POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 13 October 2011, Thursday
The New American Dream
Los Angeles, California – It’s the tail-end of my three-week vacation here and after careful observation and listening to the kwento of family and friends, it’s obvious that America is no longer the land of milk and honey that generations of Filipinos, including mine, were brought up to believe in and admire.
It used to be, just a decade or so ago, that many Filipinos aspired to live in the US, some going so far as to stay illegally in the country. These were the “TNTs” of legend, the tago-ng-tago whose status was a stack of lit dynamite waiting to explode, hence their frantic race to legitimize their stay by marrying a citizen whether for love or convenience; having a baby in the country; or obtaining a working visa from an employer who might or might not be exploiting the TNT’s predicament by paying low wages, while a recruitment company, if it had served as the go-between, would have been taking a hefty percentage of the TNT’s pay for a contracted period (usually until the employer started the working visa process).
Getting settled in the US was hard at first, but once on track, the payoff was in US dollars. Wired home to the Philippines, the money sent children to school, built homes for aging parents, boosted the nation’s GNP.
Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. October 2011.
Nurses and physicians had an easier time settling in. The worldwide demand for the patient and hardworking Philippine healthcare professionals led to the boom of nursing schools across the country, driven by the milk-and-honey stories of the double-story tract house with two cars in the garage, trips to Europe, and a limitless supply of Spam and Doritos in the pantry, in your choice of West Coast (no snow, lots of beaches, surfing) or East Coast (harsh winters but living in fairytale settings looking like Currier and Ives postcards).
All this was before 9/11 and the global recession. In its wake the US suffered an economic downturn and a severe psychic blow from which it has yet to recover. The narratives of Filipinos here are no longer optimistic; they revolve around tales of poor employment opportunities, reduced government benefits, the instability of holding jobs.
Ivy, 40, a nurse, says her hospital is no longer hiring and she cannot find work for her niece, a new nursing graduate. Some of her friends have had their work hours or work days (and consequently, their pay) reduced; others have been laid off, a situation she says was unthinkable just five or six years ago.
Joanne, 41, migrated here last May. Previously she worked for 16 years as a corporate executive assistant in Dubai. When the worldwide recession hit there, she was laid off; within two months, she got another job, despite the tight job market. She has been in the US for four months and has still not obtained a position despite scouring the job websites daily. “This is the longest I’ve ever been unemployed,” she says. “It was never this difficult for me in Manila or Dubai.”
Wella, 43, a University of the Philippines graduate, worked a succession of clerical jobs when she arrived in this country in her early 20s, around twenty years ago. In Manila, she was working as a television news reporter; it was an underutilization of her skills and intellect to work as a receptionist, filing folders and answering phones. She’s doing better now, but it took a while, and there is no job security. “We could get laid off any moment,” she says. “I don’t stop looking for other jobs.”
Naldy, 44, a part-time college instructor, struggled to get his load of classes this semester. He has been waiting for years for a full-time position; none are in the offing at the moment because of state budget cuts on education.
Newspapers at a Starbucks in Union City, California. October 2011.
Willie, 54, is a property owner in the Philippines, but in LA is a retail associate at Best Buy. On his tag is his name and a greeting in Tagalog. He usually works the Filipino customers, selling TVs and other appliances. He’s on his feet the whole day; the only rest he gets is at home, after eight solid hours on the floor. He’s glad he wasn’t included in their company’s last wave of lay-offs.
Joe, 61, was a vice-president in a media marketing company in Manila in the ‘80s. In the Bay Area, he drives a FedEx truck and is grateful to have been bumped up to a hub-to-hub route after years of doing door-to-door. “That was hard on my back and knees,” he said. He’s worried about the future – his pension might not be as much as it should have been before the economic crisis. He has dipped into his 401-K fund to make ends meet, and is hoping to still be able to work after retirement.
Yet they prefer to remain in the US rather than return to the Philippines. “The quality of life here is still better,” they say. “We’ll cope.” Work, when you have it, is properly compensated, for the most part – “You help yourself,” says Naldy. Joe says he has become closer to his family. “You have no one else to rely on except each other.” Wella agrees, because “there isn’t the same support network of friends that you have in the Philippines.”
It’s the reality of the times – no country, no individual, is immune to the tides of global change. What we thought would never happen, in our lifetimes at least, and to the world’s greatest superpower, has transformed their society and the lives of their residents. While some economists point to an eventual recovery of the American economy over the medium- to long-term, things will likely never be the way they used to, when Filipinos trekked to America to own a piece of the American Dream.
No longer do we hear of TNTs in America; the job market is better in the Middle East, Europe, and Japan. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have rules more favorable to immigrants and are now the destinations of choice.
California freeway. October 2011.
There are still those of us psychically pulled to the US, however, by ties of family and friendship. If our beloveds are in America, then little pieces of ourselves are there too with them.
As Filipinos, this is our new American Dream – to visit our loved ones in the US, to stay in touch, to discover for ourselves how well they are coping; and for us to remain whole by occasionally reconnecting with that bit of ourselves that they will carry with them as long as we live. ***