About 6,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines each day, off to countries around the world in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. Off to any place where any currency except the Philippine peso is stronger, where dreams of living large are bigger.
In the 80’s, the term “Overseas Filipino Worker” or OFW became a real thing. They were touted as the modern heroes of the country, as they raked in dollars or euros or riyals all bolstering up the country’s GDP. Remittances became a huge boon.
This is the premise of Mia Alvar’s book In The Country: Stories (Shop your local indie store), a compilation of nine short short stories of family, love and migration — and also of neoliberal economic policies.
The book begins with a short story titled The Kontrabida, a word which translates to “villain.” Images of Miss Minchin (from Sarah, Ang Munting Prinsesa) and Angelica Panganiban as Madame (from Pangako Sa’Yo) immediately popped up in my head. I’ve watched enough telenovelas to understand the depths of crazy there is in a kontrabida character, so I was expecting a grandiose tale of the bida or the “hero” at the end of the story victorious, the kontrabida slighted in some way.
But that wasn’t the case in this story. It revolves around a family of three: a son (Steve) who works as a clinical pharmacist in New York City, his ailing father in the Philippines, and his mother the caregiver who also vends household items from their sari-sari store. The best part about it is that you can’t really tell which character is the kontrabida, each with their own ghost from the past.
For years there’d been no question of how much she leaned on me, like any mother on her overseas son. It never dawned on me how much I’d leaned on her: to play her part, stick to the script. Her saintliness was an idea I loved more than I had ever hated him.
In the next story The Miracle Worker, Alvar takes us to Bahrain inside the life of a Filipino special education teacher. After moving to the country with her husband Ed who worked on oil pipelines, Sally contemplates life overseas not as a maid (like Minnie) or a helper or part of the service industry, but as a private tutor to the only daughter of the Mansours, a rich family. Aroush was about five, suffering from cerebral palsy and von Recklinghausen’s disease.
Back in Manila, I had chosen my field for reasons I would never share with anyone. It seemed in college that if a girl was not rich, or beautiful enough to marry rich, then there were two honorable ways for her to survive: nursing, or teaching.
She engages Aroush daily in a series of auditory stimulation, while keeping Mrs. Mansour’s hopes up of her daughter becoming an astronaut or an artist. She navigates two terrains — straddling the reality of migrant workers she hears from Minnie, a friend and also the Mansours’ maid for 14 years, while living relatively comfortable and sheltered from their struggles.
In college, before Ed, I had dated a boy who railed against the president for exporting labor to the Middle East. To the editor of the Metro Manila Herald, he wrote about the “hidden cost of remittances” and said a peasant was a peasant was a peasant, whether on the rice fields or the oil fields, and that at least a Filipino farmer could come home everyday and see his family.
To be othered, as someone from the Third World, still cuts across many lines.
The other seven stories in the book are all mesmerizing on their own right, bringing forth different voices that engage and resonate with readers. Up close, Alvar provides an intimate portrayal of economic and political shifts in action, how they affect people’s lives and alter people’s stories. It’s impossible not to be an activist after finishing this.
I also think the mark of a great storyteller is how she’s able to engage you with the most challenging topics — specially when she writes about the intimacy within the family of uh, let’s say, a political enemy (as in Old Girl). In Contract Overseas, I fell for the many carabaos, for Andoy, for Ligaya. But perhaps what I loved most about this collection is the undercurrent of change-making and resilience evident throughout the book, anchored deeply within each story.
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In the Country: Stories (Shop your local indie store) by Mia Alvar
March 2, 2016
Vintage (368 pages)
My rating: ★★★★★
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.