As you make the round of Christmas parties, prepare traditional dishes for Noche Buena, and wrap gifts to put under the tree, spare a thought for the overseas Filipinos scattered all over the world who are pining to be in the Philippines this holiday season.
First, a note on who they are—overseas Filipinos (Pilipino sa ibayong-dagat) are those who live outside the Philippines, whether as contract workers, students, or permanent residents or citizens of a different country. In 2013, the Commission on Overseas Filipinos estimated that there are 10.2-million Filipinos living or working abroad.
Of these, the overseas contract workers are those who most long for a Pinas Christmas because they are not free to travel when they want to, unlike migrants who can plan their vacations.
What’s in their thoughts during this season? What’s so special about a Christmas in the Philippines when they can spend it in the country they’re in? I asked my sister Aileen Ortuoste, who spent 13 years as an OFW in Dubai and has now lived five years in the US.
She said: “Christmas is so much more enjoyable in the Philippines than elsewhere. It’s so festive, there’s always something happening. Christmas for Pinoys is big, compared to Americans, ang malaki sa kanila Thanksgiving. When the ‘ber months start, Pasko na. We miss the food, but not the traffic.
“But most of all, we miss our family. Those who left kids and spouses behind, they bring them pasalubong even if they go into debt. Because when they buy gifts, especially grocery items, credit card iyon. It’s not without hardship, all the things that they do.
“Christmas in the Philippines is so lively, masaya wherever you go. Gastos ka nga lang ng gastos [you keep spending]. But it’s worth it when you spend. You always want to make sure you’ve given everybody their gifts, you’ve taken them to eat out and go shopping. You go home satisfied, then you work another year and do it all over again.
“It isn’t always a happy holiday for some, like those who have suffered a death in the family during the season. But you go on with the celebration regardless.
“The role of the OFW is to provide for and support their family. Most OFWs are not well-to-do, so they have to provide big time for their families. Christmas is a time for them to share what they have—the fruits of their labor.
“Now they can say, we can prepare a feast, I can bring gifts or groceries. If they can’t go home, they send balikbayan boxes via LBC as early as October or September to make sure they arrive before Christmas. Sometimes the Christmas presents are already in there too.
“Most of what’s in the boxes are grocery items like canned goods—Argentinian corned beef, white chunk tuna—as well as basics like cooking oil, laundry detergent, Downy, nuts, chips, candy, chocolates, anything you see in the supermarkets, especially for families in the provinces. Clothes, shoes, bags are from sales like the Dubai Summer Sale.
“When the OFWs go home, sad again. Back to the grind on the Monday after their trip. The main purpose of working for the next 365 days is para mapasaya nila pamilya nila (so that they can make their families happy). We’re not even counting the money that’s sent monthly. Christmas is a special thing.”
Aileen clarifies, “Not everyone is able to go home every year. Some wait two, three, five years because their employers don’t let them go home just like that, or it depends on their contract. I was fortunate I was able to because I was with good companies.
“Maawa ka sa mga domestic, drivers, waitresses [You should feel sorry for the domestic workers]—they can’t go home on a regular basis. Their salaries are small, not enough to buy themselves a ticket, and they’d rather send that money back home. You see their pain that they can’t go home to be with their families.
“OFWs sacrifice a lot. Don’t take them for granted. Their salaries aren’t that high, but they’re really saving up to provide for their families. Be thankful and grateful.”
Again, Aileen reiterates: “The main goal is: mapasaya ang pamilya at kaibigan [to make family and friends happy]. When they do, they feel good about it. They miss their families so much, especially those who have children. You put that in your column, ha, about missing their kids!”
Her parting words are just like her, very practical: “My concern is our airport, the Naia. To the thieves and extortionists, stop targeting passengers. Wag naman, sobra na nga hirap namin. We’ll be excited that our loved one will get this gift, tapos ninakaw sa baggage.”
Family, love, sacrifice —these are what drive the determination and perseverance of many OFWs, and also, these are the reasons for the season. That’s something to bear in mind and keep in heart.
From Aileen and I in the diaspora, we send you and your family our warmest Christmas greetings from across the seas.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. FB: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste