Beyond our Shores

(This article was published in Manila Standard Today, Diaspora section, February 9, 2012. This is an English translation of my earlier post “Ibayong Dalampasigan.” The original Tagalog piece may be more nostalgic, but I hope the message transcends beyond the translation.) 

Eighteen years. It seems like yesterday.

It feels only the other day that I woke up to the music of speeding tricycles and the crowing of Mang Karding’s fighting cock. Not too long ago when I walked down our narrow street in Sampaloc. Only yesterday that I inhaled Manila’s warm breeze and the belching smoke of the jeepneys. It was like I just blinked my eyes, and yet eighteen years have passed since I left our motherland.

I am one of the millions of Filipinos who migrated to another country. I grew up in a world where one of the eminent dreams of many of our people is to leave the country. Though it may not be directly indoctrinated in us, but we often hear from older folks, “study good my child, and when you grow up, you can go to another land and have a brighter future.”

As a child I heard stories of our neighbors who went overseas. Like Mang Juan*, who lived three houses down from us. He left for Saudi and there he earned “tons of money.” Tons of money – at least that was what we conceived in our young mind. That money was what Mang Juan used to erect a small sari-sari store in front of their house, where my mother used to send me to buy vinegar.

Or Junior, the eldest son of Ka Linda who lived across our house. He became a seaman and sailed to different places around the world. I could tell if Junior was home, for he always threw a small party for his drinking buddies and there would be a noisy bunch of merry men in our street again. Even Junior’s younger brother also became a seaman. Because of this, Ka Linda was able to renovate the house they offer for rent.

And Nena, who lives in the apartment down the street. The slender and beautiful Nena. She went to Japan.

Even in my own relatives the stories were the same. There was Tata Emo, who sold a few hectares of their field in Bulacan, so he could go to Saudi. However he did not withstand the loneliness of Saudi. He came home and went back to farming. At least his carabao was happy to have him back.

Another is Tito Rey who also departed for the Middle East. He stayed there for a number of years where he endured the searing heat, homesickness and loneliness. There were many birthdays of his children that he was not around to celebrate. But in exchange he was able to send them through college, and they even afford to build a house of their own in Marikina.

There were also my two aunts, nurses who made it to America. I know that without their help I would not be able to chase my dream. Up to this day, these aunts of mine continue to support our relatives in the Philippines. May God continue to bless them.

(photo from here)

But not all who went out of the country had a happy ending. Let’s return to Mang Juan. I know that financially they were better of. However, one of his sons, and perhaps due to the fact that he grew up without a father figure, became lost and got hooked to drugs. I always saw him in our street, with eyes so red, while walking and flying at the same time. If Mang Juan only knew what would happen to his son, would he still have chosen to work overseas?

And Nena. The slender and beautiful Nena. What really happened to her?

Despite these, we do not dwell on the sad stories, for we need to do it for the future of our families. That is why it is not surprising that our generation followed the footsteps of the one before us, and we also took our chances to find our luck beyond our shores. I have cousins who are in Saudi, Singapore, Macau and Canada. I have friends who are now in Australia, China, Middle East and here in America. We are like dust, blown by the wind and scattered to the different corners of the earth.

If I really think about it, only a few of my friends and especially my classmates stayed in the Philippines. The great majority left for foreign lands. Such a sad state for our country. And just like the song of Gloc-9, truly “Walang Natira.”

Eighteen years have I been living in the land of Uncle Sam. There are many things that have changed. I shed my carabao English as my tongue is not twisted anymore, and I can speak English now with an American diction. I don’t call somebody by saying “Psssst!” anymore, but I still turn around when somebody hollers “Hoy!” I now prefer spaghetti sauce that are somewhat sour like real Italian sauce, rather than the typical Pinoy sauce that is sweet. However I still like dried fish and salted eggs.

But there are things that still have not changed. My nose is still flat and I have no plans to have it changed. My color is still dark even if I don’t spend a lot of time under the sun anymore. My Tagalog is still impeccable. Still coursing in my veins is the noble blood of my ancestors. True, I left our homeland, but that does not mean my love for her has changed. Never a day passed that the country of my birth, have not brushed my mind.

One more thing: The new generation of our people still dreams of getting out of our native land. Would it ever change?

(*some names were changed).

Ibayong Dalampasigan

Labing walong taon. Ngunit parang kahapon lamang.

Parang noong isang araw lang ay gumigising ako sa ingay ng arangkada ng mga traysikel at ng tilaok ng tandang na pangsabong ni Mang Karding*. Tila ba kailan lamang ay laman ako ng masikip naming kalsada doon sa Sampaloc. Parang kahapon lang ay linalanghap ko pa ang simoy ng hangin ng Maynila at usok ng mga jeepney. Parang kumurap lang ang aking mga mata, ngunit labing walong taon na pala ang lumipas nang aking lisanin ang ating inang bayan.

Isa ako sa mga libo-libong Pilipino na lumabas ng bansa. Ako ay namulat sa mundo na kung saan ang nangingibabaw na pangarap ng marami sa ating mamamayan ay ang makaalis ng Pilipinas. Hindi man direktong itinuturo sa aming mga bata, ngunit madalas naming marinig sa mga nakatatanda, “mag-aral ka nang mabuti hijo, at pag-laki mo’y maari kang mangibang bayan, at magiging maganda ang iyong kinabukasan.”

Kahit nang ako’y batang paslit pa lamang ay naririnig ko na ang mga kwento ng aming mga kapit-bahay na nakipagsapalaran sa ibang bansa. Gaya ni Mang Juan, na nakatira tatlong bahay mula sa amin. Siya ay tumulak papuntang Saudi, at doo’y kumita ng “limpak-limpak” na salapi. Limpak-limpak na pera – ganito ang dating sa musmos naming kaisipan. Iyon ang ipinundar niya upang makapagtayo ng maliit na tindahan sa harap ng kanilang bahay, kung saan ako inuutusang bumili ng mantika.

O si Junior na anak na panganay ni Ka Linda sa tapat ng aming bahay. Siya ay naging isang seaman, at nakapaglayag sa iba’t-ibang ibayo ng mundo. Alam ko kapag nagbabalik-bayan si Junior. Lagi itong nag-papainom sa kanyang mga kaibigan, kaya may maiiingay na namang nag-iinuman sa tapat ng aming bahay. Kahit ang nakababatang kapatid niya na dating tambay lang lagi sa kanto ay naging seaman din. Dahil dito ay napaayos nila Ka Linda ang kanilang bahay-paupahan.

At si Nena na nakatira doon sa may apartment malapit sa kanto. Ang balingkinitan at magandang si Nena. Siya ay lumipad patungong Japan.

Kahit sa aking mga kamag-anakan ay ganito rin ang istorya. Nandiyan si Tata Emo, na ipinagbili ang ilang hektarya ng kanilang bukid sa Bulacan upang siya ay makaalis papuntang Saudi. Ngunit hindi natagalan ni Tata Emo ang lungkot ng Saudi. Siya ay umuwi at nag-saka na lang muli. Naging masaya naman ang kanyang kalabaw na muli siyang makasama.

Isa pa ay si Tito Rey na lumabas ng bansa patungo ring Middle East. Mga ilang taon din siyang namalagi doon, tiniis ang init, pangungulila at lungkot. Maraming birthday din ng kanyang mga anak ang hindi niya nasaksihan. Nguni’t kapalit naman noo’y ay napatapos niya sa pag-aaral ang kanilang mga anak at nakapagpatayo pa sila ng sariling bahay doon sa Marikina.

Nariyan din ang dalawa kong tiyahin na nurse na nakarating dito sa Amerika. Masasabi ko na malaki ang utang na loob ko sa kanila sa pagtulong nila sa akin na maabot ang pangarap kong makatapak dito sa banyagang lupain na ito. Hanggang sa ngayon ang mga tiyahin kong ito ay patuloy pa rin sa pagtulong sa aming mga kamag-anakan doon sa Pilipinas. Nawa’y patuloy silang pagpalain.

Hindi lahat ng mga nangibang-bayan ay may masayang kasaysayan. Balikan natin si Mang Juan. Oo nga’t naging mas maginhawa ang kanilang buhay. Ngunit isa sa mga anak niya, dahil na rin siguro sa lumaki itong laging wala ang ama, kaya napabayaan at nalulon sa droga. Madalas ko itong nasasalubong sa aming kalye na pula ang mata at sumusuray na naglalakad, habang lumutang sa paglipad. Kung alam lang ni Mang Juan ang mangyayari sa kanyang anak, pipiliin pa rin kaya niya ang umalis ng bansa?

At si Nena. Ang magandang si Nena. Ano nga kaya talaga ang nangyari sa kanya?

Ngunit hindi namin inalintana ang mga malulungkot na kwento, sapagkat kailangan para sa kinabukasan ng pamilya. Kaya naman hindi kataka-taka na ang aming henerasyon ay sumunod sa mga yapak ng mga nauna sa amin, at nakipagsapalaran din na lumabas ng ating bansa. May mga pinsan akong nasa Saudi, Singapore, Macau at Canada ngayon. May mga naging kabarkada akong napadpad rin sa Australia, China, Middle East, at ilan dito sa Amerika. Para kaming mga alikabok sa lupa na hinipan ng malakas na hangin at ikinalat sa iba’t ibang lupalop ng mundo.

Kung aking iisiping mabuti, iilan lang talaga sa aking mga kaibigan at lalo na sa aking mga kamag-aral, ang nanatili sa ating bansa. Karamiha’y lumisan para sa ibayong dalampasigan. Isang malungkot na katotohanan ng ating bayan. At gaya nga ng kanta ni Gloc-9: talagang “Walang Natira.”

Labing walong taon na akong naninirahan sa bayan ni Uncle Sam. Marami nang nagbago. Nawala na ang pilipit ng aking dila at natuto na akong mag-ingles na parang Amerikano at hindi na ako “Carabao English” ngayon. Nag-iba na rin ang ilan sa aking nakagawian. Hindi na ako sumusutsot kapag kailangang tumawag ng pansin, pero lilingon pa rin siguro ako, kapag may sumigaw ng “Hoy!” Pati panlasa ko’y nagbago na rin. Gusto ko na ng maasim-asim na spaghetti sauce ngayon, gaya ng tunay na Italian, at hindi manamis-namis gaya ng sa Pinoy. Pero masarap pa rin sa akin ang tuyo at itlog na maalat.

Ngunit mayroon pa ring hindi nagbabago. Pango pa rin ang aking ilong, at wala akong balak magpatangos nito. Hindi pa rin pumusyaw ang kayumanggi kong kulay kahit hindi na ako masyadong nagbibilad sa init ng araw. Matatas pa rin akong mag-Tagalog. Nanalaytay pa rin sa aking mga ugat ang maharlikang dugo ng aking mga ninuno. Tutoo, linisan ko ang aking bayan, ngunit hindi nangangahulugang nagbago ang aking pagmamahal sa ating bansa. Walang araw na dumaan na hindi dumampi sa aking isipan ang lupa kong sinilangan.

May isa pang hindi nag-bago. Nangangarap pa rin ang bagong henerasyon ng mga Pilipino na makaalis ng bansa. Ang tanong ay hindi bakit, kundi hanggang kailan?

(*names have been changed)

Do You Speak English?

The following article was published in Manila Standard Today in their section Diaspora.

As a nation, we pride ourselves as the third largest English-speaking nation, though some will refute this claim. As I tell my American friends, that if they visit the Philippines,  they don’t have to worry of not being understood, as most Filipinos speak English. I also tell my friends they will never get lost – if they do, it’s their own fault. For example, there was this American tourist who asked a local: “How long does it take to Meykabeybi (Macabebe)?” The pinoy replied, with a confused look, “About nine months”.That’s an awfully far place, answered the American more confused than ever.

Filipinos speaking fluent English in a call center in Manila

As a Filipino transplant to the US, I thought that I had an advantage over migrants from  other countries, as l already know how to speak English, even if English is not our native tongue. I learned very early in life, “A is for epol, B is for banana Q.” But when I got here, I learned that English is perhaps, the language that is most diversely spoken; and English may not always be English, the way I know it.

When I started my Medicine Residency Program in New Jersey, I worked with medical graduates from Russia, Romania, Guyana, India, Israel, Greece, Burma, Nigeria, Vietnam, and of course Americans and fellow Filipinos. Can you imagine how differently we spoke the same English, but with different dictions and accents? I felt some of my peers talked funny, but then again, they could have also thought I talked funny with my Carabao English. Sure enough it took us some time to understand each other clearly, but we got along alright – at least we pronounced each other’s names correctly.

When I moved to New York to pursue my subspecialty, not only were the resident doctors diverse, but the patient ethnicity became very diverse too. In fact, the zip code 11373, where the hospital where I did my training was located, was even featured in the National Geographic a few years back, as the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world. In one of the studies we conducted about tuberculosis in our institution, we have counted more than 70 different nationalities in our study population.

Queens, New York

Now imagine trying to understand all those different ethnic groups speaking English in their different rendition of it. It took me a while to get used to these differences. And some patients we took care of, don’t even speak English at all! That’s when we resort to gross sign language, if we can’t find an interpreter. (I feel for the veterinarians who have to interpret the arfs and meows of their patients.) Good thing pain and suffering is a universal language that you can read in their faces even without them uttering a word.

It is not just the immigrants though, that speak English in different ways. People from different regions of the US have distinctive ways of speaking the language as well, like the British and the Australians. I remember I had an American co-resident, and she hailed from Tennessee. She has a beautiful southern accent, but I have difficulty understanding her, even though I know it is perfect English. She would greet me with “Hey ya’ll!”, and I would look at her with a puzzled look, having no idea what she said. Maybe she thought I don’t speak English, so eventually she just did not talk to me.

English also uses so many idiomatic expressions that I did not learn in my English 101 in college, while in the Philippines. One day when I was an intern, I was rounding with my senior resident who was a true-blue American. He instructed me to defer any further treatments on one of our patients, adding that and we’ would just “play it by ear.”  Do I do what now with my ear? Perhaps he saw my quizzical look, so he explained it to me in plain English.

Then there is the version of street talk and slang. I painfully remember during my first few months in the US. I can carry a conversation when I’m at work, and with the more formal and medical talk. But I struggled to understand and converse with people when I’m in the streets, especially when I’m riding the train and the subway. “Wucha gottem dawg?” Did he just call me dog? It was just a different world of English altogether. But that’s okay; I don’t want to be speaking to strangers in the subway anyway.

New York subway

Now that I’m living in the Midwest, I am finding that while the English here may not be as distinctive as the Southern drawl or the New Yorker accent, it has its peculiarities. If you are keen enough, you can determine the specific region where a person came from based on his English phonology.

A friend of mine, who grew up here in Des Moines once drove to Missouri and got lost. He stopped at a gasoline station and asked for direction. The man whom he approached, who was perhaps was a native of Missouri (pronounced ‘Misoora’ by some locals), gave him detailed direction. The only problem was, my friend did not understand a word due to the man’s heavy accent. My friend though courteously smiled and nodded as if he understood the man perfectly. Needless to say, my friend remained lost for much longer.

The story of my friend got me thinking: if these two Americans, both born and raised here, with English as their native language, cannot understand each other, how the heck do they expect me to understand them? But I am learning to understand all the diversities of this language day by day. I know my English is not perfect, but whose is?

Do I speak English? “Op corrs I doh.”

Weather You Like It Or Not

(The following essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on June 15, in their section Diaspora. Thanks to Ms. Chua and Ms. Ortuoste for the encouragement.)

Weather watching and talking about the weather is something new for me. I learned that here in the US. And it’s not that I became a meteorologist, it is for some other reasons.

Back in Manila, nobody really paid attention to the weather forecast. I recall that as I was growing up in Manila, I could almost recite the weather prediction by Amado Pineda: ” Mainit at may manaka-manakang pag-ulan” (warm with occasional rain). And this can be true the whole year round, except if there’s a typhoon. The only time I cared about the weather was if the storm signal is raised to 2 or 3, to check if classes would be suspended (though classes can be suspended due to flood too, especially in UST, with the Espana “river” swelling after the rain).

UST campus during the 2009 flood

With Manila’s monotonous climate with temperature ranging from 60’s to 90’s F (20’s to 30’s C) the whole year through, there’s really nothing to talk about. With our 2 yearly seasons of “hot” and “very hot”, you don’t need any significant change in your apparel. T-shirts and jeans will be appropriate for any season. No need to change to a sweater, or a light jacket, or boots, or a parka.

Though I remember some people wearing leather jackets in Manila, just to impress others. The only thing you may need to carry is an umbrella (which I hate to carry) for the occasional rain, but newspapers can be used for the same purpose too. And if you get wet? The heat will dry you quickly.

But now that I am living in the US midwest, everything has changed. The temperature can swing from -30’s to +90’s F (-30’s to +30’s C) through the changing seasons. In fact 2 weeks ago, our temperature dropped from low 90’s to high 50’s F in a little more than an hour. That’s more than the range in Manila for the whole year! People say here that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes…… it will change. That’s why it is necessary to know your weather forecast; it will definitely affect your activities for the day as well as determine what you need to wear.

During winter, snow storms and ice storms can develop. It is so cold that even my brain freezes. It could be 2-3 months straight without the temperature rising above freezing point and with temperature hovering just above 0 F (-18 C). It is during these days that I often wonder if hell could be as cold as it is hot, for it surely feels like hell! And if I need to go out, I need to wear my underwear thermals, a sweater, heavy jacket, snow boots, gloves, hat, and muffler. It’s a wonder I still can move around with all these articles of clothing. Snow can be beautiful though, especially if I’m  looking at it from inside my heated home, and as long as I don’t have to shovel it nor have to drive through it.

During late spring to early summer, temperature can be very comfortable (40’s to 90’s F). But with wild swings of temperature, violent storms can form quickly. If it’s just thunderstorms, well, I can deal with it, as I’m used to that in the Philippines. But tornadoes and hailstorms? Those simply scare the daylights out of me!

In a tornado you have only a few seconds warning to seek shelter. That’s why houses here have a basement; that serves as a tornado shelter. Over the years that I lived here in Iowa, there were a few tornado warnings in our community with the sirens going off, but thankfully no tornado has touchdown yet in our area. I hope it never will. Some communities are not that fortunate though, and I saw the devastation after a tornado hit. Nothing is left standing. I’ll take a typhoon any day over a tornado.

Tornado in Sioux City, Iowa

Last year, there was a town here in Iowa, that experienced a hailstorm with hails as big as baseballs. It damaged the roofs, windows and walls of every house there. It flattened their crops too. You can just imagine being hit with those baseball-size hail traveling at more than 100 miles per hour! I don’t think an umbrella is of any use during a hailstorm.

Being appreciative of a beautiful day, is something that I learned also from the American culture. Everybody talks about the weather, and everybody express their appreciation of a beautiful day.

I remember years ago when I was still in New Jersey. I just transitioned from the streets of Manila to an idyllic town of Morristown New Jersey. It was summer and I was walking alone at the town plaza. Then a stranger greeted me and exclaimed, “What a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I was taken aback. I have to check if he’s really talking to me. First of all, being raised in Manila, when a stranger greets you, you look at him suspiciously as you check your wallet if it’s still there. And secondly, who talks about the weather in the Philippines! It felt so foreign to me.

But now after experiencing the extremes of weather, especially here in Iowa, where a beautiful day comes far in between, I can see clearly now why they appreciate a beautiful day. Perhaps I took for granted all the beautiful tropical days I had in Manila. Sometimes, we don’t treasure simple things until we lose them.

I am thankful for today. A beautiful sunny summer day. Tomorrow’s forecast: thunderstorm with tornado watch.