Daughter of an OFW

by Mary Lou Cunanan

A budding writer | Contributed Photo

I am a writer.

I did not study writing formally, but I have been writing for as long as I can remember. You see, my father is an OFW, which stands for Overseas Filipino Worker — a very familiar situation in the Philippines. The trend began in the ’80s and thrived to this day. Filipinos, by the millions, seek employment in other countries, given the scarce opportunities at home. They told me that immediately after I had been born, a few weeks later, my Dad, who was a Geodetic Engineer, left for Saudi Arabia to work to provide for his family and newborn daughter.

How my love for writing began.

I was born in the early ’80s when electronic mails did not yet exist, and overseas phone calls were exorbitantly expensive. Although I had barely comprehensible handwriting of a 3-year-old, I had been writing letters to my Dad almost every week in my young and innocent mind. At that time, I already had a chance to see him in person when he would come home once or twice a year for vacations.

It will take 1 to 3 weeks before my mails get to him, so sometimes, I am already writing my next letter even before I get a response. Such is the fixation of a young girl who did not fully understand why this significant figure in her life could be so present and yet physically unavailable. Mom would always remind us of his sacrifices and his decision to be far from his family, even if the family is an essential thing in the world for him.

In my mind, my letters are my gift to him, so he doesn’t feel lonely or gets too homesick. I had to find ways to translate my everyday experiences into writing and to make it enjoyable. All I know is, my letters are life-giving for my Dad, who is hanging onto every word I wrote on my letters. I cannot fathom the painful and unbearable, constant pining and longing for a home beyond his reach, almost like an exile. He was my first and my most faithful audience. He was my world, and I was his Philippines.

Mom and children | Contributed Photo

My Dad was incredibly disciplined and diligent in writing back to us. We knew the schedule when the postman would visit our place, and like clockwork, I would wait patiently by the door anticipating the postman to wave a letter to me. His stories were mainly all about how he missed us, why we should study well in school, how he’s counting the days until his next vacation, how we’re growing too fast, and his plans on the things we’ll do when he gets back home.

He worked for an international construction company and worked on megastructure projects. He would tell me stories of his adventures, the different food he ate, different nationalities of people he worked with, their customs and religions, what they celebrated, clothes they wore, and so on. His stories fueled my desire to one day travel all over the world and lived those adventures myself.

I felt very proud of him and was always careful to excel in school to feel proud of me as well. Dad was very strict, and his standards were high. I must seize all opportunities because complacency is a luxury we cannot afford – the price of his absence is too much to pay. In an argument, I asked him why I have to work harder than other kids my age, to which he simply responded, “Because you are my daughter.” And I exactly understood what he meant. There are plenty of memories of suitcases, pasalubongs, airports, balikbayan boxes, report cards, and medals in mails. He said those made him proud and made every sacrifice worth it.

As I got older, my conversations with my Dad ran deeper. My Dad experienced the Gulf War in 1990 when he was stuck in Kuwait, disrupting our regular communications. I remember watching international news, straining and stretching my young mind’s limited capacity and imagination, trying to understand the war between powerful countries, religion, complexities of politics and human nature, and how my Dad got stuck in between. I watched on the news missiles flaring the night sky, endless gunshots, and hearing reports of casualties, praying fervently for my Dad to be safe. I started asking complex, challenging, and desperate questions begging to be answered, from “Why can’t he go home?” to “How can I protect him?”. What can a young girl do against the uncontrollable powerful forces to protect her father?

Cunanan Family | Contributed Photo

The only refuge he found while he was away, aside from the letters from his family, was the Filipino friends he met overseas. He is very proud of Filipinos because of our reputation as hard workers. Filipinos will help each other out and treat each other as families. I am one of the millions of children of OFWs stationed in different parts of the world doing different jobs. I have always been passionate about hearing OFW’s stories, the unsung heroes keeping the Philippines’ economy afloat through their collective remittances to provide for their families.

A Filipino will do a job with ease related to compassion, empathy, love, and trust. Everywhere we go, Filipinos bring a piece of home — their identity while faithfully counting the days when they can return home again to be with their families. It is why we are some of the best caregivers (both on domestic and international fronts): medical workers and healthcare professionals, teachers, hospitality workers, and seafarers.

A Filipino never really leaves. They are simply counting the days when they can return to the Philippines again, filling a void that no amount of comfort, material possessions, or better opportunities can honestly fill.

Family is central to Filipino culture. We are tribal warriors. We are resilient. We are also diligent, hardworking, loyal, faithful, and committed. These attributes my Dad exemplified and millions of OFWs. They sacrificed so much to provide a better future for their children. A world is better than they had. Hopefully, a world will not require them to sacrifice so much of their lives being away from what gives their lives meaning and purpose.

“I feel immense pride in my identity, and I want to share our warmth, loving nature, and joyful appreciation for life with the rest of the world. I want to preserve and protect what makes Filipinos unique.”

It breaks my heart to hear negative publicities about the Philippines from international communities, other nationalities, and even Filipinos themselves. In my mind, I tell myself, “If they had only known my Dad, they would understand.” It is not lost on me that being a Filipino comes with complicated and polarizing judgments due to corruption, poverty, inequality, and so on. For all its flaws and shortcomings, the Philippines is home. At times when I feel insecure, I simply remember who my father is and all his sacrifices.

My Filipino identity has followed me wherever I go. Fortunately, my dream of traveling the world came true, and I met different kinds of people and experienced various adventures as my Dad did. Life had been much kinder to me, and I was given more options because of the strong shoulders that carried me. My Filipino-ness becomes more pronounced with my travels, and my appreciation and love for my culture deepen as I get older.

I understand my Dad better why he always longs for home. I feel immense pride in my identity, and I want to share our warmth, loving nature, and joyful appreciation for life with the rest of the world. I want to preserve and protect what makes Filipinos unique.

Mary Lou Cunanan is a regular Lifestyle columnist of the Philippine Daily Mirror. She is a writer, world traveler, and a Filipina who is very proud of her identity, whose life mission is always searching for covering stories of amazing Filipinos, events, organizations, and businesses globally to celebrate and champion what makes Filipinos amazing wherever they may be.

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