Flashback No. 4: What Fil-Ams Can Do

This being the Fourth of July, and my daughter Demi having taken her oath as an American citizen a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d repost this piece I wrote for the now-defunct San Francisco-based magazine Filipinas a few years ago.

Manileño for January 2007

I HAD a very pleasant and engaging semester as a visiting professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, last fall, a welcome break from my teaching duties at the University of the Philippines, where I should be back in harness by the time you read this. Not only did my stint at SNC allow me to introduce the Philippines to about 50 of my own students, only three of whom were Filipino-Americans; I was also able to speak before several groups of students and compatriots in other schools—the University of Michigan, the University of California at San Diego, and Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

With UCSD having one of the biggest Asian-American student populations among US universities, my encounter with the students there after my formal talk proved the longest and most challenging. Here, a student raised a question that I would hear in other places: what was the best thing Filipino-Americans could do for Filipinos and the Philippines?

I’m sure that it’s a question that occupies Filipino-Americans all the time, and for which there are any number of answers, some easier and more obvious than others.

When a supertyphoon hits the Philippines and ravages the land, then relief goods are always welcome; when poor Filipino boys and girls can’t go to school despite their talents, their lives can be changed by scholarships from Fil-Ams who also worked their way up the educational and economic ladder. Many US-based doctors make regular pilgrimages home on medical missions to poor communities. Some Philippine schools receive loads of used books and computers from their alumni in America.

All of these efforts are noble and much appreciated, for sure. A few of them may have been undertaken more to burnish the image of the donor than to uplift the lot of the receiver, but in the end, it doesn’t matter: some public or private good has been done.

At the same time, such humanitarian projects are basically defined by a relationship of dependency, with America as the perennial giver and the Philippines as perpetual receiver. It’s a relationship that, like I told the students in San Diego, can sometimes grate on both sides, with Fil-Ams feeling like the only thing they’re useful for is another donation to another needy cause, and Filipinos feeling like they’re seen as little more than mendicants.

It gets worse when—dependency or not, and whether out of frustration, bossiness, or a genuine concern—some Filipino-Americans dispense quick and easy prescriptions for the cure of Philippine maladies as though nobody back home had the brains or the guts to come up with such ideas on their own.

One such bromide Pinoys often hear is, “Why don’t you just unite behind the President and stop bickering with one another?” Sounds good, but it makes me wonder why more than two million Filipino-Americans can’t get together under, say, just one dozen regional associations and one alumni association for each major university or college, and elect a congressman or US senator among themselves.

The fact is that the best and worst of our culture manifest themselves on both sides of the ocean. Our generosity, our sense of self-sacrifice for the good of the family, our commitment to education, and our industry and resourcefulness have helped us back home as much as they have gained our compatriots a firm footing in American society. On the other hand, the same sorry habits of inggitan, intrigahan, and siraan have fragmented Filipinos in Manila and Manhattan, in Cebu and Chicago, in Davao and Detroit (I’m using these cities metaphorically, but I’m sure you can supply the damning details). One of the worst examples I heard of recently had to do with the visit some years ago of a Philippine president to a Midwestern city—only to find two competing Fil-Am organizations holding two separate programs in two hotels facing each other across the street.

So what did I tell the bright and idealistic Fil-Am students who asked me what I thought they could best do for the Philippines?

Be good Americans, I said—whatever that may mean to each of them. Get engaged in America’s political processes, and make a difference in your own sphere of action. Vote not just for fellow Filipino-Americans—although a few more such voices in high places could help the community as a whole—but for political leaders who will make responsible decisions that will benefit peoples everywhere, including Filipinos.

As the world’s only remaining superpower, America needs all the critical intelligence (and I don’t mean military intelligence) it can muster, and Filipino-Americans can make themselves heard on both domestic and foreign-policy issues, instead of simply going with the flow and making themselves as inconspicuous as possible.

And what’s our claim to being in a unique position to tell Americans and American leaders something they don’t know? Well, we lived with America for half a century. As I often tell my American friends, we were their first Vietnam; and yet we also view America with much greater affection—some would say unreasonably so—than they can ever expect from Afghanistan or Iraq.

Overseas charity is good for the soul and is always welcome; but as they say, it begins at home, as does good global citizenship.

One thought on “Flashback No. 4: What Fil-Ams Can Do

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