Reverse Migration by Tammy

Reverse Migration – Moving Back

Update as of March 2016: After five years in the Philippines (so, five years after this post), we’ve moved again. This time, with the little ones in tow. Back in Vancouver! Looking forward to our adventures here. (But we didn’t pack any balikbayan boxes this time).


It seems to me as if everyone just wants to leave. People are moving from the provinces to Metropolitan Manila. From Manila to elsewhere in the world – even if it means going back to the very rural (of another country). The grass is greener over there, or so I’ve been told.

The grass is greener, the streets are paved with gold, and there is more of whatever it is we seek. Moving makes sense if what one seeks is opportunity. There are more jobs, better jobs and a better quality of life waiting for us on the other side. There are better benefits, better public transportation and better choices for us out there. Most importantly, there are better chances for our children out there.

All true. Those are all valid reasons to move to a place a bit farther away from home. Moving has always been a part of human history. People move all the time – and people ought to move, ought to grow and ought to learn. Travel allows us to capture the world through a totally different lens. And that in itself, expanding ones world vision, is really quite wonderful.

We Filipinos are not strangers to moving. The Philippines has seen waves of her youth leave the country. Filipinos left for Hawaii in the 1920s, and from there to California and the rest of the west coast. Filipino doctors, nurses and other professionals started to go abroad in the 1960s and 70s. And up until now, our men and women working as nannies, construction workers, caretakers, teachers, technicians (you name it, we got it) are scattered across the globe. We have Filipinos as American Idols, Canadian Idols and in European broadway plays. We are all over.

It is such an overwhelming phenomenon that it has become the topic of academic study, with dozens of journals at the Scalabrini Migration Center in Quezon City attempting to understand the movement and its social repercussions. It is of huge concern to many, so much so, that there are hundreds of organizations that support and protect Filipinos working abroad, like the Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York. And who can forget Vilma Santos in Anak? Or Claudine Baretto in Milan? Such powerful emotions coming from the most talented of artists in films made to showcase the plight of our migrant workers. I can only imagine how much more is felt among those truly separated from their loved ones because they need to provide.

Clearly, having so many Filipinos around the world can have its pros and cons for the country, for the individuals that leave and for their families. The government has spoken of how it is the remittances of our workers abroad that keep the economy afloat, and yet, you have organizations, films and the academe scrambling to pick up the pieces of what seems to be a social mistake. It is a hot topic with a mixed message – and yet, millions still long for the golden ticket to leave.

What is becoming more obvious is that there is a difference between leaving because one wants to leave, explore and grow – and leaving because there is nothing at home that can allow you to provide for yourself and the people you love. It is heart wrenching to see the reality of separated families because of better chances abroad. And it makes one wonder – is there really no chance for those back home? Is the only way up, out?

It makes you wonder doubly hard when you have already made it abroad and then firmly decide to move back home. The first half of this piece has just justified that moving is normal and somehow implies that we have no green grass left. And so, why would anyone want to go back home? I have yet to see a study on the balikbayans that move back permanently, I believe that there have been waves as well – smaller ones, perhaps just ripples, but I know they exist. My family was part of a little ripple.

After fifteen or so years in the United States, my parents decided it was time to go home. It was the early nineties. There was a new president and there were hopes for political and economic stability. They had their fill of the American dream and wanted to raise their four children where they had grown up, in Manila. Their kids had blue passports – and that was enough opportunity for them already. After college graduation, my siblings and I had choices. To stay, to go. It was up to us. But my parents made their choice – they wanted to go home. After college, I shifted back and forth between the US and Manila – but eventually chose the Philippines as homebase. Then, as fate would have it, I got married last year and moved to Vancouver where my husband works. I was definitely no stranger to migration.

I love the Philippines – but I love my husband too. We knew we were going to move back home eventually (everyone that leaves says something like that, they just can’t say when). We planned to give ourselves a few years to enjoy the number one city in the world and save up. A few months into our marriage, my husband decided it was time to regain his Filipino citizenship (Thank God, for Dual Citizenship) and at about the same time, we decided it was time to come home for good.

Friends and family have looks of shock on their faces when they find out that we are going back to the Philippines. It makes no sense to many of them. Moving from Canada to the Philippines. Moving from Vancouver to Manila and then to Naga. It is some sort of reverse migration. While everyone else seems to be scrambling to get out, there are a few crazy ones who are diving back in. I know we aren’t alone in choosing to take the jump. My parents did it twenty years ago.

Going home makes sense to me. There is so much potential for the country. The opportunities are there for those who are willing to take the risk. The “better life” is not as obvious back home simply because you have to put more effort in making it a better life. One needs to work harder and invest more of himself into making home worth staying in. The country won’t become a “better place” without people making it what it should be. There won’t be better jobs, if people don’t create better jobs. The Filipino won’t be better educated, if there are no more good teachers. There won’t be a better anything, if people don’t start to believe they can make it better. With the trickling in of the balikbayans, and with the focus of other friends also on the provinces, I see much hope with this new kind of migration. There is a new movement going on – one no longer driven by desperation, but of a new sense of adventure and optimism.

We see opportunity in the idle land of the countryside. Opportunities exist in the men and women actively searching to be productive. There is opportunity in everything, even in what we think is the most negative aspect of what we have as a people. We have raw materials and raw talent – giving us a million and one opportunities to process and produce whatever it is we want. There is opportunity back home if we`re willing to define it ourselves, risk it and make it something fruitful. There is opportunity because we see the beauty of what we have, and the hope that there can be something even more beautiful.

People find it funny how a Philippine-born, Canadian citizen, who has spent more than half his life in Vancouver found his match – an American-born, Filipina from Manila – in San Jose, a sleepy little coastal town in Camarines Sur. In our young lives, we have had the chance to cross oceans, travel the world, work in the West and yet met our destiny where we least expected it: home. Our first meeting is, in itself, telling of the opportunities that can really be anywhere. People move all over the world in search of many things, they leave the country to find themselves or make something of themselves. And it’s great if they succeed. But we believe, it is also okay to go back to ones country, because, in going back to your roots, you may find yourself there as well. You may find success, or, in our case, your life partner.

We know we can find more back home, so we are packing our balikbayan boxes for the last time. It wasn’t the easiest of decisions. We could have waited another thirty-something years, growing our pension and retiring comfortably back home. But our youthful idealism started to see something practical and profitable as well. Investing our time and the little that we have now may grow into something not just for us to enjoy, but something the community can share in as well. So we are leaving Canada and moving back home to the Philippines. We are going to live in Camarines Sur – because we know we can make the grass greener over there.