By Ellen Elecanal By Ellen Elecanal By Ellen Elecanal | 02/16/2012 10:56 AM
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Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 3" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from CEI (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) or the Italian Bishops' Conference. The book contains a collection of 12 stories of the realities of migration as faced by Filipinos abroad and their family members in the Philippines. abs-cbnNEWS.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.
My name is Ellen Elecanal. I have been an OFW for 22 years and it has been an experience of going from one culture shock to another. But I have also learned to adapt to different cultures and eventually to be of help to other OFWs in forming a community.
As an OFW, I have lived in four different countries: India, the United Kingdom (UK), Hong Kong and Singapore. I also had the chance to visit France, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. In some respects it could be said that I had an adventurous life.
Waking up in India
I remember when I first left the Philippines two decades ago. I was to stay in India for 6 months. I was so excited because it was my first time to leave the country. I travelled with my employer and their two children. They were expats from New Zealand living in the Philippines and they were assigned to work in India for 6 months.
How did I meet this employer? After I graduated from high school, I moved to Manila to look for work to help my parents and send money for my siblings’ education. I tried a few odd jobs, but they did not work for me. One day, my aunt had to go to Greece.
At that time she worked with an expat family who allowed her to leave, if she finds a replacement. She asked if I could replace her. That is how I started working for this family from New Zealand.
After 3 months, my employer was transferred to India and I joined them in that country. I was shocked from the moment I stepped off the plane. It was really cold and the people were so different from us. I could not see very well as we arrived during the night, but when day came, everything was completely different. There were many cows and monkeys in the middle of the street.
Work was also different from what we are accustomed to in our culture. I will never forget the sight of women construction workers. I felt sorry for them because I imagined my mother or even myself in their position. There were hundreds of homeless people lying on the sidewalks in the freezing cold. I said to myself, “I am lucky to be a Filipino.”
In India, we toured the different states, the names of some of which I cannot even pronounce. However, I will never forget the Taj Mahal in Agra and also the experience of riding an elephant in Amber Fort in Jaipur. Riding on an elephant-back was the only way to reach the top.
While we were in India, my employer was offered a job in the UK. The moment they asked me to go with them I did not think twice and immediately said yes. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for. We went back to the Philippines so that I could pack my belongings and process my papers. I did not pay any processing fees as all costs were shouldered by my employer. I did not go through the experience of so many other OFWs of raising money for the placement fees.
A different kind of English
I thought my experience in the UK was going to be an easy one. I already knew my employer and I spoke the language. I was wrong. First of all, the flight was very long, 18 hours, to reach the UK. Secondly, I was told it was summer so I was expecting warm weather, but it was really cold. My first thoughts were, “If this is summer, how will I survive the winter?”
The next challenge came the following day. I needed to buy a few things, so I went to a convenience store. I asked the store owner for the items I wanted, but she just looked at me as if I came from a different planet. She kept asking me ‘pardon?’ She could not understand a single word I said. I went home without getting anything. I did not speak to anyone aside from my employer for a week. I practically went into hiding for two weeks. I felt alone and homesick. I spent a few nights crying. After a few weeks though, I came to my senses and told myself I needed to gather my courage and face my fears.
As a foreigner, I knew I needed to adapt to the culture; I could not stay in hiding forever. It was me against them and they were not going to care if I did not speak, so I needed to talk to them.
One day, I went to church and met a French lady, who was working there as an ‘au pair’ (a nanny). She spoke in broken English, without fear, and nobody laughed at her. I then realized that it was only in the Philippines that you were laughed at for speaking in broken English and poor grammar.
This French lady became my inspiration and my friend. She told me that her family owned a vineyard in France and she had two brothers; she was the only girl. She needed to learn how to speak English and decided that the best way was looking after children. She figured that she would learn the language quickly since they talk non-stop.
My stay in England was one of the difficult times in my life. My brothers and sisters were at school and I was the only one supporting them. I was always wishing for the end of the month to come so that I could get my salary to send to my family. At that time, I had siblings in elementary school, two in high school, and one in college.
No English at all
After 2 years in the UK, I went home to the Philippines. But just after two weeks in the Philippines, one of my employer’s friends in the UK who lived in the Philippines called me and asked if I would like to go to Hong Kong with them since they were relocating there. I knew them very well so I accepted their offer and moved to Hong Kong. They were an Australian couple with a one-year-old son. Again, my papers were processed without me having to pay any agency fee.
In Hong Kong, I experienced yet another cultural shock. I discovered that many people did not speak English and the few that did speak English I could not understand because of their accent. I did try to learn how to count from 1 to 10 in Cantonese and learned a few words, especially how to pronounce our home address.
While in Hong Kong, I met my teacher. She had left the Philippines to become a domestic worker. She told me, “If I ever go back to teaching, my students would laugh at my grammar.” She had become used to speaking the ‘Hong Kong’ version of English.
In the meantime, I managed to help my two brothers and three sisters in their college education. After 2 years in Hong Kong, my employer needed to move back to Australia. They really wanted to bring me with them but, unfortunately, domestic workers were not allowed in Australia. They tried everything and even offered to find me a husband in Australia but I did not agree to their proposal.
So I remained in Hong Kong and found another employer. They were British and were expecting their first child.
I started working with them on April 27, 1995. They both worked, so my main job was to look after the newly born baby.
Community-building in Singapore
After 2 years of working with them, they were relocated to Singapore. At first, I did not want to go with them because all my friends were in Hong Kong and I had heard so many rumors about Singapore being a ‘fine’ city, i.e., having many penalties for infractions. However, after some thoughts, I decided to join them, even if I was anxious. At that time they were expecting their second child. We left Hong Kong in 1997, just before the turn-over of the territory to China.
When I arrived in Singapore it was not as bad as I thought it would be. People can speak fluent English and the environment is much cleaner and less crowded than in Hong Kong.
After about 6 months, Rose, my best friend in Hong Kong, also moved to Singapore with her employer. My friend and I attended mass at the Holy Cross Church in Clementi. We met a Filipino member of the Legion of Mary, who invited us to attend one of their faith formation sessions. One of the facilitators was Fr. Paul, a CICM priest. He convinced us to start a Filipino community in his parish, St. Bernadette, which was only walking distance from the place where I lived. We did not know how to start a community, but he told us he would help us. Father Paul had been assigned in the Philippines for a few years, so he knows how to speak Tagalog.
At first, we did not know what we were doing and I had so many unpleasant experiences in the attempt to ask Filipinos to join our community. Our aim was to provide Filipinos a place where we could meet during our days off, creating a family in Christ, a place where we could gather together and feel less alone in a foreign land.
In our recruitment we encountered a few challenges. I remember when I approached a professional Filipino and her family, and asked them if they wanted to help out. She just looked at me with doubt and asked her husband what scheme we were up to. It hurt my feelings at first, but then I reminded myself that I was just being tested to see if I would persist.
The second challenge came from Father Paul himself. I was so excited to report on our progress in recruiting members when all of a sudden he told me, “Oh, I know you Filipinos, you are ningas cogon (i.e., not being able to sustain an initiative).”
I was taken aback. I wanted to prove him wrong, so I kept working to show him that not all Filipinos are like that. He also said that Filipinos cannot speak in front of a crowd, that they have stage fright. I also took this as a challenge and wanted to prove to him that he was wrong. I guess I proved him wrong considering that after 11 years, our community and Legion of Mary are still going strong. He had to admit that he had judged me wrongly.
In 2009, he invited me to speak about the plight of domestic workers in one of the community gatherings. In our church community, I volunteered to help Filipinos, especially domestic workers. I attended many seminars so I can help our kababayans with their problems. The Cenacle Sisters mentored me. Sister Hazel Suarez encouraged and supported me. She introduced me to the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI) and I am who I am because of her. When Sister Hazel went back to the Philippines, Sister Susay Valdez continued to support me and our community.
I am part of the Filipino Catholic Community of Singapore (FCCS) and a volunteer of ACMI. I am also a member of our church’s choir which has members of different nationalities (Indonesians, Chinese, Malaysians, Indians and Filipinos). We sing every Sunday at the 9.30 AM mass at St. Bernadette. Also, we have a Filipino Choir for our Tagalog Mass. I am a member of the Legion of Mary, which as I mentioned, we started 11 years ago. I have been invited to speak about being a domestic worker. I have been interviewed on the radio and by newspapers. I was also a representative of the Filipino domestic workers and participated in a press conference when local NGOs launched the campaign ‘Dignity Overdue.’ This was a campaign aimed at raising awareness to respect the rights of domestic workers, such as the right to have a day-off. There were representatives also from Indonesia and Myanmar. I remember we met with Miss Breama Mathi, nominated MP at that time, and she briefed us on how to answer questions from the press. I can still remember the line in the Straits Times the day after: even machines need to rest in order to avoid a breakdown, how much more the domestic workers who work almost 18 hours a day. The line was taken from the answer I gave to explain to employers why they need to give their workers at least a day of rest once a month.
I started to volunteer to help distressed Filipinos. I receive calls every day regarding various problems, from illegal recruitment to homesickness, and many other issues. Sometimes people call to have someone to listen to them and be there for them, or just to have a shoulder to cry on.
I guess that it is my mission in life, to help others and ease their burden while they are away from their family. After all, it is not easy being caught between helping your family and getting out of the situation if life becomes too hard to bear.
Unscrupulous employers will try to recover every single cent they pay you. That is why families in the Philippines need to understand what we go through.
Life as an OFW is not a stroll in the park. They need to understand that we are not just money bags. They need to understand that what we send them is hard earned money so they should spend it wisely. I remember that in an interview with a representative of one NGO from the Philippines, I was talking about how OFWs need to send money every month to their families and she told me that the money of OFWs often go down the drain. At first, I did not understand. She explained to me that when families receive the money, they go to McDonalds, Jollibee and after a few days, the money is gone.
They are not thinking of saving or investing that money for the future. I wonder when we are going to learn and not to leave it to “bahala na, makakaraos din tayo”.
Thinking of the future
As for my own family, they are actually worried about me because I am still single. I am not bothered by it. I am just enjoying my life as a single woman and I can do whatever I want.
I remember one person I met who said to me that if you are an OFW, you will be single for life or you will risk having a relationship that will not last. What is the point of getting married and leaving your husband in the Philippines? After a few months, you may receive the news that your husband has found another person. I think that is the price of being away from family for so long. Since my parents are getting older, I promised to go home at least once every year and I call them every day. My brothers and sisters have their own families. In fact, I am not the only OFW in my family: two of my sisters and a sister in-law are here in Singapore as well. My two brothers are seamen. And life for me is not as difficult as it was 10 years ago.
I am still with my employer after 16 years. People always say I am lucky to have a good employer. I think they are lucky to have me as well. It is a give and take relationship. I remember when my employer interviewed me. They asked me, “what do you expect from us as your employer?” My answer was, “to treat me kindly and I will do the same in return.” After all, if they are not nice to me, I would not be with them still and likewise, they would not let me stay if I was not nice to them, especially with their children.
The children I have been looking after from birth are already taller than me now. They are both responsible adults. I always tell them that I am not going to be with them forever. Somehow I need to go home and start a new chapter of my life.
I know it is going to be hard. Now I am in the process of preparing them and myself when the time comes that I decide to go home. It is hard for me because they have been part of my life for so many years and hard for them because all their life I have been there for them. The children always say, “We will come and visit you.” I hope so.
Culture shock at home?
Thinking about going home, I believe the hardest part for me will be getting used to the way people live their lives in the Philippines. I will have a culture shock in my own country! I need to get use to the system and the way of life in the Philippines again. I feel like I am always two steps ahead and perhaps it will take years to adapt to the Filipino lifestyle again.
My suggestion to all aspiring migrants is that they need to be physically and mentally ready. Life away from the family is not easy at first. You will experience loneliness, being homesick, and culture shock. But if you stay strong, motivate yourself and think that you are doing this because you want a better life for your family, then you can make it.
Try to find out about a Filipino community near you and they will be your family to help and guide you while you are away from your real family. Do not mingle with the wrong crowd because they will lead you to trouble.
Lastly, always have faith in God. For me, that is what kept me going in my journey. I faced all the hardships and trials I went through because I always believe that He is by my side, guiding me to do the right thing.