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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.