overseas Filipinos

[OPINION] First world envy

Irene Sarmiento

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[OPINION] First world envy

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'Can you teach Filipino children about freedom when they have been deprived of it in their formative years?'

My father tells a story about how I shed blood during the People Power Revolution — the peaceful, yet massive movement to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship, in which thousands of Filipinos converged on the main thoroughfare known as EDSA. I was a toddler in 1986, as my parents listened to the political opera unfold over renegade radio. The sight of the first family absconding in a US Air Force helicopter was so powerful that a tidal wave of triumph rose from the streets and rippled into the surrounding households, one of which was ours. 

My brother and I, still too young to know the significance of such an event — yet receptive to the ebullience of a renewed national spirit — jumped for joy. By my father’s account, I fell off the couch and sliced my forehead against the corner of a coffee table. Both parents rushed me to the ER, where a medical resident meticulously stitched the top of my left brow. When my mother asked where they would settle the bill, the doctor said it was free.  

I still have the scar. 

Like many Filipinos, both abroad and in country, I now solely interact with my family through video conferencing. On one virtual reunion, my brother in Manila, whose 8-year-old son had joined the call with him, wished me a good night, acknowledging the 14-hour time difference between the Philippines and Colorado. A perplexed expression crossed my nephew’s face, “What do you mean it’s night time there?” It turned out that for the past year and a half, the youngster had assumed I was somewhere in Manila, enduring the same lockdown cycles classified by abbreviations, which may as well have been named after the tiers of Dante’s Purgatorio

My nephew began asking more questions, “Where do you walk your dog?” 

“Outside,” I answered. 


It wasn’t my place to tell the child that the richer parts of the world haven’t experienced the same capture-release-repeat quarantine pattern while emerging from the pandemic. It has become so normal for Filipino kids to stay indoors and away from one another, as the world outside is cruel and dangerous. When I look out the window, I see mask-less Caucasian children running in the park, and I wonder when the kids of my peers back home will be able to do the same. Would it be heartless to tell my nephew that he deserves better when he is not wanting? He seems perfectly content “attending” school on Zoom and playing Pokémon. 

Growing up, no one had to teach me that life in the developed world was different. All I had to do was pick up a book or switch on the TV to conclude that, in general, white people in rich countries just live more comfortably. At the time, I didn’t know enough about the complexities of imperialism and post-colonization to think critically, but what I did experience, I recognized as first world envy.

This is when a person covets the national birthright of another. When juxtaposed against privilege, for me, first world envy appears as the opposite face of the same coin. One can have both, especially when you grow up in the developing world and still have the resources that would enable you to make overarching societal comparisons. Whereas privilege, when explored superficially, can end with feelings of guilt and defensiveness (or conversely, reduced to #blessed #grateful), bringing up first world envy has its own bi-products, including, but not limited to toxic positivity, like focusing on a people’s forbearance of inadequate conditions, while telling them to wait for change that may never come. 

In school, I heard first world envy in the voices of my teachers, as we went through history lesson after history lesson about being the conquered lot. I can still feel the collective frustration of being caught in a stagnant sea of traffic, morning, noon, and night — how waiting in line for a simple bureaucratic process, such as renewing a driver’s license, could easily sequester the whole day, to the point that leading a productive life and being in transitional limbo became one and the same. I dreaded evoking sentiments of first world envy from my family when I told them I was I fully vaccinated several months before my parents got their initial shots.  

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My first interaction with someone who grew up in a rich country was with a cousin visiting from Canada. We were about the same age as my nephew is now. When offered something to drink, he said he could only have bottled water. An elder later explained that this was because of bacteria in our water that we had grown accustomed to, but that these same microbes could kill a Canadian, so in a way I was stronger than my cousin. I believed this, until a few years later when I got typhoid fever, typically contracted from consuming water with traces of feces infected with Salmonella Typhi. Or, quite literally, from eating shit. Apparently, what was irrefutably harmful to a first world kid was just as deleterious to a child anywhere else on Earth.   

What concerns me the most as a writer from the developing world is the potential for the next generation to accept their current narrative as the standard. Can you teach Filipino children about freedom when they have been deprived of it in their formative years? I don’t have the answer, but this is where an examination of privilege (or lack thereof) and first world envy are necessary, where the goal of such concepts isn’t to evoke shame, resentment, or blind optimism, but to cultivate inquisitiveness and non-complacence. 

I worry about my nephew and all the Filipino children, yet I feel powerless to help them. I am too busy earning USDs, addressing the needs of first world residents, so that I too can drink clean water and have some semblance of wellness. I stay informed, read the news, talk to my family, and look at images of the city where I grew up. 

When I see pictures of the Philippine government’s beautification project — the dolomite-covered sandbar embellishing Manila Bay — I remember one of my last years in my home country. My father and I drove past a slum covered by a mural of what was supposed to look like a quaint American town. “Potemkin village,” he said aptly – a term based on an 18th century Russian statesman who erected a façade to shroud an impoverished village during the empress’s visit.

I look back at the Potemkin villages of my youth. Some were literal, akin to the artificial white sand adorning the capital, which Filipino children can neither play in (super polluted) nor behold, as they are stuck at home. Then there are the metaphorical illusions that are more subtle yet complicated, appearances that would partially explain why after 35 years, the country is again in the fist of a despot. 

My ailing nation’s veneer only became apparent when I took an aerial view, first, a figurative one — I read, I asked questions, I examined myself and my surroundings. Then, realizing there was no way I could thrive, I took another aerial view — a literal one. I left. – Rappler.com

Irene Carolina Sarmiento is the author of two illustrated children’s books, Spinning and Tabon Girl, both published by Anvil. Her stories have won awards from The Palanca Memorial Foundation, Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, and Stories to Change the World.  She is an occupational therapist with a master’s degree in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience.

Voices features opinions from readers of all backgrounds, persuasions, and ages; analyses from advocacy leaders and subject matter experts; and reflections and editorials from Rappler staff. 

You may submit pieces for review to opinion@rappler.com. 

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