Alamon: Tokyo dispatch #2

FOR a nation whose expatriate population is estimated to be a tenth of its total number of citizens, we are bound to meet Filipino compatriots of varying standings in the world’s many cosmopolitan cities.

In the few travels I have had the privilege to make, I have become keen to the fact that not all Filipinos in foreign lands are tourists out to see the sights. In fact, those who travel abroad for business and leisure are only a fraction and most are what we call as Overseas Filipino Workers, fellow Filipinos who have taken on the risks of working abroad because of the absence of opportunities back home.

I have met Filipinos as tourists and executives on business trips abroad, but the nicest and warmest ones have always been the Overseas Filipino Workers. Whether in London or in Saitama they are the ones who open their homes and their kitchens to kababayans.

After days of trying out bland European flare, the taste of lechon paksiw in a Filipino restaurant in the back alleys of Vatican or a home-cooked nilagang baka in cold Brussels are a taste of heaven. My OFW hosts in Saitama, this time, cooked for me a warm chicken and cabbage soup before I caught the first morning train to Narita Airport. It is during shared meals like this that conversations about their difficulties and struggles as Filipinos in a diaspora are revealed.

Thus, when I get to travel abroad for academic conferences and similar opportunities, and get to see the sights, traverse subways, and have a taste of the life of the locals, I check my euphoria and pride knowing that my fellow compatriots in foreign shores do not exactly have the same privilege. I learned this by making it a point to talk to them and learn about their experiences as Filipinos who have taken great risks in foreign shores.

It is really possible that many of them have not seen the sights or have never even taken the subway because they would rather save and send money to family they left behind or that they fear being accosted by the host countries’ immigration agents in such public places. It is heartbreaking, many of us in privileged professions do not realize, that being Filipino in foreign shores for many of our compatriots means being treated as second class citizens or worse.

It is no secret that many Filipinos find work in other countries without the proper documentation and Japan is no exception. The risks they take as undocumented migrant workers make them vulnerable to all sorts of hazards. It is a system that governments of host countries and sending countries understand quite well. Certain loopholes in the exit and entry of migrant workers are allowed because they resolve the problem of unemployment in the case of the host country and for cheap docile labor for the receiving country.

I learned of different arrangements to make this possible. Undocumented workers are housed in barracks, ferried to and from work, in exchange of a fraction only of what they pay Japanese citizens. The Filipino worker accepts this because what he earns in eight hours of work in the Philippines, he will receive for his hourly rate. But all this comes at the price of not being able to go home and not being able to roam around freely for fear of being deported or disallowed entry.

For a time in Japan, a significant number of Filipino women were sent for their emotional labor as brides of Japanese males. The cultural shock and unspoken violence of the adjustments and demands to be the wife of a virtual stranger speak about the painful struggles of many Filipino women who married Japanese husbands. Often times, the cultural barrier between the Japanese husband and the Filipina wife is not surpassed. Now that their children have grown up, the Filipina mothers find themselves alienated from their Japanese sons who have been properly integrated into Japanese society unlike them who remain discriminated and at the margins.

My OFW host explained to me that learning the Japanese language for the Filipino mother is necessary to overcome this barrier. Given the strict and closed Japanese culture, the opportunities for learning the language and the integration of Filipina women become even more difficult. Complicating matters are the poor educational background of many of these women such that they end up completely financially dependent on their Japanese husbands. When their children grow up, they latch on to their Japanese identity aligned with their fathers alienating their Filipino mothers.

Japan is a beautiful country that is nice to visit. But meeting Filipino workers here in Tokyo and knowing about their hardships and struggles also revealed to me that wherever there are OFWs, which is practically everywhere around the world, we must remind ourselves of the conditions in our homeland that keep them away from their families at home and make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.