Tuesday, March 8, 2016


by Gemma Comiso

“Then there are those who plant. They endure storms and all the many vicissitudes of the seasons, and they rarely rest. But, unlike a building, a gardener never stops growing. And while it requires the gardener’s constant attention, it also allows life for the gardener to be a great adventure.” 
– Paolo Coelho in Brida

I used to believe in fairytales because my parents had given us the best childhood that one could ever ask for. They created a wonderful world for us. My Papa was a great provider and Mama is a loving mother to us. But that beautiful world that I used to know was shattered.  It was only short lived.  At the age of 10, I lost my father to kidney failure.

My father’s passing was the beginning of our family’s unending struggles. My mother was not prepared to be a widow and to take care of us by herself. Hardship became my constant companion while growing up. Nevertheless, our condition did not deter me from persevering and achieving my goals. I graduated valedictorian of our class.  I became more determined to deal with adversities.  I promised myself that I will change our dire situation.

I never dreamt of working abroad because I was so idealistic at that time. However, because of my desire to help my family, I decided to apply as a caregiver in Taiwan. No one knew of my plans.  I chose to keep it from my mother because she was not so keen on me working outside the country.  I processed my papers secretly, and my family only knew about my plans when I asked help for my placement fee.

My godmother, who was then working in Taoyuan, Taiwan, gave me financial support and facilitated the processing of my application. I will forever be grateful to her for ensuring that I found a good employer.

In January 2002, I had to leave my day job to concentrate on processing the necessary documents for my application. The following month, on February 6, 2002, I flew to Taiwan as an OFW.

The real challenge began when I arrived at my employer’s home. The elderly woman could not speak English at all. The language barrier was a big problem.   I did not have any language training in Mandarin. As far as I can remember my pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS) was only for two hours. It consisted of topics on savings and insurance.  Someone had offered their service of opening a bank account for free.

My patient, Yeye, and I communicated through sign language, but sometimes we just could not understand each other. One early morning, for example, she had gestured that she wanted to read the newspaper but I had thought that she wanted me to cook some dumplings. What worlds apart – a newspaper and a dumpling!

I felt that she was so eager to get to know more about me but I just did not fit in. Yeye would always try to translate our conversation but the situation was so frustrating that at some point it had drastically affected my self-esteem. I always cried, but I tried my best to cope with the circumstances. I jotted down whatever Mandarin words I would hear from the old woman. Little by little I was able to understand Yeye and she became fond of me.  

After a month of working, a real problem occurred.  My broker had deducted Php 6,000 from my salary, insisting that I had a loan from the Philippines.  I did not recall signing any agreement with the agency but they showed me a piece of paper with my signature on it. Then I recalled that when I was about to leave the airport bound for Taiwan, my agent had asked me to sign a blank sheet of paper.  I admit it was my fault, but at that time, I could not think straight because I was anxious and excited.  I feared that if I did not sign the paper, the broker would not allow me to leave.

I also encountered a problem with a so called “friend” who had borrowed my Alien Registration Certificate (ARC).  Without knowing it, she had used it for a personal loan with me as a guarantor. After a month, her patient died and I was left with the responsibility of settling her financial obligation.

In time, however, things became better.  In my thirst for knowledge, I would read a lot during my free time. I created my own blog.  I would write short stories and poems and even won in an essay and a poetry writing contest.  Yeye was so proud of me.

I had no problem communicating with my family. I was allowed to call them twice a month for free and my family would always send me letters. Every month I would send my whole salary to provide for the education of my sister and my eldest niece.

I had many good memories of Taiwan that I continue to cherish even today. I worked there for nine years.  I consider Taiwan as my second home.

I am now back in the Philippines.  I have been here for almost three years now. I still communicate with Yeye.   We constantly exchange e-mails. We talk a lot and she would even help me financially. Although she is now more than a hundred years old, she never forgets to send greetings and gifts during special occasions. She would always remind me of how her family is so grateful and appreciative of the time I spent with them.

I miss working and taking good care of Yeye. I miss our bonding moments like spending our leisure time in the park every morning and our food trips.  I remember our common interest for books.  We would stay up late at the Public Library in Minsheng, browsing and reading books that interest us.

Since I returned home, I was able to pursue further studies. I made sure that part of my savings would be invested for my future education.  I finished my nursing studies with flying colors. I also studied Massage Therapy at Saint Paul University for a year and obtained my certificate from TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) and DOH (Department of Health). I also trained in Acupuncture. I worked in Medical City in Ortigas but left after a year. I decided to pursue my other calling - volunteerism for the causes and issues affecting overseas Filipinos workers (OFWs) and their families. Since I do not have a family of my own, I have time to do volunteer work.

I have been an active volunteer of Pinoy Expat/OFW Blog Awards (PEBA) since 2009, currently serving as its Manila-Luzon Coordinator. PEBA is very active in social media and garners more than 300,000 “likes.”  We handle cases of abuse and other concerns of distressed OFWs. PEBA is also a member of the OFW Advocate Coalition which lobbies in Congress and Senate for the protection and welfare of OFWs. I also represent the organization in meetings with government agencies like DOLE, POEA, OWWA, which deal with OFW concerns.  We also promote OFW issues through radio and TV appearances. 

I am also a Red Cross volunteer. I donate blood every three months as a way of thanking God for the blessings of good health. Because I love animals, I also assist the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) as well.  I make it a point to visit the shelter at least once a month to feed and play with the animals. Spending time with rescued pets renews and reenergizes me, helping me deal with the challenges of life.

Moreover, as my own initiative, I reach out to less fortunate children through the Lapis at Papel Project which provides school supplies to my grade school alma mater - the San Roque Elementary of Bato Catanduanes. I believe that everyone can make the world a better place if we share kindness and love for one another.

I want to share my piece of advice to those who plan or dream of working abroad. Training is a must. Educate yourself, know the basic language of the country you plan to work in. Know their laws, rules and regulations.  Of equal importance is the need to equip yourself with diligence, perseverance and determination to be able to reach your goals and your purpose of working abroad.

Step with dexterity,
For my soul has wandered off,
I am in a cliff hanging,
All I can see are shadows of unwanted pains.

I want to collect the warmth of summer,
While the sea is calm,
I want to smell the fragrance of blooming flowers,
While I enjoy the wind.


The shattered mirror reappears,
The weather's gone bad.

In the midst,
I am floating,
Falling hard.

Gemma B. Comiso, caretaker, Taiwan. Her story is concluded by a sad poem entitled Jaded. Despite its melancholic theme, she believes that the past helped her to become a better person.  She believes she is  stronger and more resilient. She also considers that everyone is capable to overcome their issues and struggles even in their most jaded situation in life. And for her the key to transcend it is dedication to personal empowerment and development.

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