Amahs are Filipina nannies serving Hong Kong families. The Economist takes a remarkable look at their worldview:
The amahs' keenest pain, however, is separation from loved ones. Most amahs leave their children and husbands behind for years, or for good, in order to provide for them. Meanwhile, those families often break apart. It is hard, for instance, to find married amahs whose husbands at home have not taken a mistress, or fathered other children. Some amahs show their dislocation by lying or stealing from their employers, but most seem incapable of bitterness. Instead, they pour out love on the children they look after. Often it is they who dote, who listen, who check homework. And they rarely stop to compare or envy.
Under such circumstances, the obstinate cheerfulness of the Filipinas can be baffling. But does it equate to happiness, as most people would understand it? "That's not a mistake. They really are," argues Felipe de Leon, a professor of Filipinology at Manila's University of the Philippines. In every survey ever conducted, whether the comparison is with western or other Asian cultures, Filipinos consider themselves by far the happiest. In Asia, they are usually followed by their Malay cousins in Malaysia, while the Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese are the most miserable. Anecdotal evidence confirms these findings.
Happiness is kapwa
Explaining the phenomenon is more difficult. The usual hypothesis puts it down to the unique ethnic and historical cocktail that is Philippine culture -- Malay roots (warm, sensual, mystical) mixed with the Catholicism and fiesta spirit of the former Spanish colonisers, to which is added a dash of western flavor from the islands' days as an American colony. Mr de Leon, after a decade of researching, has concluded that Filipino culture is the most inclusive and open of all those he has studied. It is the opposite of the individualistic culture of the West, with its emphasis on privacy and personal fulfilment. It is also the opposite of certain collectivistic cultures, as one finds them in Confucian societies, that value hierarchy and "face".
By contrast, Filipino culture is based on the notion of kapwa, a Tagalog word that roughly translates into "shared being". In essence, it means that most Filipinos, deep down, do not believe that their own existence is separable from that of the people around them. Everything, from pain to a snack or a joke, is there to be shared. Small-talk tends to get so intimate so quickly that many westerners recoil. "The strongest social urge of the Filipino is to connect, to become one with people," says Mr de Leon. As a result, he believes, there is much less loneliness among them.
What is most striking about Statue Square, however, is that the sharing is in no way confined to any dialect group. Filipinas who are total strangers move from one group to another -- always welcomed, never rejected, never awkward. Indeed, even Indonesian maids (after Filipinas, the largest group of amahs), and Chinese or foreign passers-by who linger for even a moment are likely to be invited to share the snacks.
The same sense of light-hearted intimacy extends to religion. Father Lim, for instance, is a Filipino priest in Hong Kong. Judging by the way his mobile phone rings almost constantly with amahs who want to talk about their straying husbands at home, he is also every amah's best friend. He is just as informal during his Sunday service in Tagalog at St Joseph's Church on Garden Road. This event is, by turns, stand-up comedy, rock concert and group therapy. And it is packed. For most of the hour, Father Lim squeezes through his flock with a microphone. "Are you happy?" he asks the congregation. A hand snatches the mike from him. "Yes, because I love God." Amid wild applause, the mike finds its way to another amah. "I'm so happy because I got my HK$3,670 this month [$470, the amahs' statutory wage]. But my employer was expecting a million and didn't get it. Now he's miserable." The others hoot with laughter.