Growing up in Sangandaan, Kalookan City, I remember how closely knit our neighbourhood was. As I look back, it seemed that everybody just knew everybody. My cousins and I were free to roam around, and it also seemed that our parents did not worry much about us being abducted or being in harm’s way (unlike most parents today). It was a pleasant and happy neighbourhood and in spite of the obvious disparity of economic status among the neighbours, we were all friends. We had neighbours who were doctors, engineers and lawyers, and at the same time, we also had neighbours who were jeepney drivers, labanderas (laundry women), mga tindera sa palengke (market vendors) and other blue-collar workers. And yet, I remember every family, rich or poor, was cordial towards each other and helped one another in times of need.
As a child in the 60s, I could not help but notice that we made quite a few trips to the airport to see our neighbours off. A trip to the Manila International Airport then was always a treat for us kids because it was thrilling to see the huge airplanes depart from the viewing deck. But I also noticed every time we’d go to the airport how sad my parents looked when they hugged their soon-to-be expatriate friends goodbye.
One by one, most of my parents’ kumpadres and kumadres (close friends) left – while most of them went to the US, some of them immigrated to Australia and some to Canada. The excitement of going to the airport would soon be replaced by sadness because for us, it also meant that one or two of our kalaro (playmates) would not be with us any more. I remember asking my tatay (father) then why our neighbours were leaving. He would tell me, in a language that a 10-year-old would understand, something like, “They’re going to America because their father found work in a hospital there.” He would explain to me that they were going to a far away land and the possibility of ever seeing them again in our lifetime would be very slim.
Eventually, our neighbourhood was no longer the one I knew. In time, my cousins and I were restricted to play only where our parents could see us. Strangers who seemed aloof and distant occupied the houses in our neighbourhood that the émigrés had left behind. My little world, from my eyes as a child, had changed.
My father never entertained the idea of emigrating. He would always tell me – whenever we’d talk about the possibility of us doing what some of their friends did, “Yes, it (America) may be the land of milk and honey but only for those who were born there – the white people, not for us brown-skinned people.” In saying that, I was sure he also didn’t want me to be interested or to even toy with the thought of leaving the country like our neighbours who had elected to settle in the United States or some other countries. “You will always be a first-class citizen in your own country but never in another country,” he would often tell me when stories of racial discrimination would come up at our dinner table.
A new decade came – the 70s. The situation in the country had changed not for the better, but for the worse. My father still believed that the country would recover. I was losing hope but, like him, I did not want to leave even if most of my childhood friends decided to join the brain-drain bandwagon. There was no Internet at that time and communication with my friends who were either studying or working abroad was through snail mail. Most of them decided to stay away, never to come back except for the occasional balikbayan trips to visit their parents or siblings who were still in the Philippines. I knew they were struggling abroad because they said so in their letters, but in spite of the challenges they faced overseas, they were willing to give it a chance. I was not. I was still hoping and willing to take my chances in my own country, the Philippines.
In the early 80s, my father passed away, he was only 54. We were a young family and being the eldest, I eventually realized that I did not have the same optimism that my father had about the Philippines. I loved my country but I had to be practical. Competition was getting tougher and tougher in the workplace and the government was getting more corrupt than ever. The gap between the rich and the poor was getting wider and the middle class was getting thinner. There had to be a choice. There must be something better outside my small universe. Had my father lived to see the political and social decay, I thought, he would give me his blessings if I told him I was ready to emigrate from the country of my birth. A prayer asking for forgiveness was my ticket freeing me from my father’s legacy of loyalty and patriotism.
A few years later, in 1988, I followed what our neighbours did when I was a little girl – I became an immigrant. I am now another expatriate – a bona fide member of the Canadian immigrant society that according to the 2006 census is critical to the country’s population growth.
I still love the Philippines. There is no way that love will fade away. A day does not go by that I don’t miss the country of my birth. I suffer inside every time I hear of the oppression and the political killings that are stifling the freedom of our people. I cringe every time I hear horror stories about innocent people, human rights activists and journalists being “salvaged” – the ironic term that, in the Philippines, means to be kidnapped and murdered. Just looking at the number of OFWs scattered all over the world and the Filipino immigrants who are arriving everyday in Manitoba under the Manitoba Nominee Program we can see that the exodus continues.
It’s true that, ostensibly, the Philippines seems to be very progressive – the grandeur of the financial district, the designer boutiques, the glamour of the high society and the movie star glitz, the huge million-dollar homes, and so many possibilities. I know that some of us are still thinking of going back to the Philippines to retire someday and that’s a very attractive idea to me, if only…
Just this past week, a new survey conducted in January and February by a Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) said that: “The Philippines has the distinction of being perceived in the worst light this year. People are just growing tired of the inaction and insincerity of leading officials when they promise to fight corruption.” Local corruption monitors, the survey indicated, confirm that graft and bribery remain rampant. “Corruption has penetrated every level of government, from the Bureau of Customs down to the traffic police officers who pull over motorists to demand bribes.” We now hold the trophy that Indonesia shamefully owned in 2006. As soon as that survey result was released, the pro-government spin-doctors decided to slam the survey group and worked on doing corrective PR work for the government in power.
You and I know the truth. There’s no amount of government propaganda that can convince us that the PERC survey was just a ploy to destroy the current administration’s imagined “credibility.” The May 14 Philippine election is coming soon. We can now see the balimbings (turn-coats) swinging from one political party to another. I can only watch and pray that a new breed of politicians – those who are sincere and honest public servants – would safely ride the tide and get to their election precincts alive.
E-mail Emmie at email@example.com.