By Jesse T. Reyes


SAN DIEGO, Calif. –The Philippines is a Catholic nation – the only such country in Asia – and this wonderful republic exports missionaries around the world.  They are not directly hired to be evangelists, not official workers of the church.  No, they are overseas workers and educators, doctors, nurses and housekeepers, oil riggers and sailors that go to other lands and travel to the far reaches of the earth and everywhere they go they take the joyous gospel of the church with them.

I have seen those smiles of delight and joy on their faces many times before when I was still in the Navy and in the many countries I have visited.  Truly, Filipinos have special traits and they are beautifully expressed as I have traveled around the world plus visits back to the old motherland.

First, there is a sense of community, of family.  Into the church, these Filipino Christians did not sit apart from each other in different isles.  They sat together, closely.  They didn’t just sing quietly, mumbling, or simply mouthing the words.  No, they raised their voices in harmony together as though they enjoyed the sense of unity and communion among them. They are family even if they are not related.

Second, they have inner peace and joy which is rare in the world today.  When most of the world’s citizens are worried and fretful, I have found our “kababayans” (fellow country folks) to have happiness and harmony - a deep sense of God’s love that overshadows them.  They have problems, of course just like any other groups of people – and in fact, many in the Philippines have less material goods than others in the world, yet there is still a sense of auspicious trust in God and love of neighbor that is present and highly visible.

Third, there is a genuine love for God and for his Son Jesus that is almost synonymous with the word Filipino.  Incidentally, there is also something that Filipinos are famous for around the world – their love for the Blessed Mother.  Among the many “kababayans” I have met in the past - the affectionate title for Mary that I always hear from their lips is “Mama Mary.”  For these gentle folks, Mary is not just a theological idea, a historical person, or a statue in a church – Mary is the Mother of their Lord and their mother as well, their “Mama.”

I guess it’s just odd coincidence that making the rounds once more, too is a so-called Love Letter to Filipinos that has previously appeared in some Asian newspapers, in the internet and has even shown up here in America.

His letter is somewhat connected and tied up with all of the statements above.

I was absolutely touched by this sentimental open letter from an American language teacher to the Filipino people – which have indeed made the social media rounds a handful years back – and which I just noticed and read just now - that I thought I should dwell on it for this Mother’s Day weekend edition of my column.

With mothers so highly revered in Filipino culture, it is no surprise that Mother’s Day, albeit a traditional Western holiday is widely celebrated in the Philippines.  In fact, because Filipinos usually come from very close-knit families, including both immediate and extended family members, most tend to celebrate Mother’s Day not only with their own mothers, but also with grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and other women in the family who are mothers as well.

And speaking of other women in the Filipino family, I said to myself why not talk about our dearly beloved old mother land – the Philippines – whose sons and daughters particularly the overseas Filipino workers  (OFWs) are after-all the subject of this American educator’s testimonial about the kindness and capability of our “kababayans”.

So, here goes, my dear folks … a somewhat jaded American ex-pat extolling the virtues of a beautiful land with its equally beautiful, warm people, while hurling some darts at good, old U.S. of A. so many of which hurt because of their blunt truthfulness.

The letter’s author, who has visited 21 countries over the years – (he jokingly refers himself after as an “OAW,” an overseas American worker) – but finds the Philippines his favorite destination to date.

I say amid the vitriol that often comes with editorial communications being sent to national publications, only recently has such an open letter dispatched by an American expatriate in the Philippines made such a great impression from many Filipino readers, including yours truly.

For me, it has also been a time of introspection about life and love here in America and back in the beloved old motherland of ours, the Philippines.

Entitled ‘Love letters to Filipinos,’ the correspondence, was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer ( and was written by David H. Harwell, PhD, a published author, former professor and assistant dean in the US who travels and works abroad designing language training programs.

Dr. Harwell said he wrote it to express his gratitude for the good treatment that he has received from Filipinos and to pass a lesson between the differences of American and Filipino cultures.

Harwell, who is from Alabama, remarked that the things he loved growing up in the south have started fading, but Philippine culture reminds him of those things he misses.  “It is probably the culture closest to the culture of the American south where I am from,” he noted.

Like many foreigners, who have made our old homeland their permanent residence, the professor, in particular, harped on the emotional issue of family cohesiveness in the Philippines, which he praised.

“Americans,” he wrote, “do not stay very close to their families, geographically or emotionally, and that is a major mistake.  I have long been looking for a home and a family, and the Philippines is the only place I have lived where people honestly seem to understand how important their families are,” adding that “What I have seen, that many of you have not seen, is how your family members, the ones who are overseas Filipino workers, do not tell you much about how hard their lives actually are.”

“In the countries where I’ve lived and worked, all over the Middle East and Asia,” he observed, “it is Filipinos who do all the work and make everything happen.”

The work behavior of Filipinos abroad as overseas workers also impressed Harwell, who was unabashed in saying their “international reputation as employees is that they work hard, don’t complain, and are very capable.”

“When I am working in a new company abroad, I seek out the Filipino staff when I need help getting something done, and done right,” he wrote.

Indulging in a bit of hyperbole, Harwell also added:  “if all the Filipinos were to go home from the Middle East, the world would stop.”

Indeed, it is a well-known fact that OFWs in the Middle East occupy key positions in most industries such as oil and health.  “Oil is the lifeblood of the world, but without Filipinos, the oil will not come from the ground, it will not be loaded into ships, and the ships will not sail.  The offices that make the deals and collect the payments will not even open in the morning.  The schools will not have teachers, and, of course, the hospitals will have no staff,” he explained.

(Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Filipinos in the Middle East at 1,550, 572 followed by the United Arab Emirates with 679,819 Filipinos according to data from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.)

But amid the diligence and hard work the Filipinos have faithfully shown abroad, Harwell lamented the mistreatment Filipinos have suffered, including being underpaid harshly.

After years of working with OFWs, I reckoned Harwell knows and has seen it all, from being abused to being “cheated” in rightful compensations, and how difficult their lives actually are – contrary to their ready smiles and what they show in the pictures they send to loved ones back home.

“They would smile, they would take care, but they were not often treated well.  They weren’t paid as high as other people who left their countries and I always thought that was a great injustice,” he reiterated.

“The OFWs are very strong people, perhaps the strongest I have ever seen,” he wrote down.

But behind those smiles and pretty photographs, Harwell knows through the Filipinos he has met that these OFWs are actually suffering and miss their families very, very much.

Harwell also declared that not everything in America is about living the American dream.  He said that people picture illusions of grandeur and associate America with all the niceties in the world.

However, the truth is most people in the United States fall into the American trap, where many fall into debt to acquire more and more things.

“Very rarely is a house, car, nice piece of clothing, electronic appliance, and often even food, paid for.  We get them with credit, and this debt will take all of our lifetime to pay,” Harwell affirmed.

In particular, he underscored the danger of going to the US, which he said is an economy based on death.

“Most of us allow the American Dream to become the American Trap,” he warned.  “Some of you who go there make it back home, but, you give up most of your lives before you do.  Some of you who go there learn the very bad American habits of wanting too many things in your hands, and the result is that you live only to work, instead of working only to live.  The things we own actually own us.  That is the great mistake we Americans make in our lives.  We live only to work, and we work only to buy more things we don’t need.  We lose lives in the process.”

Harwell noted that there is a big difference in what both nations consider to be their problems and that Americans should learn something from Filipinos with regard to their outlook in life.

He further expounded that it is something like this:  “In America, our hands are full but our hearts are empty.”

“You have many problems here in the Philippines, I understand that,” he continued.  “Americans worry about having new cars.  Filipinos worry about having enough food to eat.  That’s an enormous difference.  But do not envy us, because we should learn something from you.  What I see is that even when your hands are empty, your hearts remain full.”

“I have many privileges in the countries where I work, because I am an expat.  I do not deserve these things, but I have them.  However, in every country I visit, I see that you are there also, taking care of your families, friends, bosses, and coworkers first, and yourselves last.  And you have always taken care of me, in this country and in every other place where I have been.”

“There are places where I have been very alone, very tired, very hungry, and very worried but there have always been Filipinos in my offices, in the shops, in the restaurants, in the hospitals, everywhere, which smile at and take good care of me.  I always try to let you know that I have lived and traveled in the Philippines and how much I like your country.  I know that behind those smiles of yours, here and abroad, am many worries and problems.”

“Please know that at least one of us expats have seen what you do for others and understands that you have a story behind your smiles.  Know that at least one of us admires you, respects, and thanks you for your sacrifices.”

“Manny Pacquiao is pound for pound the best boxer in history.  Filipinos are pound for pound the best-hearted people I’ve ever met,” he concluded.

In an emotional complimentary ending, the professor, in Filipino, finally wrote: “Salamat po.  Ingat lagi.  Mahal ko kayong lahat.”  (Thank you.  Take care.  I love you all.)

Anthony Duenas, a Filipino working in the US, in his online comment, expressed tough agreement with Dr. Harwell’s observation, encouraging Filipinos overseas to do away with its infamous “crab mentality.”

(In the Philippines, a crab mentality is a misplaced behavior where a person loves to malign someone’s achievement instead of praising him for what he has accomplished.)

“I am the only Filipino in our workplace and I thought then that I would be discriminated,” he wrote, “but in fact, because of our work ethics as Filipinos I was even given an award by my employer, a government school for being an outstanding employee after only 3 years of service.”

Another American expatriate agrees extolled Dr. Harwell’s remarks.

An on-and-off resident in the Philippines for a decade then, Mark Kessler, who is married to a Filipina for 36 years now, said that “I can say, without the possibility of being labelled a no-nothing foreigner that I concur with everything (Harwell) wrote.  My only fervent wish and hope is that there would be no reason for all of the hardships people had to endure because there was no longer any reason people needed to go abroad.”

An article written by “kababayan” Benjamin Pimentel in the same publication where Harwell’s letter was printed had this to say:  “Dear Mr. Harwell,” Pimentel wrote, “thank you for your letter, for insights that remind us why, despite all its problems, the Philippines has many things to offer the world.”

But what struck this particular writer was Dr. Harwell’s statement that “In America, our hands are full, but our hearts are empty,” calling the statement “a stunning image.”

He, however, reminded the professor that the so-called ‘American Trap’ is not all encompassing among Americans, stressing there are also Americans who work not just to live or buy the things they need.

“To be sure,” Pimentel penned, “many are struggling now.  Like Filipinos in the Philippines, they do so for their children.  For there’s even talk now of ‘Generation Screwed,’ of young Americans in their 20s and 30s for whom the future is bleak, who may end up being the first generation to have less prosperous lives than the ones their parents enjoyed.”

Emotionally happy about the close-knit culture that lives within a Filipino family, Pimentel told Dr. Harwell of his personal worry “particularly for the young Filipino-Americans, who may not know much of the Philippines today, but also want to be connected to the country of their parents, that the picture you presented is incomplete.”

As a Filipino-American, I believe we all have lessons to take from both sides of the Pacific, in the Philippines as well as in America.  Maybe we do need more love against money.

What do you folks think?

I say the time spent by Dr. Harwell with the Filipinos let him see things beyond what other people see.  I sincerely hope this letter of Dr. Harwell will be read by many more people… folks of different nationalities and so as to make them also understand.  Only then, I believe that they will appreciate it and start to see things in a different perspective…the way the good doctor sees it.

My hope and prayer sharing this again is that our “kababayans” – the Filipino people – will continue to keep these precious qualities.  I pray that they will continue loving their families, loving the Catholic Church, reading the Bible, loving Jesus, his Mother and the Eucharist.  As the world tempts them to sin and seek only money and fame and power, may God grant them the serenity to always remember that obedience to Christ and love for God is far more important than all the riches the world can offer.

So, there.

May the wonderful Filipino folks continue to be a light of the Gospel to the whole world!



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DAVID H. HARWELL, PhD:  An American published author, former professor and assistant dean in the US who travels and works abroad designing language training programs


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