“Mama, Italyano ba si Papa?” (Mom, is dad Italian?) my six year-old self shouted to my mom who was in the kitchen, which was actually only about a meter away from the supposed living room where I was doing my homework. She emerged teary-eyed from laughing uncontrollably, a ladle in one hand and a wok in the other.
“Paano magiging Italyano ang Papa mo, eh maitim siya?” (How could your dad be Italian, he’s not even fair-skinned!) my mother exclaimed in jest, in the most sincere way possible. No it was not a racist remark at all, but a statement of fact. My father was a healthy chap with curly hair, big, brown eyes, and a pointy nose. Far from being fair-skinned, he had the characteristic Malay sunburnt skin. The closest he ever got to the standard definition of fairness was when he would come home from Italy after winter, sporting a skin made pale by the cold.
“Eh bakit siya marunong mag-Italyano?” (Why then, does he know how to speak Italian?) I asked my mom as I recalled my conversations with Papa over the phone, with him occasionally dropping Italian expressions, and with people in the background speaking Italian. I couldn’t understand how my father could not be an Italian. We call people in the Philippines as Filipinos. My father was in Italy, so he’s supposed to be Italian, right? The logic was that simple for me. I was just in prep school, and as a kid, I thought it would have been cool if my father was Italian.
“Ano ka ba, Pilipino ang tatay mo,” (Your dad is Filipino) my mom answered. Her voice echoed in the cramped apartment we were living in. Neighbors in adjacent units probably heard it, too. My father was a Filipino even though he spent the past two decades of his life on Italian soil. I was disappointed. To me it wasn’t such a cool thing.
It was December 1992. My youngest sibling Aivy was only three months old when my father Victorio resigned from his shipping job in a fiberglass company. The shutdown of operations was imminent, so my dad, then already a father of four, decided to find work elsewhere. He loaned some money from his sibling and got a tricycle he could drive around our subdivision.
It could have been such an idyllic life for him and my mom from then on: a tricycle driver and a teacher raising four happy, healthy kids — except we weren’t living in children’s storybooks. Bills were piling up. The kids were growing masses with growing needs, occasionally getting sick and rarely giving them enough sleep. The loans were accumulating. There was no way the combined earnings of my dad from his tricycle driving stint and my mom’s salary as a public school teacher would suffice. Without a magic lamp and a genie, my father had to find another way to make ends meet.
My father went to Italy in July 1993. It wasn’t a mutual decision between my parents; but it was a move he had to make nonetheless. Ultimately, it was his choice to go abroad. The government did not pack his bags for him, that’s for sure. But all that had to happen was for the unemployment rate to become really bad, and for my father to become part of the statistics. With the misery of the situation sinking in, it came to a point when he couldn’t wait another day, betting his time on jobs he couldn’t land, while his wife mulls over ways to stretch the budget.
My dad made it to Rome with the help of his siblings. My uncle and aunt were already working as domestic helpers in the capital when they agreed to take my dad to Italy. He was a TNT (tago nang tago / always in hiding), sporting a tourist visa but hoping to find an employer so he may be given a permit to stay (permesso di soggiorno). Fortunately, he didn’t have a lot of terrible stories about facing the police, except for a few occasions when the police would search households for illegal aliens and overstaying foreign nationals. Everytime that would happen, my dad and other Filipinos would just feign calmness and tell the officers that their papers were still being processed. At that time, immigration laws in Italy weren’t that strict, so they got away with it.
The fear of being arrested in a foreign country might not deter an OFW (overseas Filipino worker) in finding a job, but each day he fails to find an employer is a bitter pill that slowly kills his spirit. Given his limited resources, my dad had to skip meals, forego sleep, and do away with haircuts so as not to add to his expenses. He took on temporary jobs which entailed cleaning households and being a babysitter for a few hours several times a week. It wasn’t easy for a newcomer like him. Adjusting to the temper of his Italian employers was difficult, especially because he was only starting to learn the language there.
His temporary jobs didn’t earn him much, and his rent was already too high. He had to find an employer who would take him as a stay-in house helper. Without enough money to send to his family and pay off debts, my dad had to borrow from relatives and friends who were also based in Italy. The good thing about Filipinos in Italy is that they have a strong sense of community. Friends who helped him get through that phase eventually became our additional aunts and uncles. It took my dad two years before he got a regular job as a domestic helper. The year was 1995.
The Balikbayan Box
I was almost four years old in May 1995 when we received our first balikbayan box from Italy. We just moved in to my aunt’s apartment. I hardly remember what was inside the box, save for the cute little pair of Mary Janes my dad had for me, probably a gift from one of my aunts. What struck me about that balikbayan box was the distinct scent that came from it when we opened it. “Ganun pala ang amoy ng galing abroad,” (So that’s how items shipped from abroad smell like) I would tell myself.
The same scent would give us a piece of Italy everytime my dad would send us packages. A piece of the Colosseum was in his photograph. A piece of the Italian Alps was in the aged cheese. A piece of Milan craftsmanship was in the pair of leather shoes. A piece of the Vatican was in the rosary. A piece of Northern Italy was in the second hand appliances. If Italy were a puzzle, we probably would have been able to piece it together by now. But for all the pieces of Italy my dad was able to send us through his packages, he failed to send us the only thing we have been asking for: his presence.
Since 1993, my dad returned to the Philippines only nine times. Each was only about a month’s worth of stay, which gives him only almost one year spent with us out of the 22 years he spent working as an OFW. My siblings and I spent our childhood gazing at every airplane that comes in sight, stopping to wave at them each time, thinking they have our dad on board. It’s something we’re not supposed to throw tantrums for. Round trip tickets from Rome to Manila and back are expensive. So each trip home is a carefully calculated decision. In a span of 22 years, he attended only one graduation ceremony for each of his children. He wasn’t supposed to come home unplanned, except when emergency situations call for it, like when my grandparents died. Staying in the Philippines meant zero income for him, so he couldn’t afford to stay here longer than planned.
The gaps in between were supposed to be filled by daily phone calls starting with “Hello Papa, kumusta na po kayo?” (Hi Dad, how are you doing?) and ending with “Sige po babay po, ingat, love you, miss you” (Bye dad, I love you, I miss you) almost as mechanically. When you’re time zones apart and office hours get in the way, it’s difficult to be comfortably chatting with your dad about your life musings. Conversations in between were almost perfunctory yet necessary, so we keep on talking, because we’re not supposed to waste even just a second of costly international calls. All these were supposed to work for decades, except they didn’t.
The Hidden Cost
The past years have been mostly a vicious cycle of getting to know and re-acquainting ourselves with a dad we knew we had but we rarely saw and felt. Everytime he would come home, the family would make arrangements, cleaning the master’s bedroom, which is just additional storage space at home on normal days. Family meals, which are almost non-existent and are more of a grab-and-go routine, would suddenly become necessary. For a time, we would have another cook at home with a distinct palate. For a time, my mom would have extra hands for household chores. For a time, someone would always check on us before we left the house and waited until we got back home. We would have to get used to all these for a time, until one month is up and my dad would have to leave again. Then we would have to go back to our usual ways, a life that moved forward even without him by our side.
For all the benefits this nation boasts of having because of high OFW remittances— livelihood improvement, increased economic output, high levels of foreign exchange reserves that’s supposed to keep the economy afloat in the face of sudden currency devaluation— it fails to act on the inevitable trade-off that impacts the families of OFWs: families growing estranged from each other. No matter how grand it sounds to be called a hero of the new generation, no father would ever want to become a stranger to his own children.
Being a domestic helper in a faraway land is quite a noble thing. But for OFWs, it turns from being noble to being plain depressing, when they think about how they are able to take care of other people’s kids and not their own. There is frustration and panic in my dad’s voice everytime someone in the family would get sick, knowing he couldn’t just fly back to the country in a heartbeat. Slumbook questions about the favorite colors of his children are always difficult to answer, since he didn’t particularly observe us growing up. Little things like our birthdays still get mixed up. My dad still misspells our names. My youngest sibling was only learning how to crawl when my dad left. Now, she could run really fast, especially when she’s running late for her physical therapy licensure exam reviews. Between being a source of pride for his supposed contribution to our economy, and being a source of comfort for his family, I’m sure my dad would choose the latter a hundred times over.
Despite all these sacrifices, my dad’s job was just as turbulent as the economic situation abroad. When Italy was hit by the last great recession in 2009, he lost his job. We almost stopped attending college if not for my mom’s loans. More loans meant more future payments, so my dad had to find another job right away.
How OFWs Cope
If there’s one thing that probably kept my dad from losing his mind while he was jobless and away from his family, it’s probably his sense of humor. He would always joke around, poking fun at people, himself included, and making crowds burst into laughter. When he wasn’t cleaning houses, walking the dogs in the park, or driving his employer to work, he would usually play host to Filipino gatherings, occasionally playing the guitar, singing. Sometimes he would initiate the chacha, or waltz his way to the dance floor, like they do in his hometown Barugo in Leyte.
These are only some of the little distractions Filipinos abroad like my dad have. These distractions keep them from realizing they are sick but they still need to work. These make them forget that nobody’s going to cook them their favorite soup, or tuck them to bed on a cold winter night.
These are probably the same distractions that keep him company on special occasions, including most of his birthdays and Christmas celebrations away from home. On May last year, he was back in the Philippines for my older sister’s wedding and my youngest sister’s graduation. It was a milestone for our family: a celebration for the first to get hitched, and the last to graduate from the brood. It could’ve been the perfect time to put down his OFW hat and wear his father hat for good, but he wasn’t ready to face life at home. Truth is, 22 years weren’t enough to pay the loans, and at 54, it might just be impossible to make up for the lost time with the family.
My dad called me up months back. If I were only a first grader, he would’ve covered up the issue that has been bothering him in the last five months since he got back in Italy. But now that I’m already a working adult, it was time he let me into real life family concerns. “Wala pa rin akong trabaho,” (I still don’t have a job) he said. It wasn’t the first time he broke such news to me, but it worries him just the same. It has been six years since the recession, and Italy still hasn’t fully recovered. “Dapat pala hindi na kayo bumalik” (You shouldn’t have gone back to Italy), I told my dad. “Eh anong gagawin ko dyan? Magiging house husband na lang ako?” (What will I do there? Be a stay at home husband?), my dad said in jest.
It was both a funny joke and a harsh reality for my dad. When you decide to work abroad, you miss out on the big moments. You don’t get to play toy cars with your son. You don’t get to attend your daughter’s first play. You don’t see your teenage kids attend prom night. You don’t get to hold your wife’s hand on your silver wedding anniversary. You forfeit opportunities to experience these things, all in the hopes of providing your family a life far better than you could ever imagine. But by the time your smoke of optimism clears, all that will be left is the huge distance between you and your family. They have built their lives detached from you.
Even if you decide to be home for good, who will be there to keep you company? The kids are all right, and they are all grown up. They have careers that keep them going. They have schedules to follow, while you are stuck observing their every move and devising ways to gain significance, if not prominence, in their lives. That’s why OFWs have to have something going, anything to keep them busy, so they won’t look back and regret missing out on the big moments of life.
But I think what my dad, and every other OFW needs to know, is that maybe there’s no point looking back and crying over spilled milk. Many firsts may have passed them by, but there are still more milestones to witness and be part of. It’s never too late to come home, and stay at home with your loved ones, for good.
[Entry 120, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Dawnavie Dadis is a Segment Producer for DocuCentral, the special projects arm of ABS-CBN Integrated News and Current Affairs. Doing the laundry is her form of mediation. The shower is her territory for musings. She is a story and a story-teller. She previously worked for GMA News as a Segment Producer for News TV Quick Response Team (QRT) with Jiggy Manicad and as a News Producer for the morning newscasts Unang Hirit and Kape’t Balita. Journalism 2012, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.