Overseas Filipino Democracy
By Jerick T. Aguilar
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
The sacred Islamic month of Ramadan falls exactly this September in the Gregorian calendar. Having lived in countries where Islam is the official religion (for more than four years in a row!), my Muslim friends have told me once and again how their religion, unlike any other, is “democratic” – that everyone is the same in the eyes of God. And I somehow tend to agree with them.
For one thing, during Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast. They neither eat nor drink for about 12 hours, everyday, for 30 days straight – so everyone, whether rich, poor, or middle-class, feels hungry. Having to do this every year, all of them, with no exceptions, definitely know and remember the feeling of hunger. For another, their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca also erases their economic and social status. Prince and pauper alike – everyone has to wear the same attire and perform the same ceremonies with millions of other Muslim pilgrims. And there are no special treatment and special privileges for anyone (not even the President of Iran who was there last year), period.
Being born and raised Christian, this has made me reflect whether my “default” religion is also democratic. I remember preferring to come to Mass ten minutes late because in my parish, the lector, before the beginning of the service, would always read out the list of donors who, of course, would get brownie points in heaven while the rest of the people who didn’t (or couldn’t) donate would most likely rot in hell. So nothing democratic there.
As far as fasting or abstinence is concerned, not all Christians practice it so we are not equal in this department. The same thing also goes for our holy pilgrimages. The more money you have, the more stars your hotel and the better English your tour guide in places such as Guadalupe in Mexico, Lourdes in France, and Fatima in Portugal (which I never experienced as my limited budget had me going to these official Marian sites as an independent traveller instead of being part of a group), the better for you.
Never mind our country either. We are a democracy only on the outside as our country is run by big business tycoons and influential interest groups – not by the people. We do have elections but the results do not reflect the people’s voice but the candidate’s wallet. And everyone is supposed to be equal under the law but, as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” so rightly put it, bribery and nepotism make some people “more equal” than the majority. Enough said.
Given that I am hung up on democracy and that neither my religion nor my country gives me the real sense of it, I was close to converting to Islam (pun intended) until I realized that I have experienced true democracy without being Muslim. I have experienced it overseas with our “kababayans” around the world. I have noticed that, especially in terms of friendship, Filipinos abroad tend to practice and reinforce the real essence of democracy.
I, a mere (international) NGO worker, was in a “barkada” once where one was a supervisor at the US Embassy and the other was a US Embassy official’s housekeeper. In our get-togethers, issues of certificates/diploma and income were never brought up – like we were colleagues with similar positions in a company. Another “barkada” of mine (in another country at another point in time) consisted of an irregular migrant who constantly jumped from one job to the next, a loyal employee of a multinational company, and a Filipino restaurant owner. Yet no one among us was above or more special than the other.
And it’s not just my group of friends who traverse artificial boundaries of educational attainment and occupational ranks. I have met people time and again who belong to a heterogeneous “barkada”. I guess one of the reasons why this is so is because we overseas Filipinos believe that we are all one and the same. Regardless of what we studied and the work that we do, all of us chose to leave our family and friends behind in order to have a much better future for ourselves and for them. We may have different degrees and varying salaries, but we have similar reasons for leaving the Philippines and staying on overseas.
Not only is there democracy among Filipino friends overseas, but also between couples. I have encountered lovers again and again who otherwise might not have paired up if they had remained in the Philippines – a cook with a manager, a data encoder (the husband) with a bank executive (the wife who has a much higher salary, of course), and a beautician (nope, not the husband) with a chief engineer, to name a few. Again, their relationship is not a question of who has more years of education and more zeroes in their payslips, but of being happy with and loving each other, regardless.
I suppose another reason for such a democracy is because a number of overseas Filipinos I met and know do not practice their real profession and, hence, do not care what kind of job the other person has. I came across a nanny in Vienna, Austria who used to be union leader in Manila, not to mention a janitor in Dublin, Ireland who was once a soldier based in our province of Batangas. And who would forget our thousands of domestic helpers who were teachers as well as doctors before who are now nurses? To reiterate, their jobs may be different from their qualifications, but their purpose to be in a foreign country is the same – to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
So what is the big deal about having democracy among overseas Filipinos anyway, you ask? Even bigger, I answer. The fact that Filipinos abroad look beyond someone’s education as well as salary, and treat the other person with the same importance as well as respect only goes to show that we, as citizens, are capable of practicing what our country should stand for – a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people. The unfortunate thing though is that we practice this outside and not in our country where real democracy is needed the most. If our government officials had been overseas Filipinos, then they would have been listening to the people and satisfying the needs of the majority so that there would have been fewer and fewer of us living and working abroad.