The myth of the well-off OCW/expat

When I was younger, I puzzled over many Filipinos’ perception of families who have relatives living and working abroad. The reasoning is that if someone in the family is working as an overseas contract worker (OCW) or stays there as an expat, then that person earns huge amounts of dollars and sends money home to their families.

Growing up in a family with an oft-absent seaman father, an aunt who worked and lived in Australia then Canada, an uncle who lived in America and later on several more aunts and uncles working in Taiwan, I could say that the perception is far from the truth. Although some people find their luck and hit it big in a foreign land, most of my relatives were living from salary to salary. It’s true that they worked for dollars but what our gossipy neighbours and friends never took into account is that since they were also living in a foreign land, they were also spending the dollars they’ve earned. Most times, their salaries were just enough to cover the basics after sending a portion of their earnings back home. Furthermore, once they go home to the Philippines for a vacation, their salary stops when they stop working.

Before going home, they’d buy several items with the money they’ve saved up, bringing luxury items to take back home to their families in those huge balikbayan boxes, enough to impress all the relatives who’d be flocking to their homes as well as the neighbours gawking outside their houses. People suddenly showing up and asking for pasalubong(presents) are common and if they don’t have anything for someone, that someone could get upset and start telling anyone who’d care to listen that so-and-so is too full of himself that he couldn’t even be bothered to give a small token to his friend of so many years. Even after giving someone his/her share of pasalubongs, some returnees would be teased to treat his friends out for a night around town. After long periods abroad without friends to talk to and share a beer with, the returnee would most often oblige. And why not, it’s not everyday they go back home to familiar faces and it is after all, a joyous occasion.

After all the gifts have been distributed and several nights out later, the returnee could finally focus on his/her family. Being away most of the time, they tend to stay for long periods of time, only returning abroad when their money have all been spent and all the luxury items they came home with have been sold. The cycle starts over and several years later, they still haven’t saved anything for the future. Meanwhile, friends and other relatives would refuse to believe them when they say they don’t have money to spare or that they’re straining to make ends meet.

Even before coming to Australia, I find it difficult to ask for something from my numerous OCW and expat relatives. They usually give me token gifts when they go home and I always thank them for remembering but never asked for more, not even in jest. I’ve seen the effects of their lifestyle and don’t want to add to the burden. Now that I’m the one who’s living abroad, I find that it irks me when people say that I shouldn’t complain that we don’t have the money to buy something we want or that we’re struggling to make ends meet. Sure, we earn everything in dollars but we buy everything in dollars too. What’s more, we have to keep an eye on our spending or we end up in debt with no relatives or friends to turn to. We’re not exactly rolling in dough here so please give us a break. It’s not all fun and glamour, despite what some people would lead you to believe.

Published in: on August 8, 2005 at 4:47 pm  Comments (1)