Going Abroad: Life As A Sudden OFW

What happens when you’ve never dreamed of leaving home, but life throws you a curveball that takes you overseas? Pocholo Goitia writes about what it’s like to suddenly become a member of the Filipino diaspora.


You know that final scene in Moana (spoiler alert!) where the title character’s people set out in a fleet of boats to fulfil their destiny as a nomadic nation? I’m sure a lot of Filipinos have identified with this scene, the commonalities of skin color and precolonial seafaring culture aside. While not homeless, we have an itch for the horizon in our genes, so our diaspora casts a wide net. We are one in three of the globe’s seafarers, and the biggest minority group in Alaska (I know, right?). We are adventurous, adaptive and — whether we do it because we want to or must — well-suited to blending into other communities.

By “we” I mean most of us. Not me. In college, when contributing articles for publication in some journal or story collection, I often wrote that I “was born in Quezon City and will probably die there” in the author bio. I had lived all my life in the greater Manila area. I’d been a jeepney-chasing commuter up to my thirties, and a regular in three bars and too many holes-in-the-wall to count. I’d been held up, organized mock fight clubs on the streets and visited churches all over the city on foot to stave off boredom during Holy Week.

Before joining the 10.2 million Filipinos abroad, I had traveled abroad for leisure twice in 33 years — once when I was 12 and once in my twenties — and I could count on one hand the times I went abroad for work. Singapore was less than four hours away by plane, but for me, even Pampanga would have been an adventure. Moving to another country? Preposterous.

For as long as I could remember, being away from Manila made me feel unmoored and bumbling. Accents change; communication gets fuzzy; you don’t know anyone around you; you can’t cab it home in a pinch. The familiarity of my home city and community had been part of my identity as well as a source of comfort, bravado and therefore strength – until it wasn’t.

It’s hard to articulate what changed and when it did. I suppose these things happen gradually but are realized suddenly. Your surroundings become less comforting and more stifling, and you know it but don’t notice, until one day you wake up with a restlessness you’re not sure what to do with.

An offer came in from an old friend to apply for a position at a multinational organization based in Singapore. It’s the kind of gig that requires you to deal with different kinds of people and, from time to time, travel to places I would never have thought to visit. I’d worked with this guy before, so I knew I wasn’t being sold into slavery aboard a pirate barge. His message came at just the right time — one of those limbo periods that cast shadows over a person’s life at some point or another: I was between regular jobs, single and spent from working in a high-stress environment for the last six years. Whichever direction I was going to take, the next step would necessarily be a change. Why not, I figured, go big? Well, biggish.

Like an idiot, I accepted the job first and asked questions later. As someone who hadn’t crossed this threshold before, I was ill-equipped for the move. I hardly knew how to even begin figuring out what to do or how to determine if I got a good deal out of it. Was the pay good and worth being uprooted? Was I equipped for the job? Would I, a lush, a chain smoker and an honest-to-goodness fan of grimy old Manila, survive in such a famously sterile place with a famously high cost of living?

Google was to equal degrees encouraging and discouraging. Some friends who have previously worked abroad insisted I should be demanding double the salary I was offered. My mother gushed and said something to the effect of, “Singapore accepts only the best, right?” As if I’d been awarded an Ivy League scholarship. My father was somber but glad I had found a stepping stone to bigger things. I don’t necessarily agree with any of the above.

Money wasn’t the point. Neither was prestige or a bid to move up in the world, so to speak. The point was to move. Things were rolling at that point and to stop would have been a push against inertia.

Family was a big help. I have a cousin who’s planting roots in Singapore. I crashed at her house for a month while apartment hunting. The little research I did warned me about the cost of living, and I borrowed a tidy amount from an uncle out of paranoia. I ended up not needing the money, but without it I would have nearly scraped the bottom of the bucket. I paid my uncle back in a few months, with some interest he tried to wave away.

Nevertheless, the prices here are a shocker. You can just about get used to them once you stop automatically converting everything to pesos: good for peace of mind, bad for the bank account and, later, when I’m numb to the sin taxation, terrible for my attempts to curb my vices. I try to get rent out of the way and out of mind as soon as possible by automating my payment method and pretending my salary is smaller than it is. Because living alone is non-negotiable (though wildly impractical, according to every Filipino I’ve met here), and because I want a place that can accommodate visitors, I opted to rent a Housing Development Board unit — built by Singapore’s efficient and sprawling public housing program — which are cheaper per square meter compared to private condominiums. And yet I still pay the monthly equivalent of a high-end place in the swanky Bonifacio Global City area back home in the Philippines.

I’ve grown fairly familiar with the city, but it took a while. At first it was equal parts awe at the skyline and the hum of constant paranoia that I may be violating a social norm or breaking a law I’ve never heard of. But then you notice that people are more laid-back here than the reputation would suggest, and warmer.

A ritual I eased into — nightly dinner and beer in the city’s lesser-known hawker centers — helped me acclimatize. Stall owners can be curt and impatient, if you dilly-dally or order in a way they’re not used to. But to the faint of heart I say: It is never personal and may even be a good thing. I’ve learned that impatient hawkers are the ones used to long lines, many regulars and quick transactions, and you’re in for good and (relatively) cheap food. Once you’re a regular yourself, you will be doted upon. I once tried to order iced coffee with no milk and no sugar, my drink of choice in the morning. I ordered in English and was rebuked by the stall lady with a lesson: “No! Say it like this: kopi-o kosong peng.” She enunciated as if she were talking to a child. Weeks later, I didn’t even have to order — my drink is now prepared the moment I’m spotted.

I remember the moment I started feeling at home — I was having a beer at a local coffeeshop (kind of like a small hawker center). An old man in a tank top, whom I recognized as a regular, sat down across from me at the table, eating a packed dinner. I looked around and saw all the tables were empty, and I stared getting nervous. After a terrifyingly awkward 20 minutes of silence, he turned to me and said, “Philippine?”

A conversation ensued, about Lee Kuan Yew, the economy and immigration. When I returned the next day, he acknowledged me with a nod from afar. I’d been accepted as a regular.

Singapore is as efficient as they say, safer than you probably think, but not as pristine. The best parts are where some of the gloss gives way to marketplaces, holes-in-the-wall and public housing where there’s always a bustle of children playing with each other, speaking in four different accents.

Someone once told me it’s like Jekyll to Manila’s Hyde. I wouldn’t go so far, but there are echoes. Fancy-skyline Singapore reminds me of an outsized Makati; everyday Singapore is how I’d imagine an idealized version of Diliman, the university district in Quezon City, where I’m from.

Right now, it feels like almost-home. Will I stay? When asked I say: as long as they’ll have me — but I’ll definitely leave. Been bitten by restlessness once, I bet I’ll be bitten again.


This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Pocholo Goitia

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