Sure, working abroad is all glitz and glamour. If the curated photos on Facebook are your only basis, that is.
Ask a random Filipino on the street about what they want in life, and nine times out of ten, you’ll get the same answer: “Ang pangarap ko ay makapag-abroad.” (“I dream of working/living abroad.”) While the local economy’s been pic king up, its gains aren’t really felt by the majority, so many still look to foreign lands for a better life.
One can’t really blame them, especially if their Facebook feed is peppered with photos of someone’s latest Nike sneakers or an entirely family being treated to lunch at the Vikings buffet, all courtesy of someone’s OFW mom/dad/aunt/uncle/neighbor-in-law.
But is the grass really that much greener in California, Dubai, or Melbourne? Just how much do our OFW’s sacrifice to keep everyone happy back home? What exactly is their life like, behind all the shiny social media posts of massive balikbayan boxes and fancy family reunions?
1. For starters, what you see on Facebook is less than a tenth of what is really going on in an OFW’s life.
We all want to present the best version of our lives on social media: parties, new doodads, and the omnipresent photo of someone’s engagement ring are typical Facebook fodder.
What no one takes photos of are the grueling hours worked in unsatisfying or soul-crushing jobs, the often-cramped living conditions they call home, the struggles of dealing with superiors and colleagues who might look down on Filipinos, and the all-consuming fear that pervades your life when you are an illegal immigrant.
2. A lot of them take on menial, demeaning, and even dangerous jobs.
Speaking of work, have you ever wondered why people post status updates about making it to Australia, Canada, or the US but rarely ever mention what they do for a living?
For many of our OFW’s, underemployment is part of the struggle. You might study for years and years to become a brilliant doctor or a tenured professor in the Philippines, but because opportunities to earn a respectable income in those professions aren’t as plentiful as you think, it’s not unheard of for these same individuals to work as caregivers, factory workers, or even nannies abroad.
In some cases, jobs for overseas workers are downright dangerous, particularly for those working on oil rigs or with machines that could grind them into powder if they aren’t careful.
3. That balikbayan box they send you every two-three months contains more than just imported canned goods, toiletries, and linens.
Their proverbial sweat, blood, and tears is in there too. Do you know how many grocery trips it takes to fill up one box? Multiply that with the price of essentials in Australia or any other country they’re based in, and then try to imagine how many overtime shifts they had to work to come up with that amount.
We haven’t even talked about the costs of shipping that box over to their family in the Philippines. Sending a box that’s only half-full would be a waste of both space and money, which is why it can take a while for it to arrive.
4. They’ll make do with their tattered clothes and beat-up old cell phones just so they can buy you those things you asked for.
Never mind that the tips of their shoes are practically yawning open from all the tape they’ve applied to keep it together or if they have to go hungry a few times, but they’ll scrimp and save just to be able to afford that spanking new pair of Adidas trainers that you’ve been bugging them to get you.
5. OFW’s can’t afford to get sick.
Why? Reason no. 1: No one is around to take care of them. Reason no. 2: Unless they have sick leaves (those starting out or those who work menial jobs often don’t), they won’t get paid if they stay home and rest.
Thus, they have no choice but to suck it up and deliver just the same.
And locals wonder why lots of employers prefer migrants. Tsk, tsk.
6. Unless they were able to bring their family along, life abroad is often lonely.
And unfathomably exhausting. It’s hard to be yourself or to truly open up when you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak your mother tongue. The only time you can do those things is when you meet up with fellow Filipinos, but that doesn’t happen often since they’re just as busy as you trying to make ends meet and providing for dependents back home.
This is why it’s hard for many OFW’s to form satisfying friendships abroad and why a lot of them spend that rare day off holed-up in their apartment by themselves (apart from saving money, of course).
When you’re coming from a hard, long day at work and are faced with a mountain of chores (OFW’s have no maids or helpers so they have to do everything themselves), it’s only natural to long for company or at least, someone whom you can freely unburden yourself too.
7. Having “good English” doesn’t mean squat abroad.
This is another reason why it can be so difficult to find new friends in a different country. For all our bluster about how good our English speaking skills are (to be fair, they are quite good), each region of the world has its own version of the language and even the most fluent among us will feel gobsmacked when faced with a fast-talking Aussie (What the heck does “arvo” mean??? Ano daw???).
8. They miss their families all the darn time.
All the things OFW’s need to get used to quickly (see the previous item) can make them feel displaced, making their longing for home even more intense. The need to belong is a human instinct, as is the need to be close to your family, and those are two things that migrants learn to suppress out of necessity.
Things get easier once they’re able to adjust or find friends among fellow OFW’s, but the feelings never really go away. Sometimes, the sight of the child they were hired to look after can remind them of their own little girl or boy back home forced to grow up without a mother, and that’s all it takes to make their eyes well up again.
9. Homesickness, anxiety, and self-pity are their constant companions.
With all their worries about the future (“Will they extend my visa?,” “Are my employers going to retrench the staff?,” “Will I be able to save up enough to send Junior to DLSU?”), constant aches for their growing children and/or for their spouse back home, and daily struggles with all the other challenges common to OFW’s, it’s a miracle that they manage to stay sane.
10. There are some days when they want to give up, and just go home (but most of them never give in to that).
There’s no sugarcoating it: being an OFW is hard. You deal with long hours of stress, loneliness, and frustration (“Ugh, why won’t our grandma’s neighbor stop calling to ask for donations for this year’s town fiesta?” or something like that is a constant refrain), and you often do so on your own. And on some days, you want to throw in the towel and book yourself a one-way ticket home.
But when you open up your wallet to pull out your credit card, you see it. Your children’s toothsome smiles. Your spouse’s loving face looking up at you. And then you remember why you worked so hard to get here: you want to give your family a life that you never even dared to dream of for yourself, and you’d sooner jump off the Sydney Bridge than let them down.
So, you wipe away your tears, take a deep breath, and spur yourself onto the breach once more.
Anthony Bourdain once said that Filipinos are probably the most giving people on the planet, that they “give – of themselves, of their time, their money, their love – to others.” If that’s true, then the OFW ought to be the poster child for the Filipino spirit of giving. For what could be a better example than sacrificing so much of one’s self and enduring the consequences, just so your loved ones will neither experience nor know about what you go through to keep them all happy?
Special thanks to Adrian for the main image.