Christmas Balikbayan: Why Return?


{Painting by Maningning}

My aunt returned from Texas and lament how great the pay in the land of the brave home of the free. Perhaps, she told me, I should marry some Americana. Do I want to, if so, she could set me up with one of her nurse acquaintances? Do I want to?

Blood boiling. Although I love her dearly, how dare she assume that because I am a Filipino, that I would cowtow to fix marriage just for the sake of money. Did she not consider the plight of our overseas workers?

More and more the human warmness fades as we send our best maids, entertainers, cooks, desert construction workers, electronic factory workers, teachers, nurses, physical therapist, seamen, and caregivers abroad. The government is right, when it dubbed Overseas Filipino Workers as “heroes.” As they sent billions of dollar worth of remittances, they’re katas ng abroad to us, cushioning us from the never-ending budget deficit of our nation – they also in the process sacrificed their nearness. It’s akin to social kamikaze – my death (or loneliness) for your life.

If you ask these OFW, how many would like to return to our country, if given the chance? A better gauge would be: why do people considered to be in the land of flowing honeys like America, Canada, Europe, and Japan ever return to some would consider a backwater Third World Country?

When I was younger, I just assumed that Filipino who goes to American never returned. Boy was I wrong. Take my cousin for example, he can stay in the New Jersey permanently if he wants, but he returned to Novaliches and now teach chemistry in a small college. He must have justified himself a thousands times to friends, to classmates and acquaintances. I am one of those who ask him why he returned. He said to me that it is lonely in the states, that the dull ache of homesickness, and doubt assailed him. That he was ignored and being treated a second-class citizen by his other America-based cousins.

Then it dawn on me. Maybe my cousin and other who returned just feel that they would be happier, and be more useful, working back home. Just like me wanting more than the basic needs.

Unlike the really poor, the choice for middle class like me isn’t buck naked poverty, and survival. It’s between a small generic car or the Pajero; staying in a small but decent condominium in a non-descript cityscape or a sprawling mansion in the suburbs of Ayala Alabang.

It is also a choice between what is it you really want and what the family and community dictates. It’s like choosing a course in college, if your peers and parents want you to take up nursing, and you happen to prefer music. You know music doesn’t pay much, but it’s what your heart and conscience dictates – you went for it. Everything turns out allright, you got some gig at some small bar, and though you are not starving, you are not well off either. You are married now, and live in a small apartment at Fairview, and you’ve never been happier.

Then all of a sudden, family reunion happened. You got compared to your cousin of your age, who happened to be a nurse at Texas, and now has a gleaming condominium at Rockwell, or a flat in New Jersey, drives an SUV, and play golf every weekend.

Oftentimes you are deemed a failure, often in not very subtle terms when you’re being idealistic and nationalistic. There was a time when being an activist was deemed romantic, even cool. Now, it would take a lot more courage today to face the class snide of fancy pad, drinks and toys. You will be accused of hidden envy and a sour grape if you reject the dictated lifestyle.

But I want more than the material needs – I want more than a filling meal, three times a week sex, a roof that doesn’t leak on my head, of not being attack at night. Unless one is glutton, or a sex maniac, one can only eat so much, and fuck so much. I am not alone in my wishes. There are people out there who dream for a better life and be near the country they both hate and love. And I’m not talking about money. I’m talking dignity, pride, honor, art, beauty, justice, and truth. The fulfillment of deep seated self.

Am I too idealistic? Maybe I can’t talk about this matter in a third–world country, where beggars are so commonplace we become numb to it, where large part of the population eats once a day or less, where bribery is so common one starts thinking everyone has a price. Maybe I am too much of a middle class to see that most people in this country will not survive if they are unemployed for a month – that might be the case of those people sleeping every night on the street pavement. Maybe I would change my mind if I have a wife who has a terminal illness, and I don’t have cash to pay the hospital. Maybe I would change my mind if I can’t find a job because I am old or disabled or didn’t finish high school – there goes call centers and medical transcription. Maybe I would leave, if the promotion I deserve was given to someone else because I am a woman. Or I want to open up a medium scale business but I don’t have capital, as third-world banks need collateral for loaning and the only choice I have is to borrow from loan shark Indians.

Still, there are those who will leave no matter what the situation is back home. I have a friend back when I was a teen, who is always restless – he always likes to travel and tell of the places he visited. He looks at first glance a perpetual tourist, but upon close look, he is at heart an adventurer. These are the type of people who like to be at the thick of a battle at some war-torn country, or hustling in some hidden casino somewhere on the wrong side of the Pacific, or rubbing elbows with the Eskimos. Adventurers are always in the quest for fame, fortune, and another voyage.

Then there are talented people who need a bigger audience our small country can muster. Global actors and astronauts would never fulfill their potential if they stay home.

Another group whose needs our country would probably never meet is the lifestyle outsiders – inhabitants whose lifestyle choice are so different from the culture they need to leave, this include political and religious outsiders. Anti-Catholics would never fit in our country, unless abortion, and divorce becomes legal. People who have a different sexual preference would also be alienated here – gay marriage, swinging, and prostitution are all but illegal. Rebels, like the Illustrados of the Spanish era, who exiled themselves, who wanted and exerted their influences abroad.

Finally, there are those who leave because the community that they once cherish, is now all gone. Maybe every friends and family they once love, now all move to another country. Or the hometown is war-torn or disaster-torn - the house, the farm has all been dispatched.

Then there are those who lived abroad for so long a time that they virtually became foreigners – Philippines became a distant, foreign land of the past – expat becoming native of their host country that adopted them.

But most Filipinos depart because of economic reasons. If our country becomes prosperous, most people would not leave. But since our country is poor and albeit corrupt, most Filipinos depart.

In a way mass exodus helped our country, because it alleviated the problems of overpopulation and congestion in key cities like Manila. It limited family size and birth rate – groups, like farm tenants, becomes manageable because it’s smaller. It relieved unemployment rate, because otherwise jobless people is now earning their pay. It adds to the resources of the country – remittances are sent to dependents that would otherwise barely survive. Because remittances are spent at home, many businesses who otherwise would have no customers are now surviving, because more people have now extra cash.

But what of the lives of those who stayed? No matter how much distance you traveled, the nagging feeling that someone is suffering (and I don’t mean money) at home creeps to the gut. It’s not where you go that is important, it’s why you go there.

There are those who believe that economic necessity have to be met first and they will stay or go back here – good luck to them. But if you are not an adventurer, politically alienated, or dirt poor, and can find a satisfying, yet not so high paying job here – it is better to stay. If you have money, it is better to invest here – as the Japanese, Chinese and Americans are doing. Forget about the business forecast outlook, the market is ripe for progress. Our town has many problems, but that is the one of the reason to stay – to help it become something greater than it is. It’s a noble, bigger than life, heroic vision.

By staying and helping, you might not see the result of your deeds in your lifetime. Then others would taunt you that being noble is suicidal, that all heroes are dead. But there are breathing, living heroes – and long before they are gone, other would remember and reap the benefit. And that itself is its own reward. Jose Rizal didn’t see his deeds materialized in his lifetime. But his death is the defeat of a thousand of Spanish army, and we remember him for it – he is immortal. We need not less, but more heroes – champions who would take the road less taken.

Humans by nature will never be perfect, so why do expect our hometown to be. There are worst countries than ours – countries where genocide, or war or malnourishment is the daily diet. Yet the middle class of those countries don’t just bail because their country have problem. They dream of a future where these problems will be just a figment of legends.

I mean sure, one can blame why we are poor to kurakot (greed), kakulangan ng delikadesa (lack of honor), walang isang salita (no word of honor), Filipino time (tardiness), deadma (apathy, like lack of funding for scientist and inventors), crab mentality (selfishness), kanya-kanya (ethnic or religious prejudice), Juan tamad (laziness), maƱana habit (procrastination), kung makakalusot (dishonesty), utang na loob (bribes), kakulangan ng disiplina (jaywalking, river garbage, working only with supervision), anong mapapala ko (tax fraud), and a slew of other deep rooted negative values.

With this dated ideals, the problem of employment and wages will not go away anytime soon. In the mean time, a lot of Filipino will sail out. Sure, what one can earn in one year here, one can earn in one month abroad. Even janitor in the US earns more than the average office employee here. But is it really worth it? I do not mean everybody – some actually applied what they learned in school or love to do abroad, and get paid their worth.

Yet for the majority of OFW, the choice isn’t clear cut. Is cleaning the toilet, worth all the money, when one back home has a small paying yet satisfying job? Do our doctors really have to be reduced to caregivers in Toronto, our teachers transformed to maid in Hong Kong, our engineers shipped to factory worker in South Korea, our college professors demoted to sales clerk in California? Filipinos who stays are not that one who are sacrificing their lives, those who leave do.

Doubtless there are multitudes of dull jobs here – collecting coins for MRT or canning sardines in a factory for example. But these are done not by the middle class, but by people who don’t really have any other choice. The proletarian needs to go to Saudi Arabia, because it is a necessity – the family would starve if they don’t. But not so for the middle class. If the bourgeois leave, there would be brain-drain –the brains and skills that should have been used for developing our country, would be wasted selling movie tickets elsewhere. Then the middle class population would dwindle – leaving a huge gap between the proletarians and the old rich.

Am I too idealistic and nationalistic? Perhaps, some people aspire for a John Lennon alternate reality – a really united earth, where religion and country doesn’t exist. But those visions are just a thing of the fantasy. Country and religion have been with us for thousands of years, and probably would be for a longer time. Every decade new countries and religions are born. Our country alone, have so much ethnic divisions that one is identified by the dialect one spoke. We are humans after all – we have a deep seated need to belong somewhere. What we need is not to stifle our diversity but to encourage solidarity. Nearness is not enough – Filipinos are near each other yet some neighbors hate each other. This is because liking has many variables besides nearness. The neighbors needs to have solidarity, the need to cooperate amidst our uniqueness.

We Filipinos are prisoners who the guards keep shouting at to be adjusted, yet we keep shouting back: we won’t be adjusted! Yes, we won’t be just comfortable with the current state of our country – it is in a dire need for reform. We need to improve it because not every Filipino can just leave everything behind, and escape abroad.

Filipinos are flexible and adaptable, but you can’t just uproot them and expect them to be native in a foreign land overnight. Everyday, thousand of Filipinos miss the echo of the roosters at dawn; flying jeepneys and whirling tricycles; kikiam, taho, banana-que, isaw, tapsilog, mami, palabok, balut and the succulent mango; the San Miguel and sisig during videoke session; the churchgoers and hawkers of Quiapo, the jaw dropping price of Divisoria, the wood penis carved in Baguio, and the buko pie baked in Laguna; Jollibee; karera, sabong and lotto; the demure yet sexy as well as strong-willed morenas, the chinky tsinays, and the sparkling mestizas; the organic igorots; the helping hand of yaya’s and boys; Boracay and Nasugbu; the Christmas simbang gabi, karoling, and puto bungbong; The New year’s bawang, and sinturon ni hudas; the ati-atihan, palaro, liga, dancing contest, Miss Gay, perya during Fiesta; the laid back siesta; the hugs, kisses, and mano po; the warm smile even in the face of sorrow.

So I hide my laughter inside every time I hear a sweeping statement, that we should be a state of Uncle Sam to solve all our problems. We are Filipinos, not Americans, period. Cubans in Miami, Mexicans in Los Angeles, Chinese in Binondo, or Mestizos of Pampanga, DO NOT forget their heritage. No matter how far we go, our roots will be written on our faces.

Nor is living abroad isn’t such a paradise as portrayed. Places like New York, London, Seoul and Tokyo has great economies and education system doubtless, but if one goes there for economic reasons, one should be prepared to tighten one belt. That is because developed countries have high standards of living. High salary equals high prices. Filipina nurses in London for example are shocked at how high the common goods there – they can’t splurge because their salary would be depleted. One needs to prepare to be tightwad – pleasure and convenience fly out of the door. That’s why money sent here from abroad the money is so precious – our standard of living is so low.

In the west, everybody is in a hurry that family and recreation time is virtually nonexistent. In Manila, one can go to Baguio or Nasugbu for the weekend if one wants.

In the west, unlike here where the community prevails, the emphasis is on the individual – so one needs to be prepared for a lonelier road.

If am to be called patriotic, so be it. Give people a fickle of hope first, in a town of filth and corruption first. Then someday this ray of hope may trickle down on our conscience for a more dignified life – so that someday we may regain our true selves – a true redemption in a bittersweet town. You can’t just sit there helplessly, escape to a far away land and watch as your country slowly deteriorates. Keep the hope alive! Keep the hope alive!

My aunt could have realized that our home may be imperfect, but it is OUR home. Our country maybe filthy, but boy is it filthy beautiful. It is a country where holdapers, bag- slashers, snatchers, swindlers, pimps, prostitutes, jueteng/sakla operators thrives. It is a country with more paradox and contradiction than any thesaurus can muster. It is a country of kind, respectful, friendly, loving and creative people who can laugh even when tragedy befalls them. It’s so exhilarating unique. It’s the one place where you can be the real you. It feels good to be near. It feels home.


  1. Anonymous (10 December, 2005 19:34)

    I guess, it takes different kinds to make people tick. What one does is motivated by his own interests and wants. As long as one is happy doing what he/she does, I guess.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting.

    Anonymous (22 December, 2005 06:59)

    basta ako, homesick na! naka-relate ako sa post mo, kasi marami na rin akong na-meet na pinoy na ganda ang sinasabi about sa pinas.. ewan ko ba.. siguro kasi, mas umangat ang buhay nila dito kaya ganon..

    nice blog.. ok lang po bang i-add kita? salamat...

    Anonymous (23 October, 2006 19:44)


    everything you wrote is well said...frankly i am a doctor back home and fortunately or unfortunately i am still working as a doctor in one of the asian countries....yup its true have to tighten your belt really in order to save money when living in this affluent country....but its beside the point...unlike other OFW, I am not really into remittance for anyone as I am still single and just working for myself. But you can only ask, why I am here? I am actually a doctor-specialist back home...but mind you, I could not even find a job or an offer for more than 6 months of trying..Its so depressing, right? Now I am here,maybe I am earning some money. I just have to think I am lucky when your benchmark is having no job at all but its true that there is a price for everything. Its like a combination of silence, sadness and apathy living in other country.Fo rall its glitter, I can only say that I want to go back in the Philippines as soon as I can. There is a big difference traveling in this places and actually living there

    Austin Pinoy (20 March, 2007 13:03)

    well said! im saving money to go back home and try to live there. Wish me luck! The lonelyness here is unbearable!

    Anonymous (20 March, 2007 21:24)

    I must say your post says it all. I think its what the majority thinks and feels but has never had the courage to say out loud. Your words will help a lot of people realize how much "sacrifice" OFWs have to make to ensure that their families have everything they need. And some of these families repay them by demanding more money, or splurging it or milking it for every cent its worth.


    Arashi-KIshu (23 March, 2007 03:44)


    I am here because the man who I want to be with said that I should come over if our relationship is to survive. I have a very personal reason.

    Besides, I was always a misfit in Manila.

    Anonymous (13 February, 2008 19:54)

    Great post! I agree with everything you said. I will go home in 3 years. A lot of my relatives can't understand why but I know I am making a right decision.

    Anonymous (23 March, 2008 06:41)

    well, all i can say is there is no place like home...

Post a Comment