SITTING OUTSIDE the small pharmacy she and her husband own in Palawan—the Philippines’ western-most province, a far-flung island known as the last frontier—Diana recounts how she let her application for American citizenship lapse.
“We never responded to the [US] embassy,” she says. “So then they sent us a letter: ‘It seems you are not interested in pursuing your application, so we are canceling [it].’”
Diana, 31, shrugs and takes another bite of fried banana, a popular Filipino street food. A motorised tricycle coughs by, its driver looking for a customer. A few stray dogs, whip-skinny, drift past. I watch them make their way down the road, which is dotted with palm trees, nipa huts and the occasional cement building. It’s typhoon season and heavy grey clouds arrange themselves on the horizon.
“We prefer it here,” Diana adds.
Her attitude might seem odd. After all, the Philippines are a place where a third of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Good jobs are scarce, even for those with college degrees. The country’s most successful export is people, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), who fan out across the globe and send home billions of dollars in remittances that help the domestic economy stay afloat.
The phenomenon began in 1974, when some 36,000 Filipinos began working abroad. Framed as a temporary solution to what has proved a permanent unemployment problem, the OFW ranks today stand at roughly nine million. Their remittances constitute more than 10 percent of the Filipino economy and are the fourth largest in the world—with India, China, and Mexico taking the top three spots. The Filipino government hails OFWs as “bagong bayani,” the “new heroes” of the Philippines.
But the adult children of OFWs—a generation of men and women who have grown up without their mothers and fathers—often have a different opinion of their parents and their decision to work overseas.
Diana, the middle of three children, was nine when her mother left to work in the United States. An aunt took care of her for a while. And when that aunt set out for Singapore, Diana was passed along to another aunt.
The money her mother sent home allowed Diana to attend private schools. Later, those remittances put her through pharmacy school. Diana is grateful but, when she looks back on the 22 years she has spent without a mother, she says she’d rather that her mom had stayed in the Philippines.
They kept in touch via the phone and “slow letters,” Diana says, smiling at the memory of these exchanges. Later, they wrote each other emails and talked online. But now that Diana lives in Palawan, where the Internet isn’t always reliable, the two women communicate less.
When Diana’s mother comes to visit every year, they often argue. Diana has a hard time being physically affectionate with her mom. “But I love her, you know, so if she wants to kiss me, I let her,” she says.
Despite their strained relationship, Diana and her two brothers badger their mom to move back to the Philippines. She refuses. “She tells us that we have our own lives, that I have my own family now,” says Diana, who is a mother to two small boys. “I tell her, ‘Yes, we are adults, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a parent anymore. [Motherhood] is not like a job that you get to resign from.’”
That’s why Diana let her application for American citizenship fall through the cracks. Her husband—a first-generation Filipino, the son of Indian immigrants—has visited the United States. He didn’t like it and would prefer not to leave his parents. Diana has already passed the exam she needs to get her pharmacist’s license in North America. She knows she can find a good job in the US. But, still pained by her mom’s decision to remain overseas, she won’t follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“If we’re going, we’re going as a family,” she explains. “It’s not me going and them staying here.” Some things are more important than money.
As if to make her point, Diana’s five-year-old son comes out of the store and climbs into her lap. He’s fair-skinned, like his father, and has long, dark eyelashes.
“Do you want mommy to go on an airplane?” Diana asks him.
He shakes his head, “No.”
Nanay, 79, has an altogether different story. She came to Manila from the Pangasinan province a few years after World War II. The Japanese occupation had ended, but life in the province was still hard—too hard, and she’d heard that there were Americans in the city looking for domestic helpers. Nanay found work with an American-Jewish family living in Manila’s Malate district. She eventually followed them to Israel, where she stayed, undocumented, for 30 years before returning to the Philippines.
Her childhood disrupted by the Japanese occupation, her teenage years lost to work, Nanay collects dolls. “I never had any when I was little,” she told me over merienda, the late afternoon snack bequeathed by the Spanish, who colonised the Philippines for four centuries. Nanay gripped her napkin tight as she talked.
Nanay, Tagalog for Mom, is not her real name. Heartbroken when her fiancé left to work as a seaman, Nanay never married or had children. Instead, she took to mothering younger OFWs in Israel, including the mutual friend that introduced us, the Filipina who calls her Mom.
Nanay first made her life as a migrant worker in Malate. Many say this neighborhood was once grand. Today, it’s full of crumbling sidewalks, knotted power lines, wheezing jeepneys. A large sign mounted to the top of a building reads ‘Job Lane’. Malate is home to many of the employment agencies that arrange overseas work for Filipinos. Women queue outside, peering at the notices taped to the windows. Domestic helpers are needed in Lebanon, Dubai, Qatar.
I meet Lyni, the 28-year-old daughter of an OFW who works in Singapore, at a café in a crowded mall in Malate. We order coffee and sit down.
Lyni’s mom left when Lyni was one. Although babies don’t form long-term memories, she insists that she remembers the moment when her mother passed her off to an elderly “aunt”—a cousin of Lyni’s maternal grandmother. The decade that followed, Lyni says, is a blank.
“I totally blocked it,” she explains. “[When your mother is gone] you try to make yourself tough.”
Lyni’s collection of chunky bracelets—carved wood and hammered brass—slide down her arms as she gathers her waist-length black hair. She pulls the bundle over her shoulder and drapes it across her torso. She holds it with one hand as we talk. It reminds me of the way Nanay clenched the napkin. Lyni’s hair is her security blanket.
“When you don’t have someone doting on you, like in a normal family,” Lyni continues, “you lose a lot of emotions. But sometimes it’s nice to feel and sometimes it’s nice to…”
She pauses and I glance down at the questions in my notebook. Her story and her candor have moved me. I find myself struggling against the tears forming in my throat. I keep my head down and I stay quiet, waiting for them to pass.
Lyni touches my hand. “I’m getting better now. Every time I see simple things, like a father carrying his son, I get like, ‘Ahhhh, look at that.’ I want to hug the father and say to him, ‘You’re doing great, even if you’re poor.’”
Thanks to her mother’s remittances, Lyni is college-educated. But rather than heading overseas, as Filipinos with degrees often do, she works at a local NGO that helps the residents of Smokey Mountain, a rubbish dump in central Manila. The poorest of the poor, they pick through the trash for a living.
As Lyni discusses the frustration she feels towards OFWs, her words take on a decidedly nationalistic tone: “It’s really a shame for the Philippines because I think that we have the most talented and intelligent [people] and where are they now? They’re in a foreign land, serving foreign people.”
This point is not lost on the Filipinas who work abroad. As one woman remarked while standing in the queue outside an employment agency in Malate, “In the past, it was the Spanish that came here. Now, we go out there.” But for OFWs, there is an overwhelming sense of not having a choice.
Lyni’s and Diana’s stories recall the protest literature of Jose Rizal. A beloved patriot, Filipinos call him a “national hero.” His writing, which sparked the Philippine Revolution, often focused on the havoc Spanish colonialism wreaked on families.
I ask Lyni if she thinks the OFW phenomenon constitutes a new form of colonialism.
“Definitely,” she says, nodding. “But it’s going to be a long time before Filipinos realise that working abroad is not a greener pasture.”