Penman No. 126: Friendships Old and New

IMG_5878Penman for Monday, December 8, 2014

 

OUR THREE-MONTH American sojourn has come to a close, and by the time you read this we should be back in Manila, a bit wobbly in the knees but glad to be home. I’ve gained back too much weight—the price to pay for all that scrumptiously greasy diner food and the cold spells that excused me from my daily walks—and I’ve begun to miss my morning tinapa and my suppertime tinola. But I’ve hit my research targets and more, and am eager to hunker down to writing the book that should come out of all this. I know that in a couple of weeks this vacation will be another happy memory, and I’ll be stuck in Christmas traffic on EDSA, sweltering and muttering why the heck I didn’t stay out there for another month or two.

Before that happens, let me thank some very fine people we met during this visit, which apart from the work was marked by new friendships made, existing friendships strengthened, and old friendships revived. I’ve already thanked my interview subjects in a previous piece, but there were others behind the scenes who made this particular journey pleasant and memorable. They include Sonny and Ceres Busa, Nomer and Camille Obnamia, Erwin and Titchie Tiongson, and Jun and Myrna Medina.

They may just be names to those who’ve never met them, and indeed they’re not the kind of A-listers you’d find in the glossy magazines that make virtual libraries of Metro Manila’s beauty salons. Even among Filipino-Americans, just a few names keep recurring in the social registers, either titans of industry or doyennes of fashion—leading one to wonder, where’s everybody else and what are they doing? Surely the rich and famous have no monopoly on everything that’s interesting and important? So let me introduce these friends to the world at large, by way of celebrating the non-celebrity whose quiet deeds lend substance to the sparkle of those better known.

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Sonny and Ceres hosted us twice at their postcard-pretty home in Annandale, Virginia and introduced us to the satisfying simplicity of Ethiopian food. The Waray-born Sonny had been a US consul in Addis Ababa, among other places, and his hilarious but spot-on insights into the American mind enlivened our every conversation. Ceres helps oversee a caregiving company for seniors in Virginia, a job eased by her patience and cheerful disposition, of which Sonny is luckily the prime beneficiary.

Nomer had been born in Sampaloc, Quezon and joined the Navy, where he met Camille in Hawaii; they’ve settled down in Columbus, Ohio, and our friendship began in the most unlikely circumstances. A committed conservative, Nomer had responded sharply to a column I wrote here years ago on artistic license, and our email conversation turned into a more gentle exchange of ideas and gestures. An expert in government procurement, Nomer had freely offered his counsel to our agencies and opinion-makers many times on ways of curbing corruption, but much to his dismay, his letters didn’t even merit the courtesy of a reply; I sadly felt obliged to tell him why. He and Camille took us into their home in the American heartland, where again I was reminded of the complexity and yet also the civility of much of American society, the challenges of Ferguson notwithstanding.

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As I wrote in this column two weeks ago, Eric and Titchie showed us, through their documentation of the Filipino presence in the capital area, that remembering the past need not be the preoccupation of the old, but has to be a continuing project for future generations to appreciate. A freelance journalist who’s been recognized for her work, Titchie wrote a fascinating article (http://www.oovrag.com/essays/essay2013b-3.shtml) about how a pretty stretch along the Potomac River was inspired by the Luneta, thanks to First Lady Helen Taft, who wanted the new park to mimic what she had seen in Manila, where her husband had served as Governor-General.

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Jun and Myrna Medina are old friends from the early 1970s, married four days after Beng and I got hitched. When I met Jun after being released from martial-law prison, he literally emptied his wallet for me, and later helped me get a job, a favor that in turn allowed me to propose marriage to Beng. Jun had also been a newspaperman and a fellow activist before martial law, but what many of his friends didn’t know was that he had eagerly volunteered to join a group of cadres bound for the Visayas, only to be turned down because his Capampangan origins would have marked him instantly as an outsider and gotten him killed (as, tragically, would befall everyone else in that posse). Another spin of the wheel of life took Jun to America, where he and Myrna have devoted themselves to their charismatic ministry. I hadn’t seen Jun in at least 20 years—only to discover that the Medinas had been living barely ten minutes away from my sister’s place in Centreville, Virginia, my virtual second home.

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Of course, let me add our family—Elaine and Eddie Sudeikis in Virginia, Jana and Senen Ricasio in New York, and Demi and Jerry Ricario in San Diego—to our list of hosts and sponsors (led primarily by the Philippine American Educational Foundation, the Fulbright folks). Other friends new and old like Mitzi Pickard, Reme Grefalda, Susan Brooks, and Moira Madrid-Spahr also contributed their time and attention to my visit.

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I was hosted by the George Washington University, and from GWU I have to thank English Department chairman Robert McRuer, creative writing program head Lisa Page, and old Manila hand and law professor Ralph Steinhardt. Ralph helped prosecute the Marcoses in Hawaii for human rights abuses when he was a young lawyer, and I’ll always remember his story about the response of a plaintiff whom he warned against the rigors and the costs of fighting the Marcoses: “I just want to be believed.”

In the end, that’s all we can hope for, and may my forthcoming book be worthy of all these good people’s graciousness and generosity.

Penman No. 102: The Cream of the Crop

2014FulbrightPenman for Monday, June 23, 2014

 

A FEW weeks ago, I was happy to attend a pre-departure orientation seminar for this year’s US-bound batch of Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholars. I’ve been to quite a few of these PDOs over the past decade or so, and normally I’d be there up front, giving one of the orientation talks.

I’m usually the closer at these seminars, my task being to remind our scholars to enjoy their stay in America and to learn all they can—and then to come home and serve their people. “Love America all you please,” goes my spiel, “but never forget where your home is, which is here—not even here in 21st century Makati, but in those parts of our country which languish in the 20th and even the 19th century. We go to the great schools of America not just to improve our lives but theirs—those Filipinos who cannot even read, or are too hungry and tired from work to read.”

Last month, I sat in the audience on the listening end, having been privileged with a Fulbright grant—again, after my first one nearly 30 years ago, when I left for the US to do my master’s at Michigan and my PhD at Wisconsin before returning in 1991. This September, if all goes well, I’ll be leaving for Washington, DC to do advanced research in connection with my ongoing book project on the First Quarter Storm, specifically to seek out American perceptions of and experiences with martial law in the Philippines, and also to interview Filipino-American activists from that period.

The Philippine-American Educational Foundation, headed by the very capable and amiable Dr. Esmeralda “EC” Cunanan, actually administers or acts as a conduit for several distinct scholarship programs that fall loosely under the “Fulbright” rubric, named after the late Sen. William J. Fulbright, who saw educational exchanges as the best way to promote international cooperation and understanding between America and the rest of the world. (The Fulbright program also sends out American scholars for studies abroad.) Indeed, as I often tell my American friends, one Fulbright scholarship will probably cost a hundredth of and produce a thousand times more enduring goodwill than one bomb. For us Filipinos, this is the pensionado concept brought over into a new century, with the important difference that our learning is no longer meant to serve American ends, but ours.

A scan of this year’s batch of outgoing scholars offers great hope for the future. Chosen from many hundreds if not thousands of applicants after rigorous evaluations and interviews, they represent truly the cream of the crop, and I felt honored to be in their company.

The so-called “classic” Fulbright scholars—those going for their master’s and PhD degrees—include the likes of Lisa Decenteceo of UP Diliman, who’s going for her PhD in Musicology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (yay, go Blue!); Neil Andrew Mijares of the University of San Carlos, who’s doing an MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa; and Ramjie Odin of Mindanao State University-Maguindanao, who’s entering the PhD program in Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University.

Among my three fellow “senior” postgraduate scholars, despite the fact that she looks young enough to pass for an undergrad, is Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan, who’ll be going to the University of Oklahoma to undertake advanced research in “Species Diversity and Survival in a Changing Environment: Developing a New Center for Biodiversity Conservation.”

For many years now, there’s also been a special Fulbright program focused on agriculture, the Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program for Advanced Research, which was set up at the initiative of then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo J. Angara to improve our agricultural expertise. This year’s nine grantees include Ma-Ann Camarin of MSU-Marawi who’s going to another MSU, Mississippi State University, to do doctoral dissertation research on (hold your breath) “Disease Surveillance and Study on the Bacterial Flora of Freshwater Prawn (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) as Biological Control Against Pathogenic Bacteria.” Meanwhile, Shirley Villanueva of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum is going to the University of California-Davis to conduct research on the “Genetic Diversity of Native Chicken Groups in the Davao Region.”

Among the two US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars will be Jay Batongbacal of UP, one of our foremost legal experts on maritime law, who’ll be studying issues related to current disputes in the South China Sea. The three Hubert Humphrey fellows—all accomplished professionals in mid-career—include a PNP major and former Pasay City precinct commander, Kimberly M. Gonzales, who’ll be looking into public policy and administration concerns at the University of Minnesota.

To help Americans—especially Fil-Ams—learn Filipino, the Fulbright program is sending out three Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who include Edward Nubla from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod; he’ll be on his way to Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Lastly, four Filipino undergraduates will soon be spending a year on a US campus, thanks to the Fulbright program. They include Michiko Bito-on of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who’s taking up Mass Communications.

It’s heartening to see the diversity not only in these scholars’ expertise and concerns but also in their representation of all corners of the archipelago, ensuring that the Fulbright experience is shared not only by the usual suspects like me from Manila’s academia, but by bright young minds from north, south, and center.

 

SPEAKING OF the Filipino presence overseas, a big cultural event will take place in Hong Kong over this weekend, thanks to the efforts of the poet and scholar Armida M. Azada, who’s been based there for many years now.

On Friday, June 27, 5:30-7:00 pm, Mida will sit in conversation with visiting Filipino writers Joel Toledo, Charms Tianzon, and Daryll Delgado in a symposium on new Philippine writing titled “Our Words, Other Worlds,” at the Amenities Building, Lingnan University. The next day, at noon, Mida’s new book of poems, Catalclysmal: Seventy Wasted Poems will be launched at the 7th Floor of Hong Kong City Hall in Central. Earlier that morning, from 10:30 to 12 noon in the same venue, a free writing workshop will be held for Pinoy helpers and HK-Pinoy youth. On Sunday the 29th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, a poetry reading by Filipino writers and their friends will be held on the first floor of DB Plaza Terrace near Dymocks in Discovery Bay.

This is a wonderful thing that Mida Azada—a gifted poet who was a colleague at the UP Department of English before she moved to Hong Kong and the UK—is doing not just for herself but for her fellow Filipinos in the diaspora. As prizewinning poet Joel Toledo puts it in his endorsement of Mida’s new collection, “Cataclysmal is a collection of haunts and visitations. The poems here flit in and out of the Philippine archipelago, travelling to London, Hong Kong, and New York without losing touch of a Filipino rootedness. The poet’s concerns stray and meander from the personal and cathartic to the phenomenal and ultimately global. But Azada’s voice is keen and focused, filtered on the page by a careful attention to language. One may argue that this is the poetics of the expatriate ruminating on both the post-modern and post-colonial. Yet at the heart of this collection is fierce integrity, a resonant ‘I’ persona that won’t flinch. Here are poems that both strain to capture the fleeting and restrain from exoticizing the past. The poet Fanny Howe once wrote, “Double the beautiful/because they are so little.” While phenomena can sometimes be indeed cataclysmal, the hurtful is never wasted—so long as poems remember and reconstruct and, in time, recollect the sorrows, parse them into bliss.”

Mida, Joel, Charms, Daryll, and the other fine, memorable voices of their generation—they too are the cream of the crop.