Necessary anti-nationalism: ‘We are your people, too’

Irene Sarmiento
While the Philippines is grateful for the foreign aid we have received, we need long term solutions on both the international and national levels to prevent any more misery to our people.

I love the Philippines with a desperation that few people will ever understand. It’s difficult to explain this to a first worlder. I suppose it’s best to relate it to a mundane, personal issue that could happen to the resident of any nation, developed or not. The love I have for my country is much like the love I used to have for my now estranged husband. It’s a mixture of warm sentimentality, anger, and frustration, with the question, “Why won’t you change?” constantly ringing like an unanswered phone call. But unlike, my love for another human being, which is something that can still be separated from myself, my love for the Philippines is in my veins.

On November 8th, at the skilled nursing facility where I worked, we had the television locked on CNN and we watched as Haiyan, the strongest typhoon in modern day history, ravaged parts of the Philippines. I felt my heart sink from chest to my stomach. It was a feeling of sadness, impotence, and guilt at being in a safe, cushy environment while the people from my country drowned. Just weeks earlier, the screen hanging over my workplace’s rehabilitation gym had displayed images of the destruction left behind by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol, but the more disturbing scenes were yet to come, as the international media covered human anguish amidst the dragging pace of relief efforts after Haiyan and how the government appeared so paralyzed.

As an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW), I am familiar with how important “Pinoy Pride” (Philippine Pride) is to the solidarity and identity of Filipino communities abroad. We have a beautiful nation. We value our rich culture and our overall resilient nature. We OFWs use our talents to try to carve out better lives for ourselves, our families, and also for our home country. But I have to be honest with myself, as I do with everyone else, do I feel proud when I turn on the news and see how our government is handling this national disaster? NO! No. Of course not, I feel embarrassed for us and so disappointed with—dammit, P-Noy, I voted for you! I even proposed to you at one point. But it’s too late. You are inept. And I’m already married.

I can easily be criticized for these anti-nationalistic sentiments. Well, I never claimed to be a nationalist. By lexical definition, nationalism is “a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries.” I regard the concept to be artificial and easily manipulated to further the causes of governing bodies. (Although it’s an obvious example, I will refrain from using Nazism as an example of nationalism. Ahem, Godwin’s Law!)

If you want a relevant picture of how the concept of nationalism can be so arbitrary and malleable, let me give you a brief history of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). During the 1970s, President Marcos made the export of labor an official policy to address job shortages and rising foreign debts. This trade in warm bodies reduced unemployment and kept the economy afloat with OFW remittances. As the nation continued to be pillaged by the dictator and his cronies, it became increasingly dependent on its human exports, and later in that decade, labor recruitment agencies were privatized. Ousted President, and former actor, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, proclaimed the OFW the “modern day hero” or in Filipino/Tagalog, Bagong Bayani. According to the Central Bank of the Philippines, last year, OFW blood, sweat, and tears accounted for the inflow of $21.391 billion, a record high.

Thus said, I am not a nationalist but I do love my country, painfully. I am one of between 9.5-12.5 million Filipinos working or living abroad—that’s about 10% of the entire Philippine population. There are SO MANY of us, uprooted and in this diaspora, ambassadors of an ailing nation, representing the faces of our devastated people. I want to be a modern day hero to my country not only because of the money I contribute to the Philippine economy, I wish to have a voice for the outside world to hear.

An elderly resident at the facility asked me recently, “How are your people?”

I didn’t know what to say. Obviously, my people were, and are, still suffering. I also received other text messages and emails: well wishes for my family, apologies for the Philippines, and again, inquiries about “my people.” Well, my people are suffering.

In contemporary society, it is considered unjust to segregate people based on race, class, or what-have-you, and yet when it comes to natural disasters that have been worsening with global warming, people in poor countries like the Philippines, my people, are segregated when it comes to extreme hardship due to the consequences, whether direct or indirect, of climate change and social inequity. Filipinos who have been expatriated are out of harm’s way. Though we worry about our loved ones, we still have access to modern comforts, such as electricity and running water, that are often cut in the event of a calamity. OFWs, modern day heroes, have the moral obligation to speak for our people back home.

While the Philippines is grateful for the foreign aid we have received, we need long term solutions on both the international and national levels to prevent any more misery to our people. This isn’t another case of us and them. We Filipinos also walk among the residents of industrialized nations: taking care of your sick, teaching your young, looking after your homes, building your infrastructure, entertaining you, and serving you.

What I want the developed world to know is this: they are not just my people, we are your people, too. –

Irene Sarmiento is an occupational therapist and writer, currently based in Texas. She has published two books for children, Spinning (Anvil, 2009), and Tabon Girl (Anvil, 2012). Her stories have won awards from the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Foundation, Philippines Free Press, and Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. 

#BalikBayan is a project that aims to harness and engage Filipinos all over the world to collectively rediscover and redefine Filipino identity.