But of course I couldn’t let such a culturally and politically fascinating trending topic like the Balesin Yaya meals pass by without comment.
Many of us would be familiar with this by now: beauty queen Maggie Wilson-Consunji began it all by putting the “off-menu” Yaya meal on the public platter. Indeed, the public was quick to consume, and immediately declared it unpalatable.
The Yaya meal was deemed discriminatory, it reeked of distasteful elitism. A Yaya meal cost two hundred pesos, in a place where a meal could cost a thousand. Balesin CEO Mike Asperin defended the Yaya meal option, saying that their patrons could opt not to avail it, but this seemed to make it even easier to attack the exclusive resort. For many people, Asperin missed the point, being the question of why the resort and its members would think up of that option in the first place.
Other defenders have spoken up, and apparently, this is a practice of many exclusive resorts. It wasn’t that the Yaya meal cost considerably less or was made of less exotic ingredients, but that these were meals that were familiar to the Yayas who, more often than not, did not grow up on Angus beef or salmon steak. Thus, it was an adaptive policy that was a win-win for both club members and their help.
And this is where the cultural teasing out comes in. Behaviors are created often in response to needs, and they catch on and are maintained if they are in harmony with the values of the collective entity in which it arises. Yaya meals and other “adaptations” in exclusive, elite spaces are bewildering and even offensive to many simply because, well, the many cannot access any of those exclusive and elite spaces (just try memorizing the rules governing fork and knife placement in fine-dining – those that signal the waiter to come to your table, when you are finished with your meal, when you are “resting” while eating – and there are even the American and Continental styles!), rendering such as inane frivolities aptly captured by the meme and hashtag #firstworldproblems. On the other hand, this makes you wonder what values are expressed and maintained with such practices.
If there is a clash of cultures, then culture must also provide the solution, yes? There are those who say that all that is needed is a little GMRC (Good Manners and Right Conduct). As long as we treat our Yayas, maids, and drivers well, like family members, have them eat the same food, speak to them with kind words, then all is right with the world. Besides, in the spirit of pluralism and cultural relativism, shan’t we let everyone have the cake they were served at birth and eat it too?
Let’s enter into the politics of this issue with another clash of cultures story. I remember my Irish brother-in-law’s first visit to this country and his surprise at how almost all the Filipino households he saw had a maid (or two). In his experience, he grew up without househelp, the family members did their own chores, struggled to raise their own children, and, once you moved out of the house, you learned to do all these things by yourself. He was as proud about not having grown up with servants the way many Filipinos are proud about keeping a gaggle of them at home.
The paradox that a higher proportion of people in underdeveloped nations have maids than in developed nations was explained by Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. He says that, in rich countries, where education and skills levels have increased with increased levels of education, the relative price of labor has risen as well. Yaya duties here in the Philippines probably costs somewhere between a few and several thousand pesos a month. Yaya duties in the US would cost more than P35,000 a week*! And this is just for taking care of children and cleaning the house, no cooking or laundry or errand-running or dog-walking or car-washing or other tasks often carelessly passed on to the househelp.
What Chang didn’t emphasize was the flipside of this scenario: a population that is poorly educated, and with low skill levels, really do not have a choice when it comes to employment (college graduates looking for jobs struggle enough, what more those who cannot even compete?). Their labor, their time, and their bodies will continue to be bought at ever decreasing rates. Multiply that across the nation and by generations and you have the proverbial ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
The Department of Labor and Employment has stepped in to say that Yaya meals do not violate labor codes, but (as consuelo de bobo) that it does rob Yayas of their dignity. Labor Secretary Rosa linda Baldoz said that this “reflects a socio-cultural reality” where maids are considered to be “a grade lower than ordinary citizens”, a reality that “implies class segregation” (well, if we dig under this “reality”, we’ll find the DFA and DOLE’s labor export policy, the latter’s recalcitrance in raising the minimum wage, DepEd’s K to 12, all designed to keep skills and the cost of labor to a minimum, but that’s a discussion for another day).
The Yaya meal and the controversy it stirred up made the cracks and contradictions in the system very evident. It is what Lacan and Zizek would call the Signifier of the Barred Other. We all know, at some level, that the system is flawed, but we have invented ways (cultural, behavioral, ideological, what-have-you) to live and function as if those flaws did not exist, or as if they were only natural in this world. But, every now and then, something like the Yaya meal pops up and bares that not only is the system is flawed, but that it is degradingly and fatally so.
And this is the trouble with policy makers and GMRC champions. Their recognition of the problem is still squarely framed towards the maintenance of that flawed system, still anchored in the idea of the harmony of classes, of class reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. It is watered down, an analysis based upon peering down from their mansions or penthouses, a view that, literally and metaphorically, only their affluence can afford. The Yaya meal merely “implies” class segregation? It is the very exemplar of it! It “reflects a socio-cultural reality”? Then demand the impossible, change that social reality!
If we are going to make a fuss about the Yaya meal, then we should make a fuss about the class contradictions seething underneath it.
* See Fathers, you can’t afford a Stay-At-Home Mom for approximate costs of these services in the US today.