I have always wondered how my life would be like had my parents never left their hometown of Libagon, Southern Leyte for the United States. Having spent the last two weeks here in this town (where it’d only take you 15-20 minutes to walk from one end to the other),I’ve gotten a taste of what that life would be.
The best word to describe the lifestyle of Libagon residents is simple. Students attend school from 8 am until 4 pm. During their lunch breaks they’ll either get snacks from the street vendors, play computer games at the Internet Café, or sing a couple songs on the karaoke machine at the seaside restaurant (designed to look like a nipa hut).
Libagon can be compared to the city of Las Vegas because it is a town that never sleeps. From sunrise until sunset the town is alive with people who always have something to do. If they aren’t working, parents will pass the time by visiting friends and relatives to make kwnetuhan (share stories and gossip). Fishermen will get on their boats to catch fish or squid to sell. Young boys climb up palm trees to gather coconuts for a refreshing snack.
Even though I am not completely worry-free and have my Audrey assignments (like these series of posts) to do, I cannot help but feel calm and relaxed in this town. Everyone is so friendly and quick to help others out. Everyone knows each other and if they don’t they do not hesitate to introduce themselves.
I may not have been born here or know every family and their history like my parents, but Libagon is a very special place to me and I do feel at home.
However, I know I won’t ever be able to relate to the impoverished life that most people in this town live. Both my father and mother’s families are fairly well off, but they have always managed to stay humble and know that the best way to really give thanks to God for their blessings is to help those who are less fortunate than them.
My brother has celebrated his 5th, 13th and (most recently) his 18th birthday in Libagon. I can recall on the day of my brother’s 5th birthday, my mom and aunts were running around decorating the area along the beachfront where we would be holding the celebration. My brother started to cry because he noticed there were no gifts for him to be found. He sobbed to my mother, “Mommy, where are my presents? It’s my birthday!”
My parents took my brother aside and explained to him that here in the Philippines many children are not as lucky as him. They don’t have closets full of clothes or bedrooms full of toys. Some children aren’t even able to go to school because their parents do not have enough money to pay for their education.
As with all of his birthdays that have been celebrated in Libagon, my family invited many children to the party so that they could enjoy the many delicious food we had prepared: lechon (roasted pig), pancit (noodles), fried chicken, and fish among other dishes. It may just be one day out of the whole year that they can enjoy this kind of feast, but you can see in their eyes how happy and appreciative they are.
Once all the children are fed my parents distribute “presents” we brought for them from the United States. This year they brought a box full of various types of shoes for boys and girls and another box filled with notebooks, pens, pencils, calculators and other school supplies.
Living in the U.S. it can be easy for me to get caught up in my daily routine of working and worrying over petty things like a friend not returning a call right away, but when I see the big smile on a little boy or girl’s face over something as simple as a pack of pencils, reality hits me. My so-called problems are nothing in comparison to what many people deal with day in and day out in the Philippines. At the age of 5, my brother may have cried because he wasn’t receiving a table full of presents, but we both now know (thanks to the example set by our parents) the importance of sharing one’s blessings.
In my (almost) 23 years, I’ve been to the Philippines five times; when I was 3, 10, 14, 18, and now. With a degree in journalism and a few years of reporting experience under my belt, I’ve made it a point this time around to take note of what I see and hear on my current trip back to my parents’ native land and the place I consider to be my second home.
My parents, brother and I flew via Asiana Airlines from Chicago to Manila, Philippines last July 10. Despite the 14-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul, Korea (our three-hour stopover) and the three-hour connecting flight from Seoul to Manila, we very much felt comfortable and enjoyed both flights. We faced no problems checking in our luggage back in Chicago and had no issues upon our arrival in Seoul.
However, when it came time for us to take the approximately 45-minute Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Tacloban City, Southern Leyte, we faced very questionable and rude treatment by workers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Despite my parents’ attempts to pack no more than 25-30 kilos in each of our boxes (the maximum weight for Philippine Airlines), we were informed that we had excess check-in baggage and must pay 4,000 pesos (approximately $80-$90). My mom was obviously not very happy because she had intended for that money to go to other purposes, but decided against fighting the charge. You see, being charged for excess baggage is nothing new to my family. We have faced this issue each and every time we’ve traveled domestic in the Philippines.
We paid the fee and were about to make our way through security when a female security guard stopped us. She eyed my parents’ and my brother’s carry-on suitcases, as well as mine and said, “Your luggage is too big. You need to go back to the counter and check them in.” (I should note here that as the guard spoke to us, two women whose suitcases were much larger in size than ours went through security no questions asked. Did the guard not question them because she knew they weren’t Americans? Who knows …) Needless to say, my parents were furious and my temper was nearing its boiling point. My mom told the guard, “We traveled on two international flights with these suitcases as our carry-ons and had no problems and you’re telling us they’re too big for the planes here?” The guard continued to just say that we had to return to the counter and so we eventually did.
Once we were back at the same counter from earlier, my mom (God bless her fearlessness of confrontation) demanded to know why the young gentleman who checked in our baggage did not make any mention of our suitcases being too big. She also demanded the name of the female security guard, to which the young man replied, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I do not know her.”
“Oh, really? I think you’re only saying you don’t know her because I’m asking you for her name. Am I right?” my mother asked. She raised her voice a bit higher so that the other workers at the counters and other passengers could hear. “Is this how you are all trained to treat balikbayans? Were you all told to charge us with as many bogus fees as you can so that you could take all of our money? Hindi na ‘to balikbayan; balik gastos! (This is no longer a homecoming; it’s coming home to pay!)”
Many people may think my family and I overreacted, but I’m sure if you spoke with other balikbayans you will discover that they too have faced these same issues.
Philippines customs officials and airport employees are notorious for opening the boxes of balikbayans and taking items that are meant for their family and friends to keep for themselves (Upon our arrival in Manila, we discovered that a set of brand new bath towels that my mom had planned to give away had been taken. We knew the box had been opened because it had been resealed with tape that said “SECURITY CHECK” and the rope we used to tie it was inside). They also ruthlessly make false claims that certain items are not allowed to be brought onto the plane so that passengers will be forced to leave the items behind and the customs people can take them for themselves.
My family and I love the summers when we can go back to the Philippines to visit our extended family and friends. However, the treatment of many balikbayans has continued to be a problem. It is unfair and very upsetting to see our fellow Filipinos taking advantage of us when we just want to enjoy ourselves. It is also unfortunate that they don’t seem to understand that the money and items they, for whatever reason, so very much want to keep for themselves could be better used to help the children begging for food in the streets and the elderly who are forced to sleep on dirty sidewalks.
There is no doubt that the Philippines is a beautiful country full of equally beautiful and kindhearted people. I most definitely am not generalizing and saying that all employees at Filipino airports are unfairly targeting balikabayans, but it is a problem that I believe needs to be addressed immediately before the situation gets so out of hand that Filipinos living abroad no longer feel welcome in their motherland.