IN MARCH 1998, I was at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 2 for the first time. I had with me my only luggage containing my clothes and other personal belongings, inside was a sewing kit which my grandmother asked me to bring. She said that if my clothes get torn, I will always be able to mend the tear even if I was miles away from home.
My skill set was almost zero for the job I was about to take. I had no knowledge of the place I was to go to - I thought Singapore had snow. But I was unfazed. I was brimming with excitement because I will be out of the country.
At the airport, I was in awe of the cavernous ceiling and its modern architecture. I did not mind that my airplane ticket was only given to me when I met up with my agent at the airport and that I still had to fork out P3,000 for it. About four hours later, peeking from the window of the airplane as it taxied along the runway at half-past 6 in the evening, I could see the sunset and the silhouette of the Changi International Airport.
Inside Changi, I was transported to the future. It was a vast expanse of glass, steel and concrete; its interior design sleek and bright. There was a network of conveyor belts and escalators effortlessly moving from the airplanes’ docking gates to the main lobby. Several huge digital screens in various locations prompted arrivals and departures. The public address system had a clear and pleasant voice emanating from the speakers. There were no hordes of people agog at the arrival area. The airport was business going about in clockwork precision.
Just outside, there were no barkers fighting for your attention to rent transportation, passengers may just easily take the next ride from the taxis neatly parked at the loading area. NAIA Terminal 2 suddenly was mediocre in comparison. Coming out of the airport, the roads that greeted me were not only well-paved and good sized, they were also well-lighted and uncongested with the appropriate signage.
Inside the taxi that ferried me to the halfway house my employer provided for me, all I could do was get amazed in silence and concede that my love for the Philippines was not enough to admit that we were the sick man of South East Asia.
When I arrived at the house, I was shocked to discover that I will be rooming in with three construction workers from mainland China. The condo type apartment had eight tenants with three rooms but with only one toilet and bath. The latrine was so filthy it was dark brown. When I went out to have dinner that first night, most of the hawker stores had only Chinese menus. I considered myself lucky because I found a McDonald’s store after a couple of days. McDonald’s burgers, although quite ironic, were my go-to food because I was not really fond of spicy dishes.
On my first day of work, I was disheartened to learn that the salary I was to receive was only 1,500 and not the 2,000 Singapore dollars promised to me by my agent in the Philippines. And to my horror, I was asked to surrender my passport to my employer.
Slowly, I felt like a second-class citizen and dawned on me that I was indeed miles and miles away from home. I started to feel homesick and all I could think about was to find a way to leave as soon as possible. But there was the money my parents loaned to pay for my placement fee that I had to pay back. And I no longer have a job to go back to. With a heavy heart, I willed myself to stay put in Singapore, work and fulfill my two-year contract.
My life in Singapore as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) was pretty much uninteresting and mind-numbing. I wake up in the morning to get the connecting bus to the train station, alight at the financial district and walk a few meters to where our office was located. I will be working for an average of ten hours a day for six days a week. There was minimal banter with other employees because it was discouraged during office hours. My company was a multimedia company yet it followed an assembly-line type of working style.
Hour after hour we churn out videos and multimedia projects. At the close of the working day, I will head to the nearby hawker center or McDonald’s and have my dinner. After that, I will head to the train station, alight at the bus stop and wait for the bus for home. Weekends were usually spent doing the laundry and other household chores.
Occasional overseas calls and news from my loved ones made my days more bearable. It was also a blessing in disguise that a few weeks before I left for Singapore, our askal dog gave birth to four puppies. I told my mother to keep one female which we named “Maricel” (I am a fan of Maricel Soriano). News about Maricel, and her growing up pictures mailed to me, kept my homesickness at bay.
It was a good thing that the new video editing software I used in my job interested me. I also found solace in the fact that regularly, every payday, I get to send money home.
I do not know about the other OFWs, but I was lonely working in the city-state. Sure, I had enough money to spend. The neighborhoods were relatively safe. There were no snarling traffic jams. There were sports fest organized for Filipinos where I joined a volleyball team. But there was less interaction among “familiar” people. It was uncommon to unwind and meet after office hours because fellow Filipinos would rather go straight home to save money. Sometimes there were get-togethers but these were far-between. I felt that Singapore lacked the rawness and spontaneity I was used to.
Indeed, it was a challenge for me to be away from everything familiar and become a second-class citizen. It was also discouraging to realize that for the same job and qualifications, employees from First World countries like the USA and United Kingdom were paid much more compared to those coming from Third World countries like me.
There are many reasons why people work overseas. But I wish for the day to come that fellow Filipinos will work abroad as a matter choice rather than that of necessity.
My grandmother has since passed on several years ago and I am back in the country for good (I hope). But I still have some of the thread and needles in the sewing kit she gave me. The thread easily breaks now and the needles rusty. I kept them to remind myself that we could always mend things that were torn apart any day.
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