03 July 2023
It is now almost five years since I came home to the Philippines. I was actually due for my annual holiday in 2019 but decided to save up for another year so I could spend liberally on my pasalubongs. But then, the pandemic struck, and I wouldn’t be able to get back to Manila until late 2022.
As the days of my departure finally grew closer, I started feeling apprehensive. Would my parents and my daughter Sofia welcome my new, pregnant wife Trina? Sofia was just six when I left her under the care of my mother. I was not sure whether she would accept a step-mum, and soon, a sibling. But I was excitedly waiting to see my father again, a seaman on a luxury cruise liner where he had worked since before I was born. As with many seamen, though, he was now stranded at home because of the lockdown.
It was my father who supported me after I ran away from home. My mother took a long time before she forgave me for quitting school, but finally allowed me back into our house. A jobless school drop-out, I was mostly hanging out with my then-girlfriend, promptly getting her pregnant. Again, my parents took us both in, but two months after she gave birth, my girlfriend left our daughter and me. So, we raised Sofia on our own. Even though my little girl grew up without a mother, I knew she was with a loving family.
By the time she was four, I was working as a pizza delivery boy. But then, it was time for her to enter nursery school, and I realised that, with my meager earnings, I would not be able to contribute fairly to her expenses. That was when I decided to go abroad, to work as an OFW just like my dad.
My family wasn’t really poor as my father regularly sent us maintenance money. In fact, when I was younger, I thought we were rich because we had a nicer home than those of my friends, and I had the latest rubber shoes and expensive toys that I could show off at school. My parents probably would not have minded supporting Sofia fully either, sending her to a good school, but just like my father, I was proud. He too never finished school before going to Saudi as a mechanic, and later as a crew on a cruise ship. So, like him, I thought that I knew enough to get me through any job I wished. Of course, I would regret this decision, especially after I found out I couldn’t help Sofia with her homework.
When I first left for Kuwait in 2016, Sofia balled her eyes out, but I told her that I was leaving for her and for her future. Thank God for the internet and social media, I could call her every day, it was just like being home, I always told her. But it was tough during the first few months. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat because I didn’t like the food. I felt homesick every time I called home. Time got me adjusted. The food actually tasted okay. I also got to know more Pinoys, other than the thirteen who shared a three-bedroom apartment with me. We were crowded, but we maximized every opportunity to save so we could send more money home.
Shortly before my first two-year contract was up and I was due for a break, I applied to a local restaurant in Kuwait. Local hires had significantly bigger wages than those of jobs offered from the Philippines by an agency. I quickly found work as a waiter to start after my eventually-postponed trip to Manila. My earnings would almost double, and the promised money kept me committed to living in Kuwait. I convinced myself that my regular holidays in the Philippines were sufficient for the emotional needs of my family.
I remembered back in 2018, how Sofia jumped up and down when she saw me. My mother was misty-eyed, and my father gave me a look that left me proud of myself. The following months went by too fast. We would take our siestas together. Sofia’s head would rest in my arms until I felt pricked by pins and needles. She would snore ever so softly, her breath like an angel’s, straight to my face. This memory was something I would cry over after I returned back at work in Kuwait. I would feel homesick again for weeks until the lonely days and nights slowly faded into my daily routine.
It was at my new job where I met Trina. She was also waiting on tables at the same restaurant. Meek and soft-spoken, I thought she was the most beautiful Filipina in Kuwait.Just after close to a year of dating, we married at the Philippine Embassy. At around the same time, I was promoted at work as shift supervisor, another reason we stayed in Kuwait instead of flying home in 2019. Then, 2020 happened, and it was too late for us to come home.
Image source: www.alamy.com
If there was one thing to be thankful for, it was the fact that my father was on one of his regular holidays when the lockdown in the Philippines happened. He narrowly missed being on the cruise ship that was left floating at sea when its passengers and crew contracted COVID, and no port would accept them. Still, because of the lockdown, he was unemployed for two years, and his savings were running dry. He earned a bit doing delivery services, although my mother complained it was hardly enough to maintain them, the result of my father living a life too big for him instead of investing his money, or so my mother claimed. This got them into quarrelling—she accusing him of spending too much, bragging and showing off to his friends and relatives, and he insisting she was mismanaging their household expenses.
One day, he got a surprise call from his boss that the company was looking for crew members who would like to go on board the ship again. By then, he was 64 years old, but it was another opportunity he just couldn’t miss. It was his destiny to live abroad, he said, and he could always come home during his extended holidays. I was beginning to think just like him now that I was also an OFW.
Sofia was again at NAIA when in 2022 Trina and I landed. I didn’t recognize her immediately. She had grown! I tried to hug her, but she seemed awkward. I wanted to carry her again just like in old times, but she was already way past my shoulders. Four years I lost!
I woke up early the next day to prepare breakfast; my dad was awake, making coffee. We sat down at the dining table. He asked me about my plans. It was only he who knew that Trina and I were laid off from our jobs in Kuwait when the restaurant closed due to the pandemic. I told him that I might stay in the Philippines and start a business. Trina and I were good cooks. We had an idea of how restaurants were run. Perhaps we could open a coffee shop.
We were also considering moving to New Zealand. Trina was only one year shy of finishing a degree in preschool education. Maybe she could do online courses to finish her studies. Then, armed with a degree, she could apply to emigrate to New Zealand, or even to Canada, as a preschool teacher. One perk was that she could take her family.
After listening to my plans, my father presented me with a third option. What if I applied to become a seaman like him? I could still come home after ten months and stay with the family for a couple of months before signing the following year’s contract. The pay was good--it could comfortably support my family, plus I could travel the world for free! He said he would introduce me to his boss and kumpadres. We could talk to them and bring them nice gifts to help them decide to help us. I just had to say the word. To be honest, it sounded like a nice idea, and if I were without a family, I would have readily agreed. But now, I have Sofia, Trina, and the baby on the way, plus my mother was getting old. I told him I needed time to think.
By that time, the household had awoken and gathered for breakfast. When my mum sat down at the table, my dad stood up--he had to wash the delivery van. Sofia whispered that I shouldn’t mind her Lolo and Lola not talking to each other—they had been that way soon after her Lolo returned. I thought maybe it was due to their differences in the management of their finances, or maybe my mother by now was used to being by herself-- it was difficult to have somebody intermittently live with you and disrupt your daily life.
For now, Trina and I were getting ready to make an announcement. So Sofia went outside to call her Lolo. I sat Sofia beside me, as I was most worried about her reaction. When we were all seated, I told everyone, even though Sofia was the only one who didn’t know, that Trina and I were already married. My mum faked her surprise, but Sofia was beaming! I asked Sofia if she was happy, and she said she always prayed for a mum.
Then, it was Trina’s turn to give our second announcement. She touched her belly and smiled, saying that another grandchild was on the way. This time everyone was caught by surprise and the room was filled with excitement! Sofia impulsively said out loud that she wished the baby would be a girl as she always wished to have a baby sister!
Then, out of nowhere, I blurted that I had yet another announcement. Trina gave me a funny look because she knew there was no third announcement. I cleared my throat--Trina and I would like to stay in the country indefinitely, I addressed the group. My mum was tearful with glee, Trina smiled at me, and Sofia hugged me tightly! I turned to my dad, but I saw that smirk again. It was he who was disappointed. Amid the celebration, he said he would finish washing the van and went outside again. My mother and I exchanged looks, then I followed my father out of the house.
I tried talking to him, but he didn’t mind me. I told him this was all temporary, that this was something on my mind since Trina and I were laid off. I told him we might still push through with our plan to try moving to New Zealand. I told him that, with no disrespect to him, I wanted my family to have a different experience than what I had growing up. I told him how hard it was for me to have an absentee for a father. This was in spite of all the nice things I had. I told him about how I made up stories of my dad and I always doing things together. I now just wanted a situation where nobody in the family left for a long time. It would not be healthy for Sofia. If I were to leave the country again, I said, I would like to take my whole family with me. I also really missed everything here, including the traffic, the noise, and the pollution. My father simply kept washing the van. He kept ignoring me.
One morning soon after, I sat beside him with my cup of coffee. He didn’t even look at me. It was awkward. I tried to say something, but he stood up. He suddenly asked me to get dressed as he needed my help with a big delivery. On the way, he still did not say a word, his eyes firmly on the road. He only spoke when we were about to reach our destination. He said I could take over his delivery job while figuring things out. He said he respected my decision. But if I changed my mind, I could always call him so he could introduce me to the right people on board his cruise ship. My father had never shown his thoughts and feelings, but at that moment, I knew that he had my back.
After just a few days, we were at the airport again. This time, it was to see him off for his departure to Australia to board his ship there. Another 10-month contract as a seaman on a cruise ship. Even at my age, I felt the same way that I had felt every time my father left for abroad. As we said our goodbyes, I could see his eyes were full of excitement, and perhaps a glint of guilt.
In all the 30 years my dad worked as an OFW, and all the 25 years or so after I started to remember, saying goodbye was the most painful part for me. I could now see an old man who yet again had to leave the country because he needed—what? More money? Or maybe the right to tell himself that all those 30 years were worthwhile. I understood him. That was why, with my own family, I would like to try a do-over.
*OFW is an acronym which means OVERSEAS FILIPINO WORKER. It refers to the many Filipinos who have left their homes in the Philippines to work as guest workers abroad in order to provide for their families back home.There are currently around 7% of Filipino households with members working as OFWs, remitting back foreign exchange constituting approximately 10% of the Philippine Gross Domestic Product (GDP).