Filipinas in the Global Care Industry
Nursing the World
OFW Special

Digital families

ONLINE FAMILY. Carmela Magcalas schedules weekly web chats with various family members, including her parents, who are overseas.

THE SINGLE-windowed post office in the Manara District of Jeddah opens only between ten o’clock in the morning until around three o’clock in the afternoon. That would cover the time of day when the heat from the desert sun is at its fiercest and just standing outside already feels like being inside a furnace. But until a few years ago, there was always a long line of men sweating it out in front of the post office. More often than not, the line would be made up mostly of Filipino workers, literally suffering a slow burn while waiting for their turn to mail letters and voice tapes to their loved ones back home. Mailing letters was probably the only advantage female OFWs had over their male counterparts, since women did not have to fall in line and were allowed to approach the window anytime and drop their letters.

But now the line is all but gone in front of the Manara post office. Homesick Filipino workers also no longer have to wait for at least two weeks before receiving a reply from relatives and friends or spend a fortune calling long distance. Cellular phones have changed all that, and to a lesser extent, the Internet.

Technology has made the world a smaller place for family members that are far apart from one another. Today there is an evolving phenomenon of “virtual families,” in which parents and children who are thousands of miles and several time zones apart are just a mouse click or a few keypad presses away can still keep track of each other in real time.

“It’s different now,” says Hernan Melencio, an editor at the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He says he chats with his children in Manila through a Web camera and keeps himself updated about their studies.

“Before, we have to wait in suspense to know if the children have fever or are going to school,” says Melencio, who at 43 has already logged 10 years in Saudi Arabia. “Today my wife will just send me a text message and we go online for a chat. I even see what they are eating at home although I come home for vacation only once a year.”

But Melencio says Web chatting, especially using the Web camera, is still limited in Saudi Arabia. “It’s still expensive,” he says. “Text messaging is still more popular because it’s affordable.”

THE OFWS also do not have that much access to the Internet in Saudi Arabia. But there is hardly any OFW without a cellphone, and even the prepaid cellphone cards have become part of the OFW survival kit. No wonder that last year, a group of OFWs denounced the government’s plan to impose taxes on mobile text messaging, saying text message taxation would have “grievous financial effects” on overseas workers who rely on text messaging to communicate with their families.

Jay Valencia, spokesman of OFWs Laban sa TextTax, says Filipinos overseas use text or the short messaging system (SMS) to handle family matters, such as financial management and disciplining of their children. He says an P8-10-international text message is cheaper and more efficient than sending recorded voice tapes, which usually take about a month to get to family members in the Philippines.

“There are many problems inherent to families who have members working abroad,” Valencia observes. “Many OFW-parents are now using texting to be always on top of events happening at home so that their children do not feel abandoned or left alone.”

THE FAMILY of Santos ‘Popoy’ Lamban, a human-rights worker in Manila, is certainly happy there are now gadgets that help members keep in touch with one another. Lamban is visibly pleased when he says cellular phones capable of multimedia messaging and the Internet are enabling his “global” family to “connect” with each other.

Lamban’s wife is a government welfare officer posted in Japan while their daughter, Ida, is enrolled at the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines. “Being together is still preferable, but we cannot prevent the advance of civilization,” says Lamban. “People have become more mobile and families have to adapt to the changing world.”

He momentarily loses his train of thought upon hearing that an Intensity 7 earthquake has hit southern Japan. In a flash he is texting his wife in that country, checking up on her. Daughter Ida, meanwhile, has just finished taking pictures on her mobile phone for her mother to show proof that her father was interviewed for an article.

“These gadgets help us continue to become family although we are worlds apart,” Lamban says as he continues pressing on his phone’s tiny keypad. “There is no way we can remain alien to technology if we want families and communities to remain intact.”

Carmela Magcalas can only agree. A freshman medical student in Manila, her father is currently working in Saudi Arabia, while her mother is in another Middle Eastern country.

“My dad even plays chess online with my boyfriend,” says Magcalas. Her boyfriend lives in the United States, where she attended college. She adds that the family chats online every week. “When I see my dad online I text my mom so that we can have a chat,” she says.

Magcalas grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where her father had brought her and her mother when she was still a child. She later went to the United States to study while her mother went home to the Philippines and then to another country to work.

“I used to write a letter to them daily and mail it every two weeks,” says Magcalas. “We talked on the phone once a week.” That was in the first half of the 1990S when cellular phones and the Internet were still newfangled thingamajigs reserved only for those with money to spend.

In the United States, Magcalas learned how to use the Internet. She told her parents about it and they started exchanging emails. The “snail mail” has since stopped — except on special occasions when Magcalas sends cards to her family and friends. “The snail mail became special,” she says. “Sending one means a lot these days because nobody seems to do it anymore.”

MAGCALAS AND her parents meet twice a year. It was during one of those reunions that they decided to buy cellular phones. “It was the ‘in thing’ and we tried it,” she says. It has since saved them a bundle, since they no longer make the weekly phone calls using landlines. Mostly, though, they use their cellphones to text each other.

Technology, like webcams, helps brings together families torn apart by overseas migration.

With text messaging, the exchange of email is no longer as frequent. But Magcalas and her parents haven’t given up on the Net just yet, although now they use it most to chat with or without a webcam. Magcalas says her family has had “real fun” chatting. She also chats with friends and other relatives, especially after she arrived in the Philippines for her medical studies.

Magcalas says that while she has always been close to her family, “the technology enhanced my relationship with my parents.” She also found relatives in the Internet, which she uses as well to discuss lessons with her classmates.

For thousands of other families, however, the Net has become their virtual lifeline to each other, especially for those who want to see their families but cannot afford the sophisticated cell phones that would allow them to do that. In fact, a group of overseas Filipino workers and their families has taken the initiative of making cutting-edge technology affordable to members who don’t have much money to spend for communication.

Balikabayani, an organization of OFWs in Hong Kong and Rome and migrant returnees with roots in San Pablo, Laguna; Mabini, Batangas; and Pozorrubio, Pangasinan, has set up Balikabayani Centers, which offer fast and efficient forms of communication, such as email, chat, and Net meeting or videoconference to OFW families.

Established in 1999, Balikabayani (which translates roughly into “returning hero”) put up the centers in Hong Kong and Rome, where most Balikabayani members are. All the Balikabayani or BK Centers are linked via the Internet and are run and funded by the beneficiaries who pay monthly membership fees. The idea came from the OFWs themselves. Balikabayani staff members teach family members how to email, chat, and make and send personalized cards through the Internet.

The net meeting/videoconference service has become the favorite of family members because it allows them to see and talk to their relatives in other BK centers. The service is available on Sundays, the workers’ day off.

“USUALLY, IT’S very, very emotional,” says Balikabayani executive director Mai Dizon. Husbands would often become embarrassed and reduce their voice to a whisper when prodded by their wives to say “I love you.” But they say the words nonetheless.

Long-distance communication, however, is not enough and can be deceiving, says a Roman Catholic Church leader who offers guidance and support to children of OFWs. Teodora Inabayan, lay coordinator of the Lipa Archdiocesan Commission on Migration and Mission, says when children of OFWs go to Internet cafes to communicate with their parents and they see photos of their parents, they perceive their mothers and fathers as “having a good time” abroad.

The photos do not convey “what the parents feel or what their difficulties are,” Inabayan says. Consequently, she says, family members who are left behind “do not value the hard-earned money that they receive or the hardship of their relatives abroad.” At the same time, Inabayan continues, many parents working overseas do not understand that it is not just the money that they send that is important, but also that “they are needed here.”

Although she is grown up now and quite used to being on her own, Magcalas would probably want to see her parents in person more often. She says that even when it involves non relatives, she still prefers talking with people face to face. Anyway, she says, “I’m the kind of person who’s not shy.” She also thinks that relationships are better developed without “hiding behind technology and gadgets.”

But she knows all too well that she and her parents — as well as she and her boyfriend — will have to keep on relying on technology to stay connected. Melencio, for his part, says he can’t complain because he sees his family is in good health and enjoying the “fruits of my labor.” That, he says, takes away the loneliness that has become part of working away from the family. And he no longer has to turn into a crisp just to keep in touch.

Jose Torres Jr. is the former senior editor of and author of Into the Mountain: Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf.