Dear batchmates, kabayan, officemates and friends :
IT WASN’T by choice, but neither was it completely by accident. We lived in a depressed or urban poor area, more popularly known back home as a squatter community, twice in our so-called life.
The first time, a few months in 1988 as head of a young family struggling to survive and foolishly avoiding the well-meaning I-told-you-sos and assistance of relatives, and second, in the early 1990s as part of a two-day immersion activity in fulfillment of a university course.
We don’t deny these events as they are part of our consciousness, having actually happened, but neither do we wear it on the lapel of life experience as a badge of honor.
There is nothing glamorous about poverty. The reality of hot, angry and dirty surroundings, not to mention the foul stench of human urine and excreta too overpowering to romanticize, we lived with everyday. All the cliches’ you hear about urban poor are true. Alcoholics starting their daily reunions at 8 in the morning, couples in shouting matches (sometimes unfortunately degenerating into stabbing matches) within meters of your own shanty, gangs fighting over territory and the spoils of crime, and unlucky stray dogs being roasted over a spit, we beheld all these visual delights not unlike a morbidly watchable train wreck wrapped around a human tableau.
Since then, life has improved somewhat, but we have hardly forgotten those rough times. In fact, the last few years we have been blessed as a guest worker in New Zealand, albeit under a tenuous tenure at the mercy of the prevailing political winds.
We draw from this experience when asked why in the face of all difficulty and uncertainty (we don’t know how much longer working , much less applying someday for permanent residence remains a viable option), we choose to strike it out in a strange new land.
Please don’t misunderstand, all things being equal ( or in a perfect world ) we would rather live the rest of our life and grow old in the Philippines, the only country we have known as home. However-ever, most of us know in our gut, but are too prideful, naive or ignorant to admit it : P-Noy, Kiko and Chiz notwithstanding, it will take more than a generation of inspired professionals, entrepreneurs and OFWs for our compatriots to reach the promised land.
In the meantime, you pocket your 30 pieces of silver wherever you find it, never mind the perpetually disjointed feeling of being uprooted, statelessness, status limbo and all other strangely familiar elements of always being on the way, yet never being able to get home and sift local gravel through one’s fingers, and savor the smog of one’s own sky.
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OFWs and migrant workers’ efforts can only alleviate our misery, not unlike angels carrying pails of water to the parched mouths of scalding souls in purgatory. This much, we know.
Likewise against the barometer of the reality of poverty we try to assess just how hard life is (tongue in cheek) in the land of our hosts. The legislated minimum of NZ$12 / hour, many here lament, can hardly feed or support the standard of life to which most New Zealanders are accustomed.
But in peso terms this hourly wage, projected to a day’s labor, can support as much as three families’ basic needs (food, clothing and shelter for a family of two parents and three children). It’s hard to be outraged about our lot in life, given this backdrop. In a similar vein, locals like to ask why Asians, particularly Chinese and Filipinos, like to wrap the remnants of restaurant meals for consumption later, when such remains are usually treated as table scraps not even given to pets.
In response, we are reminded of a TV documentary aired back home about how whole communities of urban poor would wait for rubbish trucks to unload their nightly deliveries, from which would be sourced their much-needed sustenance. The contents, usually leftovers from fast food outlets (like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC) might contain the most rancid smelling bags of from a multitude of diners but as long as it fills bellies, nobody complains. Unthinkable for most in the 3rd World, but a fact of life for many back home.
Unsurprisingly, many of our countrymen share our quixotic dreams regarding finding our fortune at the end of the First World rainbow. After so many tries, many job-seekers have long since given up the ghost, and only the passport and visa provide redemption for years of deprivation. The paradigm of a better life abroad is too eloquently simple, the formula too efficient for our microeconomic dilemma. Not all the legal obstructions, time and distance standing in the way of our financial goals, and finally the reality that even First World edens must look after their own, first, are enough to stop us from achieving our dreams.
Tough to admit, but the grass is always greener on the other side of the electrified, video monitored and 24/7 patrolled fence.
On the other side of the devalued coin, fellow Pinoys know only too well that no matter how fat the noche buena (Christmas dinner) or well-fed the passbook, we are only a few fat years removed from the most destitute and deprived of our brethren. Sure, we can buy ourselves a little more than the most basic necessities for our kids and our loved ones, and come holiday season, there’s always the balikbayan box full of chocolates, canned goods and Danish biscuits that oddly enough can easily be purchased at any Duty Free outlet back home. But take away our hard-earned foreign exchange and the all-important J-O-B that provides for debts and dreams for all our families, and what do you have? A future as bleak as it is opaque.
Whenever we conceive the slightest thought of giving up and going home, we merely look back on our poorer-than-poor days and realize that when you have seen rock bottom, hope never dies.
Thanks for reading !