By AKIN AJAYI
I have a lifetime's experience in ignoring my mother and her more quixotic statements, so I simply continued to unload the truckload of shopping that she'd brought back from the supermarket. Mother dearest was visiting from London, and had determined that her son and grandson were starving to death - at least it seemed that she thought so, given her valiant efforts to transfer the contents of our local supermarket into our kitchen.
"No, I'm serious," she insisted. "Look at me. Could I be mistaken for someone from the Philippines?"
I clearly wasn't going to work my way around this one, so I sighed and gave her my full attention. "No, you don't. Why do you ask?"
While in the supermarket, she'd been inconvenienced by the small matter of the goods being labeled in Hebrew, rather than the English that we shameless monoglots tend to expect wherever we go.
Being the resourceful woman that my mother is, this didn't deter her; rather, she corralled an unwitting shop assistant to accompany her while she shopped.
As they traipsed round the store, they started to chat. At some point, the poor shop assistant finally found an opportunity to edge a word in and asked - quite casually, I surmised - whether my mother was a Filipina.
And then the penny dropped.
When I first moved to Israel, I used to be rather disturbed by the casual manner in which many Israelis refer to domestic carers for the elderly by the name for the natives of the Philippines. How crassly insensitive, I would rage - silently, of course; how dreadfully politically incorrect.
When a young woman in my town started a campaign against a nursing recruitment company, I cheered from the sidelines. The company had set up a billboard declaring that they had Filipinas available; racist bigotry, the young woman argued. Good for her, I murmured from a safe distance, agreeing wholeheartedly but not quite brave enough to take up cudgels myself.
Of course, the only good that can come from me mounting such a high horse - even when one does so as surreptitiously as I did - is that at some time, one is bound to be knocked off inelegantly. I didn't have to wait too long for my moment to come.
In Ulpan, a Filipina woman joined our class. How nice, I thought to myself; her employers are giving her the opportunity to learn the language. I'd read horror stories about the treatment of domestic aides, at times seeming to be but one small step away from indentured slavery. It was good to know that there were some enlightened employers in the country.
If I had left it at that, all would have been well, and I would have been able to wallow quite happily in my ignorance. But I had to spoil the moment by opening my big mouth.
Your employers must be quite nice people, I said to her one morning during our coffee break.
"Employers?" Yes, employers, I told her, speaking slowly and loudly. English must be her second language, I thought to myself.
"I heard you the first time," she snapped. "I don't have an employer..." In fact, she was the employer, of the three people who worked in her hairdressing salon. She'd set it up a couple of years earlier, when she moved to Israel with her Sabra husband, and had been so busy running the business that she hadn't had the time to improve her Hebrew until now.
Oh, and she was Thai, by the way, and not from the Philippines. I slunk away, stage left, my right on liberal credentials trampled firmly into the dust.
I've been thinking about my embarrassment - and of my mother's bemusement before that - a lot lately, in the light of the interminable debate about Operation Oz, migrant workers in Israel and the status of illegal immigrants who wish to remain in Israel. People a lot brighter than me have had lots to say about the whole business, and I don't think that I personally have anything really useful to add to the debate. I mean, if I did have an answer to the whole intractable business, then I might have to become a politician.
Still, I can't help thinking that at least part of the whole problem comes from that peculiar human failing of seeking to neatly parcel up and categorize everything that we come across. It makes life a lot simpler, for sure; but it also tends to paint things in very unsubtle shades of black and white, not particularly representative of life as we live it.
Being a foreigner in Israel is often interesting, but also sometimes rather isolating. I don't particularly mind people trying to figure what brought me to this part of the world - it's a question I often ask myself - but I can't help getting a little antsy when, as happens occasionally, certain presumptions are made about me and my presence in this country solely on the basis of my ethnicity. As I've discovered for myself, it is pretty easy to fall into this trap; but that doesn't make it any better, especially when for some people this casual indifference can make all the difference in the world.
I don't know how the affair is going to play itself out - and, in this respect at least, I'm not alone - but I do sincerely hope that a bit more light and humanity can be brought to the argument. One step in the right direction might be to stop thinking about them - about us - as a class without anything meaningful to contribute to the good of the country.
And as for my mother? Last I knew, she was consulting a genealogist, to see whether the woman in the supermarket might have spotted something about her ancestry that had eluded her until now. I suppose I should put her out of her misery and explain the roots of her Filipina ancestry. But not just yet.
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