Saturday, October 22, 2011

Boy Chua

At 32, Boy Chua had two adopted children and his own parlor business where he was the chief beautician.   Stories from returning or vacationing Japan entertainers and from other Filipino contract workers showed him that one month’s income in Japan could easily be equivalent to a year’s income in the Philippines.

Boy Chua (2nd from right) at the Manila
International Airport in 1987
So in 1987, Boy Chua left for Japan as a tourist, overstayed his visa, worked in a Japanese restaurant for 9 years and returned home in 1996 with over 3 million pesos in savings.

Today, Boy owns 4, multi-story apartment buildings and has 53 employees working in the 4 branches of his flourishing trading business.

A high school drop-out, Boy is proud to say that his now 5 adopted children have all finished tertiary education in private schools.

Boy Chua, now 58, reflecting on
his experience as an overstayer in Japan
Yet Boy Chua, now 58, becomes teary eyed when I ask if his Japan experience was worth it.  After a long, nervous pause, he breathes deeply and exhales, letting out what to me seemed like combined wisdom and hurt waiting to be heard.

Boy lived through his first three Japanese winters with no heating, using only a Japanese table with a bulb underneath which he made to stand on its side, trapping the warmth from the bulb with blankets.  With no bathing area and no hot water, Boy picked up a discarded inflatable kid’s swimming pool, placed that in his living room, and bathed in it, pouring hot water from a pail heated with an electric water heater timed by two alarm clocks – the first one to wake him up to plug the water heater, the second one to wake him up a second time to unplug it.

But Boy chalks up his experiences of hard life in Japan to doing simply what was necessary to reach his goal.  “Malinaw sa akin parati na ang pinunta ko sa Japan ay trabaho: hindi bulakbol, hindi bisyo [It was always clear to me that I came to Japan to work: and not to waste my time in useless pursuits or vices.]," he says.

Boy Chua in 1989 as a
Bar Waiter in Japan
(one of his many second jobs). 
He took second jobs on morning shifts and weekends when he was off from his main job.  He sold clothes and furniture to friends – on order basis – with nothing but a brochure he made himself.  His mother back in the Philippines who would then send purchased products via international courier.  Boy also peddled phone cards to his co-employees to cover his own expenses for what he calls his only vices in Japan: his smoking and his frequent calling international long-distance to his mother and siblings.

Is Boy Chua’s story typical of all Filipino overstayers?  Between 2000 and 2009, those deported or returned from Japan have reached more than 50,000.1  Can his success today be attributed to his experiences as an overstayer in Japan?  Or was it his being Chinese-Filipino?

Filipino migrant overstayers now represent nearly 1 of every 5 Filipino contract workers2 or “temporary” migrants among the 2009 total of 8.5 million Filipino migrants worldwide.  All the overstayers in Japan that I interviewed gambled their futures and those of their families chasing the Japan dream – whatever that represented to each of them, entering Japan using fake names, tampered passports, bogus paternity claims or using valid personal information but with different intentions.  For some their Japan sojourn was a one-way, self-imposed exile lasting decades, losing contact with their families by force of circumstance, in the perspective of the migrant, or by irresponsibility and selfishness, in the perspective of the forgotten dependents. 


While a few successfully graduated into legal status most of them returned home (more due to arrests rather than voluntary surrender), clinging to the fantasy of forgiveness and reunification with wives and children who have long since moved on in life without them.  Most came home broke and with job skills attuned to Japanese market, they are unable to reintegrate into local jobs, remaining stuck in limbo, as it were, secretly wishing to return to Japan and do everything again but this time differently, now knowing better.


What I find compelling about Filipino TNTs – or “Tago Ng Tago” (“always hiding”) as is their popular moniker in the Philippines – is how their stories of adversity, ingenuity, triumph and defeat, redemption or vindication show the frontiers, the limits, if you will, of the Filipino migration experience, pointing to the valuable lessons in Filipino reciprocity or “utang na loob,” migrant rights and thus democracy and the dynamics of social boundaries or how belief systems are negotiated along issues created by lack of legal status.


Previous studies have sufficiently highlighted how typical (legal) migrant families face daunting challenges of child-rearing and marital fidelity given the loss of one or both parents to overseas work.  But remember that on top of the challenges of the legal migrant, the TNT migrant faces additional already crippling liabilities such as, mainly: the perpetual threat of arrest and deportation and therefore the inability to make any semblance of planning and projections, the virtually permanent removal of physical intimacy from society-prescribed “valid” sources and the inherent job insecurity thus affecting both frequency, quantity and overall reliability of remittances to dependents (not to mention any savings).  

What then do the social costs of illegal migration look like?   And if these social costs far outweigh the perceived TNT benefits, what then are the policy and migration management imperatives for government and non-government organizations?


If only for the economic reason that at stake is almost US$1.3billion in (2009) annual remittances,3  theoretically attributable to irregular migrants, understanding how this sector of Filipino migrants survive or thrive, and under what circumstances, and whether sustainably or just deceivingly long-term, must not be neglected.  


Boy Chua and 3 Million Pesos Savings in 9 Years as Overstayer

Boy worked 6 days a week from 1pm to 11pm.  He was paid ¥120,000 a month starting October, 1987, reaching ¥260,000 by the time he surrendered and returned home in March 1996.  Quick computations reveal that Boy’s savings level consistently averaged at 50% of his gross income.
Boy Chua preparing various Japanese dishes
Boy’s existing parlor business supported the living expenses of his two adopted children.  He would ask returning friends to hand carry his savings and give it directly to his mother for safekeeping.  It would be Boy’s mother who would finally convince him to return home in 1996 on account of his savings having already reached 3 million, not yet counting additional earnings as Boy’s money was also used as rolling capital in the family business.

Boy Chua and Intimacy Needs

In 1988, not even a year into his entry, Boy spent over P150,000 pesos (almost ¥900,000 in 1988 exchange rates or about 6-months worth of his monthly salary) to bring his boyfriend to Japan to live with him.   Boy explains that he did this also so that his boyfriend could also support his own parents and siblings.
Boy Chua and his boyfriend at their workplace
Boy's boyfriend  began working almost immediately and they lived together in his free apartment.  In less than a year his boyfriend was arrested while riding a bicycle and deported within days.

But Boy brought back his boyfriend to Japan almost immediately, spending another P150,000, this time through a false name and a tampered passport, and now entering through a different airport.

But his boyfriend eventually got into illegal drugs and Boy finally broke off with him.

Next to physical intimacy needs, having a girlfriend with legal status allows overstayers to secure a number of key survival logistics such as housing and utilities (only legal residents are able to take out leases and subscribe to utilities), access to a mobile phone, representation to police authorities and shielding from arrest, transacting in financial institutions (to send remittances, etc), even employment sourcing as full mobility and thus wider networks ultimately redounds to having more tips on job leads.

True, it could be argued that overstayers may access these needed support and help from one’s local network of friends without having to enter into a relationship with them, as is indeed the case with a number of my other overstayer respondents.

But, to be sure, the overstayer’s liaisons with legal residents are not solely one-way in benefit.  Living together entails sharing in rent, food and virtually all living expenses.   Technically, this would still amount to the same, if not lesser, expense level if the overstayer were to live alone.   The dilution of resources happens when the couple’s combined income is divided now for two families back in the Philippines, that is, the overstayer’s family and the legal resident’s family.

There could be a gender-based angle to this overstayer predicament, if I may call it that.

In 2009, a large majority of overstayers earned a daily salary between ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 per day.4    That there were twice as many men as there were women in this group could be interpreted to mean that there are more women overstayers who may be forced to take the option of seeking intimacy liaisons to secure much needed survival support.  

One of my women overstayer respondents had, at one time, 2 Japanese boyfriends: one single and one married, each giving her ¥100,000 a month to cover her rent and other expenses.   My respondent explained that since she lacked legal status she would be called to work at the hostess bar only a few nights a week, sometimes even skipping weeks when police inspections would be frequent, she was desperate for financial support and resorted to having two boyfriends.

In the struggle to secure critical living logistics overstayers may find themselves in various forms of liaisons that satisfy human intimacy needs but which also inevitably lessen the degree to which their primary goal, that is, supporting their dependents, is achieved.  

In this sense, in order to live for the short term, overstayers doom themselves to being less effective providers in the long run.  For the Filipino overstayer in Japan, each day of life means longer days of death (or virtual and effective absence) to his dependents back home.

Boy Chua and What a Responsible Overstayer Is

Boy explained that as an overstayer the most important thing is to remember your original goal in coming to Japan and to stick to this goal no matter how hard it gets.   For overstayers, he explains, the common practice is to earn enough money to be able to get over one’s expenses and whatever is left is then remitted to dependents for their monthly sustenance, and anything left after expenses and remittances then becomes savings.

Boy did the exact opposite.

He set a target savings amount per month and his lifestyle choices, and thus expense levels, were defined by the money that was left after his savings.  If you will recall, he had a parlor business back home that supported his two adopted children so that was also a big load off his back.   Since the overstayer has already sacrificed his physical presence and/or parenting role to dependents and family back home, Boy insists that dependents and savings must now take the primary and biggest cut from the overstayer’s salary.

Doing the opposite method (expenses before remittances and savings), the overstayer then becomes quite vulnerable to two major temptations.   Money disappears very fast in Japan and the overstayer soon realizes that it becomes easy to justify lifestyle choices as living expense levels.

“Enough” income is impacted greatly by one’s entertainment and lifestyle choices in Japan such as, among others, habitual gambling, heavy smoking, excessive drinking, womanizing, using prohibited drugs, constant partying, etc.  The more high-end one’s lifestyle choices are, the higher the threshold of income sufficiency and the less money sent back home to support dependents.   The first temptation then for the overstayer is fleeting fun and superficial pleasure that functions as the overstayer’s main weapon to combat loneliness because permanently stripped away from him are his primary social anchors, his family and the network of the familiar back home.

To finance his lifestyle choices, the overstayer can very easily slip into the second temptation – criminal activities – where money is easy but where all his dreams for his dependents can vanish in an instant.


In 2009, visiting Filipinos committed 4 crimes a day.5   Also in 2009, roughly 2 illegal immigrants were arrested everyday for penal code crimes.6 


While these crime rates can be argued to be relatively negligible, representing only 1% of the population of visiting Filipinos in 2009 and also only 1% of the population of illegal immigrants in 2009, the point still remains valid that when push comes to shove and dependents are screaming out for their monthly sustenance the temptation of crime becomes a very real option.  And, lest we forget, these statistics only show the numbers of those known to the Japan police.

Boy cautions current overstayers to stay away from criminal activities and instead focus their energies on staying connected with their families, summoning all their skills and talents to maximize their incomes in Japan and to make the decision, as quickly as possible, to return home and restart their lives or continue where they left off.  Being in Japan, Boy reminds all overstayers, does not mean that one’s family in the Philippines disappears.

Boy Chua and Keeping Anchored to the Local Filipino Community

Boy knew all too well the value of proactively cultivating, maintaining and expanding one's local network of friends -- the most proximate and major resource for one's emotional and social well-being.  As a natural entrepreneur, Boy understood that a healthy connection to the local Filipino community also meant that he had a steady stream of potential customers for his products.  He participated in activities of the local Filipino association, and remained an active member of the Catholic parish in his locality.
Boy Chua (4th from left, front row) with local Filipino community
Boy Chua during President Ramos' visit to Japan in 1993

Boy Chua and Staying Connected with his Family

Boy stayed intimately connected with his family throughout his entire stay in Japan.  He helped his younger sister by putting her in touch with Japanese suppliers that her trading business needed.  Seeing that his elder brother was struggling to support his family, Boy offered the option to bring his elder brother’s wife to Japan – at his expense – to do factory work.   His sister-in law stayed in Japan for two-and-a-half years, also as an overstayer, also living with Boy at his apartment.  On top of his sister-in-law and his boyfriend, Boy also financed the entry into Japan of two of his other gay friends, also as overstayers.

He would consistently send half a truck’s worth of balikbayan boxes four times every year containing toys and other gifts for family and close relatives, making sure to put all “Nanay” [“Mother”] as the names of the packages so that it would be his mother who would decide how best to distribute the gifts, so as to avoid any issues of jealousy or favoritism by him.  Boy also emphasizes that one reason for his ability to save money in Japan was because not once did any of his two elder brothers and lone younger sister ever ask him for any money, even at the times that he knew their respective businesses were going through hard times.

His relationship with his mother was an especially close one.  He would call multiple times in a week, sharing burdens, challenges and happiness and hurts.  When he first realized that he didn’t have any hot water in his free apartment, it was his mother that Boy called first.   Mrs. Chua immediately sent a water heater but it was not usable as its power rating was 220volts.

In the 9th year of Boy's Japan sojourn,  after threatening Boy over  a phone call that if he stayed longer in Japan he may not see her alive anymore, Mrs. Chua suddenly popped up in Japan to personally fetch him to come home with her.

Mrs. Chua’s tough love worked as Boy surrendered and arrived back in Manila on March 26, 1996.

The Boy Chua Story:  Lessons Learned, Future Earned

I struggle to capture the essential message of Boy's story for today’s Filipino overstayers in Japan.


Is it a guide, a blueprint on how to be a successful overstayer?  There were too many exceptional variables working in his favor: a functioning business that supported his dependents, 100% employment thru 9 years, his lifestyle dictated by his goals, a loving mother that anchored his journey and guided him back home.  A guide must be realistic and fit to its intended users.

Does his story redefine the limits of overstaying or showcase its possibilities?  If lonely, import your own loved ones, twice.  Share your blessings: encourage (and pay for) other overstayers to join you.  Overstayer spending sequence:  remittances, savings, expenses.   I think more than limits and possibilities, it was the rare clarity of his goals and unwavering dedication to them that may be a timely reminder.

Ultimately, I believe the power of Boy's story is found in the future that it defined for him.  Overstaying is not a death sentence, but a temporary retreat from loved ones to prepare for the impending future which will come whether you prepare for it or not.  Boy Chua chose to prepare for it, applying lessons learned, resulting thus in his future earned. 
Boy Chua, July 2011, at the helm of his
general merchandise trading business
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A shortened version of Boy Chua's story entitled "Bilog: 9 years in hiding in Japan" was published at the Inquirer Global Nation on October 9, 2011.

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