August 30, 2007

From 'Malou' Fernandez

‘DEAR Malu,

Sorry for taking the liberty to write you even though we’ve never met each other, or calling you by your first name. I just got accidentally caught up in your story because I, my relatives and colleagues at work had been getting inquiries, at the peak of the blogosphere obsession with your article on OFWs, on whether the editor in chief of BusinessMirror had written an article for People Asia or MST, or whether we were related. I blame the first query on some lazy PRs who, through the years, never bothered to find out my real nickname or presumed that my Christian name bore a “Maria” just because it’s Lourdes and therefore, called me occasionally “Malou Fernandez.”

That’s how I got curious about who you are and why they’re saying all those things about you. To be honest, I was shocked and upset like all the rest. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, and seeing how the OFWs are perfectly capable of defending themselves, my anger has turned to regret. Honest. I feel sorry that in one short plane trip you had ruined your ties with our kababayan. I regret that you didn’t have the chance to really know them through the years. But maybe there’s still time to make up.

After three decades in this work, I have met and written about Filipino workers in dozens of strange lands and how they’ve coped—some fail to, unfortunately—and how most of them are so prized in their host country I’ve come away each time feeling proud about being a Filipino.

After three decades in this work, I have met and written about Filipino workers in dozens of strange lands and how they’ve coped—some fail to, unfortunately—and how most of them are so prized in their host country I’ve come away each time feeling proud about being a Filipino.

I used to think, like most young people, especially journalists, that the ultimate high of traveling was in seeing up close all those postcard-pretty pictures one just read about in books or brochures. Always, on entering new territory, one’s heart would skip a beat, at that magical experience of “entering” a postcard, almost like Harry Potter when he first melted into the train station walls on his first trip to Hogwarts.

But many years and countless stories later, it’s really those encounters with OFWs—mostly by chance in the course of coverage or sightseeing—that have shaped the way I now look at and remember places.

Among the millions of Filipinos who have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, I remember most the Filipino waiters at Riyadh Sheraton. Like most OFWs, they showed genuine happiness at seeing a group of kababayan in their hotel, and would find ingenious ways of being assigned to our table to make small talk. Most were Campampangan and had gone to Saudi to help families ravaged by lahar. There was a running joke with our group of newsmen that one of us had a birthday every day, so one fine day we got a surprise. As I stepped onto the lobby one afternoon, one waiter signaled to me to go over to the ground-floor restaurant. He then asked me to call my friends. As we sat down, another waiter who was supposed to be off came out, bearing a platter of maja blanca and palitaw. He smiled as he put it down, and explained that as it was his day off, he made some afternoon snacks for us, saying the native kakain go well with Arabic tea. Then he said he overheard us talking about how we liked palitaw.

As we left that day, they told us to advise them if there was something we wanted which they could cook in their free time. Between the food cooked by Filipinos and the stories shared in that fortnight, truly, we had a feast.

At one time in that fortnight, I was supposed to interview some people at the embassy but got caught up in another event. I didn’t know how to get to the embassy by taxi, so one Filipino IT guy I interviewed earlier offered to accompany me, but the hotel doorman advised me to be sure I had my abaya on, and to sit at the back and try to keep low-key. That got me worried, so I told the IT guy, hey, I know that even if you’re seated in front of the cab we could get in trouble if we get flagged down, so maybe I’ll just risk going there alone. I’m a foreign journalist, maybe I’ll just get deported, but you could get jailed. He brushed it off, and muttered something like he hoped his employer would bail him out of any trouble; or, he’s sure his employer would pull strings for him. I found out later the whiz kid had a sensitive position handling the computer networks of a very big bank in Saudi—imagine, I told myself, how can they dispense with someone like that—and risk having computers breaking down and their princely bank accounts getting stuck?

Still in the Middle East, two young, pretty Filipinas at the Dubai airport duty-free shop melted my heart once. We had about 15 minutes before boarding time en route home and, as a habit, I counted my remaining local currency, with plans of using this to buy pasalubong. I miscalculated. Because I bought a newspaper and several other items first, the money left for chocolates was off by several dirhams, so I asked if they’d accept US dollars. They said they’re not supposed to. She said they’d punched in the items and it’s okay, they’ll wait for me to come back because there is a money changer several meters away. Okay, I said, and ran, but the money-changer shop was closed that time, so I asked around. There was another one, much farther. I ran again, but the lines at the second one were long. I ran back to the two Pinays at the duty-free shop and said, I’m sorry, I’ll just offload the chocolates if you can’t take my dollars.

(Filipina domestic helpers at Statue Square, Central, Hong Kong - a favorite rendezvous on Sundays. Photo from

Both women simultaneously grabbed the chocolate and pressed it toward me. The second one dipped into her pocket and said don’t worry, she’ll pay for the balance. She said they couldn’t take my dollar bill because it was too big, the equivalent of what’s lacking with my dirhams was just about $3. “But I can’t take your money,” I protested. They smiled, and one asked, “You’re giving them to your children? No, nephews and nieces,” I replied. “Well then, please tell them the chocolates are from their titas in Dubai,” and flashed a smile. Just then there was an announcement of boarding time and they motioned me to hurry on. I left, overcome with gratitude but also shame. Luckily, a journalist friend passed by, also on her way to the boarding gate, so I asked if she had small dollar bills. Luckily, she had, so I borrowed $3 and ran back to the Pinays at the duty-free shop and plunked down the bills. They were surprised and refused at first to get it, but I insisted. I never imagined how even ordinary OFWs can be as gracious as these two.

One Mideast country I wanted, but failed to visit, is Israel. The late Philippine ambassador there, the former journalist Antonio C. Modena, used to tell us how organized the Filipino workers there are. One time there was an explosion in a busy public market, so I texted Tony for details, hoping to include a few paragraphs into the paper’s edition. He said he’d text back, and did so, after just 20 minutes. No Filipinos had died, he said, but one Pinay was slightly injured. They’re still tracking one more who was supposed to be in that area as well. I asked, how come you can get these details so quickly? Modena explained that the OFWs there are well-organized and have formed, with the embassy’s urging, a buddy system for verifying and monitoring each other. One OFW is supposed to check on the others in a certain district, all through the wonders of SMS.

Organized, intelligent, caring—that’s how Tony Modena described the OFWs he loved to serve. They’ll do you proud on any given day, he’d often say. He would have been proud to know Arlene (not her real name), a Filipino honor graduate of mechanical engineering, who, in four years, had been pirated by two multinational carmarkers in Japan.

I met her over dinner hosted by an elderly NGO leader in Hiroshima, and the two women kept laughing over a private joke, which I couldn’t help but pry open. Turns out that each time they meet, the Japanese lady would ask Arlene, “what club are you working in this time?” and Arlene would mention some club’s name at random, and they’d laugh together. Turns out that in her first months in Japan, Arlene always had an argument with taxi drivers, who’d ask her each time she rode a cab, “to what club?” When she’d say, “No, I don’t work in a club, I’m an engineer,” the taxi driver would chuckle and mutter what must surely be the Japanese equivalent of “Sure, tell me about it.”

It must have been strange for taxi drivers, this notion of a young Filipino engineer—a woman at that—working for a giant car manufacturer. When Arlene asked her NGO friend how to bridge that cultural abyss, the old lady good-naturedly advised her, so as to spare herself any aggravations even before she had started the day’s work, to “just name any club. Invent a name. Then they’ll shut up. Tell them the truth and they’d never believe you and you’ll end up arguing.”

Thus did it become the two women’s private joke for years. So, somewhere out there, a brilliant Filipina designs cars for THE world’s most popular carmakers, but goes to work each day pretending she works at a Japanese club—and is so self-assured she no longer feels insulted at the thought.

Arlene told me she didn’t really feel insulted because all of the Filipino entertainers she had met are decent and hardworking. And they care for their countrymen. As an aside, Filipinos are also very hygienic. In one quick tour many years ago, I stumbled on three women lugging their laundrybags to shore from a cruise ship, and they volunteered they’d be going to a public washing area “where we can handwash our clothes.” I asked why they weren’t doing their laundry in the ship’s humongous Laundromat, and they squealed, “yuck, and have our clothes mixed with those of the others?” So they went to the trouble of handwashing when the ship makes a port call.

Going back to Japan, Arlene said, you’d never hear stories here of Pinoys turning in fellow Pinoys to immigration if their only crime is overstaying just to have a job, unlike in the US, where such reports abound.

But it’s not just work, work, work for OFWs. Until a few years ago, the Filipinas in Paris who remitted money through PNB would “borrow” a small function room adjacent to the bank every other Friday night and have a typical Filipino sing-along. Some would bring the karaoke, others the food. They’d introduce newcomers to the community and swap stories. They were noisy, but happy. At least you know there won’t be candidates for suicide among the OFWs in the City of Light.

A similar happy disposition prevails among most OFWs in another European country, down south. They don’t call it sunny Spain for nothing, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Filipinos provide the metaphorical sun to their former mother country.

On my first trip there, the OFWs invited me to a modest center recently built with volunteers’ funds. Here they’d interact on weekends or when they’re off duty. The star of the show that Saturday was a very self-effacing Pinay whom everyone was eager to introduce because she brought along her two beautiful children—perfect products of an Asian-Caucasian blend. Turns out her señorito, the Spaniard son of her employers, had fallen in love with and married her. He was there at the center that day, joking and swapping stories with the OFWs. Marimar couldn’t have held a candle to that hardworking Pinay and her Cinderella story.

In other places I had deliberately sought out OFWs each time I’d look for a church for Sunday Mass. Sometimes, you don’t even have to ask them. The foreigners would often advise me to just “follow where they go.”

Some encounters are long, and allow me to mine stories or draw deep insight from kababayan which I’d never get from the intellectual pretenders back home. Other encounters are brief, but enough to warm one’s heart and make one’s day—as that Pinoy couple that once smuggled in their tiny dog in a picnic basket into the Paris commuter train, and spoke to me across the aisle plainly with their eyes, pleading for silence, when they noticed I kept staring at the basket, which was moving.

Sure, Pinoys abroad can be distractingly noisy. Sometimes their perfume can overwhelm one, but hey, we’re just passing through while they have to live and struggle there for years. Maybe the fleeting annoyances are bearable. In the overall equation, they are, like the biblical leaven to the bread, the ones who enrich us—literally but more important, spiritually. When people say nothing enriches a person more than travel, I agree. But only because, in that travel, whether in the oil fields of Nigeria or the deserts of Saudi Arabia, there’s a Filipino out there waiting to reach out to a kababayan.

A pity you missed that experience. But there’s still time to seek them out.


Lourdes M. Fernandez*

*(Lourdes M. Fernandez, whom friends call 'Chuchay', not Malou/Malu...take note PR guys! is the editor-in-chief of BusinessMirror.)

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