September 07, 2007

Ok, so I couldn't resist writing about it either...

Something Like Life
Sept. 7, 2007

BY now, I’m pretty sure all of you have the Malu Fernandez topic coming out of your mouths and ears. Don’t worry, I’m not going to add any more fuel to the fire and endorse any sort of “harpooning” of Ms. Fernandez, even if she did unwittingly ruffle the feathers of close to half of the population of the Philippines and their hundreds of relatives abroad. (Yes, I still give Ms. Fernandez the benefit of the doubt because I think no one in his right mind would deliberately insult another human being in print unless he is begging for a libel case. Of course, if she was channeling shock jock Howard Stern, then what she did was unforgivable.)

What I do want to address, however, are the realities of an overseas Filipino worker’s life, because once upon a time I was one of them, although my colleague Marvic and I would jokingly dub ourselves “expats.” Although I hardly contributed in boosting the country’s gross international reserves because I rarely remitted any monies to my parents here (honey, I needed it more than them), I only had to look at my colleagues and hear their sob stories to realize the difficulties of leaving one’s home and family to try to carve out a bright future they don’t think would ever have in the Philippines.

The opportunity to work in Saipan (the capital of the Northern Marianas, a tiny group of islands south of Guam) came up because of Marvic, who recommended me to her publisher. I was to be business editor of a daily newspaper (actually a community paper by our standards, where a victim of a hit and run could be the day’s biggest headline), and while the job did pay a lot more than I was receiving in my former paper back then, the attraction to me was actually the opportunity to live in another country and mingle with other nationalities. I also thought that Saipan being a mere three hours away from Manila, it wouldn’t make me so homesick, unlike the situation with OFWs who live in the Middle East, Europe or the US. I could always easily come home to Manila even for a weekend. So, actually, I was not your typical, OFW desperate to earn a higher wage to feed my entire family back home.

The first shock of any OFW upon landing in his new host country is always cultural. There are just too many new ways of behaving and thinking that our kababayans have to get used to. First of all, in a US-style country like the Northern Marianas, you had to follow the traffic rules. No tail-gating, no overtaking, no weaving in and out of traffic.

And while I could get away with wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt to Sunday Mass once in a while, the Chamorros (the locals who live on Saipan) actually encourage churchgoers to don proper church attire, i.e., a modest clothes which do not show off one’s legs, bare arms, or cleavage. I also realized that Filipinos were more Western in thinking than the locals, as I would get flak for being outspoken and frank in discussing issues (although the mainland Americans living on Saipan appreciated the banter). Still, the Chamorros are a generous lot and will always invite anyone to their parties and fiestas, and basically share the good times, which is a trait they share with us Filipinos.

But more than the culture and traditions, I think the biggest shock for most OFWs is the realization that being away from their families means a lot of heartaches. I remember a young colleague, J, who I would always notice to be crying after every phone call with her mother. She told me her mother would always berate her for sending “so little” money for the family’s needs. (She was sending half of her monthly $700 salary, and her mother still thought this was still not enough?! That was close to P18,000 back then!) J was not even the eldest in the family but her mother was now relying on her daughter’s earnings for the family’s needs. J said she had, in fact, other siblings, none of whom were apparently working, and her parents were out of work as well.

As I began speaking to other colleagues and other kababayans over the year I was in Saipan, I realized that quite a number of them had relatives who became virtual mendicants, stopping work and just waiting for the usual monthly remittance. Like J, my heart bled for them because there they were working their asses off under a foreign boss who treated them sometimes rather poorly, and yet their difficulties were not even close to being appreciated by their families back home. Parents didn’t call their OFW children to ask how they were, but rather to ask when their next remittance would arrive. Children didn’t bother to write to their hardworking parents, or send them a card to say how much they were missed, but rather to make sure they were sent the newest PlayStation for their birthdays. I could only nod in understanding when an Ate started narrating her life’s travails.

And for all the “huge” salaries these fellow kababayans are supposed to be earning, their families don’t realize that they are also spending quite a tidy sum living in the host country. Sure, these OFWs are earning in dollars, but they are spending in dollars as well. An example: in Saipan, a Jollibee yumburger with cheese costs about $2 (almost P100 then), when it’s about P40 only here. The horror! A decent restaurant meal for one person, for example, would cost about $12 (P600) when here, the same could be had for probably P300 or less.

Aside from the food, there is also rent to pay (I used to pay about $400, or P20,000, a month for a one-bedroom apartment) and utilities ($150, or P7,500, a month) and clothes. By the end of the month, and after deducting all these “costs of living,” as well as half their salaries for the usual remittance to their families back home, my Ates and Kuyas were left with zilch. It is no wonder a number of them return home almost centavo-less and with very little savings to speak of. We Filipinos are so family-oriented, we rarely deny any requests from our relatives, even though we are already hard-up ourselves.

Some of them also told me that all the while they had been sending money to their spouses back home to put up a little sari-sari store, set up a carinderia, or make some home improvements, they find out that the money had all been spent by their spouses who have become prime candidates for Gamblers Anonymous.

Other than the financial issues, there are social issues that our kababayans have to contend with. A lot of my colleagues, pining away for their spouses or fiancées back home, have affairs with their co-workers. A number of them actually shack up with new lovers even if they have wives or husbands here and 10 children. Kuya D, for example, was already hard-pressed as it is to send money to his wife and children back home, but then he still managed to create a new family in Saipan (a lovely wife and two rambunctious boys). I don’t blame him. It can really get lonely overseas—none of the 120 channels on cable TV nor a thousand bars can ever ease that feeling. (On Saipan the six bars or so close at 10 pm…no wonder I was hardly inebriated while I was there.) On the other hand, if it wasn’t my Ate or Kuya playing around, it would be their spouses here at home doing the nasty.

So every time I would hear these stories from our kababayans, I would get depressed about their ordeal (which, by the way, actually starts at the hellish and very long queues at the POEA), only slowly to be enraged at our government which does very little in boosting economic opportunities here at home. Instead, it chooses to look for more ways to export our precious human capital to other countries, thus helping the latter to prosper. And while the government trumpets the 7.5-percent growth in the economy, I can only wonder if it is worth all the punishing choices our kababayan abroad have to make.

These are just some of the real issues plaguing our OFWs. So even if our kababayans choose to submerge themselves in a vat of Charlie, the incredible sacrifices they have to endure in the name of family and a better future are nothing to be sniffed at.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo courtesy BusinessMirror)

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