June 22, 2007

Surviving the long distance

Something Like Life
June 22, 2007

A FEW days ago, as I was riding a taxi on my way to the Ortigas Center, I was thoroughly entertained by the radio program my cabbie was glued to.

It was one of those programs where the radio hosts try to ring up an overseas Filipino worker and get him reconnected to his long-suffering wife and growing kids here at home.

A few conversations took on an amusing turn like in the case of one OFW whose boss, in his barely understandable English (think Yilmaz Bektas), kept on saying that his employee was “Not here! Not here!” before launching into what sounded like a diatribe against the radio host-caller, berating him for disturbing his work.

There were a few moments of joyous telecommunication bonding, with wives and kids happy to finally hear their padre de familia’s voice, before the call degenerated into castigations for not calling his family or sending any money, while they were left wondering whether he was still alive or dead. Talk about reality radio!

Some cases of adultery were discussed by the hosts like these were a matter of fact, just part and parcel of an OFW family’s life. It can go both ways—the spouse who left a humble existence finds someone else, usually a fellow lonely kababayan also away from her family, in a strange land in the sweltering heat, just trying to survive from paycheck to paycheck; or the spouse left at home, trying to keep the family sanely together with the little money her husband wires back, missing her partner and finding some comfort in another’s arms.

According to the National Statistics Office, there was an estimated 1.52 million Filipinos working overseas last year. Imagine how much emotional torment has to be weathered by our kababayans just so they’re able to put three square meals a day on their family’s dining table while paying for household rent and other basic necessities, as well as sending their kids to school here at home.

It isn’t easy trying to keep the home fires burning when spouses live miles and miles apart from each other. The matter is made even more complicated by poverty, by curious children asking where their absent parent had gone, by creeping loneliness and, yes, by sexual temptations.

I’ve never been a great believer in long-distance relationships. I think the bond between couples, no matter how strong at the beginning, will slowly unravel as the individual needs of each partner increase. Aside from the usual loneliness, there are frequent bouts of homesickness on the part of the spouse who is away, and gnawing suspicions and paranoia on what his partner is doing to amuse herself in his absence, and vice versa. And growing apart is all too common. There may still be love between the couple, but somehow they can no longer relate to each other’s experiences while they both exist in different worlds.

Given that, couples may still find ways to weather the long years apart and the sea of separation. Perhaps, all is needed is a firm commitment to each other’s happiness and well-being (and hundreds of dollars worth of prepaid phone cards!).

Seriously, sometimes it can just boil down to constant communication. Before the OFW leaves home, he and his spouse must agree to give each other regular updates of the goings-on in their respective lives, and activities of the other family members. Agree on the frequency of the phone call—will it be daily? Every other day? Once a week? And what time should the spouse here at home expect the phone to ring?

If you are the spouse who is away, try not to miss placing that phone call! You have to have a pretty good reason not to call...like your truck ran over a masked Fatah escapee while driving for your new Hamas boss.

If you are the spouse left here at home, also understand that there are frequent demands on your partner’s time by his bosses, so if he does miss a call, it doesn’t mean he has been kidnapped by an Iraqi insurgent, or—worse—fallen in love with a Pinay nurse at some hospital near his place of work. So try to be flexible when it comes to communication.

Like if phone calls are expensive, try texting. The Philippines is not known as the text capital of the world for nothing! Use your inherent SMS skills as a means to convey your thoughts about your work and your other daily happenings. So even while at work, your spouse will constantly be updated about you and the kids.

Make the most of your telecommunication time. Talk about yourselves, your feelings for each other, the kids, their schooling and their cute activities. Don’t spend the entire time ragging on your spouse for missing the last phone call or remitting the household budget two weeks late. It’s bad enough that he has to be away from you, his family, to work. Don’t add to the pressure by burying him in guilt and regret.

With the Internet becoming more and more accessible in the country, sending emails to family members abroad is becoming a cinch. But do not—I repeat, do not!—send those irritating forwarded e-mails of stupid jokes or Catholic guilt-trips via prayer chain letters! Use the Internet to tell your husband how terribly you miss him, or to send a nice photo of you and the kids that will wrench his heart and, hopefully, make him send your $500 faster than you can say Osama bin Laden. (I just love Flickr! You can post an entire album-worth of photos and your relatives abroad really appreciate it.)

Send little gifts to each other. It’s amazing how so many online stores have sprung up over the last decade, making it possible for families separated by geography to spring a surprise on one another during important occasions. All one needs is a credit card, which many banks and credit-card companies are virtually just giving away these days.

For those less affluent, you may send little items via snail mail. Sure, you run the risk of the gift getting lost or stolen while in transit to your sweetheart (from experience, I’m pretty sure the pilferage will occur here in the Philippines than anywhere else), so don’t send a five-carat diamond ring! Besides, meaningful gifts need not be expensive. What’s important is the sweet romantic thoughts that go with it.

And to those who have left to work overseas, please come home. Even if it’s for a short two-week vacation or a just a month, try to visit your family at least every year. Sure, a plane ticket cost a lot and sometimes the itinerant spouse chooses to postpone his visit in order to save more money to send home. But for all the financial surplus you will have, it will not mean a lot if you keep missing out on your wife’s cariño, or not seeing your kids grapple with binomials and polynomials. Better yet, let your family visit you so they will be familiar with the places and events you keep talking about in your mail.

The amazing innovations of modern communication may ease some of the loneliness of being away from your partner and your family, but these can never replace the caress of your wife’s hand on your face, or the constant tug of your five-year-old on your sleeve, and the laughter all of you will share when you are together.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that all these suggestions will work for everyone. But perhaps it’s a start. And for all my irreverence, I realize the agony experienced by separated families can hardly be eased by a Hallmark greeting card. But maybe what all families need to look at also is the bright future ahead to make the pain of separation hopefully less traumatic and depressing.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror, which was recently recognized by the Rotary Club of Manila as the National Newspaper of the Year in its 2006 Journalism Awards. Photo from BusinessMirror)

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