Halfway through one of Philippine cinema’s most memorable films, Anak, Vilma Santos and Claudine Barretto find themselves in the middle of a confrontation; Barretto sobs as the scene unravels unspoken tensions and escalates to a climactic mother-and-daughter conflict.
“Siguro ang talagang gusto kong sabihin, mas malaki ang nawala sa amin noong iniwan mo kami,” she utters one of the film’s most iconic lines in between sobs.
Art imitates life in the relatably poignant film which cuts through the surface of real-life dynamics that come with the process of growing up with an OFW parent. But although Rory Quintos’ Anak has been well-received with critical acclaim, its theme which draws focus on the plight of teens whose parents work abroad has been underexplored and rarely probed.
However deeply entrenched the theme is across Filipino social settings, the domestic struggles of those on the receiving end of the perennial pasalubong is one that’s often dismissed and unexamined—one we have yet to address.
Complete family pictures, the traditional jam-packed reunions, and celebrations—this is how most teens would recall their moments with the family, but for the children of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the scenario is not as jolly. Substitute family gatherings with frequent visits to the airport, replace the traditional dinner conversations with Skype sessions, and you get the picture of what it’s like.
“There were always those times when we’d see him go inside the departure area, but we’d have no other choice but to simply stand there,” recounts Gerenz Gabriel Corcega (III, BS-FIN). “I’ve experienced sending my dad off to the airport several times and I thought I can say goodbye to him without crying, but I know in myself that it will never happen.”
It’s a scenario that’s hard to escape, and for the children of OFWs, it’s a commonality that most, if not all of them share. “I pretend to be happy and just keep on smiling everytime we wait for her flight, but whenever it’s time for her to leave, I actually feel heartbroken,” Mary Alyssa Joy Gervacio (II, PSY-BSA) admits. “Those are the moments when I really realize that it would take more months and years before we see each other again.”
It’s a stinging reality that teens with parents who work overseas know too well. Charged with fraught narratives relative in depth, compounding the emotional toll of what they grapple with isn’t presented as an either-or situation, but as a mandatory to cope.
Across several years of the same routine—the temporary farewell, the airport sendoffs, and the promise of keeping in touch—for the children that the OFWs leave behind, it’s a twinge neither diminished nor dissolved along with the passing of the calendar.
“The feeling of sadness never changes,” laments Patricia Anne Montealto (III, MGT). “It’s always there.”
Of baggages and conundrums
The capacity to cope can be self-taught, but one not always easy to learn. Certainly, the pictures uploaded online, messages sent back and forth, and hours-long Skype sessions could help, but it’s not always enough.
“He wasn’t able to fly home because of his work,” Gerenz shares. “It was during our recognition day in my third year of high school and I told him that it’s his turn to put my medal. I thought that he could still make it, but his flight got delayed. I promised to him then that I will do my best the following year so that I can be in the honors list and he’d definitely be the one to put my medal.”
Saying “Happy Birthday” on Facebook, sending a casual greeting and the occasional “Kamusta na?”—these are some of the strings that preserve the ties of families with members working abroad. They keep it alive and connected, but mechanically.
“He always tries his best to attend special occasions in the family, but his effort can only do so little; he wasn’t able to attend more than half of my birthday parties and a few events in the family,” shares Ivan Jethro Balagtas (II, AB-POM). “[But] I understand that it’s more difficult for him not to witness those occasions. I understand that it’s more difficult and lonely for him to grow old without his family and be situated in a place with strangers and uncertainty.”
For most, it becomes a juggling act of sharing experiences through virtual interactions and keeping family members updated with each other’s lives. It becomes a bond mostly based on storytelling rather than shared living—not particularly bad, just not the same. And for others, the virtual “Congratulations, anak” would just have to do.
Samirah Janine Tamayo (II, PSM-BSA) imparts what she has learned: “You have to understand, always. Things won’t really be easy but you have to stay strong. Sometimes even if you lay it all for them, they won’t be able to watch you shine. And that’s okay.”
“I just feel lucky if he [even] gets to celebrate important days, not just in my life, but ours, as a family,” Patricia fondly shares her disposition towards the demands of her father’s work. “He makes sure to call home whenever there’s an important event happening to any of us. Also, he makes it up when he comes back, so that’s exactly how I deal with it–I wait.”
Bridging the distance
Spoiled. Materialistic. Demanding. Hard to please. The stereotypes loom large against the children of OFWs, but setting aside the airbrushed reality and misconceptions, they rebut on the less-than-flattering adjectives thrown their way.
“We are not for the material things that our parents give, but for their presence,” Mary Alyssa Joy counters against false impressions. Dispatched to maturity because of the experiences necessitated by their situations, the children of OFW breadwinners are not immune to the fallacies and imagined scenarios of others about their lives and that of their parents.
“It’s not as pretty as it seems. Balikbayan boxes, photos of travels and dining adventures make up less than a tenth of OFWs real lives. Behind those are hard, menial work and long hours.”
A fault line between reality and illusion that looks minor on the surface but runs deep in our culture, images of luxury, and unlimited convenience are the usual images that come to mind when the words “OFW” and “remittances” are fit together in the same sentence, the monetary figures playing little parts in the whole story. More important than the currencies they send, indispensable wisdom can be gained from the stories of those who send and from those who receive the anticipated pasalubong.
“A family can still be in good relationship even when they’re far apart from each other,” she adds. “My mom has worked abroad for 13 years now, but she has never made us feel that we are really distant from one another. I know everything she does is for our family and all I have to do or react about it is support and love her.”
There is a profound sense of discovery that comes along with realizing the endurance of familial attachments—regardless how long distances and years might stretch. Amidst the limitless abyss of chances and possibilities, none is exempt from the sensibility of being a balikbayan, a character in a homecoming of sorts. Whatever stamps our passports may or may not have, it’s fairly likely for anyone to crave for the feeling of family, belongingness, and the warmth of home.
No matter how far our distances might extend across the globe, these ties that bind us, fortified by the strings of resiliency, are the threads that link us to one great story—one that celebrates common grounds, conquers borders, and rejoices on the bonds of family.