Home Along da Riles
Meet Romeo. An OFW working in Taiwan. He has been there for over 6 years, and is a very close family friend. Close in fact that he and The Turk Effect have been childhood buddies since forever.
He grew up across the street from us, when we were still living in Sampaloc. Yes, batang Sampaloc kami. And we mingled with the best and the worst of them with relative ease.
The Making of Romeo Acantilado Aragon
Romeo grew up alongside the railroad tracks of the Sampaloc train station. Their house was a makeshift house of patched lumber with no flooring, and it would literally rumble and shake everytime a train would pass by, as their house was just about five arms-length away from the tracks.
He grew up having no recollection of his father, as they were abandoned when he was still a baby. He was raised by his mother and his grandmother during his formative years. At that time, his mother was working in a pharmacy and the sole breadwinner of the family. Life was hard growing up. They didn’t have any toilet, and they would sometimes have lard, rice and salt when there was no money to buy food. Once every three months or so, if he behaved; his mother would take him to a nearby mall where they would window shop and splurge a little, and enjoy the cool air that the mall offered.
Romeo grew up hungry, literally and figuratively. Early in life, he dreamed big dreams. He wanted to be a model student and make his family proud. However, as he grew up, his mother realized that her work would not be able to sustain them in the long run, so she made the hard decision of leaving the country to work in Taiwan. At the tender age of 5 or 6, he was left with his grandmother. Not soon after, came the many occasions of missed birthdays, missed Christmases, missed New Years celebrations and missed bonding times with mother and son.
As he grew up, he went to elementary school, where one pivotal incident would change his outlook in life. One of his classmates called him “putok sa buho” (the expression referring to a child whose parents and their whereabouts are unknown, or a fatherless child). Added to that, his mother came back to Manila for a vacation. And while he thought that they would be reunited again as a family, he found out that she returned for a short time to marry another man, and went back to Taiwan.
His feelings of loneliness and emptiness grew as he progressed through high school, where on his third year, he reached his tipping point.
He started cutting classes; absented from school, went to the mall to while away the time. He drowned his loneliness and feelings of isolation within the white noise of people bustling inside the mall. He didn’t listen to his grandmother’s lectures of going back to school, and as a result dropped out of 3rd year high school. On his second attempt at 3rd year highschool, he met two brothers who would be his best buddies; Drew and Claude.
With 10 pesos in hand, they would manage to go to the malls and hang out, that not even a flood would stop them from going to SM San Lazaro and play Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). They would walk to Frisco, Quezon City (a good 6 kms away) just to visit Drew’s former gf, spend a few hours there, head back to Sampaloc, and then hang together by the railroad tracks till the wee hours of the morning.
By his 3rd try of being a 3rd year student in highschool, he would turn his life around. His grandmother approached him once again, cried and begged him to change; not for his father, not for his mother, but for her. And as he looked in her eyes, he realized the pain he was causing the past three years.
To symbolize the change he promised his grandmother, he shaved his head clean, packed his things and went to Mindoro with his grandmother. There, he would finish his high school years in a Catholic school where every day, before the start of his classes, he would go to church beside the school and make peace with himself, savoring the warm silence of the sanctuary.
During his high school graduation, the feelings of longing for his mother came back, but this time, he accepted the reality that they were now living separate and dissonant lives.
He went back to Manila after graduation to look for a job, only to realize it was a failure. Most of the employers were looking for someone who had at least 2 years of college under their belt. So, once again, he went to school and took a 2-year course on computer hardware servicing, computer programming and C4 (WHICH SCHOOL?). He was so good at it, that the school voted him President of the ICT department, Programming department, AND the Computer Hardware Servicing department. His day would consist of planning audio video programs for school, managing classes of the school, as well as reviewing student for national certification exams. As a result, he graduated the associates degree with flying colors, carrying on his promised to his grandmother.
Immediately after graduating, he set his sights and applied for work; 1 for a local post and another for an international post. He was immediately selected to be a trainee at the Export Processing Zone Authority (EPZA) in (Imus, Cavite) where he would be looking at CCTV cameras all day, and repair those that became defective. As he was training for the job, another job offer came up; one where he would work overseas, in the same country her mother was in: as a machine operator in Taiwan. It took him just one day to decide where he wanted to go. So, he took his medical tests, paid the placement fee to the agency, and waited for his deployment date.
It was painfully hard to say his goodbyes, especially to his grandmother who raised him ever since he was a toddler. He again made a promise to her that he will get married as soon as he reaches the age of 30. Full of reminders from his grandma not to get anyone pregnant, not to get married unwittingly, and to trptake care of himself, he left the Philippines for Taiwan.
As soon as he arrived in the airport, his mother was there to greet him, complete with household supplies he will need to survive living in a dormitory with his fellow employees (who were visibly surprised to find that there was someone in Taiwan to support him).
Him and his batchmates were the first occupants in the dormitory of the company. Wet behind the ears, Romeo was faced with numerous challenges: totally new environment; no knowledge of their language or culture; he was at a loss. As it happens, Taiwanese people have little to no knowledge of the English language, so attempting to use it in conversation was an epic fail. Even the most simple things like ordering food in a restaurant was difficult. He had to point at everything or bring a picture of what he wanted to eat, or buy.
Initially, his contract was for three years as a Machine Operator, with a 20k TWD basic salary/month (roughly 34,000). With clocked-in overtime, he would rake in about 36k TWD per month. Now, you may think that’s a lot of money, BUT, the cost of living there is TWICE as expensive as living here in the Philippines.
He had to study Mandarin, and he had to learn it, FAST. As it happens, Tae Gee is the official language of Taiwan, while Haka was the language used by the elder people. He took a crash course on Mandarin via YouTube and Google translate. Work interaction likewise developed his Mandarin speaking skills. It also helped that his first ex gf was Taiwanese. His language was pretty basic when he started, but after three years, he was already conversational.
During the first weeks he was in Taiwan, he was happy to be independent. There were no curfews, no restrictions, he could do whatever he wanted! On the third month, he was very homesick and kept longing for his grandmother and how they bonded together through all of his ups and downs.
To lessen his homesickness, Romeo explored his area in Taichung. He started first with walking around the block, then as each day passed, it expanded to Tonghai Shopping District, then Shialu, Taipei, then back home (his dorm).
Each day he stayed in Taiwan, he taught himself. “One time, Tita (he calls me that); I was near a temple, and being photo happy, I took a picture, but the locals didn’t find it nice to do so. It turns out, you cannot take pictures inside a holy temple.” Also, you cannot stick your chopsticks upright on a bowl of rice while you are eating. It resembles burning incense, which only happens when you honor the dead.
Life as a Factory Worker
One of his more memorable experiences was when he just got his license to ride a scooter and decided to take a drive. He saw a sign with Chinese characters, and followed it, only to find out it went out to the expressway. You know, where the buses and trucks were driving at 100kph? That expressway. Guess what he did? He did a U-turn. On the expressway. On a scooter. And counterflowed BACK on the same lane he exited.
It was hard being a factory worker in Taiwan. Directions on how to use the machineries were in Chinese characters, so he had to learn by observing, and by doing without any guidance. He fixes CNC machines for Hi-Win Technologies in an assembly line. (A CNC, or computer numerical control machine is a high precision tool that’s computer-controlled and makes repeated, accurate movements. It does so by taking computer-generated code and converting it with software to electrical signals). The machines they manufacture are used as linear guideway systems for single motion machines for factories abroad.
Being a machine operator meant long hours doing the same thing over and over again. But as days turned into months, and months turned into years, he became fluent in Mandarin, and little by little, made a comfortable life for himself in Taichung
In 2016, he returned to the Philippines for a 2 month vacation, and waited for his rehire. His two-month wait turned into five months; and when he returned to Taiwan, he was no longer placed in the sub-plant where he was initially deployed, but in the main plant instead. His former supervisor pulled him out of the sub-plant to work for him because he was having difficulty communicating to the new Filipino workers.
This time, he would provide crash courses to the new staff in the factory which would be a mix of Filipino and Taiwanese, translate and switch from Tagalog to Mandarin with relative ease. That second part of the interview will come after this.