written by Conrado de Quiros
published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 22, 2004
I’M glad Ibarra Gutierrez wrote what he did. I have at least someone to point to (other than myself) to show the alternative is by no means hypothetical; it is real. The choice of coming back to the country, or indeed staying put, may now take on the aspect of the road not taken, or the one littered with sharp stones, but as Gutierrez shows, that is the illusion and not the reality. It is the paradise espied in the distance that is the illusion and not the reality. Or it is the mirage and not the oasis.
I had a similar experience when I was in the United States three years ago. The salesman in the department store where I bought a memory stick for a camcorder was a Filipino, and he was absolutely delighted when he discovered I was a “kababayan” [fellow countryman]. He said he thought at first I was Japanese. I wanted the 128 MB, but they had only the 64 MB. But not to worry, he said, he would order the 128 and it would be there the following week. I thanked him but said I wouldn’t be around the following week. He gave me a card, saying he’d keep me abreast of sales the department store would have in future, and asked me where I was going. He was absolutely discombobulated when I said back to Manila. I swear his jaw fell. He could not grasp the idea.
He asked me what I wanted to do a damn fool thing like that for, or that was the subtext of his more polite question. I said I had a job in Manila. He countered that there were jobs in the United States and they paid better. He himself had been a high school teacher in the southern province of Iloilo, he said, and he could barely support his wife and two kids with his pay. He had gotten to the United States only after much effort. He was denied a visa several times, but he persevered and managed to get one in the end. I did not ask him what kind. He took one odd job after another until he became a clerk in the department store. By dint of hard work, he eventually got promoted to the camera section. He would never dream of going back to Iloilo, he said.
Like Gutierrez, I have heard friends in the United States explain me away almost apologetically (to themselves most of all) as being a “nationalist.” That presumably is the reason I am not joining them in the land of the free and brave, free enough to work your ass off for the cottage with the picket fence and brave enough to endure cold, exile and meaninglessness to do it: I am a “nationalist.”
Well, if “nationalist” means to continue to believe in this country, notwithstanding resolute proof of its predilection for suicide, and armed only with the vision or hope it can be better, then I guess I am a nationalist. If “nationalist” means to read our history or know the past, something most Filipinos refuse to do, and having it for guide to glimpse the way to the future, then I guess I am a nationalist. If “nationalist” means to relate to other people as a Filipino, as someone who has a home, an identity and pride in his national patrimony, who has “malasakit,” or can feel deeply for his country, then I guess I am a nationalist.
It is no big deal, it is what the people of other countries have. And it is a testament to our impoverishment that what is routine and natural and obvious to them take on the aspect of epic heroism for us.
But it isn’t just this that drives me to stay here and try to make things better, however seemingly hopeless that has become, no small thanks to a procession of vicious leaders who seem determined to send this country hurtling to the precipice. Not least this last one, who is now depleting the national coffers to remain in power. Gutierrez hits the nail on the head when he asks, what are you really giving up when you choose to stay here? Unless you are an overseas Filipino worker who is compelled to leave from the stark choice of living or dying, toiling in the desert or starving in a lush land, what sacrifices are you making?
You are not going to starve on a teacher’s pay, however small that is. You are not going to starve on a journalist’s pay, however iniquitous it is. And you are not going to starve on whatever material rewards come from working in an NGO, exercising a profession (engineering, law, architecture, medicine, priesthood), or painting, playing music and writing, however meager they are. Arguably, you will earn more elsewhere, notwithstanding that you are reduced to being a maid in Kowloon, a caretaker in Toronto, or a salesclerk in a camera shop in Los Angeles. But that brings us to the heart of the matter:
All you really lose is a “pursuit of happiness,” a right enshrined in the Constitution, that has to do with acquiring more and more — or at least more than the next fellow. That is the largely unquestioned premise of this monumental Diaspora, the rod by which we measure success. You are a doctor in this country, you compare yourself to what Filipino caregivers abroad get and you will be envious. But you compare yourself to the bedraggled mass huddling in a tiny corner of this wretched metropolis, and you will consider yourself lucky. You are a public school teacher, you will be hard put to buy your two kids chicken dinners from a Jollibee fast-food restaurant every week. But you will be able to buy them shoes and books and send them to school where the barefooted and tubercular farmer fighting off pests in the fields won’t.
Frankly, I too cannot understand that attitude of many Filipinos in the United States who say that if this country can only provide them jobs and investment opportunities that will allow them to enjoy the amenities they have there, they would not think twice about repairing here. Gutierrez is right: thankfully, he doesn’t have to demand those conditions to want to live here. I don’t either.
I figure I’m not the one who’s making sacrifices. They are.