The Toll of Poverty and Forced Migration
IT is always satisfying to hear that someone I have written about, who was stranded somewhere, is now safely back in the Philippines. This happened this week when I received an email from the brother of Leila Torres, the florist who had been stuck in Beirut, Lebanon, because her employer refused to let her go home. He told me that his sister is now safely back in Tarlac City and thanked me for writing about her.
I was happy to hear that she was back home with her family and loved ones, but was sorry that she was forced to go home empty-handed as her employer still owed her two months salary. “The problem is that my sister and her co-worker Precy were not paid their salaries for two months,” wrote Florante Torres. “Their employer said that their salaries will be given when they come back to Beirut after one month if the war is over. But that’s alright with us as long as I see my sister safely here with me.”
It has been heartening to see that the Philippine government has been working extremely hard to get as many Filipinos as possible out of harm’s way in Lebanon and then try to find them suitable jobs once they are back in the Philippines.
This of course is the constant dilemma that the Philippine government faces whenever OFWs are sent home in emergency situations: What jobs, if any, will they find at home? That scarcity of work opportunities in the Philippines is of course what has sent the millions of Filipinos to seek greener pastures abroad to begin with, so it is always ironic when officials seem so determined to re-export OFWs, as if allowing them to stay at home, possibly unemployed or at the very least under-employed, would lead to wide-scale instability.
Thus it was heartening to see on television news that some of the returning OFWs from Lebanon were being offered decent jobs as teachers and office workers in the Philippines and not abroad.
This mass export of Philippine labor since the 1980s has had untold negative effects on the nation’s psyche. Just watch any TV game show and you will see contestants bursting into tears at the slightest hint of the deprivations, both material and psychological, that they have been through. The toll exacted by poverty and forced absence from one’s family and loved ones is causing horrible trauma that the Philippine nation will take generations to get over, if it will ever be able to do so in the first place.
Taiwan is ‘Formosa’ Indeed!
I HAVE just returned from a ten-day trip to the island of Formosa (which means beautiful in Portuguese), otherwise known as Taiwan, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I had last been in Taiwan in October 1990, just weeks before the first Gulf War started. Then the country had just begun to come out of decades of military rule, and was tasting the first fruits of freedom. Today, Taiwan has blossomed into a vibrant democracy, with the once ruling KMT party now in opposition, and young Taiwanese enjoying freedoms that their forefathers could only dream of.
That the 27 million Taiwanese packed into this small island off of mainland China have been able to protect and maintain much of the islands greenery and wildlife, while developing into a modern, industrialized state, is an achievement in itself.
Most people think that Taiwan consists only of laptop computer factories and nothing much else, but they are mistaken. A rich heritage of Chinese culture, along with local Aboriginal cultures, makes Taiwan a diverse and exciting place to visit.
On my trip I went to Hsinchu County, where I visited the Yi-ming Temple. The temple was having its yearly celebration and had a variety of foods being prepared in front of it to be given to visitors for free. I had a delicious, sticky rice sweet covered in ground peanuts, which resembled taffy, and some long rice noodles served in hot, sugary water.
I also met a Taiwanese artist from Kaohsiung at the Hsinchu City Cultural Center, who was exhibiting a large collection of her paintings, many of which were of modern subjects but done on huge scrolls of paper with traditional Chinese paints.
I also attended the annual Ghost Festival that is held in the port city of Keelung, just 23 kilometers east of Taipei. According to Taoist belief, ghosts are released every year for one month from Hell, and are allowed to roam the Earth. The Chinese believe that food and paper money must be given to them to appease them. In Keelung, I watched an annual parade of colorful floats which the leading families of the city hold every year to mark this occasion. Later in the evening, I witnessed the launching of mini-houses built out of paper, plastic and wood, sent out to sea alit with candles, which later caused them to burn down.
While I didn’t feel most young Taiwanese believed in these things, it was nice to share in a part of their cultural heritage and tradition.
What I did find surprising during my trip to Taiwan is the fact that so few Taiwanese speak English fluently, even the young Taiwanese. Shopping for a new cell phone at a large Taipei store, I found that three salesmen couldn’t tell me if the model I was looking for was available in a different color. I later found out that the Taiwanese don’t start learning English until high school, which may account for their lack of fluency.
But the lack of English did not subtract from the fact that all the Taiwanese I met were extremely friendly and eager to help. Not once did I feel threatened as I walked several blocks away from my hotel, the only non-Chinese person for miles around. My hosts had assured me that Taiwan was extremely safe, and they were right.