Staying in the country is much like an arranged marriage. It was preselected before we were born. And yet, it shapes the rest of our lives in more ways than we can control.
The country we are born in shapes the liberties we have in childhood—whether our parents believe we can achieve more in the future or that we will be stuck in generational poverty; whether we can play freely in the streets and be safe with our neighbors or be at risk of criminals or the police; whether we have access to good food as we grow or if we have higher chances of dying young due to dengue, rabies, or even COVID-19 because of scarce statewide health programs.
For girls, it may mean the choice of finishing school or forgoing educational opportunities in favor of brothers, or caring for younger siblings or aging parents.
The kind of country we have influences what kind of career paths there are for women—whether we will get paid as much as our male counterparts for the same kind of work, whether we are implicitly penalized for pregnancies by getting passed up for promotions. It dictates whether we have access to information about our reproductive health or services that will allow us to make the right choices for our bodies.
For the LGBTQ community, meanwhile, living in this country means coming to terms with how much microaggression or violence they are bound to face, and how free they will be to make individual choices and express their identity.
They say marriage is one of the most important choices to be made in this lifetime because it influences the direction of our entire lives. I’d say the country we are born in has an even greater power to shape our lives than marriage. But sadly, we are not given the opportunity to choose. Not at the start, anyway.
Given the unending corruption, poverty, and unemployment we see around, I have heard many friends express their desire to leave the country and migrate. As with any union, it is completely valid that once a marriage gets abusive and detrimental to our welfare, we must be given the right to choose to leave for ourselves and for our children.
The culture of impunity in the Philippines—how criminals, thieves, and murderers in power are able to get away with their crimes and still win in the next elections—erodes public trust. When the system of fairness is rigged, people start to doubt their capacity to uplift their own lives and families. Uncertainty on whether a better future lies ahead becomes prevalent.
So we cannot blame Filipinos— many of them good, law-abiding citizens who want to invest and commit to their country’s welfare—who in time begin to yearn to leave the country. It is only valid to seek to be treated justly and fairly, when the current arrangements do not allow for them. And if those basic rights and freedoms can be found elsewhere, then people will certainly seek them out wherever they are.
Still, for Filipinos who choose to stay and are not giving up yet, we must believe that there are ways this arranged marriage can still be redeemed.
When I got married this year, I promised myself that if the going gets tough, as long as there is a 10-percent chance of improving the marriage, I will take it. I would like to apply the same perspective to my arranged marriage with my country. As long as I am here, if there is a 10-percent chance for me to help make my country better, I will do it.
In her book “Lean In,” author Sheryl Sandberg points out that women tend to “leave” the workplace even before the time they “must” leave. She shares an example of a young female professional who chose not to apply for a promotion because she anticipated she would need to stay at home to care for her children. However, she didn’t have kids, she wasn’t married or was even in a relationship! Before it was even required of her, she already chose to pass up a valuable opportunity.
In the same way, many Filipinos may opt to preemptively refrain from doing their part to improve the country, thinking it would be for naught. But I urge everyone of us who are still in the country to not “leave” before it is time to leave. Our generation was once the hope of those that came before us, and we are still young.
Before my mother passed away due to cancer, I urged her to write—just write. “But what will I write? I am yet to find my writer’s voice”, she said. When she died, I realized she could have written anything—anything at all—and it would have meant something to the people she left behind. It would have meant everything to me.
So, while I am in this so-called arranged marriage with the Philippines, I will take every chance to try to make the country better. Then, if we do leave eventually, whether for greener pastures or as a permanent departure from life, we would have done something that mattered.