Survival tips for OFWs

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

I have received emails asking me about the continuation of the book, Abroad Me: 22 Success Strategies for Young Overseas Filipinos by Anne Quintos, so here we go.

Strategy 8 is “Do not live under a rock.” After the novelty of the moment has worn off, the Filipinos abroad will begin to feel homesick. So they focus all their energy on their work – and after work, they inhabit the world of social media to keep in touch with family and friends from home.

There is nothing wrong with that. But there is a world outside work and outside the computer. Quintos rightly said: “Living under a rock doesn’t just separate you from the outside world. It also closes your mind to the beauty of ‘right now.’ Slowly open yourself up to new ways, new friends, and new customs.”

How to do this? Soak up the culture of your new job destination. It just seems serendipitous that I worked as head of research for the late Director Marilou Diaz Abaya’s film called Bagong Buwan. It dealt with the struggle of the Muslim Filipinos over the years to determine their own destiny. I read up all the books I could find about the Muslims in the Philippines; Marilou and I interviewed Professor Julkipli M. Wadi and other resource persons. I also took up Islam and Islamic Mystical Literature at Rutgers University on a Fulbright Scholarship, so much so that our learned Professor Doctor Ul Haq often called me “the gentleman from Malaysia” during class recitation.

I corrected him several times, saying that I am from Manila and not Malaysia. But he must have been prescient as well, for three years after my Fulbright Scholarship I got an Asian Scholarship Foundation grant to do research on Malaysian Poetry in English at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia).

Therefore, the learning I received on Islam and Islamic Literature helped me adjust to my new life then (2003) and now. I also studied Bahasa Malaysia at the YMCA in Kuala Lumpur, a language that is not hard to learn, considering the many similarities between Bahasa Malaysia and Tagalog, Kapampangan, or Cebuano.

“In order to understand a culture different from ours, avoid struggling with it and comparing it to our own. The reasons behind how locals live, react, speak, and think are embedded in their nation’s history, arts, religion, philosophy, literature, and even cuisine,” Quintos said.

How to make this concrete? Make friends, eat local delicacies, observe common gestures, learn the language, respect their traditions and opinions, understand their history, embrace diversity, watch their teleseryes, ask for help, dress appropriately, smile often and enjoy conversations with a neighbor. Kuala Lumpur has its magnificent Islamic Museum, as well as its Bird and Butterfly Parks, which are free to visitors. I am sure there are similar cultural and natural havens in the country where our OFWs work, and can be visited on days off other than just keep on gossiping at the mall.

Of course, you should also be on the good side of the law. Avoid public displays of affection, alcohol if it is banned, clothes that don’t follow their cultural beliefs, fraud and tax evasion, possession of illegal drugs and political activism in a land not your own. Be that as it may, you should also know your rights. If you need help, go to the Philippine embassy. They are there precisely to help. And if there is some masungit or inefficient clerk or staff in any foreign embassy who does not want to help you, please email me and we will inform the ambassador ASAP about this barnacle.

Strategy 11 is “Live on a budget.” You are working abroad because you want a good future for yourself and the people you love. That means sticking to your budget and paying the loans back home. It also means saving for your emergency fund and building your investment. As for the latter, wise investors suggest that you try index funds and not mutual funds. Also pay your Pag-IBIG, SSS, and PhilHealth premiums as well as those of your family, so when the need arises, or when you retire someday, you will have something to tide you over during days of need.

Moreover, avoid being the family cash cow. Think twice if you can afford big-ticket items (house and lot, car). Don’t splurge on wallet drainers: latest gadgets, designer bags, clothes and shoes. Most of these don’t increase in value. Think before you buy.

I am working abroad so I can save up capital for a three-in-one store: a drug store, grocery, and book store. That is the concrete plan, and so I say “no” to the latest Huawei smart phone (I’m happy with my old Oppo), I have only one designer bag that my sister gave me (a trusted brown Coach), I still wear the clothes that SM gave me when they were still my sponsor in my radio-TV show “Remoto Control,” and I only shop at Zara when there is a sale.

And you are not an OFW if you do not send a balikbayan box home. Set aside a budget for this, buy only practical and essential items, make it personal by buying things that fit the style of the recipients, and buy items that cost reasonably. Do not send the balikbayan box near Christmas, and send a checklist to your relatives so they can double-check when that treasured box reaches their door.

Moreover, don’t forget to reward yourself. A massage, a spa treatment, a good haircut, or for me, two or three new books every month from Borders or Kinokuniya always puts a smile on my face. And find your passion.

“It’s important to find your passion,” said Quintos, “because you’ll come to a point (when you’re older) when rewarding yourself will not be enough. Don’t blow out your flame. You need this passion to light your way.”

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