How Tizon’s Story Happens

There’s a great Louis CK bit about his farm-raised cousin visiting him in New York City and, upon seeing her first homeless person, immediately attempts to try and help him with the urgency you’d give to someone in the process of bleeding out. “We start correcting her behavior like she’s doing something wrong,” he says. “He needs you desperately, that’s not the point. We just don’t do that here.”

The late Alex Tizon’s recent Atlantic essay, “My Family’s Slave,” is bravely titled. He could have easily tried to sugar coat it and relate it to the universal experience of being raised by a nanny and still told all the sordid details of its origin, but he went with slave because it was the clearest explainer without letting himself off the hook. But the choice has also opened up a lane for intense outrage at Tizon, his family, and The Atlantic on the grounds that anyone trying to add depth to a portrait of slavery is automatically morally bankrupt.

So it might be weird to log onto Twitter and see a lot of Filipinos trying to add context and depth to the picture Tizon painted, not as a way to excuse Tizon, but to try and water down his complicity. This is an urge because a lot of Filipinos might read some familiar elements in his story, and the fear of our own complicity may compel us to try and defend some of Tizon’s thinking — or at least try and make it less black and white.

It’s not that slavery is part of Philippine culture, but the exploitation of the poor absolutely is. I don’t mean exploitation of poor people in the way we think of it in the U.S. (“Someone’s got to work in these coal mines with no health insurance,”) but in a profound way that sees immense luxury condos and malls sharing a block with endless shanty towns. Every aspect of even middle class living in the Philippines is full of personal servants — driving, cleaning, cooking, building.

What makes these different from mere occupations is that these aren’t ways to escape poverty or an aspect of someone’s day, they’re roles for life. While not all of them are physically abused, denied escape and emotionally broken down like Tizon’s Lola, many of these katulong (“domestic helpers”) are rendered literally self-less by this exploitation. “I’m only a servant,” Lola says, after he asks about basic life experiences.

Even when your back is bad and your eyes aren’t as good anymore, you’re probably still going to be doing laundry because you’re only a servant and you’ve got a large extended family living in abject poverty that you’ve got to support somehow. Live-in servant is merely a job that’s always there, ever-present, in every town of a decent size.

Exploitation even goes into our entertainment — watch any Filipino game show and you’ll inevitably run into images of a contestant’s dramatic poverty. Every shyster politician will speak at length about the plight of the poor, even giving away money (and t-shirts with his face on it), to rally public support. I’ll always remember a clip from a Filipino news show about a little boy with no legs, sweeping his hut as best he could. Tizon’s article, as it makes it way over there, will probably do gangbusters because Filipino’s love to feel bad about poverty, especially with some psuedo-redemption narrative about someone lifting them out of it.

So, because many Filipinos, especially those privileged enough to use Twitter, have some experience with the poverty-based servant industry, there is an urge to add even more depth to the story and to be uncomfortable with western critics who insist that the entire Tizon family deserves to be in jail.

They read about Tizon realizing something was amiss as early as age 12, and underestand it as denying his responsibility to do the right thing. In this matter, Sarah Jeong’s reading of the relationship is instructive; insisting that Tizon should’ve invoked moral courage and saved Lola from his parents are like those who insist they could save their mother and call the police on their alcoholic father. Anyone with any understanding of abusive relationships knows it’s not that simple — it’s simple when it’s slavery, it’s less so when it’s your abusive father. There is no shortage of white people with bad yet complicated relationships with their abusive parents, making holiday visits a nightmare. Some of them try to reconcile over the years, some will cut them off, but we understand it as a harrowing thing that hangs overhead; who could even guess how we’d react in their shoes? In a way, this certainty of moral conviction mirrors white people who say that, were they alive in the U.S. during the Plantation era, they for sure would’ve freed all the slaves they could and avoided being a sympathetic but defeatist beneficiary of the slavery machine.

They read something like Tizon’s decision to bring Lola to live with him after his mother dies and interpret it as continuing the cycle of slavery. Setting aside that he gave her the ability to go back home and the choice to stay there, it is hard to imagine what freedom and reparations would look like to someone like Lola, who has been robbed completely of her own identity. What would reparations look like for her? Would it be enough to give her $10,000 and a plane flight home? Would she be able to make use of that decades removed from home, without the ability to read and navigate the modern world, and robbed of any sense of self? What could you do that would heal a person’s entire life, whose foundation is so traumatized?

Going back to the Louis CK bit — what are we supposed to do for the most impoverished and ill homeless person that we pass by in downtown every day? Would it be enough to give that man $10,000 and hope he figures it out? Or would a profound act be to take him into your home, educate him to restore some agency, and slowly reintegrate his sense of self?

Tizon’s act is not as profound as the parallel above, because on some level all Filipinos expect to take in their aging parents (which is another thing I don’t think western critics got — since she’s family, and he’s the most family she’s ever going to have, she is brought to live with him.) The $200 weekly payment seems limp compared to all that was taken from her, but no amount could make up for it, and I get the feeling it was mostly about formalizing a role that would not go away out of habit, and enabling her to truly send money back home. It seems like he was trying to heal a bad, foundational wound, and healing on this scale is slow, unsatisfying and can still feel like prolonged pain.

The piece itself is flawed and opinions will vary wildly about Alex Tizon’s guilt. But it feels like the attack on a specific family, particularly since Tizon is survived by a wife and kids, seems like loose cannon outrage that would be better served if it were epiphanic about the dire situation of our lowliest citizens. Laser-focused righteous indignation that should be broad and expanding — because people like Lola are the result of every country that grapples with a massive chasm in economic inequality. Even in the moral standards of the U.S., people like Lola are the ones that live in hotels to make sure your bed sheets are new every morning. They’re hired to be constant caregivers to sick, American elderly. They spend months on cruise ships and perform virtually every unglamorous service job. We’re all guilty, but we just don’t do that here.

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