For the Privileged, a Performance of the Poor

“They’re rich, but still nice.”

“They’re nice because they’re rich.”

Jon Bong Hoo, “Parasite
A still from Jon Bong Hoo’s “Parasite”

During my freshman year in high school, my older brother and I had to be sent off to a public high school in Quezon City after my parents incurred a huge debt because of a failed business. The financial loss meant that they could no longer afford to send us to the private school near our home in Las Piñas. My aunt convinced my mom that the high school near her place had better standards than the usual public schools, and so my mom decided that we would live with our aunt and our cousins so we could study there.

As a kid, I felt that it was all a game. I imagined how that year was going to be fun, and how I’d have interesting stories to share to my friends back home once I came back to my old school.

My new classmates saw me and my brother as a curiosity. I remember how they would ask me questions about my old school–why I had to uproot myself from that life in exchange for this strange one. I vaguely remember dodging some of those questions, but what I could recall was how I found it amusing that they would speak to me in English, as if they expected me to be beyond speaking in the vernacular.

You don’t really realize the privilege you have until you live the life without it. And by live, I mean to experience it on a daily basis, without an alternate life to go back to anymore. As the days passed by, followed by weeks, and then finally a month, a switch clicked inside me: the life I once lived was now gone.

Suddenly, the excitement of being able to tell my old friends about the little field trip we went to slowly waned.

Granted, it wasn’t that awful. Our aunt took care of us and made sure we were well-fed all the time. The school was, like my aunt said, fairly better than most of the public schools, what with its sprawling field and a large court where my classmates and I would hang out during breaks. There was a small garden in front of our classroom which our class tended to, charged by our adviser to sweep the leaves and water the plants. Every Friday, my dad would pick us up and we would spend the weekends back home.

But the shame still crept in.

As an outsider, I became more sensitive to the disparities of class. I didn’t have the words for the feeling as a child, but I quietly observed how far removed I have been back then from this reality.

One day, one of my classmates went to class with his uniform creased and dirty, reeking with an overpowering odor that was unmistakably from someone who didn’t shower properly. Our teacher called him out for his poor hygiene, reminding him that we were expected to keep ourselves tidy all the time. He was asked to step in front of the class, and he ended up crying. I eventually found out that they couldn’t afford to pay for their electric bill, that’s why his mom wasn’t able to iron his uniform.

That memory played in my head while watching Jon Bong Hoo’s “Parasite”–this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival–the other night. There was a scene in the movie where the rich man Mr. Park, oblivious that the family chauffeur was nearby, casually comments to his wife that their driver has a particularly offensive smell, like that of old radish. It was the smell of people who had to take subways, he said.

It was the stench of poverty.


The poor are asked to go to great lengths to conceal their suffering and desperation, as if displays of suffering and desperation are unforgivable offenses that must never be committed.

To enter the rarefied existence and ensure that the opportunities it affords will never be denied to you, you must dress, speak, and act like the privileged do.

Before you can become truly one of them, you must first become them, even if as a lie, in the beginning.

The charade is a hard one to prop up. There will always be a crack that will reveal itself, at one point or another. The branded bag exposed as an imitation. (To digress: this reminds me of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”.) The neighborhood one grew up in, or lives at. The school one went to. The slip of the accent. The uncharacteristic brusqueness that shows itself.

And so the tragedy transforms into a farce.

Those who have less feel it, the exclusion. Perhaps not immediately, not shoved in front of them. But they feel it in the way they are treated. The pained smiles. The terse politeness. The ensuing, awkward silence. The patronizing pats on their backs.

What affects me most about “Parasite” is that in the movie, as in real life, evil is the subtlest thing. There are no bad guys one could hate in the film. The real enemy, if one thinks about it, is the invisible one that never shows its face: the system that creates these tensions between peoples of different classes.

Until we let go of the fallacy that the world is just, and that poverty is purely moral failing, we will never break the system that demands the poor to perform for the privileged few. If we must give evil an embodiment, it is how we repeatedly romanticize the happiness by the less privileged in our stories, as if suffering is something that must be celebrated.

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