By Leslie Lee
A few years ago, I made the monumental decision to leave Manila and carve out a new life in another country, thinking—just like millions of other OFWs—that I would earn more than what I was getting in my previous job. And I did: My salary rivaled that of a regional manager’s in a multinational corporation back home. “I’m rich,” I thought, while staring at the numbers printed on my pay slip.
There were plenty of reasons behind that decision, and one of them was that I was sick of living in third-world Philippines. I wanted to experience life in a more progressive country. I longed for first-world conveniences. I wanted to live in a country one would be proud to call home.
Then the universe hit me in the face with a huge serving of humble pie to make me realize just how superficial and simply wrong I was.
I was at the Philippine Embassy to register as an Overseas Filipino Worker. As I was filling up some forms, I noticed that the guy next to me kept glancing at my papers, probably checking to see if he had filled up his own forms right, too. He seemed so anxious and unsure that I took pity on him and started chatting him up.
The Filipino I spoke to used to be a government employee from Cavite. Like me, he wanted to seek greener pastures; unlike me, he got a job that was worlds apart from his previous one. He was part of a posh hotel restaurant’s service crew and, even if he was already five months into the job, was still struggling with the locals’ language. Like me, he would be reprimanded whenever he misinterpreted the locals’ English (chicken drumstick is known as “dark part” but “dark” is pronounced as “duck”—thus the confusion); unlike me, he would always swallow his pride and humbly accept the scolding.
To this day, I feel ashamed whenever I remember how I had tried to hide my Filipino identity. When I first stepped into that foreign land, I disguised myself with the other half of my heritage and masqueraded as being from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or mainland China. I spoke with a Valley girl’s accent to belie the fact that I am a Filipino.
Hearing tale after tale of Pinoys being discriminated—from the domestic helper to the fast food service crew to the vice-president of a bank—broke my heart. Regardless of rank, as soon as we are introduced as Filipino or from the Philippines, the tenor of their voices and the look on their faces change. Because of the color of our skin, the way we speak English, and our inherent docility, we get bullied and belittled. For most of them, being Filipino was something to be sneered at.
That encounter in the embassy was truly an eye-opener. Why bother to keep up this pretense? What was so shameful about being a humble, modest, cheerful, hard-working, and multi-tasking Filipino? Without our community, who will take care of their children, clean their house, wash the dishes, and help ensure that their household is running smoothly? Who will process their payment in the grocery store, assist them in finding the right shoe or shirt size, and serve them dinner?
As I bid farewell to my fellow countryman at the subway station, a thought popped into my head: I was not meant to seek greener pastures, but to realize that the greenest pasture is the one you were born and bred in. I understand now that to conquer this colonial mentality, and consequently change the way others view us, I have to remain true to my roots, and be proud of my heritage.