Love in the time of migration

One of my students, Arnold P. Alamon, has written a graduate thesis titled “Lives on Hold: Sons of Migrant Parents.”  It is based on the retrospective accounts of the six young men he interviewed on what it was like to create their own lives while their parents worked abroad. Poignant and rich in detail, their stories are evocative snap shots of the Filipino family in transition in the era of overseas migration.  They show the scars beneath the imported clothes.  They articulate the gap that could not be bridged by international calls and text messages.

These are stories that no longer shock us. The improbable has become typical.  They are the stuff of recent Filipino films, and they are often romanticized in song.  My particular interest in this study is the shift in the semantics of love in the family that it documents.

The substance of the parental role in the traditional family is equated with being a “good provider.”  Apart from the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing, the assurance of a solid education up to college is generally treated as a Filipino parent’s primary obligation to his/her children.  In turn, children are expected to obey their parents’ wishes, to look after their younger siblings, to do well in school, and to take care of their parents in old age.  Husband and wife are supposed to be supportive of one another in the performance of their culturally-prescribed roles as provider and home maker, respectively.

Modernity has long disturbed this traditional order, but none perhaps has turned it more upside down than the phenomenon of overseas work.  It is now common for fathers to leave their children for extended and indefinite periods in order to provide for their needs. Where the man in the family cannot find a job that provides adequate income, the wife must step into the role of provider and look for work. Today, in the typical Filipino family, the old roles have melted, and both husband and wife have to earn a living to support the growing needs of their children.  But the impact of these changes on the family as a world of meanings is not as jarring as when both parents have to leave their young children behind in order to try their luck abroad.

That is when the tacit understandings that bound the Filipino family together come into question.  Children, confronting the paradox of the absentee-provider, begin to miss the living presence of the parent who dutifully sends the remittances and the balikbayan boxes.  Entire studies can be conducted on the countless ways in which parents, spouses, and children desperately attempt to compensate for the physical distance that overseas work has put between them. Telecom companies have tapped into this human need in order to expand their sales of pre-paid calls and other real-time communication schemes aimed at bridging the distance.  But it would take much more to sustain the spirit of family life under these circumstances.

The young men in this study appear to have survived their parents’ absence quite well, a fact that is often celebrated as Filipino resilience.  Almost all of them managed to finish college, and they all believe that living on their own somehow forced them to be strong. But an unmistakable sense of loss, often surfacing as resentment, is palpable in their accounts.  One of them says, almost as if he were grieving: “My parents did not see me grow up.”  They grope for words to describe the passing of an era in which their lives have been sacrificed.

It would however be wrong to think that only the children have suffered. I will surmise that the loss is probably at least double on the parents’ side.  I say that as a parent.  From the moment they were born, I have looked at my children with a wish that I could see them grow into fine human beings every step of the way.  I have perhaps exulted in their triumphs, and bled in their pain, more profusely than in my own.  I think of them when I visit a nice place, or eat an unusually fine meal.  I worry for their safety, and I cannot imagine not being able to recognize them in their mature years.  This is what love commands us to do.

The traditional Filipino family, like the one in which I grew up, was not always good at verbalizing familial love.  But it was there.  I saw it in my mother’s eyes when anyone of us was unwell, or in my father’s eager face whenever he would ask his children to recount their achievements in school or at work.  A word of praise said in my presence came as rarely as an open profession of love.  I rejoiced when my parents gave me money or bought me a gift on my birthday, because I did not expect it.  Yet I never doubted that in my parents’ scheme of things, I was someone special.

In the age of absentee parenting, the communication of love has taken the form of a steady stream of gift-giving.  This however cannot compensate for the erosion of intimacy. As the sociologist Luhmann nicely put it: “Roughly speaking, one loves not because one wants gifts, but because one wants their meaning.”

We expect those we love to show us, by their actions, the depth and complexity of their inner world, not the broad practicalities of their material situation.  This is true not only for lovers and spouses in long distance relationships; it applies as well to children and parents torn apart by migration.

It has been very easy to measure the economic benefits from overseas work.  But I doubt if one can ever quantify what the Filipino family has given up in terms of love, or what it is doing to recover it.

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