Born to teachers in a small town in the southern Philippines, Elmer Jacinto wrote poetry in high school, graduated magna cum laude from medical school and then, in February, bested 1,824 other aspiring doctors who took the national medical exam.
This young man wants to go places -- specifically, the United States, where he said he intends to work as a nurse.
Lack of economic opportunity and a sense of being in a nation adrift are driving talented Filipinos abroad in search of their dreams -- and dollars, pounds and yen, according to sociologists and researchers. Many, like Jacinto, accept jobs well beneath their skill level, because the earning power abroad is so tantalizing.
The diaspora is growing, and some lament that the Philippines, a country of more than 84 million people, is being drained of talent. Each year, more than 800,000 people leave, some temporarily, and officially 7 million Filipinos live overseas. What makes the Philippine migration remarkable is its scope. According to experts, no other Asian country has so many types of workers -- from nanny to engineer to circus performer -- in so many different places, from Hong Kong to Italy, Chad to Kazakhstan.
Jacinto's story typifies a perplexing trend in this growing Third World nation: Filipinos harbor a deep desire to rise socially and economically, but many of the country's brightest prospects are finding they can do so only by departing.
The exodus is layered. At the top are people such as Jacinto: doctors, nurses, teachers, lecturers and accountants, all heirs to what sociologists call the revolution of rising expectations. Below them are singers and performers, whose skills earn them far more in Dubai or Beijing than they would in the Philippines. Domestic workers are by far the single largest group. Some have college degrees, but they toil below their station in Italy or Hong Kong, often to support an extended family at home.
Jacinto has become a minor celebrity. His picture is on the front page of a national newspaper, his face is on television. "Sellout," one newspaper editorial branded him. Others said they did not blame him -- not in a country where a doctor earns $400 a month, while a nurse in the United States can earn $4,000 a month on top of a $7,000 signing bonus.
On a recent afternoon, Jacinto, who teaches third-year nursing at Fatima University outside Manila, picked up a syringe and showed several students how to properly draw fluids. Most of his students said they, too, want to go overseas one day.
"I sacrificed a lot to become a doctor," said Jacinto, 28 and single, who studied nursing and medicine on scholarships, borrowing books, photocopying lectures and tutoring Taiwanese students in biochemistry to get by. His parents and brother scrimped to help him.
Jacinto said he wanted to go to the United States because he hoped that he could eventually pass the medical board exam there and become a neuropsychiatrist, treating mental disorders linked to diseases of the nervous system. "The greatest factor that pushed me to go abroad is to help my parents and to establish myself," he said.
Last year, 25,000 nurses left the country -- three times as many as graduated from nursing school, said Jaime Z. Galvez Tan, vice chancellor for research at the University of the Philippines and executive director of the National Institutes of Health Philippines. "This is a brain hemorrhage," he said.
In addition, Galvez Tan said, 2,000 doctors left to become nurses. This year, 4,000 doctors are taking up nursing. The United States will have a shortage of 800,000 nurses by 2020, according to one estimate. Such is the demand that in the Philippines there are now almost 300 nursing schools, up from 127 nine years ago, according to the Philippine Nurses Association.
"It looks to me like we're nursing the whole world," said Joven Cuanang, medical director of the private St. Luke's Medical Center.
Hospitals hire nurses, train them, and then they go to the United States or Canada, making it hard to deliver quality care, Cuanang said.
High turnover among 251 nurses hired last year at his hospital -- 53 left even before they had completed their training -- has increased the risk of medication errors. For doctors, "it's an almost neck-to-neck supervision," he said.
The hospital has raised salaries, Cuanang added, but it is tough to match packages offered by recruiting agencies that include moving a nurse's family, providing lodging and paying license and exam fees.
Overseas workers sent home $7.6 billion last year, according to the Central Bank, making them the largest source of foreign exchange. An equal amount is estimated to come in through informal channels.
The government, which is facing a $3.6 billion deficit and a $100 billion debt, encourages its citizens to work abroad, said Galvez Tan, who was secretary of health in 1995. At the same time, he said, it wants people to stay.
"The Department of Health says, 'Stay in the Philippines,' " he said. "The Department of Labor says, 'Go out of the Philippines.' The Department of Education says, 'We want you here in the Philippines.' The Department of Overseas Economic Assistance says, 'No, we want you out.' "
Ricardo Saludo, cabinet secretary in the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said emigration is increasing because of population pressure. The Philippines' growth rate of 2.4 percent is among the highest in Asia, and the rise of the value of the dollar against the peso since 1997 has made it much more lucrative to work abroad, he said.
In a poor country with an 11 percent unemployment rate, exporting workers is a pragmatic solution, experts said. "Overseas migrant workers are the vents of the pressure cooker," said Cynthia Bautista, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of the Philippines.
Among the educated, the perception that the Philippines, once second only to Japan among East Asian economies, has become the world's purveyor of maids and lounge singers is disquieting. "There's an erosion of national pride among the middle class," Bautista said.
On a recent night in Beijing, three Filipino performers stepped onto the stage of a darkened hotel bar. Doing a credible imitation of country singer Crystal Gayle, Marilyn Eusebio eyed several Westerners in the audience and warbled, "You've found someone new, and don't it make my brown eyes blue."
On keyboards was Ricardo "Ricky" Aure, leader of Music Match. The 33-year-old Manila native gigged at bars in Japan, Guam and Saipan before coming to China two years ago.
"There's money here," said Aure, who appears six nights a week. He and his fellow musicians each earn about $1,000 a month, and the hotel provides food and lodging.
From the torch singer at the Nanjing Hilton to the six-piece lounge band performing "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" at the Jakarta Grand Hyatt, Filipino musicians have become familiar sights in hotel bars across Asia. Most of them are sending money to families back home.
"It's the main reason we are here," said Eusebio, who, like her band mates, makes a Western Union transfer about once a month.
"Otherwise, the next day you will hear from them on the telephone," Aure said, smiling.
Ricky, as his family calls him, is the major breadwinner for relatives who share a cramped house in a Manila alley. The Sony television in the living room? Ricky bought it. The refrigerator, too. And the white telephone, on which he calls several times a month. The house itself was upgraded from a wood shanty to a modest concrete dwelling with his earnings.
All told, he helps support 14 people in this three-bedroom house -- his mother, father, brother, 10 nieces and nephews and a baby named Genesis. His aged father repairs broken figurines and other trinkets for resale, making $180 a month if he's lucky. Ricky, they said, sends them about $400 every other month.
"There are many people with talent, but they have never been given any chances here," said Reynaldo Aure, 43, Ricky's older brother. "So they go abroad."
Meeting a Demand
Though Filipinos have been departing for centuries, the major exodus in search of work began in the 1970s. Though it ebbed in the late 1980s, it has been growing again because of rising demand in societies that need skilled workers, analysts said. Filipinos are in some ways uniquely equipped to meet the need. Colonized first by the Spanish and then by the Americans, they are linguistically flexible. Filipino singers are such good imitators that they have a phrase for it: "plakang-plaka," or "sounds just like the recording."
They are culturally adaptable, and their caring manner is prized, especially in graying societies that need nurses, said Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr., director of the Institute of Philippine Culture at Ateneo de Manila University.
They perform more than 250 different jobs in about 170 countries, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which assists and tracks Filipino overseas workers.
Galvez Tan rattles off details of a few he's met recently: a Filipino transportation service operator in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, a Filipino manager of a cigarette factory in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and karaoke-loving Filipino international aid workers in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
What will reverse the talent drain, Aguilar said, is a palpable improvement in the political situation, "by which the middle class will see that yes, politics is not too annoying, corruption is not such a major issue."
Lately, pundits have been citing those who choose to return. "I just feel that I would be happier, and be more useful, working back home," wrote law student Ibarra Gutierrez, finishing a degree in New York, in a recent column in the Philippine Inquirer.
One day, Jacinto said, when he has repaid his parents and brother for the years of sacrifice they endured to get him through medical school, he wants to return, too. But first, he said, there's a nursing job somewhere for him in the United States.
Cody reported from Beijing. Researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.