How Long Has It Been?
It has been seven years since we did our MacArthur. We returned here to the Philippines. We had been away too long – 40 years. It was an easy decision. What was hard was leaving the place that had filled the space of our happy disc.
Violy and I had always been big on planning. But, when God orders your step, you have got to take it. Our assignment was clear – share the word of God and make followers of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
But, what about DC?
We loved Washington, DC, still do. We met there back in ‘67. We were both in our early twenties. Fresh from college. She was on a diplomatic visa, I was a tourist with the intention of finding work, applying for permanent residency and eventually living the American dream. We met in DC. We fell in love there. And our American journey began on Embassy Row, on Massachusetts Avenue. We walked the streets of DC. We often met at Stein’s on Connecticut Avenue for lunch and frequented Luau on First and Penn on Friday nights. The Smithsonian was a favorite place to pass the time. St. Matthew’s Cathedral was our quiet place. The National Arts Gallery was where we listened to good music, live and free; and where we once queued up for two hours to view the traveling Van Gogh exhibit. At Top of the Town in Arlington was where we could see the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the U. S. Capitol aligned as if pausing just for our pentax. The Kennedy Center was where we caught the Bolshoi Opera, Fonteyn and Nureyev, listened to the Washington Symphony and teared up at the end of Les Miserables. Wolf Trap was where we enjoyed Camelot and Peter, Paul and Mary. We got married at St. Charles and had our wedding reception at the Washington Hilton. I could go on and on, and on. But, you get my drift. We miss Washington, DC.
But, we have our marching order.
Metro Manila has changed so much since ’67. We still get lost sometimes. Although the old house is still there. San Sebastian is still standing though co-ed now; makes one wish to rewind to the once all-boys school where one can feel free to stay young and immature. Nice changes all around but I feel cheated of good memories, like strolling along Luneta Park with a girl friend without money in my pocket; like able to car race along Quezon Boulevard late at night; like jam-sessioning with friends building fences on the dance floor; like paying two pesos for a bottle of San Miguel at Bayside and dancing to the beat of the Tirso Cruz band. Things are so different now and I don’t mean just places and prices. People are different. Camaraderie was the order of the day among young people then. Good old fashioned pakikisama. It was so easy to make friends, so easy to get around the city. Tondo was the only place you sub-consciously stayed away from. Hardly any squatter areas, no garbage dumps. You can come home late at night and breathe the friendly air of your neighborhood. Most importantly, Filipinos then had values. This is really hitting the nail on its head. Change a people’s values and you change everything about how they view their neighbors and life itself.
But then, right after you think you’ve lined up the ducks on what went wrong, you suddenly remember that that’s the way it has always been. That, it is actually your worldview that has changed. Then your marching order began to make real sense. The change was not from good to bad culturally, but from bad to worse.
So, What Is The Problem?
The problem is you can never get enough. Not enough money, not enough recognition, not enough love. And when you are not satisfied with what you have, you get frustrated. And too much frustration always leads to sadness. And sadness is very dangerous. It could kill you.
America is the land of opportunity. Everybody knows that. And everything is big in America. Land, buildings, cars, people. It is so big that you can easily get lost in it. You can yell your lungs out but no one hears you. You can drop dead right there on the street and people might slow down a bit before moving on. People in New York are busy people. They rush all the time. And they look so serious, no one smiles.
My first two weeks in New York were frustrating. Everything seemed to be different than what I expected. To have had misconceptions about America was an understatement on my part. I definitely was misled by Hollywood’s portrayal of this great bastion of hope for the pursuer of happiness. But I had misconceptions of myself, too. I thought I could speak English well enough. I thought I can communicate effectively. But to my shock, I could not even understand what people were saying when they spoke to me, particularly African Americans. My mind was always on overdrive, and it was so frustrating. Fortunately, on my third week there, I found a job as a junior accountant – on my third interview. And I was so proud of myself. I believe now that it was my pride which carried me along.
After surviving in New York for two shivering months, I had no choice but to face reality. My visitor’s visa was about to expire but I could not apply for permanent residency. And why not? Well, there was that war somewhere in Asia that the U. S. was engaged in. And, there was this thing called the Draft. And green card holders are subject to the Draft. I was 21 and single. I could be drafted. No way!
I never heard of Vietnam before arriving in New York. I did not know what a hippie was. Didn’t know what marijuana was. Didn’t know what a ghetto was. In short, I didn’t know squat. I was ignorant. All I knew was accounting. It was so frustrating. But I knew I had to learn and learn fast. I can not go back to the Philippines defeated. My pride won’t let me. After all I was already a CPA at age 21.
I was five years old when I first prayed to Jesus. I was seven when I first rejoiced and felt gladness in my heart, right after my first confession. I learned to bend my knees very early on. And there I was – a young man; a stranger in the naked city that never sleeps. And deep in the recesses of my soul was Doubt struggling to burst out: Lord, where are you?
Just when I was about to throw in the towel, my first Fil-Am friend told me about Washington, DC where all the foreign embassies where located; where hundreds of Filipino tourists had become diplomats of sorts. And God bless his soul, he said I could stay in his apartment until I find my own. So, I said goodbye to my four lady roommates and Gray Hounded on to DC.
There was a time when there were 26 of us Pinoys employed by the Embassy of Pakistan. We all had our diplomatic visa. And we all slowly and experientially began to learn what America was really like.
Who Were Your Idols?
Elvis and James Dean; they were our idols. Not Romeo Vasquez or Zaldy. My friends and I were careful not to be identified with the bakya crowd. We watched Hollywood movies not Tagalog ones. We listened to Rock and Roll music not Kundimans. We loved everything American. In our eyes, Americans can do no wrong. After all, they were our liberators. Douglas MacArthur and John Wayne were our heroes. Surely, they must know that we love them.
I was under the delusion that because I love America, America will automatically love me back, just like that. It took a while before it sunk on my consciousness that no one really, really cares. People are just too busy. The good mornings and hellos were mere expressions. Just to be nice, you know.
As I lived in Washington, DC, I learned. I watched American soldiers die in Vietnam on television night after night. I watched war activists get clubbed by the riot police. Tear gas and water cannons broke up protests. And I listened to broadcast journalists talked about Black Power, White Power, the Hawks and the Doves in Congress, inflation, unemployment, the Consumer Price Index, abortion, women’s lib, civil rights, racial discrimination,and sexual revolution; night after night on national television and again on local news just before bedtime. And so I began to be aware of what was going on in America and what made Americans run here, and there, and everywhere. But my understanding on all those topics being discussed was so pitifully limited. Meaning, there was nothing I could talk to Americans about. I could not relate.
It was hard for me to fit in with the locals because for all intents and purposes, we spoke very different languages. Thank God, there were already thousands of Filipinos living in the Greater Washington, DC area when I arrived there. Birds of a feather flock together remained true for us.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years. We had our jobs, our apartments, our night outs, our old stories. Most importantly, we had each other. We were not thriving yet, but we were surviving.
My one regret, as I now look back, is I never thank my Fil-Washingtonian friends often enough. I do not even remember thanking God for them. They were good to me. Jesus used them to bless me during those very trying times in my life.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
For whom the wedding bells toll? Well, for all of us. Two years of singing and dancing, bowling and picniking, and out-of-towning were enough to get matched up. During the succeeding two years, new Fil-Am families began to blossom. Yuppies turned into suburbanite homeowners. We all began to thrive. The war in Vietnam had ended. The Washington Bullets were winning. Life was good.
But life has its way of balancing the books. The eventuality immigrants dread the most came to visit all of us at one time or another. You know how it goes. The phone rings. You answer. Your hello is followed by an eerie silence. Then tears come running down your cheeks. Then the voice on the other end whispers, You do not have to come home, there’s nothing that you can do.We have made all the arrangements.
What can you do but move on after sadness comes barging into your home. Life will never be the same. You will never be the same; after losing someone you loved all your life. But life goes on. Death, though, has its way of ransacking every treasure chest you thought had been safely hidden in some corner of your mind. Your whole being gets shaken.
How can I not be shaken. My Mom was my role model. She was the one who had always been there for me. She believed in me and made sure I knew it.
The greatest gift I have ever received came from Violy when clueless as I was, I saw Mom come out of an arrival gate at Dulles Airport a few days before our wedding day. It was like in the movies. My jaw dropped and after an instant I run to her and we hugged. No one survived breast cancer four decades ago.
Was there a silver lining behind those dark clouds? Yes. It came disguised as a mid-life crisis that lasted for years. You can never know that you had been in deep depression until you come out of it.
When I wrote Dad telling him about Violy and my desire to marry her, Dad said something to me that was so profound I didn’t know he had it in him. He wrote: Just ask yourself a question, Does she have the qualities of your mother? Of course I didn’t know. How can I know? I’ve only known her for two years. But I had this feeling in my gut that she was the one for me. Dad gave his blessings. My mom had inner strength I admired so much. When I was going through my life crisis, Violy had my back the entire time. She has the same inner strength I saw in Mom.
So Dad, yes, she does.
What Flies So Fast?
Time flies so fast when you’re having fun, right? But when you’re not? Time simply flies. We can hold back tears but we cannot hold back time. It just runs. And each of us has only so much of it. Meaning, death is certain.
Life means different things to different people. According to one poet, life is what you make it. Another says life is a journey so his advise is to just try and enjoy the ride. Yet another says, life is short so grab what you can, go for all the gusto. But can one just simply enjoy the ride, or grab a slice of happiness when it is within reach?
I do not know what kind of a person you are but I cannot be spending my life simply watching time go by. I refuse to be a spectator. Yes, life is a journey, but I need to know its destination. Yes, life is short so it can easily pass us by. Life has to have meaning. There has to be a purpose to it. And I needed to know what my life was about.
My search for significance came to an end after two years of active seeking. Jesus spoke to me through the pages of sacred Scripture. The more I read, the more I understood. And it was just a matter of time that I found solace only in His word. The search was over. I was so sure of it.
When you find something good, you have got to tell somebody. I told Violy that I found what I was looking for in the words of Jesus. It did not take long for Violy to get on board the Lord’s wagon. Our two children will grow up learning the values of Jesus Christ.
When my mother died, death seemed so final. I now know that death is but the doorway to heaven. Yes, life is a journey and life is short. But I now know that my short journey will end in the waiting arms of Jesus Christ. In the meantime though, there is work to be done.
Violy and I began our separate journeys in the Philippines. Our shared journey which began in Washington, DC had taken us to so many countries around the world and made it possible for us to meet so many interesting people and see many breathtaking places.
We have gone full circle. We are now in the last leg of our journey. We are back in the Philippines.
So, Who Stayed Away?
Many of our Catholic friends and relatives stayed away from us when Violy and I committed our lives to Jesus Christ. Can I blame them? No. Can’t say that I can. Who could have understood Vincent and his starry, starry night? To them it was insanity, plain and simple. Active sharing of the Gospel as we understood it was a mistake. In the very words of Christ it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh counts for nothing (John 6:63). I should have meditated more on His declaration that no one can come to Him unless it is granted him by the Father (John 6:65). Now I understand; now I know that anyone who comes to Christ comes at an appointed time.
Coming back here to the Philippines is fulfilling our destiny; being done in obedience to Christ’s great commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Crazy as we are over Washington, DC, we can no longer be happy there because this is where God wants us to be. The forty years prior were not wasted years at all. They were times of preparation. God taught us, trained us and equipped us before sending us back to the country of our birth.
Marching to a different drum beat could be brutal mentally and emotionally. No one can survive such a calling if God had not prepared him adequately. Opposition, I was warned by a mentor, could come from both without and within the Church. So true. Through the years, I had my share of betrayal. It took a while to kill the romantic idealist in me but I did it. It looks dead to me, anyway.
The point here is this: Balikbayan is only for those people with a mission. Particularly, for those who had lived in a first world country for more than five years. The longer the absence, the more difficult it will take to adjust backward. Emphasis on backward. Just because everybody has a cell phone and can easily access the internet do not mean that the country is wired properly. Widespread graft and corruption have made it impossible for a meaningful middle class to exist and be committed to reforms. Superstition and tradition still have a strangle hold on the minds of the people who are caught up in the cycle of poverty. So few are able to think outside the box. So few are patriotically rich and highly educated. So few are willing to make sacrifices. So many just wanna go gaga with Lady Gaga, effectively rendering their Christian religion meaningless; post-modern at best.
What Time Is It?
There was a time when jeepney drivers would pull over as close to the curb as possible before coming to a full stop to allow passengers to get in or out of their vehicle. Road courtesy was practiced then. Jeepney drivers then simply refused to intentionally block the flow of traffic. There was a time when they had genuine concern for the safety of their passengers.
Their was a time when Filipino men were polite especially to the elderly and to women. When they were, believe it or not, gentlemen. And there was a time when teen-age pregnancy was almost unheard of.
There was a time when Filipinos recognized their moral responsibilities and tried to always do better.
The question in my mind is: When did they stop trying? When did they give up on themselves?
It would be very difficult to pin down a particular year or a specific event at which we can point a finger and say, That was when it all started. For it takes a long time for rust to totally disintegrate a piece of metal. But if I have to guess, I would say that the declaration of martial law in 1972 killed the Filipino spirit. I believe that it was during those dark days when too many of our good people said, Stop the music. Let me get out of this place. I believe that that was the time when most Filipinos became afraid. Afraid to speak out. Afraid to trust each other. Afraid of the future. Afraid for their children and grandchildren. At least during the colonial times, Filipinos knew exactly who the enemy was.
The decline of the Filipino older culture was indeed gradual. It was hardly noticeable. That is how the devil operates. He may plant just a small lie in the human heart but when that lie becomes full blown, people will, in time, believe it to be the truth. In time, a small sin becomes a big one. Then small bribes are no longer acceptable. Then bribes once done under the table are negotiated over lunch. Then corruption in government becomes a matter of fact. And the powerful simply take turns in amassing ill-gotten wealth. The rich becomes filthy rich and the poor eats dirt. Good morals and right conduct flew out of the window.
This is why I say that balikbayan is only for people with a mission. Your mission to help the Filipino poor regain their resolve to do better and accept their personal responsibilities will keep your heart from surrendering to despair. I really, really hate what Filipinos have become. But I am convinced that this ugliness can be defeated because greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4). Because love never fails.
My advise to would be Balikbayans: Be prepared to love the poor as they are. For if you are able to, then it will all be worth it. But remember you can only help so many. Be satisfied for making a difference in the life of a few.
Violy and I believe that national transformation can be realized only through values education. We believe that our people need to learn the values of Christ, now more than ever.