THEY HAVE been living in Australia for decades, and have built a wide-ranging network that spans civic and business organizations, social groups and religious affiliations. Since they live in the Australian Capital Territory or ACT which has grown around the nub of Canberra, the national capital and seat of government, most of them have been employed in the federal government for years. But there is one thing that keeps niggling at them, and that is the misconception that they are or were “mail-order brides.”
“It is so annoying!” exclaims Violet Carolan, an official of the Filipino Community Council of the ACT (FCCACT), referring to questions from total strangers “about how we came to Australia and how we met our husbands.”
Carolan, for one, was an employee at the Australian Embassy in Manila where she met her husband, who subsequently rose through the diplomatic ranks, becoming an ambassador to several posts before his retirement. They have three sons.
Perlita Swinbank came to Australia as a single career woman and is the current FFCACT president. Being likewise married to an Australian, she shares Violet’s experience of unasked questions and speculations that still rankle, after 35 years. “Culture shock” is one thing she had to contend with upon her arrival, she recalls. “I cried for the first three months,” she remembers with a hint of embarrassment. “Even my friends couldn’t understand my ‘American’ English, and they would ask: ‘Why do you speak like a book?’”
But that they have flourished and prospered in their new life in the “Lucky Country” is obvious, along with their friends Elizabeth Garrett and Cecilia Flores, during a conversation we shared over drinks and dinner at the Labor Club, a small gathering place (with a small casino) that is owned by the Labor Party.
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THOUGH suspicions linger, says Perlita, the issue of mail-order brides from the Philippines is “not a big issue anymore.” Though they suspect that some Filipino women still travel to Australia as potential brides for lonely Australian bachelors, the women, they say, most probably make their way to Australia through personal contacts. This is because laws enacted in both the Philippines and Australia have outlawed the “formal” structures of marital agencies and pen-pal agencies.
Besides, they say, the influx of Asian migrants to Australia peaked in the 1980s after the reform of immigration laws. These days most migrants tend to hail from the Middle East.
Part of the reason for the ongoing mainstreaming of Filipinos in Australian life is their growing number. The women estimate that there are about 240,000 Filipino-Australians to date, with more arriving each day to take up employment in the mines, and in professions like IT, nursing and hospitality, mostly as chefs.
Filipino organizations in Australia are united beneath the banner of the Filipino Community Council of Australia (FILCCA), admittedly, says Perlita, an often unwieldy amalgamation of various regional, cultural, religious, sports and common interest groups. Filipino-Australians, they admit, are still prone to the disease that afflicts most Filipinos abroad (and at home)—the inability to unite under a single organization, and instead splinter into many other groups whenever differences arise. Maybe that explains, too, why Filipinos remain an “invisible” minority in Australia, unlike other ethnic groups who tend to cluster together in enclaves.
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ONE problem for Filipinos in the ACT, say the women, is that the biggest employer in the area is the federal government. But to work for the government, one needs to be a citizen, and it can take a newcomer up to three years before gaining citizenship.
In the meantime, one of the FCC’s activities is helping in the resettlement of new arrivals, especially families with young children, assisting the parents to find jobs where citizenship is not a requirement.
Also part of easing the many pressures and insecurities of migrant life are social activities, which for FCC means two major events in the year: the observance of Independence Day on June 12, and the annual Christmas Party. In between are gatherings for religious festivities, sports competitions, cultural activities that seek to keep young people in touch with their Filipino roots (like rondalla, folk dancing and choral singing), and even that staple of Filipino celebrations, beauty contests.
So many and varied are the demands on their time that the women confess to feeling pressure at times from their husbands. “Once,” recalls Violet with a laugh, “my husband even came to one meeting just to tell the other officers to please give me more time to be with him. I promised to stay home more, but there were so many calls for help!”
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THE government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently released a “White Paper” declaring this the “Asian Century” for Australia, underscoring the place of Australia within the Asian continent.
In our conversation with opposition leaders Julie Bishop and Michaela Cash, they said part of their Liberal Party’s platform is funding to send more Australian students to train in centers of education around Asia (although she didn’t mention the Philippines), the better to create greater understanding of Australia’s role in the Asian context.
True, the opening of immigration policies to Asians in the 1980s has created a more diverse and inclusive society. But Asian migrants in Australia also need to step up and contribute in more and more meaningful ways, make their presence felt, and their needs articulated and understood. In the growing trade not just of goods but even of ideas and culture between Asia and Australia, Asians, including Filipinos, make for ideal ambassadors.