The ‘balik’ in ‘balikbayan’
Let me talk to my wife. She’s Filipina so she’s the boss.”
I overheard an elderly Caucasian man saying that in an electrical appliances store in San Fernando, La Union, last December. The store was full, and many of the customers were clearly overseas Filipinos, with their spouses, partners and children.
La Union is a center for the Filipino diaspora, with evidence all around, including the stark differences between OFWs or overseas Filipino workers and overseas Filipinos, drop the “workers” tag. OFW refers to Filipinos who work abroad temporarily, with contracts (thus the older term OCWs, overseas contract workers) ranging from a few months (seafarers and cruise liner workers, for example) to annual contracts (construction workers, domestic helpers).
You find their homes all over La Union, with the tell-tale mariner’s wheel on the gate. I saw one home with the logo of KSA, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, reminding me of jeepneys in Manila emblazoned “Katas ng Saudi,” the fruit of labor in Saudi. You can tell with other OFWs, with the inevitable “sari-sari” store or tricycle bought with overseas remittances to provide some livelihood for relatives left behind. Sometimes the house is half-finished, waiting for the OFW’s next remittance… or homecoming.
The overseas Filipinos, on the other hand, have permanent resident status or have acquired citizenship abroad.
You see their names listed as donors to school buildings, complete with where they live now (for example, Los Angeles, California). You hear them, too, in the malls, where you’ll catch all kinds of World English tinged with the accents of local languages. I love the way Ilokano accents blend almost perfectly with the heavy sounds of northern European languages like German and Dutch.
Our family dachshund, who often tags along on our trips, often gets overseas Filipinos talking: “Oh, I miss my dog back home.”
Home is somewhere in Europe or the United States, and the “balik” in “balikbayan,” it seems, is coming home—no, visiting for the holidays or a vacation. I wonder just how many do return home for good.
Their stories tell me it’s not for a lack of wanting, or trying, to come back home. Some have bought and built homes here, only to change their minds as retirement approaches.
One of them, who had worked in Sweden for many years, told me how intent she was on retiring here, and why she was changing her mind now. She had first bought a house in the mountains, but her Swedish husband pushed her (see, who’s the boss?) into buying another home, by the sea. Her kids, and relatives on the Swede side, would come to the Philippines every year, enjoying the beaches. But the kids, now grown and each with their own life now, aren’t that interested in the Philippines.
She talked about her husband in a way that showed she was still grieving. She was worried: Who would take care of her if she returned? And could she afford medical expenses here, even with the generous pensions that Europeans get?
Back home (again, in Europe), healthcare for the elderly is free and of better quality, she told me. Back home, too, it was more quiet, more peaceful. She expressed worry about the beaches in La Union, pristine when her kids were growing up and visiting, but now littered with plastic, the karaoke sounds blaring late into the night.
She has many relatives here, I could tell from the stories she shared. At one point she looked at my son, then told me she had a nephew—“guapo din” (also handsome), but who was killed in action in Mindanao.
The balikbayan women are fiercely independent, and would not want to have to come back and become dependent on anyone. Another balikbayan I met here in Manila returned home after her long-time companion died in the United States. Her relatives literally lined up, offering to take her in. She chose to stay in a home for the aged run by a religious order. It was easy to read between the lines of her story the main reason why she made that choice.
Back to our balikbayan from Sweden: When I had to say goodbye, she nodded, looked out to the sea and said she would come back to the Philippines again in a few months, and decide where she would retire.
I looked out to the sea, too, and found myself missing my sister, who lives in Canada and who has decided she will not retire here; and her kids, who enjoy the Philippines when they visit, all too rarely, and who have never gotten around to thinking of the Philippines as a second home.
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