Can't an OFW have an opinion about the Philippines?

"Yes, I have been absent but my love for the country has not diminished by an inch in a way that is difficult for me to explain"

Bianca Villar-Gomez

Published: 5:56 AM May 12, 2016

Updated: 10:12 AM June 17, 2016

MANILA, Philippines – I always thought that loving your country is enough to have an opinion about its state of affairs. It isn’t, apparently.

It shattered me. I love my country, first and foremost. This is the kind of love that I have known since I was a child – I dreamt big things for the country and kept telling my parents, my peers, and my teachers that I will do my best to be of service to it when I grow up. I worked for the government for 3 years until it was economically difficult for me to sustain it because I was helping my brothers go to school. After working for the government, I engaged in education as a real calling – taught undergraduate students to the best of my abilities and continue to do everything I could do to make sure that I am qualified for the job. 

I am a registered voter and I cast my ballot overseas and I responsibly researched on the candidates I  voted for – from President down to the partylist. I am a taxpayer for the 5 years of my time as an active member of the employed population in the Philippines, and currently for VAT that my remittances equate to, and for basic purchases of my beneficiaries.

Alas, I am not in the country. In fact, I have been absent from the country for many years, to the extent that people I know do not know think that my opinion will not matter because I won’t feel the pain if another Marcos is elected. The validity of my suffering for a disgrace we almost committed to our history is questioned because I am not in the Philippines. I wept literally, when somebody said: "You will not be here. Don’t claim you will suffer the same."

Yes, I will not suffer the same, but I will suffer nevertheless.

I continued to monitor the results and then when it happened – when Robredo overtook Marcos and everybody started to celebrate, I sat alone on my desk, seriously questioning whether it was also valid that I celebrate with them. That was when I started to feel such deep pain down to my stomach, I called my husband in the middle of the night back in the Philippines and I cried like a child. 

Was love not enough? Yes, I have been absent but my love for the country has not been diminished by an inch in a way that is difficult for me to explain. It never occurred to me that it was possible, but it is what it is.

I kept up with news, I asked friends to send me content authored by Filipinos so I could understand what issues people prioritize, what jargon is spoken, among other things. It is the kind of love that can prevail over a love or hate for a certain political candidate, and as I’ve put it many times – it is the kind of love that is willing to take a heart that breaks over and over again if it means I can keep working in iteration so that we get better as a nation.

It is the kind of love that is willing to continuously weave through varying ideologies despite the emotional pains and insults you have to suffer from people who mock your appeal to unity because ‘you are an outsider, you left the country, you don’t get to have an opinion’. 

I also try to embody my being a Filipino in every work I do outside – I try connect my research to the Philippines, and when I meet people from different countries, my first sense of connection is always my being a Filipino: this is the food we eat; this is how the weather is like; we are so diverse culturally and it is beautiful; we have a word that cannot be translated to English; our names are combination of Malay, Spanish, English, Chinese and Filipino; "the findings in your research are interesting, I was wondering if it is possible we can look at it from a cross-country perspective because it seems our case in the Philippines is different"; and my list keeps building up. I exhaust every opportunity I can to be a Filipino outside of the country.

This is a perspective that has been ridiculed and categorized as an idealism that is available to those who are privileged to be outside of the country.

And I wonder – is it really a privilege to be outside of the country? (READ: 'What they don't tell you about the OFW life' )

I will not discount the comfortable life one can gain from living outside the country. It is true, some of us, at best instances, are privileged with better pavements, the cities we live in are walkable, the public transportation is efficient, the lines in government offices are not too bad, we have access to better healthcare, and the crime rates are not too high. You do not have to be rich here to live a comfortable life. That is incomparable to the everyday plight of a Filipino living in the Philippines where decent service is available to those who can afford it. 

That angered me back in the day, but my father’s words ring true. My father is an educated man who put himself through school to get a decent job – but a job in the Philippines was not enough to raise a family. So he left and built his home from a distance, raised 6 children he only saw for a maximum of 30 days in a year – out of those 30 days, he had to fix his Balik Manggagawa clearance at POEA that dragged on for days, and if it were not summer, he would only see us after school.

He taught us how to love through hand-written letters that always reminded us "to be the best of yourself", "health is wealth", and "charity begins at home". He made sure we understood that we need to first be stable before we could expand.

It was pragmatic – you cannot give what you don’t have. And what he did not have while he was away for about 30 years was a family to be with him when he was sick, to celebrate with him when he got a promotion, or during birthdays and many occasion, during Christmas, a family to come home to and be in company with as he ate his meal, and a family he could express his love to not only through long distance calls and gifts sent from abroad if only to remind us that he is present, that he loves us.

Back then, I already understood – my father, like many OFWs, could have been those who bled for the country. But they are displaced out of necessity. Some of them could have been Rizals but never came to be because they were halted by people who dismissed their opinion as being invalid for reasons of not being home or because it was difficult to see what was there to come home to. Some of them could have been Bonifacios that never came to be because they had to endure being voiceless while their family had to make do. 

I vowed, back then, to be what my father and many other OFWs could not be. I took his advice to heart, did my best to finish school, get a decent job, and dedicate every aspect of my life to serve amid the frustration and complaints. I keep connected with my students, I patiently line up at POEA, I send feedback to government where necessary, I engage Filipinos in my environment about our state of affairs, I exercise my right to vote, among many other things.

But only so much can be done in my lifetime, and it is a process – I may never be a Rizal or a Bonifacio because the ends still don’t meet when it comes to raising a family comfortably back in the Philippines – not if you started from scratch. Some of us are ahead of others in progress. But it is also possible that some of us are still outside because there are things we want to take from the world that takes some time to learn and we need to be outside just a little bit more. Maybe one day, we can bring that gift home from the world to the Philippines?

But if being outside of the country is such a crime of privilege, does it rid me of the right to love the country nevertheless? To care about it? Am I less entitled to suffer and celebrate with it because I am not there? Is it possible for me to love the country in absence, like many of other Filipinos overseas who can map the faces of their loved ones on their computer screens as they make virtual calls – because that is the best they could have in the moment?

Perhaps, this is a dream that I can only make for my child in the future. That maybe, if I fail at being an accomplished Rizal or Bonifacio, perhaps my child can be. That maybe, once I’ve fought the battle outside the border, my child in the future does not need to justify why she or he has an opinion about the country. Because she or he will be in the country. And because that is a battle that I already fought for him or her.

Maybe, I can endure that pain of being ridiculed for being outside the country while the country weeps or celebrates the victory or loss of a new government. Maybe, I just have to remind myself that loving the country is enough, loving it silently, but hard, is enough. 

Maybe one day, my being a Filipino, regardless of where I am, will be enough. –

Bianca Villar-Gomez is a Filipino living in Spain. She writes this for many OFWs, scholars, and Filipinos who are trying to recreate home outside of the Philippines. But most especially, she writes this for her father who took the right steps to make sure she can pursue this great love for the country.

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