So You Want to Workabroad?

You've made the decision, informed your friends and family and are now just waiting for a call back from an agent for an interview or an actual job offer. You’ve heard the success stories and want to experience the same thing for yourself. However, every successful homecoming hides hardship, and behind every happy ending is a story filled with a lot of personal sacrifice and loneliness. Instead of simply focusing on the practical steps of moving abroad, instead of only eyeing the monetary gain, it might be worth it to consider that there will be a dark side to every move overseas. So, before you pack your bags, read through six lessons five female OFWs had to learn.

1. Your journey will be yours alone

Sunny K., shares her words of wisdom after ten years of working as an English teacher in Qatar. A university graduate with a degree in Economics, she could not find a local job that paid as much as her current position. “Even as you are looking through websites that list jobs abroad, even as you are filling in the forms to get your visa, mentally prepare yourself to be alone, as in alone talaga, for what may be the first time in your life. Get ready to be a foreigner in a foreign land where you will feel unwanted, unloved, and discriminated against.”

When you first make that decision to leave, you should realize that you are not just physically leaving the place where you were raised. All the times you were protected by your parents, coddled by your friends – these times will be long gone when you move abroad. Once you have left the place you have known all your life, you are emotionally leaving all the friends and family who have supported you all these years. You cannot pack this support system in your luggage and take with you like clothes or keepsakes – they will instead be stored away in your memory to be called upon in times when you need comfort the most. Keep these memories close for comfort, but do not dwell on them and instead focus on using them to inspire you to keep going. Sunny tells me there was a slogan she and her friends made up in their first year in Qatar: “Lahat ng rules, bago. Lahat ng bago, mahirap. Still, keep going dapat. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger nga, diba?”

2. The littlest things will matter the most

“What do I miss most from the Philippines?” Anne L., an au pair in Germany repeats the question thoughtfully. “Siguro yung amoy ng kape ng ate ko sa umaga. Yung tawa ng isang kabarkada ko – yung tawa na parang umiiyak na siya, yung ganon.” She then proceeds to try to imitate the laugh but starts laughing at her own attempt. “Ay, di ko kaya. Ibang klase kasi yung tawa niya e.” Her friend and fellow au pair Lea C., chimes in, “Sus, walang banana ketchup kaya dito.”  Both ladies were into their first months as live-in nannies and were clearly missing a lot of things back home. “Masaya naman dito, lalo na pag nakasanayan mo na,” Anne explains, “pero siyempre iba pa rin sa atin.”

It will be the little things that stand out most, the little things that signal you have entered a new world and a new way of life. There are day-to-day schedules and, even struggles that you will have to master when you workabroad.  A different day to start the weekend in the Middle East, not having your favorite food available in Europe, not having your local gugo shampoo in stock in the US – the list can be endless. These are the things that you often take for granted at home, that suddenly become so precious when you move abroad for work. And these are the things that, when things don’t go well and your day goes from bad to awful, can really depress you. Don’t let these little things get you down and, instead, discover new things and develop new favorites. Keep in mind that nothing will replace what you have left behind but there may be something in your new life that will make leaving the familiar worthwhile. In Lea’s own words: “Pero di naman as in miss-na-miss. Magandang alaala lang naman. Nagaganahan pa nga ako kasi ang daming bago rito; kahit walang banana ketchup, may Green Sauce naman!”

3. Don’t expect support, but be thankful when you get it

Hazel A., recalls the very first time she woke up in her temporary accommodation in London, surrounded by fellow Filipino nurses who were waiting to be reassigned to their permanent lodgings. “Parang ang hirap kumibo since I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me. We were all feeling a bit lost, kasi nga kami yung umalis, diba?  And nakakalungkot kasi di ka naman pwede maki-friends kasi bukas na bukas maghihiwalay din kami. Anong use, diba?”

So Hazel kept her distance from everyone at first, even when she had moved to her permanent accommodation, not far from the hospital she was assigned to. At that time she was placed with two other girls in a two, single bedroom apartment, which meant that Hazel, as the newest arrival, had to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room. She tried to blend into the background, which was easy since all three nurses had very different shifts. It wasn’t until one of the girls had the same day off she did that the two of them had breakfast together and decided to walk around the city that they bonded over stories of how they got there and their worries for their families back in the Philippines. Two days later Hazel hung out with the other girl and soon the three of them were leaving little notes for each other on post-its stuck around the apartment.

The girls also tried to attend mass as often as they could, alone or together, joined the choir, and found a lot of Filipinos to make friends with in church. It was thanks to this support group that Hazel was able to live through the trauma of her father having a heart attack whilst she was on a night shift. “Kakauwi ko pa lang, gising pa yung dalawa. 4am yun ha! Inabangan nila ako. Naka-off kasi yung cellphone ko kasi na low-batt ako. Yung pala tawag nang tawag yung pamilya ko – sa akin, sa kanila sa flat, kahit sa head ng church choir namin – nasa ospital si daddy tapos kailangan ko raw magpadala ng pera kaagad. Iyak ako nang iyak, pero buti na lang nandoon si Emily tsaka Rin-rin (her roommates). Kahit may early shift silang dalawa, sinabayan nila akong umiyak. Si Tita Amy, yung head ng choir, dumaan din. May dalang GBP200 (then worth around Php 20,000) na collection sa ibang choir members. For emergency purposes daw. Buti na lang at may na-ipon na ako at di ko kailangan pero ang bait nila, diba?” 

People working abroad are also working outside their comfort zone. They will seek to protect themselves at all cost, physically and emotionally. However, there will be cases where the human need for contact and connection will override all other forms of self-preservation, and allow fellow human beings to help each other in times of need. Like any relationship, things take time to develop and friendships take time to deepen but, once they do, a meaningful connection can be possible, and unexpectedly welcome.

4.    Family finances become more complicated

Lizette S., an employee of a multinational company in the Middle East, found that moving abroad did not make managing her finances easier. On the contrary, it opened her eyes to the way Filipinos were spending money, both in the Philippines and away. “My non-Filipino officemates would tell me: How can you Filipinos afford to buy so much branded stuff on your salary? And then still send money home? Parang they think we live beyond our means and, you know what? They are right.” She goes on to explain that for a typical employee’s salary, half or more than half is remitted to the Philippines, another large chunk goes to rent and other expenses, and very little is left for personal savings and/or shopping. “Kaya siguro a lot of them have a large credit card debt,” Lizette muses, “especially before a trip home. Some of them would almost not eat anything just to be able to stuff balikbayan boxes full of gifts for their friends and family members.” No stranger to managing tight finances, Lizette feels the strain of being responsible for paying off family loans and putting her younger sister through school. It is this role as breadwinner that has helped her develop a strong savings mentality and to value making a real difference over showy, sometimes OTT presents.

More often than not, OFWs are seen as the family’s “saving grace”, someone who earns a load of money and eases the lives of everyone back home. Families with OFWs are considered lucky, as the numerous pasalubongs every visit back home proves. Parents don’t have to work as much when their child remits money back home, and siblings can just about attend any school they want, all expenses paid. That’s the façade, anyway. In reality, OFWs are people who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, and can barely manage their own finances, much less the finances of others.

5. Home will not be home anymore

“There’s a poem I remember reading in school,” Julie N., an OFW who has worked in the US and UK, shares, “and it goes something like: You will never be able to travel to the exact same place twice. Maybe the place itself has changed; maybe you yourself have changed. Basta, imposible.”  She relates how, when she goes back for a visit with her family, everything from the pace of life to the attitudes of her fellow Filipinos feels different. “Di ko alam kung ako yung nagbago or sila, basta one or the other. Or both! Traffic pa lang, ibang-iba na. And I walk so much faster than my friends now – and I’m not sporty ha. I guess I just got used to the pace of people in the UK who are so used to walking everywhere.” A lot of OFWs will go through a getting to know period once again, ironically, not just of the new country they have moved to, but also of the home they left behind.

Aside from environmental effects, life, as you know it, will change when you move overseas. Not just for you, which is a given, but, also for the people back home.  They will have had time to miss you, and they will also have had time to get over it and find a new everyday pattern without you in their lives. “I’d come home and want to get in touch with a lot of people, and it would be hard to meet with everyone kasi they all had the same free time and ako naman, limited sobra time ko. It wouldn’t be a long visit with everyone pero it would be long enough to see how everyone changed, how their lives got on. Sometimes it makes me cry kasi there’d be friends who have had kids na and we used to be super close, tapos I wasn’t there when they got married or gave birth. And sometimes I’d feel like we weren’t close anymore – iba yung worries nila sa worries ko and there wasn’t that connection anymore.” Be ready to lose some close friendships when you move overseas. After all, people change and relationships change when distance is applied to the mix. The saying goes that real friends are forever, but, the truth of the matter is, friends, no matter how real, have lives of their own. And as you got on with yours, they also got on with theirs.

6. You will come out stronger than you thought possible (Hazel, Lizette, Anne, Julie, Lea)

Workabroad will have its own set of challenges: moving away from the familiar, leaving your support network behind, stepping into a world you knew nothing of beforehand. It will be season of ups and downs, usually a rollercoaster ride with more downward spirals than upward chugs. Through it all, you must try to survive, to wake up every day, and to face whatever new SNAFU that might come your way. “The first year will always be the hardest,” Julie shares. “It’s the year that has the most changes and therefore the most challenges. I really felt that if I could get through that first year, kahit ano, kakayanin ko.”

Hazel agrees, “It’s an achievement din, diba, that you are able to do something for yourself and your family. It makes me happy that this experience has made me a better person… a braver person, ika-nga.” Lizette is grateful for her experience as it really changed her life. She met her future husband through her work placement in Bahrain, and now they are a happy family with a two-year old girl. “I don’t regret anything naman. Masaya ako noon and masaya ako ngayon. It’s a good thing that came out of my move and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Anne and Lea, though only a few months into their new jobs, already sound like pros when they share their own learning experiences. Anne says, “Basta natutuwa na lang ako na independent na ako ngayon. May responsibilidad ako sa mga magulang ko at makakaipon na ako. Tulong din yon sa kanila kaya alam ko proud sila sa akin.” Lea nods and adds, “Dapat lang! Pero kahit mahirap mag-isa rito, kahit ibang-iba ang mga tao rito – tingnan mo naman, tao pa rin sila. May matututo ako rito na hindi ko makukuha sa atin. Excited naman ako.”