Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Coming back to the Philippines from Japan, from a first-world country to a third-world country, I'm constantly reminded in unexpected ways about how much Filipinos love their nation, and also about how so many of them want to get the hell out.

I just saw a jeepney outside on Session Road, the main strip of Baguio City. Jeepneys are sort of pseudo-buses, smaller than a school bus, narrow, and fronted by a facade that resembles the U.S. military jeeps that originally gave these vehicles their names. The drivers of these cheap cabs (that can fill anywhere from fifteen to twenty people, or more, depending on whose hanging off of the sides) often paint the front and the rear and the sides and the tires in bright flashy colours; these are, after all, almost their homes, given how long they spend inside of them each day. (I'm guessing twelve hours, minimum, is a safe estimate.)

So you have many jeepneys painted with American basketball team logos (as the Filipinos are absolutely crazy about basketball), or characters from their favorite action movies, or vibrant images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary.

You also often spot jeepneys illustrated with flags. The flag of the Philippines, of course, but also the national flags of the countries they want to work in, or the countries their relatives are already living in, grinding away at jobs as nurses and caregivers so they can send home the pay to their poor relatives over here.

Today's jeepney? TORONTO, it read in blue, emblazoned across a beautiful rendition of the Canadian flag, each point of the maple leaf scarlet and clear.

I've also noticed a jeepney around town with a similar design, this one declaring: CANADIAN DREAMING.

So many Filipinos work overseas that they have an official title: OVERSEAS FOREIGN WORKERS. There's a special space for their information on the custom cards they hand out in the airplane, and a special line reserved for them at immigration in Manila. Almost everybody you meet has a relative in Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, or the United States. Most young people you talk to want to work overseas.

Again, it's not because they hate the Philippines. The Filipinos are probably more patriotic than most first world peoples, because they see the corruption endemic to their society, and it sickens them; it taints the joy and goodness that almost supernaturally emanate from the people themselves.

Realistically, though, money is hard to come by, so many have to go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Anytime an oil rig is hijacked in Nigeria, I know, absolutely know that a Filipino will be one of the crewmen. They will go to the ends of the earth -- and do, every day -- to support their families.

For most foreigners, working abroad is a lark, an adventure, a way to 'find' ourselves.

For Filipinos, working in Dubai or Liverpool is simply an economic necessity.

So, whenever I see these jeepneys, filled with locals squeezed in tight-tight-tight, I also remind myself to stare closely at the colourful exteriors on display, so often doubling as aspirations for a different, better life. They are so creatively celebrating who they are, now, and sometimes hinting at where they would like to be, at some distant, perhaps mythical point in the future.