Intrigues, secrets, codes and arcane traditions all form the regalia of a secret society: these exist in varying modes, from universities to neighbourhood pubs across continents and cultures.
For two months I have become an initiate of one such group. The ensuing days since my arrival and the brief but daily brushes with OFWs has impressed upon me not just the quantitative truth of our diaspora, but also its qualitative spread.
My initial encounter was brief but definite. On my first morning in Paris, I had a chance encounter while waiting to cross the street to board the Metro. The member was across the street, eyes bright in the sun, dark hair with streaks of white. She noticed me staring and she smiled. Silently, I returned the smile and nodded in her direction, as we crossed the street and onward to our respective destinations.
There are things we cannot deny, even without the code, our appearances give us away: the silky black hair, the middling height, the brown skin. We wear the clothes of our adopted city in respect of the weather and the elements; but our bare faces identify us, if not to others, but definitely to ourselves. There is a manner of carrying oneself that is distinctly Pinoy. The opposites of heft and lightness are combined in a mix that only kayumanggi can exude.
The code is familiar; it’s a cacophony that announces itself from across the street. Often the speaker is with another member, or is on the phone. An ever greater likelihood is that the code is bookended with raucous laughter. To be quite honest, I am at a loss to objectively say whether or not they speak louder than most people on the street. Perhaps so, but perhaps, it’s only that I hear it more clearly than I do the other words. Perhaps the code registers not only in my brain but my heart, my blood. It draws my attention and I search for its source, eager to confirm the code with the visual. A smile, a nod, maybe a few words in exchange.
Case in point: I was in line at a superette one afternoon. Lost rather intensely in one my usual random reveries, when the lady beside me suddenly addresses me and says, “May plastic pa kaya na regular, mag papadala kasi ako sa Pinas?”. Ahh to be spoken to in code, amidst my idle grocery shopping, this must mean I am progressing in my membership, I thought. In my surprise and delight, I could muster only a shrug and a sheepish grin. She rambled on while I scrambled to place my items in my shopping bag. As she greeted the lady at the cashier with a bonjour, I was able to squeeze in a, “Sige ho, mauna na ho ako, mag-iingat ho kayo pauwe.” She nodded and I exit, stage right.
The code is instant access to a global society of countrymen in similar situations.
The card carrying members of the same diaspora are performers of the same rituals: ardent patrons of Skype, Phone cards, balikbayan boxes and Western Union. Throughout the year, they carry these out at differing times, but there are non-negotiable weeks, such as the beginning of June and mid-December where these are done like clockwork.
Performing these rituals allows one to combat loneliness and to lend tangible form to the intensity of one’s filial dedication – the preferred forms here being objects and cold hard cash. Constant contact aided by technology permits one to know the minutiae of peoples’ days. I guess to feel transported to where they are, up-to-date on events, almost as if they are present. Boxes are packed with items not found back home, while the senders yearn for the things not found abroad or if they were available, are too expensive, too impractical to purchase, too indulgent to buy.
Much has been said of the social costs of having an OFW for a parent or family member: a de facto broken family, the lifelong dependence, resentment, adultery, single-parenthood. It is no wonder that so many movies have been made of these stories and their ever-shifting complexities.
I wonder how many homes in the Philippines owe some or all, of its prosperity to remittances. Having grown up with boxes of clothes from my Lola, I know only of the added luxuries. I grew up to have not relied on remittances in order to live. I know I am a lucky one. But families supported by members of this secret society are still luckier than those without – those that struggle to send their best and brightest to the far flung places that will take them. Put that way: being intelligent, resourceful and brave enough to work elsewhere is more burden that boon – to be the smart kid means you will be sent away.
In many ways it can be seen as punishment for your potential, the caveat of your capacity to succeed is your subsequent banishment.
Not one day has gone by since I first arrived, that I have not met another member of this secret society. They pass me and I pass them. Sometimes I am too tired to acknowledge what we both know, we are both members.
If we are so many and we are seemingly ubiquitous, then how are we secret?
One can be many, and yet be nowhere. We blend and blur into the background most inconspicuously. Too good at blending in, we fail to stand out. No one, in general, is privy to our particular existence: we know what or who we are only when we see each other. We don’t know the details yet we know the facts are the same. Everyone moves in spheres that intersect on Sundays after mass, or in American fast food places.
The key to how we remain secret is that despite our numbers we are not prominent. Only those who know our code, our actions and our faces, know that we exist. Only those who know our truths know our power. This secret club of Overseas Filipino Workers feeds our relatives, pays the bills, sends our kids to school and secures the present if not the future. Our remittances power the peso to greater strengths and to such levels that ironically reduce the value of future remittances.
Are we grateful enough to our OFWs? When they return home, we celebrate and we greet them at the airport en masse. In country or out, they get their way. They make the decisions miles from the islands. They rule on high while the rest are led by gratitude and a sense of being beholden to the point of unquestioning obedience. They tell us what courses to take in college and what color to the paint the walls. We need them and they need us. This symbiosis is fueled by the diaspora.
The terms sound medical. Diaspora, to the uninitiated sounds like a disease. In my view, it resembles a virus for which we have no vaccine, no cure and no escape.
As previously stated, I am barely a novice member of the secret club. I am in Paris for training. I have no plans to settle here. I am not an émigré. I have a return ticket home and a job to do.
At times that I see kababayans, I often wonder where they work, if they are happy. I wonder how long they have been here. I wonder what led them to this place and not elsewhere. I wonder if they have plans to return home.
My novice membership, as I ready to return to normalcy, is sure to expire. Despite this passing inclusion, I will forever be honored to have even been considered. To have received the nod, the unabashed lingering glance from these ordinary Filipinos whose daily toil is noticed and is felt.
Temporary membership, I think, means that without knowing their names, without recognizing their faces, I feel I know their stories. On sharing an extended glance follows the mutual instant recognition that we are comrades-at-arms. My tendency for theatrics then triggers emotions that swell when I recall what I imagine is resplendent on their weathered faces, a look of longing buoyed by a hardened reserve. Because at the heart of it, the secret club’s greatest identifier is its members’ easy and selfless penchant for sacrifice.
Not all of it is true though. Read on