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Yes! Not Everyone Can Quit Their Jobs to Travel Abroad

Poor but Wants to Travel Abroad

EDIT: This was written in 2016. A lot has changed in my life. I moved to Vietnam, went back to teaching, and lived the expat life. In November 2021, my two cats and I moved to Munich, Germany. You can follow me on Instagram: @jonajournals for more current life updates.

Some years ago, I handed half of my salary to my mother. I am single, have the highest-paying job among my working, familied older siblings. And culture dictates, it is my responsibility to help my parents and younger siblings. A year or two had passed; the half became a quarter because places around the Philippines left me more curious and held me captive of their sheer beauty. There were months I did not give anything to Mama except hugs.

Because traveling around the Philippines became traveling around ASEAN.

I am frowned upon by neighbors and relatives for having this stand. It is wrong, it is simply wrong, it is against the very essence of a poor Filipino family: I should not waste my money on trips. Instead, I should finish building the family house, make it as beautiful as possible. I should continue supporting my aging parents financially.

Mt. Bromo, Indonesia

But knowing me who breaks traditions as early as 7 [no cutting of nails, no sweeping the floor at night, and what-not], Mama understood. Or perhaps not. And yes, I feel guilty for cutting off the financial help for the selfish reason: I want to travel.

Or is it the lack of money, in every sense of the word? Are we being held back by our responsibilities to our families? Are we burdened by, what I called, the cultural baggage?

I am fed up.

I am fed up with the things that popular travel bloggers insisted, that you can travel long-term with a Philippine passport, that you can support yourself abroad through odd jobs here and there.

I am not saying those are impossible.

But what I want to ask are these: is our developing country’s passport the main reason traveling abroad and long-term travels nearly impossible to many of us? Or is it the lack of money, in every sense of the word? Are we being held back by our responsibilities to our families? Are we burdened by, what I called, the cultural baggage?

Even though we are all Filipinos, even though some, if not most of us, aspire to travel abroad and travel long-term, we must admit that there is an existing hierarchy of privilegedness. We must admit that other Filipinos are more financially capable or less burdened by family responsibilities. Because if we do not do so, no real dialogue can happen. All these travel guides on how to travel abroad with a Filipino passport may sound dreamingly possible (don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for all of them who made it), but I feel that there is a lot of realities and truths that are overlooked—intentional or not. And maybe because we are talking about travel blogging here, a platform where sad truths are hidden, where #goodvibes is the ultimate goal, where photos should look well-composed, well-framed, and IG-worthy.

Let me point out the realities of the ordinary Filipino: the very realities that divide those who cannot travel abroad and those who can, those who cannot travel long-term and those who can.

The Privilege of Not Supporting a Sibling to School

Many Filipinos, including myself, help their younger siblings to go to school. Although I stopped the financial help to my family, I still handled the school expenses of my two younger brothers. The first one finished his studies four years ago, and the second one is about to graduate this March [Update: He graduated already! And I’m now financially and emotionally preparing for my year-long trip abroad!]   Now, this is the classic scenario in most Filipino families. I have some friends who provide financial help to their parents while supporting their siblings’ studies at the same time.

Yes, we want to help, but we have to feels more right.

The Privilege of Not Feeding the Whole Family

Once my brother finishes his studies, I can do whatever I want to do. I can go broke, if I want to. But we Filipinos are always known for our close family ties—it means, more often than not, in one household lives an extended family. From grandparents to great grandchildren. And for other Filipinos, it is their responsibility to feed the whole family. I am not making this up—anywhere you go in the Philippines, you can see this.

Electricity bill. Food. Rent. Hospital bill, when someone in the family gets sick. Everything. They are the martyrs that I cannot afford to become. Too much selflessness.  Too much cultural baggage.

The Privilege of Being a Non-committed OFW

Just recently, a young woman told her classmates that their relatives think it is easy to work (not travel) abroad. When overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) come home, often relatives and families, I have heard, siphoned them dry. The life of OFWs is hard, especially those whose jobs are viewed menial and not as respectable. But there are OFWs or Pinoys abroad who have settled in their new land and earned a lot higher than ordinary Filipinos. As much as they deserve their new life, I find it absurd for them to talk in behalf of the Filipinos who live in the Philippines. No, it is never easy to travel abroad, and you know that too. Yes, you may hold a Philippine passport, but you do not earn as low as most Filipinos do.

The Privilege of Having Middle-class Parents

I have been tiptoeing around this topic. But what has to be pointed out must be pointed out. Is there a burgeoning middle-class in the Philippines? Because the social pyramid still feels the same. My parents are still financially poor.

When I said “It must be their fellow middle-class friends who just like them have moneyed parents. When everything fails, the parents are there to help.”

READ: What’s Wrong with Leave Everything Behind and Travel the World

This echoes truer to some middle-class Filipino travelers, truer than western travelers whose independence is culturally engrained at the age of 18. At that age, most Filipinos still live with their parents and still ask for financial allowance, which gave birth to jokes among Cebuanos like ATM (Ay ta, Ma), which roughly means, “give me, ’Ma”

When a middle-class Filipino travels long-term, the future is not as bleak as a typical Filipino’s. Everytime I thought of surrendering everything, risking everything to the beauty and danger of long-term travel, I hesitated. A lot. Like, fucking lot. My parents, even if they wanted to, are incapable of becoming my financial backup, my safety net.

The Privilege of Being a Popular Travel Blogger or of Being a Media Practitioner

I had a week-long, all-expense-paid trip to Japan last November.  The trip was not granted instantly, I had to apply for it. I happened to be a travel contributor for a newspaper in Cebu on top of being a travel blogger and travel columnist on interaksyon.com, and these qualified me to join other delegates from different countries.

I perfectly knew I would not be able to make it if I did it on my own: the only travel fund I had then was already meant for a month-long backpacking trip through Indonesia mid-December to mid-January.  So yes, I was lucky, yes privileged, to be chosen.

Yes, to some extent, I am privileged to have these jobs that sometimes provide perks like traveling for free. But my trip to Japan was an exceptional case. I paid for the rest of my trips abroad.

They will understand this is the kind of life you want to live. It is your decision, so own the beauty and pain that goes with it.

I am not a popular travel blogger, but I met some whose whole trips are sponsored or whose flights are sponsored by airlines, whose names are established on the blogging world that traveling abroad and getting through the immigration is less taxing than others.

And I do understand that it takes months or years, and a lot of hard work [it is like your typical day job softened by beautiful photos] to become a successful and professional travel blogger.

But not all aspiring travelers have blogging in mind.

I hate using the word privilege. Maybe there is a better word out there that perfectly captures these scenarios. I am not faulting anyone for whatever status they are in right now. There is nothing wrong to being born in a middle-class family. There is nothing wrong to becoming a successful OFW. We wish you all the success you deserve. There is nothing wrong to being a successful travel blogger. Depending on how we defined successful, it is every travel blogger’s goal.

The wrongness starts when you start speaking in behalf of other Filipinos who wanted to travel abroad. Speak for yourself. If you want to be the voice of, the voice for others, do so, but please, be as accurate, be as inclusive, as encompassing as possible, if complete accuracy is not an option.

Because there is our case. Poor yet ambitious to travel abroad.

And for those who are in the same boat with me, there is only one suggestion I can give: talk to your family. Tell them you have the ache to go somewhere. Tell them, you are addicted to traveling. Accept the truth that what you are going to do is rather very selfish. Talk to them. Tell them you will not be able to extend help financially. It will be hard. For you. For them. Guilt will creep in. After all, you are breaking generations-old traditions here. There they are, your family, who would try to make ends meet while there you are somewhere Southeast Asia trying to make ends meet (but whose struggle on the road would be secondary because IG photos softened everything up, because traveling is viewed as a luxurious lifestyle).

It is hard. Spelling out your plans—or their absence thereof—is fucking hard. But it is possible. And most likely, your family will understand. They will understand this is the kind of life you want to live. It is your decision, so own the beauty and pain that goes with it.

Tell them you are traveling long term, that you will be gone for a year or more. Tell them, you are afraid of what you are going to do. They are too afraid for you, they whose definition of life is to be financially secure. Tell them. Talk to them. It is hard. It is fucking hard. But it is possible.

I should know, I did it a month ago.

Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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  1. Anne-Di says:

    This is another great blog post from you. I caught myself nodding more than once while reading this article because we have some similarities in terms of financially supporting our family. After my dad retired as an OFW 4 years ago, the burden of paying our household bills fell on me and my younger sister. We also had to shell out money for groceries and laundry every month. As a government employee, managing my meager salary is always a challenge. My savings is almost non-existent but my desire to travel always gets the best of me. I have this mentality that my financial status should not stop me from travelling so every bonus that I receive will always go to my travel funds. All flights should be booked on sale, accommodations are always in hostels or budget rooms and itineraries are planned months ahead so I can travel on a shoestring budget.

    Fulfilling our responsibilities to our families is hard. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what if my family is rich and my parents have lifetime savings to not need my support. I have debated countless of times if I should tell them that I feel burdened by these responsibilities I never wanted. This cultural baggage you’re referring to is a Filipino social construct I sometimes find unfair. It’s ok to help but is it still acceptable if the one helping is loosing a big chunk of what should be his/her own? When is enough is enough? Is it selfish to be this way? Why do people from other culture don’t have this kind of outlook? I might never know the answer but this post can be used as a springboard for discussing familial obligations and self-fulfillment which in our case, is travelling (tama?)!

    • Anne-Di,

      I made my mother cry everytime I mentioned that this culture of financially helping the family is unfair. But I knew where she is coming from: she grew up in this social construct and here I am trying to break free from that very social construct. She always thinks that in our family, I’m the craziest—and this may be the outcome from too much reading. Hihi.

      It is hard. But I’m trying to compromise. And although I hate planning, as early as now, I have to plan for the many possibilities that may come out from this craziness called long-term travel.

      • Anne-Di says:

        Yes, this social construct has been ingrained to our psyche and people like us want to break free from that. Finding the middle ground is hard since as you’ve mentioned, tears will fall and feelings will get hurt. Despite everything, I still believe that if we really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire to help us achieve it (ika nga ni Paulo Coelho, lol) at the right time.

        I hope to read more about your thoughts because your blog is more than just a travel blog. You keep it real and the issues that you’re sharing are also what many Filipino travellers are facing. With that, mabuhay ka!

  2. Edmar Guquib says:

    Hi there! I saw your link in out PTB group and when I read the title and the first few paragraphs I got hooked. Posts like this SHOULD make you a popular blogger. But yeah, the reality is you have to post a skydiving selfie or scuba diving with the sharks to become popular. The realities of us, poor travelers as your said, are hidden by the photos with luxurious feel. We have the same situation. I”m currently reading this on my way to a foreign country (waiting in the airport to be exact) and what you’re saying here pierced deep to my heart. I can relate! I’ve been labeled selfish many times but still, I keep coming back on the road. Thinking of my parents and my unemployed brother I left back home when I read this but I all agreed to what you’ve said. Sometimes they don’t understand (they don’t complain though, in my case) so I promised myself to undersunderstand my future children as much as I wanted them to understand me now. But honestly, I feel guilty sometimes being the eldest. Haha. I know it has something to do with the obligations dictated by our culture!

    • Hi, Edmar! I do not mind being a wallflower. Haha! I really think there is a lot of us who have this situation, but we rarely talk about it, or perhaps our travel blog is not the right platform. But I break unwritten rules.

      Yes, it is our culture, but I wonder if middle-class Filipino travelers have these worries and guilt too. Maybe in their case, not high or low, just different.

      Enjoy your trip, and see you someday! 😀

  3. On point! Although Im not living with my family, I still feel guilty for not being able to support financially because I’m saving up for future travels and things I might need. I am also expected to help out in the family business every weekend because like they said, they used to help their parents, too, when they were my age. 🙁 and me traveling on some weekends seems selfish. The only time I think I’d be able to travel freely is when I get married. 🙁

  4. Kathleen says:

    We really shared every bit of sentiment. I left my hometown, Iligan City because of the urge to travel. I was on the verge of losing myself if I cannot leave. Of course life happen and my life has been traveling. I drop the topic to my parents and left. We didn’t have the “proper” conversation and I felt bad to accept that I was literally being selfish. Being a breadwinner, I had to stopped supporting as I was broke myself. Trying to live for 100 Baht for a week? Of course I need miracle to do that but maybe miracle has been on me after all these years. We get to live day by day that through our IG inspired photos, we have been living in a luxurious and comfortable life even we are doing the opposite. So much power in your posts Jona 🙂 New reader here!

    • I don’t know if what I had with my family was “proper.” But we have our ways. Long before my plan to travel long-term, I already told them I would not help financially once my second brother finishes his studies. I even joked that I would put it in paper! Haha! Yeah, walking toward one’s dreams can sometimes mean letting go of your familial responsibilities.

      Thank you for reading and leaving your footprint here, Kathleen!

  5. Bebekoh says:

    It is hard. I wanted to explore but how? I always end up thinking of budget that it isn’t going to be fun, before it even started. I am glad my parents are happy and supportive of my travel aspirations, but like you, I can’t rely on them financially to support me. So how else would I support my explorations / adventures? who else?

    I guess, in a way, I like the Westerners’ thinking… “Just do it!”. I sure do hope i have the guts to do traveling long term. Otherwise, I”m happy to just be able to explore a few days at a time, a country at a time 🙂

  6. mark says:

    Hi Jona,
    I found myself in a huge amount of privilege. I love the truth this post and other posts on your blog speak. The cultural baggage of the Filipino discussion will come with many excuses and many more realities that show an unempowered modern day Filipino. This is my observation as a Fil-Am that’s lived in the Philippines for a short time but has also had tons of experience living in many other countries.

    The travel blogging community was a huge disappointment for me in many regards because of many of the sad truths that are hidden.

    The reality of the ordinary Filipino not being able to travel is real. The audience travel bloggers typically reach out though is in a completely different demographic- millenials with a higher level of disposable income, educated, and with means to do things. Those who complain are usually those who set their lifestyles up based on their culture and environment though this is changing.

    The OFW example you gave is true. This is one aspect of culture I’ve chosen to not participate in as I’ve seen it within my own family and with friends.

    I love your thoughts on this and hope it creates a good discussion among others. Camille and I have had this conversation as well before. We’ll continue to follow your journey Jona.

    Love from El Nido,
    Mark and Camille

    • Hi, Mark! So you’re Mark Anthony Villaflor! Haha! I read your love story on Rappler! Some parts made me teary-eyed! I’m in an LDR, by the way. 😀

      Yeah, there are a lot of things to be discussed openly. But yeah, I think the problem starts with how “travel blogging” is defined.

      Thank you for the support, you lovely two. Tobi and I will be checking your blog for couple travels. We are newbies. Haha!

  7. Albertr says:

    Just go get this off my chest.

    Traveling is indeed perceived as a selfish act and luxury in our culture. I know that all too well being a seminarian who also aches to explore and travel the world. Every year I am given 30 days of vacation, and I spend the other 11 months scraping every cent from my meager allowance and scrupulously creating itineraries and researching the cheapest ways to be able to travel abroad. And then getting permission from my superiors is always a hard sell. And finally once there I can’t really post on social media about it (which, I realized, could be liberating), just so to avoid the slightest chance of scandalizing people who precisely might think it’s unbecoming for someone in my position.

    It’s a shame because, as I always say, travelling itself can be very spiritual. My encounters have informed so much of my faith, that on top of the human growth one naturally gets from testing one’s borders against the world (as if growth can be dichotomized like that).

    In any case, we all have hurdles, some bigger than others, to overcome to travel. I guess we write not so much to presume to speak for others than in the hopes of giving some part of the growth travel gives us to others (or just to get it off our chest, as I did here).

    Sorry this got too long. Another big thanks, Jona, for such insightful reads.


  8. V.K. says:

    Miss Bering,

    This may not be my place to comment, my background as an American-raised child, mixed race myself and an interracial family, but I feel a strong affinity to what you called “cultural baggage” even in my American family.

    My mother was raised traditionally American, work hard to earn a home behind a white-picket fence and have a family of which you can be proud, and 18 was the age that some toke literally here in the States to mean “earn your own way and fly from the nest”. She struggled and learned the hard way that family support can be a strength that keeps all members prosperous. A tight family is great in times of need because everyone comes to know financial security and stability as a group effort.

    She grew up with many Asian friends and her close relationship and observation of their dynamic was seen as a benefit when her family was disjointed, little to no sense of respect or duty and certainly not intehrity. So she raised her children after her friends’ Asian culture of parenthood and taught unity and responsibility to the family unit.

    Where I come in is simple and very similar to you: I need travel in my life and am gaining the means to do so on my own no matter whether my family can do so. I have felt ridiculously guilty and have made sacrifices to help when my family members have fallen upon misfortune or were in need of daily necessities. I have pride in what I have earned as an individual and it burns to give it away when my ambitions are clear but burns worse when I refrain and it is clearly a way to leep my family living comfortably.

    Yes, I do still have privilage here despite barely earning an income “above poverty” by U.S. My sacrifices will look entirely different than yours and seem quite irrelevant but nonetheless it felt like a burden to shoulder responsibility from within my family. Because I have goals that require being an individual and go against thinking of my family no matter how much I wish I could care for them the same and still travel as I wish. The truth is, I have limited resources and I must choose or be crushed by the weight of two conflicting principles and ways of life.

  9. grasya says:

    i feel you.. but we embraced the beauty and the pain that comes with it.. let’s travel in a way that does not promote envy, instead help each other to achieve dreams as well

  10. Pamie Clavejo says:

    This is so on point for what is happening in my life right now! Last month, I left home to start with long term travel journey. I didn’t come from a rich family and I didn’t have a big fat savings account. In fact, I have just enough to last me a few weeks. Days before my flight, I was so hesitant to pursue it because no matter how hard I tried to plan everything and save up, I ended up so unprepared! But here I am in Hong Kong, my second destination (I stayed with my cousin in Macau for a month), waiting for my flight to Hanoi tomorrow. Because of the pictures I post in social media, people think I’m rich & privileged but they really don’t know the story behind. But thankfully, my family has been so supportive of my decision, even though our house is still unfinished and my brother is still in his last year in college.

    Continue writing beautifully and inspiring others like me. Cheers to us fellow travelers who choose to defy society’s cookie cutter definition of a successful life!

  11. […] decision to travel long-term did not come easy, I could tell you that. Like any traveler from a developing country, I had to battle against many burdens—cultural, emotional, and […]

  12. […] READ: Poor But Want to Travel Abroad? Talk to Your Family! […]

  13. […] As you can see, it is not as hard as thought it would be. The online application and transaction is easy and fast. Poor but want to travel abroad? You might want to read this. […]

  14. […] READ: Filipino, Poor But Want to Travel Abroad? There Is Only One Thing That You Have to Do […]

  15. […] A talk with the family is needed here. In my case, I already told my parents that I would not shoulder our youngest’s college education so I could travel for a year. But I should pat my own back: I already handled my two younger brothers’ college education without me getting pregnant along the way. 😛 So how about you? Are you the breadwinner in the family? Talk to them. And if you are like Ellen who feels guilty for her trips, the more reason you have to come up with a separate travel fund account, so you would not feel guilty everytime you travel. [READ: Poor but want to travel. There is one important thing you must do.] […]

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