Growing up in Caloocan City, Philippines, I remember how closely knit our neighbourhood was. It seemed everybody knew everybody. My cousins and I were free to roam around; it seemed our parents did not worry much about us being abducted or harmed -- unlike most parents today. It was a pleasant and happy neighbourhood and, in spite of the obvious disparity of economic status among the neighbours, we were all friends.
We had neighbours who were doctors, engineers and lawyers. We also had neighbours who were jeepney drivers, laundry women and market vendors.
Yet, I remember every family, rich or poor, was cordial toward each other and helped one another in times of need.
As a child in the '60s, I could not help but notice we made quite a few trips to the airport to see our neighbours off. A trip to the Manila International Airport (now called Ninoy Aquino International Airport) was always a treat because it was thrilling to see the huge airplanes taking off. But I also noticed how sad my parents looked when they hugged their soon-to-be expatriate friends and said goodbye.
One by one, most of my parents' compadres and comadres left, taking my playmates with them. While most of them went to the U.S., some went to Australia and some to Canada.
I remember asking my father why our neighbours were leaving. He would tell me, in language a 10-year-old could understand, "They're going to North America because their father found work in a hospital there."
He would explain the possibility of seeing them again was very slim.
Eventually, our neighbourhood was no longer the one I knew. In time, my cousins and I were restricted to play only where our parents could see us. Strangers who seemed aloof and distant occupied the houses the émigrés had left behind. My little world had changed.
My father never entertained the idea of emigrating. Whenever we'd talk about the possibility, he would say, "Yes, North America may be the land of milk and honey but only for those who were born there -- the white people -- not for us brown-skinned people."
I was sure he didn't want me to even toy with the thought of leaving as so many of our neighbours had done.
"You will always be a first-class citizen in your own country but never in another country," he would say.
A new decade came -- the '70s. The situation in our country had changed and not for the better. My father still believed the country would recover. I was losing hope but, like him, I did not want to leave even though most of my friends had joined the brain-drain bandwagon. There was no Internet. Communication with friends, who were either studying or working abroad, was by snail mail. Most of them decided to stay away, to come back occasionally for balikbayan (homecoming) visits with remaining family.
I knew they were struggling abroad because they said so in their letters, but in spite of the challenges they were willing to give it a chance. I was not.
In the early '80s, my father passed away. He was only 54. We were a young family and being the eldest, I eventually realized I did not have the same optimism my father had about the Philippines.
I loved my country but I had to be practical. Competition in the workplace was getting tougher and the government was more corrupt than ever. The gap between the rich and the poor was getting wider and the middle class was becoming thinner.
There had to be something better outside my small universe. Had my father lived to see the political and social decay, I think, he would have given me his blessings to emigrate.
A prayer asking for forgiveness was my ticket freeing me from my father's legacy of loyalty and patriotism.
A few years later, in 1988, I joined the exodus; I became an émigré. Today, I am one of those expatriates -- a bona fide member of the Canadian immigrant society that, according to the most recent census, is critical for the country's population growth.
Looking at the number of overseas Filipino workers scattered all over the world and the Filipino immigrants who are arriving every day in Manitoba, we can see the exodus continues.
I still love the Philippines. There is no way that love will fade. A day does not go by I don't miss the country of my birth. And it seems the Philippines is making progress. There is the grandeur of the financial district, the designer boutiques, the glamour of high society and the movie star glitz, the huge, million-dollar homes and so many other possibilities. I know some of us are still thinking of going back to retire someday.
But I suffer inside every time I hear of the oppression and the political killings that are stifling the freedom of our people. I cringe every time I hear horror stories about innocent people, human rights activists and journalists being "salvaged," which, in the Philippines, is the ironic term that means to be kidnapped and murdered.
A non-Filipino friend asked me why my country is poor. I told her the country is far from being poor. It is a beautiful country that is very rich in natural resources, but it is, and has been, very poorly governed.
People are so tired of the systemic graft and corruption that any opportunity to leave is looked at as a lucky chance for a better life.
Last month, the 26th anniversary of the People Power revolution that ousted the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 was remembered by the entire nation.
On Feb. 25, President Benigno Aquino III, in his commemorative speech, implored the citizenry to actively participate, to "take a chance to correct past mistakes and make history right."
I can only wish.
Emmie Joaquin is editor of Pilipino Express.