By Jesse T. Reyes

SAN DIEGO, Calif.  -  Cheers!  What other way is there to write about this old country of ours?


I might begin by situating the Filipino experience within its Asian American configuration – since I am based here in the United States and my intervention proceeds from a concrete historic milieu.


“Three hundred years under Spain, via Acapulco.  Fifty years under the Americans and three years under the Japanese.  A history of fragments and confusion – ‘chop suey’ is the only style that captures it,” says one exasperated young Filipino writer.


It’s genuinely a tough assessment, and I suspect it’s offered with something of a half-smile, since there’s nothing fragmentary or confusing about the Filipino experiences.


And there is no doubt about it that the thread that binds together the Filipino stories abroad is motherland, the “country” of the title being the Philippines.


These “kababayans” (fellow country folks) of ours have traveled all over the world – they evoke settings from New York City to Riyadh, of lives lived between two worlds– but all of them carry their beloved old homeland in their hearts, connected by ties of family and culture.   They seek their fortunes far from home, although echoes of that hearth sound throughout their immigrant lives.


“At parties abroad we spoke Pilipino even to the babies, who barely understood it, for the same reason we served “pancit” and not “Shawarma” (a Levantine meat preparation where lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, buffalo meat or mixed meats are placed on a spit and may be grilled for as long as a day) reflected a Filipino based overseas.  “Between Arab bosses and Indian subordinates, British traffic laws and American television, we craved familiar flavors and the sound of a language we knew well.”


In a superbly affecting story, many years ago, a Filipina school teacher named Corazon worked as a chambermaid for a budget hotel in Taipei.  Corazon’s husband, a technician, had a job in the more distant Nigeria, Africa.  They supported three children staying with her parents and were saving up in hopes of one day operating a small business.  Corazon’s unfinished house in Northern Mindanao was waiting for funds, but to her, it can wait.  More important at the moment were her children, her parents and others – their subsistence assured and the kid’s school expenses taken care of … fine!


Corazon and her husband are OFW’s or Overseas Filipino Workers, so to speak.


An Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) is a Filipino who is employed in work outside the Philippines.  Some eight million of them, still citizens of the old homeland; they left to seek work abroad, attracted by jobs with salaries that far exceed those in the Philippines.  Others left simply because there is no more work available in the country.  To survive, they had to bite hard the bullet.


Since then, the story of Corazon’s dispersed family has been replicated several times again and again as millions of millions have been forced to leave the country in search of gainful employments.  Fully, about 11 million Global Filipinos are working abroad today – that is already including some 3 million, the more fortunate ones, who are permanent residents or now citizens of other countries.  Note that 11 million is 12 percent of the nation’s then population of 91.5 million (Year 2007official estimate) or 30.7 percent of the country’s labor force of 35.79 million.


Unemployment in the Philippines plays around 8 percent or about 2.8 million, while underemployment is running at a crushing 25 percent or 8.9 million of the country’s workforce then.  No wonder that ‘Population below Poverty Line’ in the Philippines is 40% of the population or a whopping 36.6 million.


Typical to the big chunk of the country’s workforce, Corazon and her husband have to work somewhere else in the world, firstly – to feed hungry mouths and secondly, for a little flicker of hope of a promising future.


And that, indeed - my dear folks, is the D-I-A-S-P-O-R-A!


So, just what is … diaspora?


Diaspora, according to Wikipedia means the scattering or dispersion of a group of people to anywhere else in the world.


The word ‘Diaspora’ from the Greek word ‘scatter’ was once referred exclusively to the Babylonian dispersal of the Jewish people from the ancient northern Kingdom of Israel.  Today, the term is used widely to describe other historic mass dispersions of people from an established or ancestral homeland who share common roots.


Now, let us examine the Filipino genre of diaspora, its tendencies and idiosyncrasies.


Today, it can be said that a large percentage of Filipino people can ascribe that term to themselves on both the extent of their dispersion and numbers that exceed migrations (forced or otherwise) of other nationalities like the Vietnamese boat people, the Russians under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the Cubans under Fidel Castro and the like in more recent history.


In the case of the old motherland – our beloved dear Philippines – the unprecedented movement of their human resources across national boundaries during the past several decades has spread widely over some 214 countries.  This has led to a borderless community of Filipinos whose collective number is rapidly breaching the 12-million mark.


Relatively speaking, that’s a large number considering that the population of several countries like Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Brunei, Laos, the Pacific island nations of Melanesia, Micronesia, Micronesia and Polynesia combined and even New Zealand are smaller than that.


The Philippines, being geographically situated in Southeast Asia also bears some significance in regard to this phenomenon.  Why?  It’s because if we could shrink the Earth’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look like this: there would be 61 Asians, 12 Europeans, 13 Africans, 9 would be from South America and the Caribbean, and 5 from North America including Canada.


Currently, the number of Filipinos living and working abroad represents about 11% of the total population of the Philippines and in some parts of the world – notably the United States, Canada, Australia and nearly in all countries of the American continent, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, their presence helps fuel the growth and development of their adopted countries as it does their homeland’s own economy as visibly demonstrated by the annual remittances they make.  In 2010 alone, those flows reached US $18.726-billion!


It is estimated that over a million Filipinos leave the Philippines every year some doing so through overseas employment agencies and other programs, including government-sponsored initiatives.  Of that number, roughly 44% are contract workers (or, ‘OFWs’) in pursuit of higher levels of wages.  OFWs are expected to return to the Philippines upon termination of their foreign employment contracts but a sizeable number of them nevertheless manage to extend their contracts and eventually work on gaining residency status.  The Philippines is one of those countries that have a law allowing for dual citizenship.


The next equally large group – the ‘Overseas Filipinos’ consist of about 40% of the total.  They are the ones who chose to emigrate and become permanent residents and citizens of other countries.  These Filipinos are the more highly-educated and high-caliber individuals who work as bankers, financial advisers, doctors, engineers, architects, IT professionals, fashion and graphics designers, technicians, accountants, teachers, military servicemen, seafarers, musicians and entertainers, events production leaders, students, physical therapists, nurses and caregivers in their adopted countries.


The last but much smaller group (16%) manages to depart the Philippines more often than not undocumented.  They invariably end up overstaying in their host countries until they are able to regularize their status or run out of options and return to the Philippines.


All three groups of above are part of what is now known as the Filipino Diaspora.


Still, wherever they may be today, they all start from one point in the world, our beloved old motherland – the Philippines.


And whatever a few armchair critics might hold in notion - of course, Corazon and her husband are players in a fictional story.  But I say, the story had been based on actual occurrences in the lives of OFW’s.  The point is, although the dispersed Filipinos are earning far more than they would at the old homeland, life for them is often not easy.


Many overseas Filipino workers face various difficulties abroad.  These include illegal recruitment, mysterious deaths, racial profiling and discrimination, and kidnappings.  In some countries, such  as in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and in Middle Eastern nations, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, many OFWs have reported that their pay was withheld, while others have had their documents confiscated or hidden.


Several cases have been reported on sexual abuse by employers, while thousands of Filipinas travel abroad for domestic work only to be tricked by their foreign employers into sexual slavery.  Furthermore, some of these Filipino workers are even murdered.


Other problems include the risk of involvement in a conflict, such as those in Lebanon, Iraq and Nigeria.  About, 30,000 Filipinos were trapped between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas in the fighting in Lebanon.  Luckily, they suffered little in the Hezbollah rocket attacks.  But luck will surely run out one of these days – maybe next time, there could be no escape any more.


I say in many places around the world, the dimension of Filipinos as a race or a national family is not appreciated nearly enough considering that there are many attributes of Filipinos that are beautiful and noble that is imprinted on the Filipino psyche.


Whatever it may be that you think it is - the Filipino Diaspora challenges many long-held concepts about nation, culture, identity and place.  As a people who are fast on the move from one to other countries, Filipinos take their culture, customs, and ethnic identity with them and thereby create and extend the social space of their own Diaspora.


But what is even more important is that the Filipino Diaspora is fast emerging as one of the forces for development in the globalizing world.  The larger and wider Diasporas the Filipinos are experiencing today contribute to growth of their home countries in many ways.  Many of the Filipinos work in skilled sectors that are of critical importance to their adopted countries.  Many accumulate knowledge to establish and manage their own enterprises and are equally at home with the general situation and business cultures of both their original and host countries.  Many too have contacts with potential business partners in countries of destination and can facilitate the establishment of trade and production links that promote the market access of export goods from developing nations.


The Filipinos’ life-long journey in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and other countries with significant and more established Filipino communities has certainly and absolutely led them beyond marginalization to become an economically, socially and politically-empowered community within the greater fabric of its society.


“Kapatid” is a beautiful Filipino word, meaning “cut from the same cloth.”  In the making of that cloth different strands of thread were used to bind it.  These threads are the tribes represented by the many regional groups as there are islands in the archipelago of the Philippines.  But we are a fraternity, a family sharing one name – Filipino.  All Filipinos have the same family name, all.


I say we are but one Filipino.  So, in that fundamental aspect, we must learn to look after one another no matter where we are, especially the stronger ones tending to those in greater need for the poorer, the sick and the more disadvantaged of us who are our brothers and sisters and who may be cold, hungry, less knowledgeable and desperate.  If those of us who are more established and stable do not do enough for those who are, then the rest of the world have basis to say to us in our collective face that we do not take care of our own, that our people are without honor, lack conscience or worse, don’t know who we really are.


Let us not forget that the term ”Filipino-American” used to identify the many of us who are now here in “the good, old U.S. of A.” as residents or citizens serves to keep deep bonds alive.  No matter how substantial your lives have changed, you retain traits that identify you as distinctly Filipino.  These bonds may make it difficult for many of you to digest the major shift of citizenship, of required obligations attached to that citizen hood and of our global identity.  The key to resolving that conflict is simply to understand that assimilation is not the same as integration.


By holding on to the word “Filipino,” Filipino-Americans must realize that there are implications when doing so.  The word “Filipino” is a term that is alive.  It represents a rich culture, a colorful heritage, a heroic history, a collection of common traits, a unique psyche and an ethnicity sprung forth from a common motherland.


If there is no strong attachment to these things then there is no reason or benefit to continue identifying oneself as “Filipino” and the context of that choice means having to cope with its implications.  And here it is: For example, Pakeha (Pakeha is a Maori language term for non-Maori or for New Zealanders who are of European descent) is Pakeha and Maori is Maori and yet both are known elsewhere in the world as Kiwi, so where therein, my dear brothers and sisters – “kababayans” – do you fit by giving up your identity as Filipino?


I say as a new Philippines seeks to become a global player of significance, the time has come for a strong and sustained engagement between the Philippines and overseas Filipinos.  The time has also come for overseas Filipinos to benefit from the exciting opportunities that the new Philippines provide.  That time is now.


Photo: Q Photo: Photo: