Eric in Nebraska’s Sandhills

Here I am, taking the seat at the corner, the only elevated area of the coffee shop. I never take this seat unless nothing else is available. I always have this unusual feeling when elevated, like being stared at (although I do not possess the charming looks people would want to even take a glance at), jeered at (I’m thinking too much), and pestered by rowdy and vicious juveniles (alright, let me jog my memory — crumpled. paper. hit. face. New York. coffee shop). Crush out the last one, it is very unlikely that it could happen in Brookings.

The coffee shop is seldom quiet. Whichever seat I take, I could always hear the ramblings of people seated behind, beside, and in front of me. For instance, at this moment, two guys are talking about a cellphone that suddenly died. Like it is something funny, both are making jokes at the phone’s unfortunate death. In a seat opposite, a girl is chatting with a friend about her math assignment. Glenn, the guy who collects tin cans with his three-wheeled carriage, is mumbling about something I could not comprehend. There is this one-of-a-kind accent that Glenn possesses that is just hard for me to grasp, at least in my level of English understanding. A couple of old men in one table are talking about their discontentment of the US government’s health care policies. Me, and the guy who is reading the bible two tables away, are the only ones whose noise are emanating from the sipping of coffee. But, if you count the clicking of the keyboard and flipping of the pages as noises, then maybe nobody is keeping the silence in here. Even the song in the radio is suggesting noise “bang, bang, I shot you down…bang bang, you hit the ground…”

I frequent the coffee shop for two things: one, the barristers are my friends; two, hours of tinkering research papers in the office make me sleepy and a cup of coffee completes my day. In between sips, I usually take the opportunity to talk to my friends and family on the phone. Or chat with them via Facebook or Yahoo Messenger. In few conversations with friends back home (who every so often assume I am wealthy), there were times I was confronted with the fact that, truly, living in the U.S. is not all a bed of roses. Unlike the popular belief in my country that whoever goes abroad (not necessarily being in the United States) becomes rich quicker, the truth is living abroad is hard as hell, emotionally and financially.

Truth: Married people who had to leave their families in the Philippines, have to endure days of missing them. That alone isn’t easy. No new friends can ease the lonesomeness when it strikes in the middle of the night. There is no quick relief when you hear news about your kid being sick and you are miles away and helpless. Almost always, the separation distance brings depression. When struck, and you know nothing how to get the trouble out of your chest, you think of quitting and going home. You forget that the reason you are abroad is to provide a better life for your family. When depression clouds your logic, the fastest solution is to change horse midstream — and purchase the earliest flight back home!

For unmarried people, the same emotional distress applies. That is truth no. 2. Maybe at a much lesser intensity. Those who have not experienced independence at an earlier age could have their baptism of fire and suffer gloominess more than those who have been independent most of their lives. Missing parents, siblings, or relatives, is a common feeling for the young generations (most especially) who have traveled or migrated abroad for academic pursuits or work.

Majority of the Filipinos who work or live abroad are not rich. Trust me. Unless a Filipino marries a foreign national who owns big businesses, the life of a Filipino in a foreign land is just conventional. Pay attention that I am only saying majority, not all, as there are occasions when rare shooting stars that carry treasures fall on some fortunate Filipinos’ lap. These include:

1) starting a business concept abroad and making it big (even this doesn’t happen at the blink of an eye)

2) being discovered and hired by foreign large corporations/companies because of your extraordinary skills or talent

3) winning a lottery abroad (the chance of winning a 6-49 lotto is 1 in 13,983,816. Knock on wood!)

Ordinary living could mean being able to eat and work — multiply the “work” twice since some Filipinos are killing themselves working in so many different jobs. Count a travel or two here and there. Add the instances of spending time with friends in fine dining restaurants and for some drinks in bars. That’s about it. That is ordinary living. And for the love of Pete, doing all these won’t make anyone rich! However, some Filipinos think of the lifestyles as indicators of being affluent.

It is true that when a US dollar or Euro is spent in the Philippines, it could make a difference. It could mean a complete meal on the table. A basic-salaried Filipino worker in the Philippines could receive PHP 15,000 a month (US$ 358) for working 8 hours a day. Compare that, for instance, to an OFW getting $2000/month (PHP 84,000). Usually, this difference in amounts could lead to false thinking. A Filipino registered nurse working in the US could receive $4000/month (PHP 168,000) starting salary. This amount is multiple times higher than what a professor in a Philippine university gets. Again, the comparison often leads to thinking that Filipino nurses abroad, or any other profession earning just as much, are living affluent lives. Further, this creates the brainwave that anyone who takes up nursing school, or any other profession that will earn just as much, could become rich by working overseas.

The misconception that Filipinos abroad are wealthy stems from the reality that some of us think only of the gross earning in dollars. When taxes and other deductions are factored in, the gross income could even be sliced half. Now, deduct other monthly expenses — food, apartment rental, utility bills — and the ordinary OFW would be left with only a couple thousands in savings, or even less. And that is not enough to be labeled rich!

Indeed, being abroad for work does not usually equate to a financially rich life. What an OFW sends back home is the amount saved from living a very frugal lifestyle. There are those whose jobs are related to their college degrees. Good for them. But there are also many Filipinos whose college degrees (they have painfully earned in the Philippines) have been sacrificed and who had to endure a minimum-wage-paying job abroad. Countless times, I have met Filipino college-degree holders working as grocery baggers, or baby sitters, or house cleaners! They grab whatever little opportunity there is. In these times, big opportunities are hard to come by. But hey, don’t get me wrong. These are decent jobs done by hardworking Filipinos trying to earn a living, toiling day and night and exploring avenues to get the extra bucks, in order to send few hundred dollars of savings back to the Philippines.

The point that I want to get across is this: living and working in a foreign land is not all a lap of luxury. Those back home must understand that a dollar saved comes with days of strenuous work. An OFW may be earning more than the ordinary worker in the Philippines, but they also have to pay for the price of being away. The emotional cost that they have to live through cannot be measured by any amount of money.

It may be true that years of working abroad could give a better future for a family left behind. Your neighbor who used to live in an ordinary one-story house now lives in earth-colored luxurious bungalow complete with brand-new cars and a fancy well-lit gate. It may be true that children of OFW parents could most likely own the latest iPods or game consoles.

Mother dear chatting on FB.

But those are just half of the truth. The other half is far beyond the material belongings. It can only be felt, maybe seen, but not touched. Gaze at the lively face of an OFW arriving at the airport after years of being away. Witness the tight embrace from family members who cannot resist shedding a tear or two. Hearing personally “Kumusta na, miss kana namin” is a better consolation than the weekly (or even nightly) international phone calls.

When you hear the words Overseas Filipino Workers, do not think of money. Think of sacrifices. They may be inside a bar at this instant with a bottle of Samuel Adams Boston Lager beer, but at the back of their minds are pictures of family and loved ones, and an optimism that someday, when it is time, they could go home and enjoy a bottle of Red Horse while singing karaoke in front of a sari-sari store.