Monday, January 16, 2012
Touching a different part of the elephant - Grace, an illegal immigrant
As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, my experiences as an American expatriate in Paris differ from those of other residents. Therefore, I would like to inaugurate a new feature called, "Touching a different part of the elephant" by introducing you to Grace*, an illegal immigrant, and the woman whose descriptions of the city first made me realize that I need to do more than just touch the elephant's tusk if I want to have a better understanding of the entire beast.
When Stephane and I are transferred to a new country, his company pays for language lessons and hires a relocation expert to help us find housing, connect our utilities, set up a bank account, select a school for our children -- in short, they assist us with almost everything and it still isn't easy.
Compare that with Grace, who financed her move to Paris by selling her house, car and small businesses in Saint Pablo City in the Philippines, thus giving her the money to gamble, as she puts it, on a better life for her husband and two young daughters. At the age of thirty-six, Grace said good-bye to her family and boarded a plane for the first time in her life. After asking if she was terrified about moving to a new country where she doesn't speak the language, Grace told me that thoughts of her children and providing for their future gave her courage. While she was deliberately vague about the specific route that she took to Paris in March 2010 because she doesn't want to cause problems for future migrants, she revealed that she landed in another European country and spent many hours traveling by train to France.
If you've ever spent much time in the 16th arrondissement, you've probably noticed that the majority of fashionably dressed babies and small children are being cared for by women who aren't their mothers. There's such a large community of Filipinos, both legal and illegal, working in this elegant district that a couple of ethnic grocery stores selling durians and dried fish have invaded the stylish boutiques, florists, and luxury food stores. Through this network, Grace was able to start earning money by giving manicures and pedicures to her compatriots until one of her friends introduced Grace to her employer as a trained masseuse. Her healing hands and ability to work the last vestiges of stress out of her clients' bodies is what prompted another American expat to enthusiastically recommend Grace to me.
During our first meeting last June, Grace and I compared notes on life in the Philippines, where I had lived on the remote island of Mindanao that has the reputation as an unruly place where foreigners are frequently kidnapped, versus Paris where I usually feel safe wandering around on my own. Grace revealed, however, that it's very different for her because Filipinas are prime targets for thieves since they know that many of them are illegal immigrants who won't report crimes committed against them to the police for fear of being arrested themselves. Additionally, Filipinas and other illegal immigrants are known to carry large sums of cash because many of them don't have bank accounts and don't want to leave the money that they're saving to send home to their families in the meagre rooms that they rent.
Curious to know how Grace would describe Paris, the city that most people consider to be the most romantic in the world, I was surprised when she replied that it's strictly a place for her to earn money. Not quite believing her, I started listing the city's virtues -- the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the museums, the cafés -- to which Grace replied, "It's not the same when you're alone, without your family." Her goal is to earn enough money to bring her husband to Paris later this year. Their two daughters, who are 13 and 5, will stay with Grace's mother in the Philippines until they can raise the funds for their plane tickets. In the meantime, Grace sends money home for their schooling, books, uniforms (all of which are not free in the Philippines), and additional lessons because she wants her daughters to excel in school.
I've had the pleasure of meeting Grace's husband and youngest daughter via Skype because she's usually chatting with her family on her iPhone as she takes the public transportation from one job to the next. Even though she's far away, she yearns to be present in their lives and to participate in important moments, like when her youngest daughter wants to show her the latest moves that she has learned in ballet class.
Those of us who move to Paris come here for different reasons and under different circumstances. Grace came here to build a better life for her daughters. I hope that she achieves her goal.
*Please note that Grace is an alias and that the photos of her and her daughters have been blurred to protect their identity.