The Balikbayan and her Daughter: A Common Dreams Manifesto

by Melissa

The balikbayan returns to her homeland through her daughter, a naive smile plastered to her face.  Cheerfulness: the responsibility of home-coming.  Two years and a few crises of identity later, she is still here, trying not to over-represent her experience of the third world.  It is not hers to represent, afterall.

She will go to the Million People  March and rage against corruption nonetheless; however ambivalent she feels about the government (not her own).  In the Philippines, we can understand corruption as a beyond-state practice.  One among many weapons in an arsenal of theft.   Beyond the boundaries of sovereignty;  beyond taxpayer jurisdiction (“I deserve because I pay”);  and beyond (real and imagined) efforts of an Aquino Government to ‘straighten the road’.  Corruption here happens as a historical practice, along the spectrum of small and large thefts that make up the history of these Philippine Islands.  A thesis.  Perhaps made worse by power centralizing in all the wrong places, she admits the family names of Marcos and Enriles…  Nevertheless, tracing the causality of corruption ends in the same annals of history that begin with colonization.  Deep roots.

And the balikbayan (not her daughter) shrugs her shoulders and drinks the last dregs of her cup of Proper Tea, the Canadian way.

The problem with tax embezzlement is both a question of burden and responsibility.  For the record, she pays her taxes quarterly…  So, she argues, the practice of taxes in the Philippines is illusionary at best, shrouded in the thinnest veil of sovereignty.  The social contract of taxes is supposed to be clear cut.  We pay them.  Life goes on.  A virtuous cycle of exchanging part of her income for the hospital she uses occasionally, or the school she might someday send her kids to.

But in the process of third worlding something changes.  Life goes on whether we pay tax or not…  The truth of it is we don’t need tax, we just need credit.  What we really need are foreign investments.   A good credit rating.  International standing.  So we waste the opportunity for public funds through tax-free holidays in Export Processing Zones and automatic debt appropriations.

But where’s the protest about that?

It’s difficult to locate her anger, somehow schizophrenized in the generational loyalities between here and there.  Imperialismo ibagsak! Scrawled in red below the skyway on the route to Muntinlupa.  The concrete post stood for a nearly a century waiting for a tax allocation.  Preach sister, she thinks absentmindedly at the red letters as her taxi crawls along the West Side Highway.

Her mind drifts to a future Philippines.  A fantasy wherein all the politicians that Want to Have Their Pork and Eat it Too are exiled to Saskatoon , Saskatchewan only to find an angry mob of Filipino-Canadians with pitchforks and protest songs.

Not to say that these people in government aren’t to blame. Of course they are.

It’s just that the protests can’t stop at Malacanang (or more likely at the arches before we even cross the bridge at Mendiola).

The question is of burden and responsibility, the blame so wide and long and deep.

The balikbayan takes some responsibility and lets God take the rest.  She pays taxes to another government, her duty as an immigrant.  She still loves her country.  You can love from afar, afterall.  She sends boxes filled with chocolate, shampoo and rubber shoes.  She shrugs her shoulders.  That’s life.

Maybe the embezzler justifies his actions as responsibility to his family?  The thought of it, and we all recoil in disgust.  But the fantasy of responsibility works this way.  We are responsible to those we love, those we know, and then those we don’t know.  In that order.

The nation, however loved, is estranged through the process of migration.  The balikbayan and her daughter, strangers in the motherland.  Yet, our responsibility to the nation is premised on love and not the other way around.

The daughter takes responsibility differently.  She’s a cynic in matters of the heart.  “Love?  What about Truth?”  she said one time, crying on Skype to a serious boyfriend who could not believe she was willing to uproot her comfortable Brooklyn life for the streets of Manila.  That’s life.

The Truth no-holds-bar: life in the third world becomes a little less liveable every day.

And so we move away from the third world, or the truth, or both.

This ‘moving away’ has become the tragic definition of upward mobility.  The privatization of our dreams.  We learn the only way to get ahead is through the individual pursuit of life.  Bayan be damned!  Another migration statistic, another dollar to justify the mall-ification of the urban landscape (as if we’re fooled that this is any less third worlding).

But “True Journey is Return” as they say.  A mantra for those who willingly choose displacement.  It reminds her that somehow her presence might matter in all of this.  Not simply because she has the privilege of quality public education, the means to buy and read books, the luxury of critique, but because her story as a Global Filipino sits uneasily beside Jeanne Napoles on Flight 103 from Los Angeles.

Both of them might be globe-trotting, transnational Filipinos, privileged by birth to pursue their dreams.  But one inherits public money from the third world to buy herself expensive shoes.  The other one inherits public goods from the first world to write essays in the third world 😉

The choice should never be between private dreams and public responsibilities.  Here’s a manifesto for common dreams.

Perhaps, the process of accountability works in parallel form to responsibility.  First we hold accountable those we love, then those we know, and finally those we don’t know.

So let’s start with the politicians.  Those we love to hate, those whose intimate familiarity reminds us of the past.  Que se Vayan Todos, if it were up to her…

But that cannot be the end.

The question of tax burden and responsibility goes beyond the fact of embezzlement.  Ultimately good governance ought to be measured in terms of whether life is worth living in the third world.

How do we hold history accountable to the present?  How does she hold herself accountable to the generations of common dreamers that, today, call her Ate?

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