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MANILA, Philippines – According to 2021 data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are about 1.83 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) all over the world.
Behind the figures are stories of struggle and sacrifice. There are calls for the government to address numerous issues that beset OFWs, who miss the feeling of being at home with their families and loved ones.
For over four years, this was the story of James De Castro Maristela. The 30-year-old Maristela used to be an OFW in South Korea, but he recently came home to the Philippines to reunite with his family and resume chasing his dream — to become a certified public accountant (CPA).
Maristela, who flunked in his first attempt in 2015, recalled his journey when he was still a student hounded by financial and familial problems that greatly affected his review and preparation efforts.
“Never akong nagkaroon ng opportunity na mag-aral bilang isang estudyante nung college ako dahil sobrang hirap ng buhay.… Kung mabibigyan lang ako ng pagkakataong makapagaral bilang isang estudyante, gusto kong patunayan sa sarili ko na kaya ko. Kaya kong makapasa,” he shared in an interview with Rappler.
(I never had the opportunity to focus on studying as a college student because life was very difficult…. If only I could have the opportunity to focus on studying as a student, I want to prove to myself that I am capable. I am capable of passing.)
This motivated Maristela to take another shot at the CPA licensure exams. This time his dream came true when he hurdled the May 2023 CPA Licensure Examination.
Growing up in Lemery, Batangas, Maristela was one of seven children from a household that never had a stable income. His mother worked at odd jobs, while his late father was jobless and drunk for most of his life.
“Ugali ng tatay ko nun, lasinggero po talaga. As in bago pa lang po kami ipanganak, ang tatay ko po ay lasinggero na, as in every day. Hindi lilipas ‘yung araw na hindi siya lasing. Hindi rin po kasi siya naghahanap ng trabaho… Lagi na lang nag-aaway ang inay at tatay dahil walang wala, wala na pong makain tapos si tatay, nakahilata, lasing,” he said.
(My father was a drunkard. Way back before we were even born, my father was already a drunkard. Not a day went by that he wasn’t drunk. He also didn’t bother to look for a job… My mother and father would always fight because we had nothing, we no longer had food to eat and my father would just be lying down, drunk.)
Maristela was able to go to school through the financial support of his maternal grandmother and uncle. Eventually, he graduated high school and college, the first person in the family to do so.
Finishing as the class salutatorian at Payapa National High School and graduating as a scholar at Rizal College of Taal, Maristela was hell-bent on pursuing a better life for himself and his family from the get-go.
He recounted: “I graduated, wala po akong latin honors noon. Pero okay lang, dahil ‘yung nakatapos po ako parang reward na din, dahil gustong gusto ko na pong makatapos para makapag-work at makatulong sa pamilya namin.” (I graduated without latin honors. But that’s okay because finishing college is already like a reward as I really wanted to graduate so that I could work and help my family.)
Becoming a CPA
In the beginning, accountancy was not in Maristela’s mind. The course was something he described as “alien” to him during his first and second years in college.
But over time, he grew fond of the course. He also realized how becoming a CPA would afford him a well-paying job and a secure future.
“Ang hinihiling ko lang po talaga ay magkaroon ako ng stable na trabaho na makakapag-provide ako sa family ko. Kaya ginalingan ko po ‘yung pag-pursue sa BSA program kasi nga po ‘yun ‘yung pangarap ko, magkaroon ng stable na future,” he said.
(I wished to have a stable job that could provide for my family which is why I did my best in pursuing the BSA program because that is my dream, to have a stable future.)
When he failed his first try, Maristela decided to look for a job instead of retaking the CPALE. “Ang hirap makipag-sapalaran kapag walang wala ka po talaga.” (It’s hard to take risks in finding better opportunities when you have nothing). He said, recalling his early years of reviewing for the CPALE.
For two years, he worked as an accounting specialist at MLM Foods and endured earning minimum wage — merely making ends meet for him and his family. Maristela shared, “Being a breadwinner, parang shoulder mo ‘yung buong mundo.” (Being a breadwinner was like carrying the world on your shoulders).
He eventually left the company in search of greener pastures.
From accountancy to factory work
In 2018, Maristela traveled to Busan, South Korea, to work as a production worker.
The transition initially unnerved him as he pointed out the stark differences between being an accounting specialist to manufacturing oxygen diffusers. Maristela also had to hurdle the language barrier and cultural differences between him and his colleagues. This compelled him to study the Korean language and their culture.
He pointed out the workaholic nature of Koreans as something that he struggled to keep up with.
“Iba po kasi ang culture ng Philippines sa mga Koreans. Doon [as South Korea] parang sobrang workaholic to the point na Monday to Saturday, kailangan mong mag-work. So hanggang gabi po kami nag-wowork, 8 am hanggang 8 ng gabi,” he said.
(The cultures of Filipino and Koreans are different. Here [in South Korea], they are workaholics to the point that you need to work Monday to Saturday. We work until the night, 8 am until 8 in the evening.)
He added: “Starting over was really hard. During that time, I always felt like giving up. I even cried many times at night ‘cause I really missed my family. So I video-called my mom every time I had free time and during our rest days.”
Change of plans
His plan of working in South Korea long-term was cut short after the tragic deaths of his father and three uncles.
Maristela shared: “Sabi ko sa sarili ko, ayoko dumating ‘yung panahon na may pera ako, nasa ibang bansa, kumikita ng malaking pera tapos ‘yung nanay ko hindi ko nakakasama. ‘Yung mga relatives ko, isa-isang namatay, sunod sunod. ‘Yun ang naging dahilan kung bakit ako umuwi ng Pilipinas.”
(I told myself, I didn’t want a future when I’d have money but I am in a different country and I couldn’t be with my mother. My relatives died one after the other. That was the reason why I went back home to the Philippines).
He came home in June 2022 and decided to resume his goal of becoming a CPA, something he also described as “unfinished business.”
“Nung nag-fail ako sa CPA board exam, nag-iwan siya ng malaking butas sa akin, sa puso ko (When I failed the CPA board exam, it left a huge hole in my heart),” he said.
Will to try again
For almost a year since coming home, Maristela focused on studying, following a routine of reviewing from morning to evening, with breaks during those hours.
The gap years and the pressure to pass made him feel worried about taking the CPALE last month. But Maristela countered his troubled thoughts by reassuring himself.
“Alam ko sa sarili kong nag-aral ako ng maayos.… Basta nag-exam na lang ako at sinurender ko ang lahat sa Diyos kasi alam kong hindi ako nagkulang sa pag-aaral,” he said.
(I knew I studied well… I just took the exam and surrendered it to God because I knew I wasn’t lacking in my review.)
He was right, and he did not fall short this time.
Maristela urges aspiring CPAs to never give up on their dreams as there is a right time for everyone. “You will never know until you try again, so never give up,” he said. – Mia Seleccion/Rappler.com
Mia Seleccion is a third-year Communication Arts student at the University of Santo Tomas and an intern for Rappler’s Digital Communications team.