“Roughly speaking, one loves not because one wants gifts, but because one wants their meaning.”
PARALLEL to something big happening in Manila, the MMSU Graduate School organized recently a Research Forum on Migration and Development where this columnist was invited to speak.
There I presented a paper I co-authored with my ‘partner for all seasons’ Marjorie Pascual Garcia, also of MMSU, and Vangie Novero Blust of Green Mountain College, Vermont, USA. Bearing the title “Influences of Transnational Labor Migration on Ilocano College Students’ Consumption Behaviors, Value Retention, and Social Relationships”, the paper studied in detail the cases of fifteen college students whose parents are working overseas.
Allow me to share with you some insights from our work:
Migration is across all social classes. While it is true that poverty is the main reason for work overseas, many Filipinos go abroad for some other reasons (including whims and caprices). Note that most of the participants did not consider themselves economically poor when their parents were still home.
For one, no participant confessed to experiencing hunger in their pre-migration lives. When their parents went abroad, the increase in food was more on the variety, not on the quantity. One student puts it:
Nagbalin a sab-sabali tay ordinaryo ken inaldaw-aldaw a kankanenmi aglalo no agpao-it ni Mama ti door-to-door. (Our everyday fare became different, especially when we would receive our door-to-door package.)
Also, most of the participants now find themselves frequenting fast-food chains, which connotes deviation from Ilocano foodways.
When it comes to fashion, they now have a penchant for signature clothes, preference for malls & department stores over the public market, and dislike for Ukay-ukay. They are also drawn to trendy and fashionable jewelry & accessories.
Nearly all of the participants have the following appliances and gadgets: TV, DVD, component, desktop computers/laptops, Playstations, and high-end mobile phones.
Their taste and preferences for goods (both durables and non-durables) mimic those observed in the West and other developed regions. The students’ material possessions in terms of clothing, gadgets, and appliances are distinctively cosmopolitan, suggesting the influence of globalization in consumption. This could be attributed largely to their exposure to mass media.
One interesting finding in the research is that although most of the participants own high-end mobile phones and they talk to their migrant parents on a regular basis, these young people are not able to communicate their more important concerns to their parents, as one of them points out:
“Kapag may problema, madalas e sinasarili na lang namin, hindi na namin sinsasabi kay Mama, kasi marami na siyang problema doon at ayaw na naming siyang mag-alala pa.”
Parents tend to overcompensate their absence with material goods—a Commodification of Love. Sociologist Randy David observes: In the age of absentee parenting, the communication of love has taken the form of a steady stream of gift-giving. This however cannot compensate for the erosion of intimacy.
Affirming the findings of many other researches written on this topic, migration has taken its toll on the Filipino family. Participants generally acknowledge a ‘drifting away’ in their relationship with parents. They lament of their parents’ absence in special occasions or times of need. When their elders come home for vacation, there is an effort to make up for lost time. With the idea of “quality time”, they would take vacation trips to Baguio, Manila and other destinations, they would shop in malls, and go to beaches.
For the participants, however, quality time does not compensate for their parents’ absence in important moments—graduation, pinning of medals, the first heartbreak, the first menstrual visit, or even the simple joys that everyday family life brings. A female participant remarked:
“Idi adda pay lang da parents ko ket close ti relationship me, itattan ket loose.” (When my parents were still here, our relationship was close, now it’s loose.)
Another female participant, who confessed to being a lesbian, even attributes her homosexual orientation to the absence of her OFW mom.
Most of these students are taking up courses which were chosen by their parents whose main concern was their children’s job opportunities abroad once they get their college degrees. Some of them wanted to take up other courses but obliged to the wishes of their elders. A female participant confessed:
“BS Nursing ti innalak a kurso gapu ta isu ti kayat ni mother ko, in-demand ngamin diyay abroad. Medyo napilitanak ta kontrada met ngamin kadydiay kayat ko a kurso. Tourism koma ti kayatko gapu ta ballogak.” (I am into BS Nursing because it is what my mother wanted for me, given that the course is in demand abroad. I was a bit forced to take up the course because they were opposed to what I wanted. I would have taken up Tourism because I love to go to different places.)
This student is now having much difficulty in her major subjects owing to her lack of interest in the course. Although most participants have failed in some subjects, making them irregular students, all of them are determined to finish their studies in the hope that they too can find employment abroad.
From the looks of it, the chain of transnational migration is not about to be broken. This is sad because, at best, migration must be looked into only as a palliative measure, something temporary, and something we should eventually turn our backs from. And, why not, with over eight million Filipinos now scattered in all corners of the world, the Philippines is not a place better than what it was over a hundred years ago when the Ilocanos started the phenomenon of transnational labor.
The following recommendations are thus set forth:
Schools, government agencies, and civic organizations should design programs to help children of transnational families cope with the effects of long-term parental absence. One way to do this is the formation of support groups. When we were holding the focus group discussions, participants were relieved to know that their agonies were being experienced as well by other children from transnational families. Certainly, it is always comforting to know that one is not alone. In fact, the participants have kept the bond and continue to interact with each other.
Students who are taking up courses not of their liking must be encouraged to look into ways they can pursue their passions and nurture their potentials, e.g. joining special interest clubs, attending trainings.
Educational institutions must cease acting like “pimping stations” for overseas work and consciously explore and promote opportunities for success outside migration.
In the meantime, even with the absence of a government that pushes for tangible socioeconomic reforms, we close our eyes and look forward to a day when the balikbayan box is displayed in a museum as an artifact of this nation’s lonely and alienating past.