the difficulties of trying to integrate into a new country, one of these Filipinas insists it was an act of “conscience.” Another points out how many of her fellow citizens had “given up careers as doctors, engineers and other professions only to find themselves driving taxis, stacking shelves or washing dishes as they pursued the promise of a new life.”
Despite moments of resilience and stoic strength, the sense of not belonging, homesickness and missing out cannot be denied. One poignant and playful scene from the piece “Bending Without Breaking,” in which the writer describes her son visiting her in Europe after decades of separation, speaks directly to these emptions: “He asked me if I could tie his shoelaces for him. I asked why, and he said, ‘You never tied my shoelaces for me when I was little.’ I nearly cried.”
What might seem like a harmless joke from her son lays bare the reality that, despite the fact that the mother has done everything within her ability to provide for her family, she cannot make up for the time they have lost. Perhaps, as the writer of the piece puts it: “This was the cost of reinventing myself.”
But, for the authors, sharing their life stories is also a cathartic process, particularly when they are writing about what it means to be “at home.” At one point, we see the flip side of not belonging in a new country—the local community’s positive reception of the migrant’s culture. In the piece “What Do You Eat?,” in which the writer describes her experiences trying to integrate into Swiss culture through her love of food, she is supported by her husband who appreciates her difference—”Filipinos may be disorganised but they can improvise!” And through the sharing of food, cultures and stories, she sees that it is “a way of loving. It is also a way of honouring our fragility as created human beings.” The act of sharing celebrates the differences and uniqueness of individuals, but also more importantly, the common need for companionship and the possibility of getting along and creating a better existence.
While the acceptance and appreciation of local people helps these women adapt to their new “homes,” the defining element of feeling at home is not provided by other people; it comes from their affirmation of their own sense of self-worth, regardless of where they leave or live. There are many touching scenes where the writers—taking a moment to pause and look back at their journeys, the different people they have encountered, the strength of character they have developed or their ability to understand the “colours of different languages”—come to be more “accepting” of themselves. As one author beautifully puts it, she figured out how “to collect my dignity as a woman and strength as a person […] to learn and unlearn, to treat myself with kindness.”
Integration is not a one-sided story of the migrant giving up her own identity. It is also about acceptance. The writer of “The Garlands of True Riches” puts it directly yet also radiantly: “Home is, after all, where you feel welcome and happy. In return, I am determined to offer the best of me to those who will accept me as I am.”
Something I did not expect from this book were the Christian reflections on faith and providence that appear in many of these pieces, for example:
There are many things that I could never have hoped for that practically fell into my lap. Other times, despite fervent prayers, just never came to pass. Whatever God allows, it is for the best.
The giver of both sunshine and rain knows when and how much we need of both. God will not give us anything beyond our capability to handle.
While I initially had my guard up against the “positivity” potential of the collection, its plain language connected me to its stories, and there were many moments during which I was incredibly moved by the reflections of these humble, wise, open-hearted and courageous souls, particularly when they were writing about life choices and pondering whether life is about fate or faith. I was reminded of sections of the Bible that accompanied me during difficult moments of my life, such as “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9) and was touched to find in the pages of Bending Without Breaking grounded, living examples of what it means to be a follower of God. The book is full of recurring images of nature, cultivation, growth and continuity, such as “sunshine,” “rain,” “green reed,” “field,” which speak to the beautiful connection between the diverse life experiences of these women, nature and our creator.
At the end of its thirteen stories, the book interestingly ends with a poem, entirely in Tagalog, with no translation, and no author. Was it written by the editors? Is it a folk poem or song? With the help of digital translation, I was able to read it. It had some playful, feminist-toned lines, such as “higit pa sa pusa o aso / may puri at dangal, may karapatang igalang” (… more than a cat or dog / with virtue and dignity, the right to respect). But farming imagery was also prevalent, and the last stanza reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms”: “Ihahasik ang binhi, pararamihin ang sibol / Aani ng sanlaksang laya at bukas / Tayo, Mga Babae (Sow the seed, multiply germination / Harvesting free and open /We, women).
I reached the end of the book feeling, for once in a very long while, reaffirmed that writing is powerful and meaningful.
Janice Tsang graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where her research was on Postcolonialism and World Literatures. She is editor of Mundi, a Hong Kong-based journal that seeks to promote public knowledge in the local community, and she manages the hkpeoplereading Instagram page. Her reviews have appeared at Hong Kong Review of Books. Tsang works in English language centres in local universities, and is a freelance writer and artist.