I received bad news from Manila today. I read the predicament (a stroke) and I immediately shut myself off from anything I could feel. On instinct I narrowed my vision into a funnel of objectivity just to continue. I scanned the page for concrete needs (hospital bill, meds), and quickly replied how much I would send, how I would send it and when, before even absorbing what was actually being said. After my message was sent, I read the news again and cried. But I didn’t say anything more to the other side.
This isn’t strange territory for overseas Pinoys with loved ones back home. Emotion becomes counterproductive when there is a more efficient action. As I’ve learned many times, it’s hardly useful to collapse into a puddle of tears because I’m so far away. There isn’t a witness to my sorrow or an ear for my words, and often the best solution is to just get up and carry on, with the rationale that going to work produces results that might actually help.
The familiar call
The timing and vibe of a telephone ring preempts these kinds of calls from the homeland. Depending on the gravity of the situation, the message may begin with brief pleasantries before proceeding to a background of a financial need, followed by a requested amount and a hurried goodbye. The recipient of the call is pushed to ask the difficult questions: “Exactly how much?” or “What is it for?” and even worse – “Is it serious? Is it time for me to go home?”
The end receiver of this message is stalled in her tracks. A Filipino foreign worker’s day is tied to a cycle of work and sleep that quickly turns months into years, where children grow up in their absence and houses are built from the other side of the world. We all know that OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) labor is a machine that funds many homes in the Philippines. Almost everyone has a relative toiling away abroad for school fees, ailing parents, and rent. These workers are often just names and pictures to their families, but the monthly remittance is a strange presence in their lives. For many families, the OFW is a just a regular visitor who comes unseen in the middle of the night to wind the key so the music box plays on.
When a worker receives a call that is out of the ordinary, it pulls him out of the hamster wheel of his routine to remind him that while his salary pays the bills, it does nothing for the surplus of emotions on either end. Those who are home must take on the task of the absent in comforting the sick, or the young, or the aging. The ones who are away can only pray that their relatives transfer the love they cannot give firsthand. The sender of the money hopes it will be put to good use, and instill values in their children that they could not instill themselves. In the meantime, the workers must carry on.
In the end, the money is the love letter. In the absence of physical presence, money is the concrete evidence that a foreign worker cares. It’s the only medium when the tired I-love-yous and I-miss-yous no longer make a dent in place of the elusive “I’m coming home” that almost never comes.
Whenever I feel isolated in the US, I only need to visit a nearby remittance center to see OFWs sending money to their families to feel less alone. The centers look like banks, but with the friendlier faces of familiar tellers who don’t hesitate to speak Filipino and ask you “Kamusta ka na ba?” as if they were ninangs to your kids. They have you on file along with the addresses of everyone you’ve sent money to, and during the holidays they hand you a t-shirt and a blue and red rolled up bank calendar you only really see in Manila. Both are printed there, and I take a quick sniff of my birthplace in the ink and paper before giving both of them back with a thank-you.
I’m there to send my emergency remittance, but I stay for a bit to watch the people. I sit around pretending I have forms to fill out, stealing glances at the center’s other clients, mostly older women taking wads of cash from their handbags. You see in the way they count the bills the years of labor in their eyes, ones which keep a distance from everything else in our city except for the money that keeps their families alive. The dollars mean everything – the missed childhoods, the broken relationships, and the lost, irreplaceable time. They hold the bills close as if to blow their families kisses, as if the money could also send off their tears and transform them into touches, and the wish that hope – in the form of schooling, food, and medication – also translates into hugs, and maybe even a recognition of the labors that secured their lives.
Shakira Andrea Sison is a Palanca Award-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours looking for Filipinos in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison and on Facebook.com/sisonshakira.