A friend of mine told me that when I came into the Philippines two weeks ago, I should have told immigration I was a balikbayan.
That's a Filipino returning temporarily to the motherland from having lived abroad, which -- as a former Philippine national -- I suppose technically I am. But although claiming to be a balikbayan would have given me a stamp in my passport for multiple entries in the country for one year – for some reason, I felt ... unworthy ... of the title.
I have interviewed several Filipino workers who've labored overseas (a.k.a. OFWs), some with good experiences and others with not. But regardless of how the decision to work abroad turned out, one thing is clear: there really was no other choice. If a Filipino wants to provide for their family, send their kids to a decent school, save money to buy land or build a house or even just make ends meet -- going overseas is not a decision, it is essential. And they're willing to do it, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos do it every year.
Even though the blanket term "OFW" is often used, these are still individuals, with their own stories and reasons to go overseas. OFWs also work abroad in many different countries holding occupations in various fields. But their individual stories are often glazed over.
Markco Tuazon, a 28 year old with a B.A. in Computer Science, is going overseas for a job that isn't in his field of expertise. Jela Marie Mariano, 23, would love to get a Master's degree, but must go abroad first to get the money to pay for it. And Patricia Ballesteros and Lita (who has asked us not to used her last name) are two Filipina nannies with two very different experiences US experiences. WRKF will air their stories in forthcoming features.
Why does it have to be this way?
That is tied up in a complicated, tangled web of imperialist history and rampant government corruption, decades-old policy that has only facilitated the export of workers, and an economy that is, in fact, growing but is export-oriented but import-dependent. And strangely, the proliferation of education in the Philippines is actually breeding unemployment. Also more on that in the features to come.
Look for more of Ashley Westerman's dispatches from the Philippines here on www.WRKF.org and follow her on twitter @as_westerman with the hashtag #pinoyworkers.
**This story was funded by a reporting fellowship from the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC.