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Crafting Love: Letters and Cassete Tapes In Transnational Filipino Family Communication

Abstract

This paper provides a historical perspective on communication among Filipino transnational families. Before the explosion of communication channels and opportunities brought about with the arrival of mobile telephony, cheap international calls and the internet in the late 1990s, communication between migrant parents and left-behind children was dominated by letters and cassette tapes. For mothers who had arrived in the UK in the 1970s this represented a period of almost two decades. Our research is based on one-year long ethnography with Filipino migrants in the London and Cambridge areas, who had typically come to the UK after periods in the Middle East or Hong Kong and are employed as domestic workers or nurses. Mostly these are mothers separated from their families for almost the entirety of their children’s development. Apart from fieldwork with mothers many of whom recall this early period of their migration as dominated by letters and cassettes, we also conducted fieldwork in the Philippines interviewing the now grown up children of these mothers. In this article we compare accounts of mothers and children, and also the different qualities associated with letters and cassettes, such as temporality, materiality and the public-private distinction. We examine how the different media structure the relationships between parents and children and also how these media are appropriated in the context of different relationships as part of our understanding of the dialectical nature of media as a process of mediation.

Keywords: Philippines, migration, transnational families, separation, media, letters, cassette tapes, communication, ethnography.

INTRODUCTION

Marcelo has finally retired at the age of 60 and is living with his family in Manila. He was married at 25 and within a few years his wife had given birth to their three children. But from the age of 26 he was mainly living away from Philippines; first in Saudi and later in Angola, with contracts of up to two years at a time. He tells us how in the early days he would send a half-page letter around once a month and receive from his wife letters of three to four pages around once a week. Every few months he would send a cassette tape, but he preferred to receive letters ‘because it is more personalized, and I mean, she can tell me the things I want to know, and I can, during my free time, I can read them all over again.’ One has to imagine the circumstances. He would be putting up fences in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere. There would be maybe eight of them with their trucks, their food and their drink. His friends used to bring cassette players, but he felt the presence of a letter in his shirt pocket, near to his heart, was what sustained him. Alone, he could indulge what he acknowledged to be his penchant for sentimentality, privately.

In a way it was ironic. It was only now at such a distance, alone, that thanks to these letters his relationship with his wife really developed properly. The problem had been that though he loved his wife he told us that: ‘I’m not a good talker, actually. So when I’m with them, I do not talk much. But when we are far away, then I can write things I want to tell her’. It was precisely being away and communicating through letters that brought romance to their relationship. When in Saudi he used to ask his fellow workers sometimes for help in getting the right words, the romantic words, he wanted to express himself. What he doesn’t mention, but his wife, in a separate interview told us that he too sometimes wrote quite long letters especially when he had problems that he needed to share. When his contract took him to Angola where sending and receiving letters was often an adventure in its own right Marcelo continued to do so entrusting letters to colleagues travelling back home as sending letters would take months to arrive. Yet this is when communication was even more important, since life seemed so fragile surrounded by constant warfare. Could he even tell her about his Filipino comrade shot dead at a check point that he could just as easily have been passing through?

Having established this close relationship with his wife through letters he was desperate to engage with his children through the same media. Even before they could write his wife got them to make little drawings on scraps of paper to enclose with her letters. Later on cards became important, for Christmas or birthdays, and especially if he missed what everyone regards as the most important events of all, the school graduations. Today, his children and grandchildren, who in turn, have migrated themselves, send him letters from the US even though they have access to every kind of new media from webcam to email. Its not that he specifically asked them to, but they seem to have sensed that for him only letters have that personal touch which he continues to value as the essence of a communication. The original letters were too precious to let go of. He devised his own system, staple the letters to envelopes, punch holes and use fasteners and folders in order to store them all. He still has them. He showed some of them to his children when they were old enough, though now they just gather dust. There were some things no amount of letters could properly convey. He still feels he missed out on the development of his children, when they first walked and talked. Which is why in retirement he is so devoted to helping bring up his grandchildren. ‘That’s why with my first grand son, who is with us, I was the one taking care of him. To pay for the lost time. With my son. I missed time with my own son.’

He never developed the same kind of emotional attachment to cassettes.

‘Well, the cassettes, first of all, you have to bring a player with you. You have to playback. As for me, sometimes I work kilometres away from our camp. So I don’t have the means to bring along a player. Whereas with letters, I can just put it in my pocket. Then I can read it there, during lunch time.’

But then cassettes had compensations such as when his daughter sang him his favourite Frank Sinatra song. But he could not use cassettes to be romantic. Because when he tried to speak into the microphone then he would be tongue tied, just as if they were actually together. Voice was just not his medium. Instead he would use cassettes more to give a sense of events and the landscape, retelling an incident in Jeddah or a visit to the sea, fishing, catching crabs. Also his sense of sentiment was very private. He didn’t like to share this intimacy, unlike fellow workers who brought their cassette players with them into the desert where others in the group could overhear them.

By contrast, Barbara, a 60 year old entrepreneur living in London remembers her first years in England in the early 1980s when she would listen to the cassette tapes that her children sent her at every opportunity, even during her part time cleaning jobs. She still remembers the excitement she felt as she turned the key to open the apartment’s door and realised that the owners were still out. She suddenly looked forward to her two hours of cleaning: She closed her door, opened her bag and took out a brown envelope that had just arrived that morning. Inside was a tape, a red 90-minute SHARP. She recognised her daughter’s handwriting which read: ‘To Inay’. She rushed to the living room, turned on the stereo and put the tape in. The voice of her husband and her three daughters filled the room. She could hardly hold back the tears, and sat there listening to their news for a while. Lia had got top grades at school. Cory had bought a new pair of shoes with the money she had sent them last month. Anita needed some books for her tutorials. The land had been harvested and things had gone well but the roof was leaking and needed to be fixed soon. Elsie, their neighbour, was pregnant again, but her husband from Saudi had stopped sending money. Christy, her niece, is getting engaged to Nino. Relieved that there were no bad news and aware of the job waiting for her, Barbara went to the cleaning cupboard to get the dusters. She wiped the windows, dusted the surfaces and swept the floor, washed the dishes and ironed the clothes whilst listening to the recorded Sunday mass and sermon from her village church followed by her daughters singing songs after the Sunday lunch – they had made lechon, her favourite dish. When the tape was over, she hoovered the floor, put everything back in the cupboard, took her cassette out of the stereo put in back in its case and in her bag, locked the door and went down the stairs towards her basement studio where she would cook some rice and listen to her cassette once again.

This article provides a largely historical perspective of communication among Filipino transnational families, although our discussion will also consider the current use of letters. Before the recent boom of affordable communication opportunities brought about with the arrival of mobile telephony, cheap international calls and the internet in the late 1990s, communication between migrant parents and left-behind children was dominated by letters and cassette tapes. For those who migrated in the UK in the 1970s this represented a period of almost two decades. In our larger study (Madianou and Miller in preparation) we compare this early phase with contemporary usage of a proliferation of new media within parenting.

We spent over a year conducting fieldwork with Filipino women (as well as a smaller number of men) in London and Cambridge who are mainly employed as domestic workers and nurses and have largely came to the UK after periods in the Middle East or Hong Kong. Crucially, most of these women are mothers separated from their children throughout their children’s development. We subsequently spent the winter of 2008-09 in the Philippines talking to the children of these mothers as well as other left-behind children and their relatives in four provinces around Metropolitan Manila. All the children were over 17 years old at the time of the interviews. Overall, we interviewed 105 people including 20 pairs of mothers and children. We also collected samples of communication, such as letters, which have informed our research.

MIGRATION, FAMILY SEPARATION AND MEDIATION

One of the consequences of migration is family separation as evidenced by the early migratory flows from Europe to the US (see Thomas and Znaniecki 1996). The intensification of the international division of labour and the feminization of migration have meant that the phenomenon is now prevalent in many developing countries such as Mexico (Dreby, 2006; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, 1997) and Ecuador (Pribilsky, 2004) while the Philippines has been seen as exemplifying the trend with its steady supply of workers to feed the insatiable demand of care and domestic work in the developed nations (Parreñas, 2001). Studies have already explored the consequences of separation for Filipino families (McKay, 2007; Parreñas, 2005a and b). Parreñas has focused specifically on the problem of left-behind children comparing those with fathers, or mothers abroad (2005a). Parreñas’ argument pertains to the persistence of traditional gender roles and expectations which dominate despite the challenges catalyzed by migration (see also Fresnoza-Flot, 2009). However, Pingol’s (2001) research in Ilocos Norte in the Northern Philippines observes a more varied response by left-behind fathers relating to several local models of masculinity. McKay (2007), also drawing on ethnographic research amongst the Ifugao in the Northern Philippines, offers an alternative perspective arguing that fulfilling one’s financial and communication obligations can sustain intimacy and strengthen relationships within the family in the Philippines (McKay, 2007: 188) highlighting the role of economic provision as an integral part of emotional nurturing.

This literature, despite references to new communication technologies and mobile phones in particular (see Parreñas, 2005b), has not considered the increasing nature of mediated communication in a systematic way. Our study aims to unpack the ways in which the various communication technologies have shaped and have been shaped by family relationships over the years using this extreme case where parenting may be almost entirely dependent upon such media, apart from occasional visits home. Most of our participants only came to London after working for some time in places such as Saudi and Hong Kong. For many, though not all, this period is remembered as particularly stressful and difficult. This was also the time when they depended largely upon just two media of communication, letters and cassette tapes. Our evidence shows how desperate they were to remain in touch with their families and explains why in our two initial illustrations there is such an emotional depth to the way people recount their use of these media and their relationship to them.

In understanding the role of the media in the context of transnational communication we draw on a number of theories that have argued for the relationship between media technologies and society as mutually constitutive (MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999) as well as material culture studies such as Miller and Slater (2000) and Horst and Miller (2006). One such perspective is the recent work on mediation as a dialectical process through which both technologies and society are mutually shaped (Couldry, 2008; Livingstone, 2009; Madianou, 2005; Silverstone 2005).

Although the study of epistolography has focused on the correspondences of famous authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft (Todd, 2003) and George Orwell (Orwell, 1969) in recent year there has been a growing interest in the correspondence of ordinary people mainly from historical or literacy studies (Barton and Hall, 2000; Basso, 1974; Danet, 1997; Decker, 1998; Earle, 1999; Jaffe, 1999). Of course, the classic sociological study on letter-writing in migration is by Thomas and Znaniecki (1996) who observed the formulaic nature of ‘bow’ letters as manifestations of social obligations and solidarity despite separation among Polish family members. With respect to cassettes there is an excellent ethnography on the implications of almost all aspects of the materiality of the cassette for the circulation of music in Pakistan (Manuel, 1993, see also Abu-Lughod, 1989), but much less when it comes to a consideration of the cassette as a form of ‘letter-writing’ style communication within migrant relationships (though see Besnier 1995, Reyes, 2008 and Richman, 2005).

As with letters and cassettes more generally there has been little direct research on letters and cassettes amongst the Filipino diaspora though Sampson (2003: 268, see also Swift, this volume) notes with respect to Filipino men serving on ships:

certainly they emphasized more openly their sense of loneliness and stressed the importance of receiving mail on board. They valued mail despite the fact that it could often take well over a month to get to them and as a result ‘the news is already old’. It thus had a significance beyond its contents representing perhaps a tangible connection with family and friends, or even the packaging and sending of love and affection.

In such research there is no such thing as a standard story. The two we have started this article with give a sense of our findings, but certainly don’t fit every generalisation which we later explore; for example that other Filipinos commonly avoid talking openly about their problems. In turn these differences between people derives from variance in their experiences of going abroad and prior to that different childhoods, resources and personalities leading to different needs and desires. The contrast between letters and cassettes will dominate much of this article. But we will also dwell on the contrast between the private and the public which does much to explain why Marcelo favours one rather than the other. As part of a larger study we neither focus on technological use, nor its social context, but the larger assemblage of human and non-human actants that help us understand better the way media mediate and thereby become instruments within various forms of communicative practice.

LETTERS: MATERIALITY AND PERSONALITY

Within our research the very nature and materiality of a letter is understood as both a capacity and constraint in the crucial task of maintaining relationships. Typically a participant suggests:

I think so ‘cause when you’re writing you get to think about what you’re going to write. Like more time for you to compose what you’re going to tell her. ‘Cause sometimes when you’re on the phone, you forget a lot of things. So what happens is the things you forget to tell her, you write it. Do you mean it’s deeper or…? Yeah. It could be.

It’s impossible to take such a discussion and separate out its components as technical qualities and personal qualities. Price may also be integral to these issues: ‘through letter you can express more. By phone. It’s so expensive to talk and talk and talk.’ Clearly once the costs of the phone decreased its effective material quality changed and the same person may feel comfortable expressing themselves at greater length than through a letter.

The confluence of these qualities is often found in the way many women valued handwriting itself which they believed added a personal touch to the communication. Katrina has always been a letter writer and, rather unusually, still prefers to send letters as she feels that handwriting is much more personal than typing an email. Irene also still sends postcards because it is more ‘personal and unusual’. This way she can also offer her friends and family a glimpse of London. Edith, a fifty year old domestic worker in London, would inspect letters to gauge her daughter’s development through her handwriting, but also through her use of language and expressions. The letter may be a crucial sign of educational attainment, were the move from cheap state education to more expensive private education for children is the most common priority in the use of remittances, a factor the children writing these letters are well aware of. Because communication through letters is not interactive, mothers scoured the letters they received for cues that would provide more information about their families. A question mark, a deleted word, or a little drawing could attract much attention and thought about what they might reveal about their writers.

Why should handwriting be seen as more personal than voice? Generally it seemed that because they are handwritten, letters require some thinking in advance in contrast to typing when one can erase any mistakes. A letter needs to be crafted and the effort put into that can be taken as proof of one’s devotion and love. It may be a better sign of what a child can do than what they claim on the phone they can do. This sense of the letter as personal may also reflect a wider genre of traditional letter-writing that preceded its use in migration, which is the letter in courtship and the various forms of love letters. We don’t have much direct evidence although our first story that of Marcel speaks to this, but there is considerable recent work on the precise use of texting in forming and breaking relationships (e.g. Pertierra et. al, 2002; Ellwood-Clayton, 2006) and it seems probable that this follows a prior development through letter writing. It may well be that it is not just the materiality of letters but also the degree to which they were already associated with these expressions of intimacy that account for their personal quality in migrant communication.

Even though Rodolfo (now in his 30s) came to London in 1999 to work as a nurse and was therefore past the letter writing era he nonetheless wrote one letter to his parents when he decided to ‘come out’. He chose to write a letter, rather than an email or make a phone call because he thought that the letter would convey the seriousness of what he had to say. He also told us that:

There’s something about handwriting… I’m obsessive and compulsive, and very neat in my handwriting, it’s probably the exercise… With internet you can erase any mistakes, but when you handwrite you have to think in advance about what you want to write. I wrote because I didn’t want to hear any of those reactions people have at the phone… With the letter I was safe. Actually my father wrote me back.

The materiality of letters is radically different from some of the new media forms which are inherently transient. A letter is a physical object, it takes a decision to part with it, to throw it away. That is why people find it hard to discard their letters even when they are unlikely to ever read them again as the memories they evoke are too painful. And that is why it can be upsetting when significant letters get lost. Apart from these emotional attachments to letters as symbols of significant relationships, there is another more instrumental reason why Filipinos and their families have kept their correspondence, which is that letters constitute legal evidence for the relationships and the separation experienced by transnational families. Such evidence is part of the routine screening procedure for granting visas to children who wish to join their parents abroad. The materiality of letters makes them perfect forms of evidence, although our participants also reported submitting print-outs of their emails and chats for such purposes. When Angela decided to apply to bring her two children over to the UK, they submitted a box full of letters as evidence of their relationship and length of separation.

The fact that they can be stored leads directly to another aspect of letter communication that our participants valued, which is that letters can be read again and again. In this sense, even if communication is not simultaneous, it can be stretched in time. Many women told us that they would re-read the letters and cards they received from their children and their other relatives almost every evening. For others, like Nina, a retired librarian who lives in London, re-reading letters was painful after her daughter’s death. However, she couldn’t bear to destroy her letters so she decided to send them back to the Philippines where they are hidden away in a box ‘for her own sanity’. Vicky also found rereading the letters uncomfortable as ‘there is too much pain in those texts’. She only kept a few of them but never felt like re-reading them. In these cases the materiality of letters that remain become a way in which people may gradually come to terms with a loss such as a death. But they can also become a way to avoid acknowledging that loss. Lisa was one of those children whose mother ended up more or less abandoning her. Her correspondence was intermittent at best and later on more or less ended. But she too kept her letters in a box and read them again and again, and treasured a planner her mother had given her, using these as her way of trying dealing with the fact that there were no new letters coming to replace the old.

Finally, another aspect valued by our participants was the capacity of letters to effectively convey information, especially detailed information and guidelines regarding financial and property matters. Edmundo, Barbara’s husband, used to send her detailed accounts of what happened to all her remittances because ‘she’s working hard so she has the right to know what we do with her money’. Nina still writes letters to her niece who deals with her property in the Philippines as she thinks that it’s easier and clearer to send instructions in a letter than it is in a telephone call.

CASSETTES: EMOTION AND PRESENCE

Apart from letters, the other medium that dominated family communication in the 1980s and early 90s was cassette tapes. Unlike letters whose primary use is communication, we imagine that this was more a side effect of their ready availability through their dominance at that time in music reproduction (and quite possible other genres such as religion as documented elsewhere by Manuel 1993). These were recorded analogue tapes –either the regular sized, or micro ones - which were either sent through regular post, or with a fellow Filipino. As it happens, they share a common materiality with letters in contrast to much of the new media that was come to replace both. Cassette tapes could also be stored and listened to again and again although it was usually the most recent one that would be played over and over until the new one would arrive. Barbara would carry the latest tape in her bag as she sometimes found opportunities to play it during her part time cleaning jobs. Even though most tapes were now useless as they were often broken or cut, they were rarely thrown out. Children sometimes discovered them hidden in the attic, or a cupboard and, if they were still functioning, they’d listen to them, laughing at their young voices and naïve comments before storing them back into oblivion. But even hidden away in a shoebox together with a bunch of letters they remain symbols of past relationships. Andres now aged 36 remembered being told that when he was a baby he used to receive cassette tapes from his father singing and accompanying himself with guitar. He had rediscovered them a year ago and was listening to them with his mother, but the machine mangled the tape and he doesn’t know how to get it repaired. This was quite distressing since he was only two years old when his father died.

Tapes also have a perhaps stronger determining material structure than letters when it comes to their composition. If you have a c90 tape you more or less expect to fill in with 90 minutes worth of recording. It is harder to erase and re-write and in other ways seems to impose itself as a format rather more than letters, which may be why in some ways it is seen as the less personal of the two media. As one person put it: ‘it’s very limited to time. And you had to consider both sides of the tape and what you think is worth telling. In a sense, you’re trying to pick which story in your life you’d really rather share’. The very nature of a cassette may make it less suitable as a medium for instruction, since it is quite hard to mark a place that a person can come back to and be reminded of, while it is easy to scan a letter to find the place where a particular point is made. As we saw in the previous section letters were (and for some still are) the preferred medium for practical advice, detailed instruction and accounting of finances. In other words, letters have a large informational capacity. Furthermore, while a cassette depends upon a player to be heard, a letter requires no intermediating technology. As objects, cassettes are also a more homogenised form without the decorative elements that may adorn a letter.

What the machine-produced cassette tape lacked in this tendency towards the personal crafting of handwriting, it made up for in the significantly more emotional immediacy of voice and its stronger sense of a co-presence between sender and receiver. This emotional quality of the latter comes from the presence of voice. For a mother to listen to the voice of her child, especially if she hadn’t heard their voice for months, or even years, is a very powerful thing. Barbara always cried at the beginning of each tape when she first heard the voices of her children. For Susan, who had been frustrated with the incompleteness of letter writing, cassette tapes were a breakthrough as she could finally understand how her children were doing by listening to their voice. Tapes had a powerful effect on children too. When Sandra first left and her children were 2 and 3 she sent them a tape with her singing. The children – especially her eldest – got so upset on hearing their mother’s voice that she never sent them another one. These qualities of voice as a form of communication makes the cassette the clear precursor to telephone voice communication.

Apart from the power of voice, cassette tapes were preferred because they allowed for spontaneity that was not always possible in letter writing. If a letter needs to be crafted and thought-through, a tape can be recorded on a spur of the moment while the family is having a birthday celebration or dinner. In that sense, it can also be more realistic, offering a snippet of ‘real life’ from back home. Of course, we know from the children that some of the recordings were sometimes staged, but even those were welcomed as opportunities through which the mothers could get a taste of family life. . In the case of Barbara, recordings regularly included the Sunday mass and the sermons and she always looked forward to listening to those. On special occasions, like Christmas, the family would make a special effort by recording the whole Christmas service and then their dinner, which would take three tapes to fit in: ‘Everything was there, the sadness, the happiness, everything’. When Barbara wanted to make a tape she would do it in one evening. She always chose the 90 minute format, finding 60 minutes too short. Barbara would recount what she did the whole week at work and what she cooked at home. She would give advice to her daughters about school and always end with a prayer. Other mothers would sing songs, or lullabies.

Tapes unlike letters could also include songs and even little documentaries on life back home. For six years Marivic received tapes and letters from her husband-to-be when he was courting her until they finally got together. He was best with cassettes and as he had a good voice, he would sing ‘old English language songs’ to her like ‘My way’. Marivic fell in love with his voice. She found that her husband would express himself best on tapes and would even say things that he never told her face-to-face. Like with letters, our participants found that their loved ones would often be more affectionate on tape than in face to face interaction. In this sense, the distance of mediation engenders proximity.

Cassette tapes could also work with the way children liked to present themselves to their parents. They could put on a little play that they had written, each taking on different roles, and record this as part of their tape. The tape became a mini project in which they could get absorbed, almost disappointed when it came to an end. They could also record things from the radio, their favourite songs. Sometimes, because they couldn’t think of anything in particular for this project they would just leave the tape on. As a result even their quarrels ended up appearing on the tape, which would have added a certain realism to the message. The other quality of cassettes is that they are performative, which children could use to convey what they saw as their personality or their contribution to family life. Antonio was one of those boys who saw himself as the funny one in the family, the joker. So he was the one that could make the cassettes whose overall message was “Mom, Pa don’t worry. We are so okay here” This was where he could indulge his joke telling. Nothing made him happier than when his Mom came back from abroad and told him “You know what, when I was playing the tape, the group, my family was listening. Then they were crying out loud and laughing their arses off because of my famous line’. It was the same role he played when they were actually together, and the conversation was getting serious. He would lighten things up.

We do not want to exaggerate the contrast between cassettes and letters, just as cassettes could convey personality, similarly letters could effectively convey emotion. We noted above how mothers might look for subtle clues in the handwriting of letters. They didn’t always need to. Edith will always remember the letter her daughter, Evelyn, sent her signing off, ‘I hate you, your angry daughter’. ‘It was so sad. It made me cry. Because she really expressed in the letter, very real feelings’. This example not only highlights the letter’s capacity to effectively convey emotion; it also serves as a reminder of the limitations that some people saw in letter writing as a medium. Edith felt that she was not able to effectively respond to her daughter’s raw emotions via the same medium.

Edith had received what amounted to an emotional letter bomb, but felt that the media available to her were inadequate to respond to her daughter’s feelings. Since her daughter lived in a remote part of Samar island with no access to a landline, Edith could not call her directly. She could only call her husband who is based in Manila to ask him to explain to their daughter why she had to leave again. But even the husband had to wait until he visited their island and his visits were not much more frequent than Edith’s. Although Edith replied to her daughter explaining her situation, writing the letter felt like a weak way to deal with her daughter’s fiery emotional world. It was only when Edith returned to Samar for the Christmas break and took her daughter on a holiday that she felt – momentarily – that she was able to re-establish the rapport with her. Evelyn’s emotional outpouring in the letter and her mother’s frustrated response revealed the biggest limitation to both letters and cassettes which is the lack of interactive simultaneous communication. As such this brings us to the more general issue of temporality.

TEMPORALITY AND PERFORMANCE

Depending on where in the Philippines the family was based a letter would take between one to three weeks to arrive. Letters from the Philippines would take longer to arrive than when they had been sent from the UK. On average, most of our participants reported that they wrote and received two letters a month. They would reply to letters immediately on their receipt as this was the way of keeping the communication as fresh as possible. The long time lag may have made it difficult to respond to emotions, but it also added an emotional intensity to the exchange because of the tremendous anticipation that accompanied waiting for the next letter or cassette. Even though almost two decades have passed since this period of intense letter writing, many of our participants recalled the anticipation and excitement of receiving a letter. Equally, the lack of letters was marked by anxiety about how their loved ones were. If Elisa had not received a letter for more than three weeks she would go to the public booths in the hospital where she worked in Riyadh and queue to call so as to make sure her family was alright.

The children, especially younger children had even more difficulty with the time lag than the parents. They simply didn’t experience life in terms of this longue durée. Mostly they would have no idea what they had been concerned with or thinking about in the letter or cassette they had sent months before to which the letter they were now reading was trying to respond. They simply couldn’t work with this kind of extended narrative or sustained emotional exchange that was in practice so intermittent. Their lives were punctuated by much more rapid emotional repertoires. So it is likely that at this early phase such communication was far more effective for parents than for children. The children might well write ‘I love you’ and ‘take care’ which may have been effective and meaningful to the parent that received this, but mostly such phrases were effectively taught to them as part of an etiquette of letter writing that felt to them more like a school lesson. Indeed so much of the parents missives to them contained reminders and instructions to behave well and do well at school that their parents could become somewhat elided with schooling more generally. Children might find it easier to express emotions through voice and the parents recognised the greater authenticity of their children through the cassette: ‘because you can hear if there’s something hidden. You can feel the voice, and the energy sometimes of the person’.

The formulaic nature of the exercise was one of the reasons Antonio didn’t actually like letter writing. But after a while he came to appreciate how important it was to his mother to receive this physical reminder of his concern and so he dutifully sent these on a regular basis. Many of the children recall letter writing in this spirit of a weekly chore imposed upon them by their carers, although as they grew up they might come more into sync with their parents’ relationship to the media. Indeed for an older child the lack of simultaneity in communication, which is normally a source of frustration for most of our participants, might actually be desired. This was the case for Roberto who wanted to avoid confrontation through a telephone call, instant chat or even email. By the time his father wrote back to respond to Rodolfo’s letter about ‘coming out’ time had lapsed and both of them had been able to dwell on the news. Rodolfo’s sister had also spoken with her father who turned out to be understanding and warm in his response. The fact that he too chose to respond by letter – something he had never done before – shows the importance he attributed to the matter. When his father died, Roberto desperately searched for that letter which he wanted to keep as a symbol of his father and their relationship, but was disappointed to realise that he had lost it.

There could also be a deeper relationship between the temporality of the communication and the ways children came to understand their new circumstances. Many children noted that their parents almost hid from them the fact that one of them was leaving. They would try and protect the child from this traumatic revelation by making it seem more like a holiday they had gone for, or a temporary absence. But as a result some children come to feel more alienated from the whole process, because there had never been a proper goodbye. The letters then became frustrating since they couldn’t really understand what they represented within their relationship to their mothers or fathers. Did this show them how much their mother cared, or simply reveal to them that actually their mother was gone from their lives? They would place high hopes in any hints that their mother might return for some significant event such as a graduation. But if the parent failed to turn up that completely destroyed the occasion from the point of view of the children.

An older child might have more of an understanding of what was happening and take on their new role with determination. This was particularly the case among older daughters (ates) who felt they were expected to substitute for their absent mothers in looking after young children, which in the Philippines is indeed a common expectation (Parreñas, 2005b). While mothers generally recognised and trusted their daughters’ help and responsibility, they often displayed a different behaviour to their sons whom they sometimes continued to see as the young vulnerable child they had left behind. This was exacerbated by the long time lag of unreliable post, and left many of the young men just bewildered and at times frustrated. Like the mothers themselves they might be desperate to hear and anxious when there was no news. But, for example, Ricardo recalls that when a letter finally arrived it related to old news and constant routine admonishments about getting on with school work that did not live up to the hoped for sense of reconnection. This was perhaps a contributing factor which made him feel that there did not seem any point in putting deeper thoughts into his own response.

As result many of the children might then concentrate more on just asking for money to buy things, or just telling their father to send them this or that expensive foreign object; which in turn was hurtful to the absent parent. If their parents recall their joy at the sight of a letter from their children, the children admitted to becoming far more excited by the site of the parcel or balikbayan box that suggested they were about to receive some new object. So although there is often a nostalgic and romantic portrayal of communication in this earlier period as though letters and cassettes were deeper and more substantial than the transient forms of communication that often replaced them, actually what is often revealed by these details is also their limitation and their failures to work as effective media in the maintenance of the relationship. What they also reveal is a marked asymmetry between the experience of the parent and the child: just because things managed to be emotional and personal for the one, did not mean they were for the other.

THE PUBLIC, THE PRIVATE

The issue that emerges again and again in the children’s memory of letter writing was a frustration with something that they understood at one level was supposed to represent their personal or heartfelt relationship to their absent parent. Because the reality of letter writing was often that it was actually something determined by, supervised by, and often controlled by, the carer. The Philippines in any case is a more kin orientated rather than individually orientated society and the letter was often regarded as a family construction rather than a personal one. A child may be expected to just write a small part of a longer family letter, or have their own note enclosed within the larger letter to save postage. As a result anything they composed would be seen by others. Clearly then the ability of letters to carry the emotional content discussed above depends also upon the context of their production. In many cases also the letters that were received from absent parents would be read allowed to the family as a whole, before distributed to each in turn to read to themselves (although letter reading as a public practice was also the norm in Western Europe until the early 20th century, for a discussion see chapters in Earle, 1999). In fact, the letter was often addressed to the family rather than the person. In that sense, anyone in the household could open a letter even if it is addressed to a different family member. Judy, a domestic worker from the province of Laguna who based in London, felt that letters may also involve a wider monitoring as the whole neighbourhood ‘will know that a letter was delivered at your address and neighbours will ask to find out what was in the letter’. This view may relate more specifically to Judy’s marital breakdown and the way her estranged husband would show her letters to other family members, but we have strong evidence to suggest that notions of privacy of communication are very different in the Philippine household than they are in contemporary Britain.

This public nature of communication would tend to be ever truer of cassette tapes. Children often created these as a group in play rather than as a lone construction, and tapes received were generally listened to as a public performance. This issue of lack of privacy came up several times when a carer was found to have abused their trust, most often by siphoning off money that was supposed to go to the children. Because the media was public the material it contained could be effectively censored in both directions so that for years the parents were unaware of what was really going on at home, until a return visit. Or because another relative, or in one case a priest, wrote to let them know the truth of their children’s conditions.

Many of our informants situated their letter writing and cassette production within the context of school which dominated their lives during at this period. For them making a cassette tape might be an exciting adventure more like the better kind of school project or letter writing might seem a weekly chore most easily understood on a par with school homework. In more extreme cases the person they are communicating becomes secondary to the task in hand. Especially when the children were young these school-like tasks were easier to comprehend than an actual parent they were writing to, whose personhood had sometimes receded with distance and with time.

For adults too, these communications can fall into a number of relatively standard genres. There is the informational letter, or the formal letter exemplified in the ‘accounting’ style letters of Edmundo to his wife discussed in the previous section. Then there is the use of the media as narrative to retell an event or convey a story. A long account of something the children had done as told by a carer, or the kind of stories a person might tell when they came back from work that evening. Much of the content, at least as written by children is relatively formulaic, but fathers too often felt that they could only express themselves through ritualistic forms such as ‘You should take care of your health, do well in your studies, you have a very intense tuition fee, you should make the most out of everything. Usual father talk.’

The narratives suggest that a concern with more private and intimate issues tends to arise as the children become teenagers, at which point they may also be granted more privacy and individuality. They would wait around to be handed ‘their’ letter from within the family communication. Letters may also be viewed as more private than telephone calls which, when they were dominated by landlines rather than mobile phones, were generally assumed to be family or communal events rather than individualised communications. So it was the letter that was often the medium for private gossip rather than the phone.

These concepts of public and private are rather more profound, however, than simply an interior personal world as against a social or impersonal world. They reflect the wider relations of power and discourse which controls ‘what can be said’, which often derives from an interiorisation of a public discourse, Both private and public communication are infused with normative pressures on the appropriate forms of performative action and communication. An example of this, which was much discussed by our informants, relates to the issue of suffering. As migration develops we see the emergence of a new public discourse that establishes the ‘proper’ narrative. This is a period which sees what Johnson (1998a) calls a ‘reformulation of tradition’ as migrants objectify the Philippines itself in relation to their absence. Particularly influential is the rise of a narrative of suffering and the ideal of the self-sacrificial overseas worker. As Rafael (1997) and others have pointed out the Philippines was unusual to the degree to which this attempt to construct an ideology as well as a practice of migration was heavily influenced by the state, although certainly not controlled by them. Instead we see various influences including public reaction to news about the treatment of Filipinos abroad as key factors.

When it comes to the material we collected it seems that this wider public disourse has profound implications for the private communications within families. Often our participants noted that they were ‘not supposed’ to convey their problems or anxieties. Letters or cassettes were also understood as having a kind of functional role, and perhaps the most important function was to stop the person who received this communication from worrying. So the communications should not include anything critical. This was noted by the three, now grown up, children of a domestic worker in London. As one put it: ‘She said that she’s glad that we were happy, that we’d never quarrel. Things like that. And how much she misses us’. So there might be jokes or banter, constant promising that one is studying hard and that everyone is completely well. Then there is the child who recalls that they would talk about their problems on tape, but always made sure that they didn’t cry. Which is why as soon as they had finished making the tape he would go to his room and cry and cry all the tears that he had bravely kept inside when in front of the microphone.

In contrast to the English notion of a ‘stiff upper lip’ with its connotation of individual dignity and privacy, not complaining is seen in the Philippines as part of a collective responsibility to not worry those who have gone abroad on the family’s behalf. It echoes the general discourse that migrants are sacrificing themselves on one’s behalf and that it is therefore a duty to pretend everything is ok. In which case a Filipino reticence to avoid public upset is linked to the typical ‘myth’ of migration found in many other contexts. In fact teenagers who often express themselves through opposition to the normative, might go to the opposite extreme of flaunting their unhappiness or sending provocative texts that they are drinking or unwell as a strategic subversion of this norm. Something evident in the popular film Anak[1] which is based on just such a rebellious left-behind daughter. There are also examples within our own research such as Evelyn’s negative outpouring in her ‘I hate you’ letter to her mother, but also other cases complicated by impending marital breakdown. It may also reflect just how difficult things become when problematic issues do come out in to the open, which in so many of our cases does eventually happen.

CONCLUSION: THE CRAFT AND THE LOVE

It becomes evident that the media do not merely carry or convey content, but their nature and materiality profoundly mediates the relationships themselves. In this conclusion we briefly reflect on both the issue of love and of crafting. First, with regard to love itself, as McKay has argued, the starting point for migrant Filipinos may not have been the more globalised idea of love, but more local concepts of care and the obligations of kinship: Dumont (1992) and Johnson (1998b) relatedly demonstrate the ways that an idealized American style of love and romance were contrasted to an equally idealized but purportedly culturally authentic models of care and compassion. At this level it would be misleading even to talk of the Philippines as a single unit with shared terminology or understandings: McKay draws on conceptualizations of iliw in Ifugao, Dumont, conceptualizations of gugma in Siquior and Johnson, conceptualizations of kasi and lasa in Sulu. As studies of the Tagalog concept of hiya or shame also suggests each of these local semantics provide their own set of distinctions around what should, or should not be alluded to and what therefore counts as the delination of the public and the private (e.g. Cannell, 1999, Wolff, 1997).

More generally we argue that migration sees these more parochial and traditional notions increasingly complemented by the experience of more globalised ideals of love. This is true not only for migrants, but also evident in the formation of popular culture in the Philippines. An example would be the way these more global norms of love and care become the expectations within Filipino films such as Anak whose subject matters is conflictual relationships between absent mothers and left-behind children. This is complicated still further, in that many of our participants first migrate to the Middle East and then to the UK, so that they are exposed to quite different local conceptualisations of love and care, which impacts upon the previous discussion of what could and could not be disclosed and discussed. As Johnson suggests (1998a, 1998b) the period this article refers to a was one in which not just the concept of love, but also the concept of the self, were undergoing transformation as migrant women were exposed to very different ideas and ideals of women and mothering as well as of love. We thus conclude that love itself is likely to have become a quite complicated and diverse arena of expectation and concern.

But if, on the one hand, the term ‘love’ in our title is an unstable and variegated category with many points of reference, at the same time our concern in this paper with the medium of its expression also reveals a much wider and changeable field. Both letters and cassettes had seen different kinds of usage prior to migration, such as letters between lovers, or cassettes within popular music, which may have had implications for their employment in these experiences of separation. Our systematic comparison between letters and cassette tapes has revealed significant differences between the two media reflected in the ways in which mothers and children recalled the ways in which they kept in touch. For example, letters, because they are handwritten, are seen as containing a trace of the letter-writer. The effort put in the act of physically writing them contributes to their recognition as ‘crafting’, especially if the letters are long and eloquent. Conversely, cassette tapes were often felt as powerful because of the emotional immediacy of the voice. While letters had a high informational capacity (for instance, allowing for detailed instructions to be laid out), cassette tapes could potentially introduce some realism into the long distance communication and were therefore a preferred medium by mothers in terms of gauging their children’s true feelings and state of being. The materiality of the media had implications for their temporality meaning that communication was stretched over time, with mothers – and sometimes children – reading and listening to the letters and the tapes over and over again. The fact that both letters and tapes were seen as carrying traces of their authors explains why they were never thrown away (for a similar argument relating to photographs see Rose, 2004). Far from concluding that this letter and cassette tape mediated communication was satisfactory or successful (although there are individual positive stories), we have shown that both the letters and tapes’ key limitation, that is, their lack of interactivity and simultaneity, exacerbated inequalities and asymmetries already existing within the parent-child relationships. The time lag between sending and receiving these communications also partly explains how communication often ended up becoming a more formalised or ritual exchange that is as much an expression of cultural obligation, than it is of personal feelings. These observations echo earlier findings about the standardised nature of migrant letters and their social function as confirmation of family solidarity and duty (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1996: 25).

So when we talk of ‘crafting love’ we have to recognise that this is a period of constant change in both the understanding and representation of love and in the media through which it is crafted. These points are further illuminated in our larger project which is devoted to the consequences of new media, which have proliferated in recent years. For example, we noted above the increasing openness in communication from the more formulaic compositions associated with childhood to becoming a teenager. During the same period the more infrequent earlier media which lent themselves to established genres of exchange give way to more directly interactive media which also provide more potential for confrontation and provocation.

The sheer range of contemporary media now available mean that there can be more specification as to which particular instrument serves which mode of performance and relationship. But to understand these contemporary iterations of long distance relationships we would argue it is helpful if we can first tease out some of the dynamics of mediation that accrued during this earlier period, which were dominated by letter and cassettes. This was also the period during which we see the emergence of normative discourse in the public domain, and a series of experiments with new performative communications of the self based around a growing sensitivity to both the constrains and the potentialities of the media that were available. By reflecting upon the specific materialities of letters and cassettes and their role in this crafting of love that we derive from these oral and personal histories, we can establish a foundation for trying to understand the far more diverse and complex mediations of kin relationships that emerge in our ethnography of the contemporary.

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[1] Anak is a 2000 Filipino film directed by R. Quintos starring the well-known actress Vilma Santos. The film narrates the story of a Filipino Overseas Contract Worker and her difficult relationships with her troubled left-behind daughter.


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