Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Filipino of the Year

January 01, 2008
Updated 23:27:09 (Mla time)
Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines -- It was early December, a month ago.
We were freezing our butts off in London after having just braved the cold to walk to the Underground. When we got there, I wasn’t sure the Oyster card I had with me -- that’s the equivalent of the Metro Rail Transit stored-value card in Metro Manila, though one you just kept adding value to through the slot machines -- carried enough amount for the trip. The slot machine wasn’t working so I went over to the booth.
The booth was manned by a middle-aged Asian with graying hair and a pleasant face. It wasn’t late in the day, it must have been 5:30 p.m. or so, but it was as dark as 9:00 p.m. and there weren’t too many people around. Before we got to the booth, I asked my daughter, Miranda, if she had loose change so I wouldn’t have to use bills.
When it was my turn, the Asian asked, smiling, “Pinoy ba kayo?” [“Are you Filipino?”]
He was glad to see us, and when we told him we were just passing through, he asked how things were home. He had of course heard about the events at Pen, but he wasn’t really concerned with that. He was more concerned about how we still celebrated Christmas. He hadn’t been home in some time and last he saw the country turned Christmas-y in October. I said the duration might have gotten shorter but the passion -- or inebriation -- with which we celebrated it had not.
He wished us well and punched in a couple more pounds on my card than I had paid.
London was crawling with Filipinos. The hotel we stayed in, the Royal Horseguards, harbored about 20, some of them part-time. Miranda got to learn about it at breakfast when a waiter recognized her, having The Filipino Channel at home, and took a picture of them together on his cell phone. The Pinoy was less than five feet, as gay as they come, and walked and talked (with a British accent) with complete confidence. He it was who apprised us of the “Filipino Mafia” in the hotel, as the other staff members called them, which included bellhop, lobby supervisor, waiter and laundry help.
Later, another Filipino who had been there for more than 30 years -- more than half her life, she said; she started out as domestic and worked her way up to desk clerk in a big department store -- swore there was no hospital in London that didn’t have a Filipino nurse in it. She should know, she said, because her husband who had just had a heart-valve operation, paid for by health insurance, had a whole slew of Filipino nurses to take care of him. Many hospitals there, she said, had no less than a full score of Filipino nurses in them. The influx apparently began sometime in the mid-1990s when Britain experienced a scarcity of nurses and opened its doors to applicants from abroad. Unfortunately, as my informant warned, that well has dried up, the demand for nurses has dropped to a trickle.
I have no hesitation about picking my Filipino of the Year for 2007: That is the overseas Filipino worker, or OFW.
The OFW had the most impact on the country last year -- for the last few years in fact but particularly dramatically last year when they brought the dollar crashing down. Unfortunately, the OFWs’ impact on the country has been both positive and negative, the source as much of its tragedy as of its glory, as much of its weakness as of its strength, as much of its undoing as of its survival.
It is the source of the livelihood of probably now a tenth of the population, counting the undocumented. The “wandering Jew” has been replaced by the “wandering Filipino,” the latter to be found in the steppes of Russia as on the steps of Rome’s cathedrals, in the remotest parts of Africa as on the glittering cities of Europe. But it is the source as well of enormous grief, most of the OFWs taking on menial jobs, except in places like Dubai and parts of the United States where they work as engineers, architects, doctors and IT personnel. Occupying as they do the lowest rungs of the social strata, they are often prey to abuse, discrimination and various physical and moral indignities.
Overseas work is the No. 1 home-maker in this country, it is the No. 1 home-breaker in this country: Without it this country would perish in the blink of an eye, with it families are breaking up in the blink of an eye. Overseas work has stemmed uncontrollable dollar-drain, overseas work has made possible unparalleled brain-drain -- doubly tragically in that Filipino doctors are becoming nurses to find work abroad. Overseas work allows this country to get by economically, overseas work allows this government to get by tyrannically: It is the one thing that has prevented the “social volcano,” near to bursting from the roiling magma of corruption and injustice, from exploding by offering a safety valve.
But the greatest impact the OFW has had on this country I glimpsed some years ago on a visit to the United States. I was looking over the cameras in a shop in San Francisco when a clerk came up to me. He was a Filipino and was thrilled to know I was one too. In broad strokes, he told me how he had come to the United States virtually penniless after spending a fortune to get there illegally and had worked his way in that shop from driver to supervisor of the electronics section. He advised me --as proof of his newfound status -- not to buy a camera that day but to wait a couple of weeks, since he knew for a fact the store was planning a huge sale when prices would really plunge. I said I didn’t have time -- I was going home in a couple of days.
It took him a full minute to answer. He stood there in a state of shock as though a bolt of lightning had just hit him. Finally, he blurted: “Why?”
The greatest impact of the OFW is to have reversed the equation. Yesterday you asked why when a Filipino proposed to live abroad. Today you ask why when a Filipino proposes to come home.