I am a member of a family that is used to receiving balikbayan boxes every now and then, (especially during Christmas when our father does not come home). We regularly indulge in a grand supply of chocolates and everything “stateside”—from Nutella (our all-time favorite) to soap to lotion to toothpaste to shampoo and whatnot. We are given the latest gadgets which we will never think of buying here unless there is nothing else left in the market. We are lavished with things that other teenagers crave. We are halfway to becoming spoiled children. At times, I think we already are. Yet we are a family that rarely enjoys “Family Day.”
Our father started working abroad when my two siblings and I were still toddlers. As far as I can remember, I did not bother to ask Mama why Papa needed to go abroad. I just grew up used to that kind of setup: Papa is always away yet comes home at times.
How well we knew him when we were kids was formed through the stories told by Mama and the childish judgments made through our limited interactions with him. Despite his usual absence, especially during “turning point” moments of our lives, our respect and love never fade. They remain intact, untarnished despite time and distance. No matter how far he is from us and how rarely we see him, we know that he is our father—someone to look up to and someone to thank for everything that we have.
Papa is the fifth son (the second to the last) of a very hardworking couple. Lolo was a highway inspector and Lola was a home-based sewer back then. Life was not easy for Papa but he was, I think, a real “wonder boy” of the family. Like his parents he is smart and hardworking—and it all paid off. He passed the civil engineering licensure examination and, unsurprisingly, became the topnotcher of the region. A lot of opportunities came rolling his way, all helping him to grow in his field of profession. (I omit the details mindful of length and space.)
Just like what other people believe, there are actually plenty of advantages when you are a child of an overseas Filipino worker. After all, what is the point of living away from the family if there will be no perks? These perks usually boil down to being financially stable—not worrying about dues, clothes to wear, or food to eat, and even having more than what you need. But these are just up to the boundary of “better,” not best, because these will only be best if—and only if—our father will be with us.
I won’t say that having an OFW parent is all about “stateside” stuff or a well-off kind of life. To be honest, it is not easy (and will never be easy) to grow up in a family where the father (or any other member of the family) is always away. It is like we are dressed in the most fashionable clothes but deep inside, we are feeling hollow. We will look around and see other children with their parents strolling in the mall, buying school supplies, or just sitting together in a restaurant, sharing food on a round table.
Just like other children with OFW parent(s), I do feel bad sometimes, and I constantly think that life will be normal if Papa comes and stays for good. There will be someone to help us with our math assignments, to fix a leaking faucet, or to drive us to school. I know life will be far different if his presence is felt every day.
Nonetheless, being away from our father has taught me many lessons that are all worth remembering. Unlike other children who tend to misbehave in the absence of their father and/or mother, I have learned to be disciplined and motivated. I was in my early grade school years when I resolved in my mind to make an extra effort to study so that my parents will always receive invitations every recognition/graduation day. Being in a middle class has also made me wiser and hopeful.
But if it is all too challenging for us to have Papa away, what more for him? Being away from his family is being completely out of his comfort zone. We see all those families who end up broken, where the usual culprit is distance (from distance comes various challenges, temptations and mistakes). Aside from thinking about the distance, there are other things on the list: Papa missing Mama and his children, including the important events in our lives such as birthdays, Christmases and New Year’s Days; Papa celebrating his own birthday without his family; Papa coping with homesickness; Papa adjusting to new environments (weather, people, culture, everything foreign); and so on.
So whenever I think about being sad, miserable and almost unlucky for not seeing our father every day, I just think of how it is more difficult for him. One thing that our circumstances has taught me is that it is not always easy to think about others’ feelings over ours—to think maturely—but that certain instances in our lives will require us to grow up, to be less self-centered, and to be more understanding of the kind of life that we have.
Coping with our father’s absence is a struggle we have known since we were small children. It is an everyday battle, and we have gotten accustomed to it. It has twisted our story. It brings both joy and agony. But it is the kind of battle that never weakens us. It makes us stronger and more solid as a family, thanks to the invention of gadgets that aid us in keeping in touch with other parts of the world.
Papa came home last April and left the following month. It was a short visit, but it felt lengthy. Next year is his last year as an OFW. He has decided to finally quit overseas work for good because we—his three children—have all acquired our college degrees.
He will finally come home and our family will be “normal” again.
(This piece is for all the OFWs out there who spend their birthdays, Christmases and New Year’s Days away from their loved ones, those who valiantly fight the urge to pack their things and come home, those who continuously struggle to adapt to strange environments, those who persevere at work despite the longing for home, for their comfort zone—all for the sake of the family. This is for all our modern-day heroes who serve not only their families but their country as well, those brave hearts who remain selfless and daring to conquer distance.)
Fatima Malvar Peyra, 21, is a communication arts graduate of the University of the Philippines Los Baños.
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