Penman No. 156: Why I’ll Never Become Ambassador

Penman for Monday, July 6, 2015

IN MY early middle age, around 40, I nursed an ambition of becoming an ambassador, an official representative of the Republic of the Philippines. Some of my friends and schoolmates were on their way to becoming one—Vicky Bataclan, now in Belgium, and Libran Cabactulan, now at the UN, were just two of them—and I imagined that I might carve out a new career in my seniorhood in the grand tradition of writer-diplomats such as Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and our own Manuel Viray and S. P. Lopez. I’ve met a few real and truly worthy ambassadors and have been much impressed by their demeanor—Cesar Bautista, Delia Albert, and Joey Cuisia, for example.

With a background in literature and economics, and having written a slew of speeches for Presidents, senators, and CEOs, I thought that I had acquired enough political savvy and possessed the language to be able to craft an intelligent and suitably tart or nuanced response to any issue from island-grabbing in the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese in all of us. I also happen to like wearing suits and to be driven around, and I can say “Good morning” in six languages, so I have the externals covered. If I were serious about my ambassadorial plans two decades ago, all I needed to do (if I didn’t want to go the career route and take the FSO exams) was to hitch my wagon to some political star, which is apparently how one too many stragglers like me get to be called “Ambassador” for life, their diplomatic skills be damned.

But I suppose I’ve always had at least two strikes going against my being posted to some swanky European capital: my incipient misanthropy, and my culinary incorrectness.

The older I get, the more reclusive I tend to be, shying even farther away from the frenzy of Facebook and the emoji-enabled spontaneity of many online “friendships.” It’s not that I actively dislike people; I think most strangers will find me friendly, and I warm up easily once we get a real conversation going. (With the exception, I must say, of telephone conversations; having grown up without a phone, I have always disliked—loathed would be the better word—talking on the phone, especially for anything longer than three minutes.)

It’s just that, past 60, I’ve come to seek out human company less and less, preferring to keep to myself and family, and a few close friends who wouldn’t mind not hearing from me for months or years and picking up where we left off, which is my gauge of a true friendship. Over the past five years or so, I’ve become such a homebody (my poker nights excepted) that Beng feels like she has to ask me now and then, “Don’t you have any friends?” She means, of course, people other than herself, because she knows that I’ve been perfectly happy to just have her for company, at home or on the road, and that, in our sixties, our need and desire to socialize as a couple has diminished considerably.

Beng compensates for this by being a Facebook fiend, and aside from her snoring bedmate, Facebook’s the first thing she sees in the morning and the last thing she sees at night. Like I wrote here not too long ago, I’m not even on FB, and obstinately stay out of it, because I think it’s cheapened the meaning of “friend.”

Diplomacy, of course, requires not only meeting with a lot of people, but people you hate, and who very likely feel likewise—sort of like the online world, only it’s face to face. Now, I can fake pleasantness as well as anyone else—except maybe Beng, who’d lose our house and car at poker within five minutes—but I know, from practice, that while they say it takes just 17 muscles to smile and 42 to frown, smiling can be a lot more tiring than frowning, especially if you don’t mean it.

The more important reason I’ll never head an embassy is the mess I would likely make of our foreign relations by my equally boneheaded refusal to acquire a more catholic or at least a more cosmopolitan palate, despite Beng’s entreaties for us to try menus more complicated than Chow King’s. Nothing flusters me more than the prospect of “fine dining.” (I recall how, many years ago, I begged off from joining a very exclusive and epic feast prepared by ten of Manila’s top chefs—much to the dismay of a fellow professor who had wangled the invitation—precisely because all that good food would have been wasted on me.)

That’s also why I’ve declined dinner invitations, especially from people I don’t know or who don’t know me and my curious preferences, to spare us the mutual embarrassment of my shying away from anything with cheese, or oregano (I can sniff out one part in a million), or the aforementioned curry, which effectively leaves out much of Italian, French, Greek, Indian, and Mexican cuisine. No pizzas, thank you! But I’ll take pancit, lechon, adobong pusit, Ligo sardines, chicken mami, and KFC anytime—I’m actually easy to please.

Ambassadors should be able to eat anything with anyone, and not just gorge like a hungry peon (someone called my rice-and-pancit combo “pagkaing obrero”) but dine intelligently, knowledgeably, with the ability to make off-the-cuff remarks like “Don’t you just love the tanginess and the fruitiness of this Dréan d’Auvergne? It’s a bit more complex than the St. Nectaire, don’t you agree?” (Thanks to for the technical details.)

The only place I can imagine not having this culinary quandary would be China—where I’ve gone pretty often because, as I told Beng, I was sure to find a lot of yummy Chinese food there—but I’d hate to tell my Chinese hosts what I really thought of the nine-dash line, and I’d hate to have to explain, on the rebound, why bright kids with Chinese names can create such a fuss on Pinoy Facebook.

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