Our Christmas Family Tree: Our Video Greeting

Isang pagbati sa lahat ng mga OFWs sa buong mundo at kanilang mga pamilya mula sa Hay Pinas! Overseas Filipino Channel.

Balikbayan on a Budget: Christmas Shopping


Most shed a tear on that heart-tugging OFW ad, and many are now longing for home and family. Are you channeling that homesickness to the contents of your Christmas package or pasalubong?

Although Christmas is a time of giving and sharing, we also want to enjoy this time of the year without depleting our savings or stuffing our luggage to bursting. If you've just started your Christmas shopping (just a few days to go!), here are some helpful things to keep in mind:

Make a list and check it twice.
Santa Claus got it right: that list is a time and money saver. Having a list helps you budget your limited resources. You also avoid that awkward situation when one of your inaanaks comes calling and you have nothing for her. You can even divide your list into categories so that when budget and time run short, it's easy to focus your resources on a specific group or adjust your budget for some recipients.

Constantly update this list with items purchased and their cost. This will help you stay within your budget.

Divide and conquer.
No matter how big or how small your budget is, it's best to have a set amount for a specific receiver or group (if you've grouped recipients). It's okay to allocate a big chunk to specific people (close family, significant other, best friends) and less amount for others. The most important rule: stick to your budget.

Take a second look at your closet.
Though sales and deep discounts at malls beckon you, check what's inside your closet before setting foot at a store. Maybe you made impulse purchases and really didn't use them? Freebies from buying big ticket items or from banking transactions? If these were not used and will be appreciated by anyone in your gift list, jot down the item next to the name of the receiver.

Pick wisely.
You've probably crossed off a couple or a few items after your closet review. For the rest on your list, choose gifts that you know will really be used and appreciated. You'll notice that it's easier to think of perfect gifts for people you know well. Jot down two or three possible gifts so that you'll have choices if your first pick is not available or is too expensive. If you can score discounts on these must-haves, then all the better.

Have a tight budget or a tight schedule? Focus most of your budget and your energy on only a few people and buy generic, but useful, items for the rest.

Be sale-savvy.
If you're an OFW in a country where there are four seasons, summer clothes are usually on sale during Fall. Just last October, I bought several polo shirts to give away to titos and titas this Christmas and they were 50-70% off! Think of pieces that have classic cuts or have solid colors so that it can be relevant anytime. When buying last season's wares, keep in mind where the recipient lives. So yes, put down those wool jackets, it doesn't get that cold back home.

If you can manage it, buy in bulk and distribute them. Take the trouble of sorting which gift is for whom by labeling them with a simple masking tape and marker.

Weigh in.
When stocking up on gifts, do think about the weight. If bringing your gifts in your check-in luggage, know the weight limit. Pack fragile items carefully and be wary of what can go into your carry-on luggage (100 ml or more of perfume or other liquids should not). Remember that items in commercial quantities will be taxed at the NAIA (at least, that's the policy). If your gifts won't fit inside your luggage, consider sending a balikbayan box, but send the package during the first week of December or earlier so that it will arrive before Christmas.

Don't buy exclusively stateside.
If there are too many people in your list, consider buying local gifts for others or giving family gifts. Ask help from friends and relatives if they can get toys in bulk for your inaanaks. Instead of giving individual gifts to your cousins and close relatives, why not give a bilao of pancit for their Noche Buena table? This is a smart way of stretching your budget, limiting your luggage, and supporting businesses back home.

A bit of time to spare? Prepare homemade gifts or cook your specialty. If you miss your family, they also miss your signature dish. Make them feel that you truly are home.

Consider the gift of savings or skill.
You could also help someone in ways that are not so tangible but tend to have more returns. Do you have a nephew who's going off to college? Instead of giving him a shiny new gadget, why not fund the initial amount in an account that he can grow and can earn interest over time? Do you have siblings who want to have an edge in their careers? You can help fund some training programs or even help them enroll in short courses instead of wowing them with the trendiest clothes or accessories.

But if you're coming home with a lighter luggage and a thinner wallet (or you may not be coming home at all), do remember that you've been living the spirit of Christmas all throughout the year. Providing for family, taking care of them, and selflessly giving your love to them is what Christmas is all about.

Merlisa is an OFW in Taiwan. She considers IKEA visits heaven and enjoys locally-brewed coffee (but speaks toddler-level Mandarin). She looks forward to reunions with friends, family, and most especially... her oven.

Pillow Talk: Coke's OFW Project Ad [Video]

A case of "He said/She said" - let's continue the discussion on the OFW reality beyond Coke's tear-jerking Christmas ad. Returning home during the holidays is a happy affair indeed. But where majority of our OFWs are domestic help, factory workers and construction hands who are contract-bound to stay abroad - what's the story after drinking a glass of cola?

Ban to Avoid Blame


And so the overseas Juan dela Cruz is caught in a tangle once again.

Last week, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) issued GB Resolution No. 7-2011, which lists the countries that overseas Filipino workers are banned from being deployed to. The government has identified 41 non-compliant countries. This could affect soon-to-be-deployed OFWs and current workers who plan to renew their contracts in the said countries. At the heart of this issue is the financial stability of their respective families.. This is yet another ordeal that migrant workers have to face. For the undocumented ones, it gets more complicated if not desperate.

Eric Bellman of The Wall Street Journal reported that the "Manila ban has no bite", saying that there's comparatively fewer Filipinos working in these countries. Even POEA chief Carlos Cao, Jr. agrees. How might 25,000 overseas jobs hurt the Philippine economy, and the countries that need these workers? Many online pundits have already expressed their disbelief and complaints against POEA's D-list. And these complaints are from PEOPLE (not products that can easily be recalled) worried about not finding work back home and not bringing food to the table.

Most of us do see the value in statistics, don't we? And this may just be about statistics after all. The Philippine government finds itself incapable of closing bilateral agreements with the 41 countries, leading to higher statistics and probability of abuse and casualties. The solution? Label them as "unfriendly" or peg these countries with skull-marked flags on the map so that everybody knows exactly what they're getting into.

But doesn't statistics also show that countries like Saudi Arabia (with close to two million OFWs), United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are also not exactly OFW-friendly? They're not mentioned in the resolution at all - possibly because remittances from these countries count as more valid statistics.

The fact remains that even if you ban countries, people who can't find decent jobs at home will grab every opportunity they can find regardless of consequence (read: war, famine, or even pirate-infested seas). And just because the government has decided to put horse blinders on, it doesn't mean that the multitude of abuse experienced by OFWs will also just cease to exist.

There's got to be a more sustainable plan than just separating the good and the banned. If we really want to stay true to the intent of GB Resolution No. 7-2011 - that is, to ensure that "rights of Filipino migrant workers are protected" - then we recommend to strike out the word "overseas" and make the Philippines as the 42nd item on the list.

*Image from ABS-CBNNews.com



"Seeing leaves falling from trees makes me lonely," I sighed as my husband and I walked to the 7-11 store near our place for breakfast and morning paper. It's pretty seeing it in paintings but not all that when I'm walking through a row of bald trees and dead leaves on the ground.

Raymond claims I have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), meaning that a particular time of year makes a person ...uhmmm... sad. It may be true. However, as an overseas Filipino, my season of loneliness is not autumn or any among the four seasons of other countries. It's just plainly because fall means Christmas season is near.

And Christmas for most overseas Filipinos is a very strong cue word for homesickness. Especially when your family and friends are starting to plan for Christmas meals and get-together. Facebook doesn't make it easier, either. Just this morning I saw a photo of Puto bumbong that my classmate has been eating!

Nonetheless, I'm just a whiner. Even though Taiwan doesn't celebrate Christmas, I'm still a cheap plane ride away from our dear country. There are thousands -- if not millions -- of us who see Christmas as an eternity of torture. To those who are miles and miles away. Those who need to work on holidays. Those who take care of other families than their own. Those who don't have dinner or money to spend. Those who are cold, sick, or helpless. Those who are in prison. Those who are abused. Even those who are going back home jobless and empty-handed.

My dad, who spent seven years in Saudi, told me once that loneliness is the most difficult emotion to handle. It really is. It's like being one of those trees which see something that's part of them wilt and blown away.

The beauty in seasons, though, is that you'll expect it to end at some point. So, to those who are alone and lonely abroad:
  1. Try your best to cheer yourself -- think positive thoughts! 
  2. Don't compensate your absence with buying too many pasalubongs as this will not be good for you and your family in the long run. 
  3. Communicate and reach out to other people (sulking will only make it worse). 
  4. Always anchor yourself to the real reason why you made your decision to work abroad. Prayers help a lot too! 
  5. Continue to dream and wait for that awesome Christmas when all your family and friends are gathered around one table to eat Christmas ham and Quezo de bola, and share the love and laughter. The best part is, you are there to witness and enjoy it in person.
We'll be counting the days to that Christmas with you!

Working Harder to Get Lucky: Lessons from OFWs


I ended my night yesterday with a nice piece of advice from Tina Seelig's book, What I Wish I Knew When I was 20:

"Josh's comments on luck echoed the message I frequently heard from my father when I was a child -- the harder you work, the luckier you get. His mantra was a stark reminder that you need to put yourself in a position to be lucky. Even if there's a low probability of success and a tremendous amount of competition, you can maximize your chances by being well prepared physically, intellectually, and emotionally."

I believe this to be not only a true but also a very important lesson we should consider. How each of us define luck vary from one person to another. To some, luck can be winning 20 million pesos, while others call themselves lucky when they find a lost coin. If you ask me ten years ago, I'd associate luck as a conspiracy of celestial bodies we have no control over. Now, as this question lingered in my mind from last night, I remembered a true-to-life OFW story from a dear friend. Let me share it with you:

Three decades ago, many have tolled the vast deserts of the land of the black gold. Among these bold-hearted soldiers were three dads who, deep down their hearts, only wanted to give their families constant supply of food on the table and a few gifts for their kids to open every Christmas.

They started their dream like every one else. Patiently, they stood in long lines under the scorching sun and saved every penny they could for their journey. That's why, they couldn't believe it when they heard the news that they were chosen to embark on such mission with a decent wage and benefits. It was all good, lucky they said. Even though they're spending few years in a foreign land, they will be able to provide for their precious ones.

Now you see, if I stopped at this point in the story, we'll think that all three of them are now back in their home town enjoying the fruits of their labor. But of course, this isn't a story about hard work. It's about all luck, so let's continue.

The first dad is still diligently working and could not yet go home because there's still a lot of bills to pay, including the tuition fee of his 25-year old kid who's halfheartedly finishing college. He wanted to give everything to his family, even if the cost is not having to spend time with them even for one solid year.

The second daddy went back home after 10 years with a long list of unpaid debts. He continued working in the Philippines but, with lesser opportunities, he struggled. Although he was able to have their kids graduated, they weren't able to plan their retirement. He wanted to give everything to his family, and it didn't matter if they splurge it all.

It was a different story for the third dad. He and his wife planned their finances, agreed to how long they were to be separated, and stuck with the plan since day one. Sure, they had a few bumps, but when the third dad came back home after seven years, they had enough to start anew. Now that they're closer to retirement age, they are calm as a rock. This dad wanted to give everything to his family, and exactly knew what EVERYTHING meant. To this couple, everything was a good shelter, food on the table, education for their kids, a set of sturdy investments, and time with each other.

One day, the first dad called the two dads and said that he'll be visiting and they should see each other for old time's sake. All three of them had good food, good laughs, and great stories of the past endevours. As they separated their paths again, the first two dads sighed after seeing the third dad all settled, happy and relaxed. They couldn't figure out what went wrong, and consoled each other with the thought that the third dad was just too lucky.

In this story, all three dads are hardworking, no doubt. But is the third dad luckier than the two? If the answer is yes, then our country doesn't have enough lucky OFWs.

P.S: Although we see other people 'luckier' than us, find comfort in the thought that we all are blessed.

OFW Talks: Direct Hire Requirements


So you have an offer to work abroad? Here are some of the things that you should do next (as we have experienced it). Remember to always check with the concerned agencies for the complete requirements, and make sure that your offer is legitimate.

  1. Print out, sign, and then send back three sets of your employment contract and send it back to your foreign employer the soonest. 
  2. Ask the HR department to notarize it with a local court in your place of future employment.
  3. Ask the HR department to send back one set for you to submit to the embassy (requirement for authenticating your school and work documents).
  1. Photocopy one set, bring originals.
  2. Submit to your school for a "certified true copy" stamp.
  3. Submit to CHED for authentication.
  4. Submit to DFA for authentication.
    TIP: Use your school or DHL's document delivery service to route the documents to CHED and DFA to avoid red tape.
  1. Photocopy one set (better if from a colored photocopier).
  2. Have it notarized.
  3. Submit to Regional Trial Court for authentication (there should be one in your city hall).
  4. Submit to DFA for authentication.
    TIP: Use DHL's document delivery service to route the documents to DFA to avoid red tape.
  1. Once you receive your authenticated documents from DFA, put documentary stamps on the allotted boxes.
  2. Prepare photocopies of ALL pages of your authenticated contract, school and work documents. TIP: Back-to-back photocopying please where applicable.
  3. Submit the documents to the embassy.
  4. Claim the documents from the embassy.
  1. Send back authenticated shool and work documents to HR.
  2. Ask HR to file for a WORK PERMIT.
  3. Ask HR to send you the WORK PERMIT.
ETD: Up to 10 days. Phase 4: APPLY FOR A WORK VISA Please make sure to contact or visit the embassy's website to find out other requirements that you need to complete before applying for a work visa. Prepare for your interview. Phase 5: GO TO POEA FOR YOUR PDOS AND OEC To avoid immigration problems, it's best to get your Overseas Exit Clearance / Overseas Employment Certificate from POEA. We can't guarantee, however, that it'll be a smooth ride as there might be other requirements that you need to complete. In Anne's case, for example, POEA required her to get No-Objection Letter from all the six recruitment agencies that her company is listed with (which took her more than a month to complete). We recommend this article for further reading.

Juan Time Confessions of The Late


One minute. The morning shuttle bus here arrives at 9:39 to pick up passengers and exactly leaves at 9:40. I sometimes arrive a minute after, and I get to painfully see the bus leave despite hurrying to catch it. Our house is just five minutes away from the bus stop.

Five minutes. On my first few weeks in Taiwan, I received a call from my American co-worker, at exactly one o'clock in the afternoon, to inform me that everyone was already in the meeting room. They're just waiting for me to start. No thanks to the newbie, the meeting began five minutes late.

One hour. I can't stop my tears from rolling down my cheeks. My then-fiance (now husband) and I had to fly back to the Philippines to attend a pastoral interview a month before our wedding. An hour has passed after our scheduled time, and he was nowhere in sight. I thought he changed his mind. It turned out that he was caught in heavy traffic.

Always. After college, I never had weekday mornings with a well-combed hair or a full stomach.

I know my tardiness is a chronic problem. And as much as I would like to convince the rest of the world that it's just me, I think most Filipinos (not all especially my lola who's always ready two hours before an event) think the same way as I do. "I'm on the way" means I just finished dressing up for a meeting. "Heavy traffic" may mean I ignored my alarm clock and dozed off some more minutes. (Traffic excuses are most often true, see how much money it's costing our country here.)

Here in Taiwan, time is money. Being on time is giving respect to the person. None from the Always-Late Anonymous can say it's not helping Taiwan as a nation. As of 2010, Taiwan's GDP per capita is more than $30,000 USD (whoppin' 90% higher than ours).

I recently came across the Juan Time initiative by the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) that will happen on September 30. It hopes to change our idea of punctuality by promoting to use the "Philippine Standard Time" (PST). For me, it may be a far cry but it's a start. Being a bad tomato for so long, I'm willing to try to change. It won't be easy but it's time for our country to value time.

Starting September 30, I'm up for the challenge of absolving my Juan time crimes. Wish me luck!

Financial Literacy and the OFW Family


On my count, I have at least 24 blood relatives living and working overseas. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, first cousins—they have relocated to the United States, Canada, Britain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in search of the proverbial greener pasture.

If for anything, what they found were higher salaries, better social services, and colder climates. Extra money they do have—and these they send back to the Philippines in more ways than one: helping to put up a small business, paying for their nephew’s tuition, or rebuilding the ancestral house in the province. And sometimes, even to remit dollars monthly to feed, shelter, and clothe an entire family with no bread winners. From knowing relatives in the Philippines who solely rely on remittances to go about their daily lives, I understand the need for financial literacy and how it should be extended to OFW families.

The Philippine economy hinges greatly on remittances by its OFWs. Inflation and peso appreciation in part are regulated by some $14 billion of inflows from Filipinos working abroad. Local spending power is spurred by foreign currencies disbursed via remittance services. Condominiums, shopping centers, and resorts are built to capture money from this segment of our society.

On the other side of the coin, however, are returning OFWs with nothing to withdraw from their busted bank accounts. Household heads who budget money for the family usually have the penchant for buying things left and right that when the time comes for their OFWs’ contracts to expire, their economic fate also halts.

Pop culture is replete with the social cost of the OFW phenomenon. Broken families, deeper plunge to poverty, lives lost. I recall from childhood how some blockbusters capitalized on horror stories experienced by OFWs: the Flor Contemplacion Story (Singapore-based domestic helper hanged to death as convicted of murdering fellow Filipina) and the Sarah Balabagan Story (under-aged household help raped by her employer but received state-sanctioned beating because of conservative Islamic law).

The glaring statistics tell us that one in 10 Filipinos are out of the country for better opportunities, but with most of them working menial jobs like rendering domestic help and waiting tables (even as they keep college diplomas back home). Some have the fortune of being able to practice their profession, like nursing and engineering. This phenomenon has been touted as warm body exporting. The brain drain of professionals is apparent with the quality of healthcare, teaching, and that the country now has. Amid these concerns, the potential of OFWs as investors should be optimized to help not only the country but also themselves and their families.

Reunions that cycle back to poverty because of unplanned finances and sudden loss of income make going abroad and its toll on the family all the more tragic. Recently returning OFWs who find no other option but to reapply for foreign contracts again should not happen—and should be avoided at all cost. As a start, local government, community media, and schools should partner in educating families of savings and investment options for OFW families.

Traffic Lights, Color Blind: An Exposé


I was diagnosed with minor color blindness and cannot distinguish green, red, and orange when they're mixed together in patterns. This, however, does not bother me at all (at least for now). Let me tell you what bothers me more.

It never fails. Every Sunday, after attending our evening mass, most from our Filipino community, the creme of the crop who supposedly have perfect vision for their work in a handful of factories in Taiwan, swarm out of the Church, and cross the streets to different directions no matter what color the traffic light is.

Since they go in big groups, it really disrupts traffic here. Scooters and cars had to stop in the intersection whenever 20-30 Filipinos cross the streets. The problem is, my husband always want to join the crowd, literally tugging my arms along because, I don't know...it'll be green light for us in a few seconds.

This has always been one of our little irritations as a couple. I don't want to cross the street when it's still red and even if the streets are empty. I didn't want to do it because the locals here follow simple traffic rules. Sure, I've witnessed some Taiwanese cut traffic, but never did I see a big crowd of pedestrians claim their turn to cross. Most locals patiently wait and count the seconds until it's their time to walk.

Of course, I really didn't start out following the rules back home. I wouldn't be called a true Manileno if I did. My college days had generous times when jeepneys honked because I crossed the street too soon. I didn't care. And to some point, I felt like I outsmarted the law.

What caused me to try to change? The mere fact that nothing in our country did change. From the time that I went abroad to my first visit as a balikbayan, I found the same road puddles, traffic enforcers hiding in the same spot, and the same awful traffic jam. In the end, we may have save three to five seconds of our personal time, but our country stayed right where it was ten years ago. So now, I challenge myself and my husband to resist the adrenaline rush of jay walking. And there were a couple of times when one or two Filipinos stopped to join us as we waited for our turn to walk.

Food for thought: Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking.  There are too many people who think that the only thing that's right is to get by, and the only thing that's wrong is to get caught.  ~J.C. Watt

Half-Full or Half-Empty but Not Bottomless


When we were kids, my sisters and I would share a 500ml bottle of soda that was then way too big for us. As the eldest, I would line up four empty glasses, and my excited sisters would signal "Tama na!" when the sugar-filled liquid reaches a quarter inch below the glass rim. After much anticipation, all of us would enjoy our drinks for the rest of the afternoon.

I find the idea of being cheered by my little sisters very compelling right now that I'm already a grown-up and working abroad for more than two years. I imagined myself still pouring and waiting for the glass to be equally filled. But my question is: Until when? Three...five...ten...twenty years?

This, I believe, is one of the most important questions we should ask ourselves regularly. When do we stop? Of course, all of us have an idea of how long.

"Pag makapagpatayo na ako ng bahay sa pamilya ko."

"Pag mayaman na ako."

"Pag napa-graduate ko na ang mga anak ko."

But these things can be like watching wild horses run in the fields. We all need to find a way to be on our horse before it starts running and we should direct it where to run. Sure, pegging it on our dreams is a good start.

Personally, my husband and I want to go back home when we have enough to start a business, build a house, and raise our future kids. And we have defined what's enough with a five-year plan of saving it. We have doodled on our dream book our yearly milestones, saving strategies, prospective investments. We felt that we had to do it because there will always be another reason (be it a new gadget or a shopping rush) that will wiggle its way through our expense list. And for most of the OFWs I know, they would have started to save if only their contract hasn't ended. Or a family emergency didn't happen. Or the company didn't retrench workers.

Let's all be our own little voices cheering ourselves "Malapit na!" or "Tama na!" because we exactly know when we'll stop. And most importantly, let's make sure that we're not spilling anything outside our glasses.

Food for thought: "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars."

ABCD...OFW [Video]

Ano bang meron sa mga letra ng alpabetong OFW? Hindi siguro lubos na maiintindihan ng ibang taong hindi nagtrabaho sa ibang bansa, pero sa isang karaniwang OFW, ang mga salitang aming ipinakita ay maaring magbalik ng mga karanasan. Ito ang mga simpleng salitang palagi nating naririnig, nararamdaman, hinaharap, o di kaya'y tinataguan. Ano ba ang meron sa salitang Chocolates, kung hindi ito ay isa sa mga hindi nating makakalimutang isama sa ating hinahandang Balikbayan box. Kanina lamang, sa loob ng isang public bus dito sa Taiwan, ilang beses kong naulinagan ang salitang Medical, Embassy, at Overtime sa isang kababayang nagkukwento sa kanyang kasamang kaibigan. Lahat ng salita sa alpabetong ito ay may katumbas na kwento. 'Yun naman ang importante. Ang mga kwentong nakadikit na sa ating pagkatao. Kayo, ano ang mga letra paborito nyo? Video: ABCD...OFW Video