The secret club
Intrigues, secrets, codes and arcane traditions all form the regalia of a secret society. These exist in varying modes, from universities to neighborhood pubs across continents and cultures. In the past two months I have become an initiate of one such group.
On my first morning in Paris, I had a chance encounter while waiting to cross the street to board the Metro. 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 appearance gives us away: the silky black hair, middling height, 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, 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 card-carrying members of the Diaspora, ardent patrons of Skype, phone cards, balikbayan boxes and Western Union, are performers of the same rituals. They carry these out at differing times throughout the year, but there are nonnegotiable 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 cash. Constant contact aided by technology permits one to know the minutiae of people’s 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 available, are too expensive, too impractical to purchase, too indulgent to buy.
The code is familiar—a cacophony that announces itself from across the street. Often the speaker is with another member. An ever greater likelihood is that the code is book-ended with raucous laughter. Perhaps I hear it more clearly than the other words. Perhaps the code registers not only in my brain but also in my heart, in 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.
In line at a supérette one afternoon, I was lost rather intensely in my reveries when the woman beside me suddenly addressed me and wondered if there was still a regular plastic bag because she was planning to send stuff home: “May plastic pa kaya na regular? Magpapadala kasi ako sa Pinas.” Ah, 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 put items in my shopping bag. As she greeted the woman at the cashier with a bonjour, I was able to mumble a goodbye: “Sige ho, mauna na ho ako, magiingat ho kayo pauwi.” She nodded and I left.
The code is instant access to a global society of countrymen in similar situations.
Much has been said of the social costs of having an overseas Filipino worker for a family member: a de facto broken family, 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 not having to rely on remittances in order to live. I know I am a lucky one. Those supported by members of this club are still luckier than those who are not. Many struggle to send their best and brightest to the far-flung places that will take them. I’d argue that being intelligent, resourceful and brave to work elsewhere is more burden than 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. The less able, the less brave, the less left behind.
Are we grateful enough to our OFWs? When they return home, we celebrate and greet them at the airport en masse. In the country or out, they get their way. Decisions are made miles from the islands. Their word is rule, and the rest are led by gratitude and a sense of being beholden to the point of unquestioning obedience. We are told what courses to take in college, what car to get, what color to paint the walls. We need them and they need us—a symbiotic Diaspora.
Not a day has passed since my arrival in Paris that I have not met a member of this club. We pass each other yet sometimes I am too tired to acknowledge what we both know—that we are both members. If they are many and ubiquitous, then how are they secret? The wager is that few locals, if any, are privy to their particular existence. They blend and blur into the background inconspicuously. Too good at assimilation, they fail to stand out. Each is known only to those who are in the same boat. Details are unknown but the facts are the same. Everyone moves in spheres that intersect on Sundays after church or Mass or in American fast-food places.
The key is that despite numbers, we rarely reach widespread, mainstream prominence. Only those who know our code, our actions and our faces know that we exist. This secret club of OFWs and immigrants feeds relatives, pays the bills, sends 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.
At times I see kababayan, I wonder where they work, if they are happy, how long they have been here. I wonder what led them to this city. I wonder if they plan to return home. The days since my arrival and the brief but daily brushes with OFWs have impressed upon me not just the quantitative truth of our Diaspora but also its qualitative spread.
But I am barely a novice member of the secret club. I am in Paris for training, not an émigré. No plans to settle here. I have a return ticket home and a job to do. My part-time membership is nearing its expiration. I consider the passing inclusion an honor. Glad to have been a recipient of nods, unabashed lingering glances and the instant recognition of a comrade-at-arms. My heart swells when I see weathered faces buoyed by a hardened reserve. All from ordinary Filipinos whose extraordinary toil is noticed, felt, but often goes unrewarded. The secret club’s greatest identifier is its members’ easy and selfless penchant for sacrifice.
Hannah Inserto, 25, graduated from Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in European studies-international business.
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