Penman No. 180: Escapade in Bohol

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Penman for Monday, December 28, 2015

 

 

YEARS AGO I made a promise to take my wife Beng to all the beautiful places in the world I’ve been, so we’ve been traveling up a storm, flying off to whatever destination our aging knees and limited budget can still afford. The pre- and post-Christmas break is a great time for escapades like this, and we’ve run off to Shanghai and Beijing in Decembers past, availing ourselves of budget fares we’d booked months ahead for the privilege of slurping hot noodles in the freezing cold.

This year—encouraged by another irresistible combo deal on airfare and a good hotel—we chose to go down to Bohol. I’d been there a couple of times before on business and Beng and I actually found ourselves stranded there once, overnight, because our Dumaguete-bound ferry couldn’t make it through a frightful storm, so this time we decided to do a proper tour of the place, mixed in with a bit of work we both had to catch up on.

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We were lodged at the mid-range Panglao Regents Park Resort, about a 30-minute ride from the airport and a short walk to Alona Beach, a focal point not just for swimming and food but also for the innumerable dive shops that cater to showcasing Panglao’s top attraction, its underwater life. Being sedate and sedentary seniors, Beng and I contented ourselves with sipping cool mango shakes and watching the scenery, but there’s never a dearth of interesting things to look at in Bohol, whether beneath the sea or aboveground.

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We signed up for two tours: the “Chocolate Hills” tour, which takes you on a daylong ride around the island for an eyeful of its most scenic spots, and the “island-hopping” tour, which promises an early-morning rendezvous with dolphins, snorkeling and lunch at Balicasag Island, then a short detour to Virgin Island. Seasoned travelers may disdain these one-size-fits-all tours, but Beng and I never do, knowing that they’re pretty efficient and often good value for money for first-time tourists, and that ultimately it all depends on knowing what to look for, and knowing how to appreciate what you’re looking at.

It was a rainy day when we headed out for the Chocolate Hills, so the tarsiers were huddled under the branches and the hills themselves were shrouded in mist, but I took the rain in stride, seeing how it lent a certain freshness and vividness to things, and I could sense the earth exhaling after a long dry spell. The tour guide at the butterfly farm led us along with deft humor, making even dead insects come alive, and we gamely crossed the Hanging Bridge, to and fro, like schoolkids on a dare.

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I had visited the old Loboc Church before an earthquake devastated it a few years ago, so I was sad to see it covered in scaffolding, awaiting restoration. What I didn’t expect to be more deeply moved by—not being a regular churchgoer (I pray every night, but have quarrels with dogma)—was stepping into the Baclayon Church, which I had missed on my first visit. Its altar—a main retablo framed by two smaller ones—stood intact and as majestic as ever, and washed in orange, green, and blue light seemed ethereal. But behind a red cloth curtain and the yellow “Caution” warnings gaped what used to be the nave, a cavity that in the 1800s must have throbbed with pious energy, as well as with the flutter of fans and the murmur of courtships, disapprovals, and ungodly gossip.

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We set out for our island cruise at 6 am the following morning, and much to Beng’s relief the sky was clear and the water was silvery smooth. We shared our large banca with two women from Canada and another from Germany, our banter laced with the anticipation of meeting our goal for the morning: finding dolphins in the open water. I knew from previous reading that several species of dolphin and whale could be found in the Bohol Sea, but I would have been happy to spot any one of them. Dolphins feed in the morning, until about eight, so it was important that we head out quickly enough, also given that about half a dozen other boats were in the same area for the same reason.

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Our boatman, whom we’ll call Dencio, was an experienced spotter (more on his story later), and soon enough, about 30 minutes out of port, he pointed to our right, where two gray and shiny heads bobbed in and out of the water—our first of several sightings. Dolphin and whale watching is the sort of thing a CIA analyst would be good at—discerning, from the seemingly immutable pattern of cresting waves and foamy wavelets, the odd leap of a creature into the air. The Risso’s dolphins we saw (the Flipper of TV fame was a bottlenose) broke out out in pairs and trios, but for every one of them that surfaced, we were told, there were many more underwater. Dencio pushed out his boat much farther than the others did, and for a long while it felt like we were simply drifting toward Siquijor, but just as I was about to give up, I noticed a commotion in the distance—a pod of maybe a dozen spinner dolphins frolicking in the air. The whole boat came alive with glee and Dencio tried to give chase, but we were going against the waves, which had become too choppy, and the shiny caravan of fins and flippers vanished into the horizon.

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Balicasag Island is where the divers go, and was our midday stop. While our companions snorkeled in the fish sanctuary and watched giant turtles feeding on the sea grass, Beng and I ordered lunch (fresh fish, of course, broiled and kinilaw) and listened to Dencio’s story: “We used to hunt whale sharks,” he said, “and would kill two of them a day, baiting them and catching them with large hooks.” (This hook called the pamilac lent its name to Pamilacan Island nearby.) “We sold them very cheaply, not knowing that in Japan, a whale shark could sell for about half a million pesos. We could have been millionaires! We did this until a TV crew filmed what we were doing, and then a ban was imposed, so now we don’t catch whales anymore. Today you can find very large ones swimming under your boat. They’re very smart, and can sense danger. Sometimes they look straight at you with their eyes.”

On the ride back to Panglao, we stopped by Virgin Island (renamed Isola di Francesco by its private owner, who has turned the island into a religious shrine)—little more than a long curling strip of white sand with a clump of trees on one end, but serene and restful, a fine ending to a colorful day. Or rather, make that ending a Thai massage, a grilled seafood dinner, and a cold beer.

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“They’ll burn in the sun,” Beng had remarked of our European companions, who took every opportunity to swim and to laze in the tropic heat. “That’s because they’ll be flying home in a few days to an icy winter,” I said, “while we just have Manila’s traffic and pollution to deal with.” Sounds like a good reason for another escapade.

Penman No. 175: Filipinos at the Field Museum

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Penman for Monday, November 23, 2015

 

 

AS MANILA got busy with preparations and lockdowns for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beng and I flew out to Chicago for the culmination of a cross-continental initiative of another kind: the Art and Anthropology project hosted by the Field Museum and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A few months ago, sometime in August, five Filipino-American artists (Jennifer Buckler, Elisa Racelis Boughner, Cesar Conde, Joel Javier, and Trisha Oralie Martin) came over to Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts on a large mural (technically a free-standing painting) featuring objects from the Field Museum’s vast collection of Philippine anthropological artifacts. That phase was hosted locally by the Erehwon Art Center in Quezon City, on the board of whose foundation Beng (aka June Poticar Dalisay, the painter and art conservator) sits as Vice President.

This October, the five Filipino artists (Leonardo Aguinaldo, Florentino Impas, Jr., Emmanuel Garibay, Jason Moss, and Othoniel Neri) went to Chicago to do the same thing—working collaboratively with the Fil-Ams on a 28’ x 7’ mural at the Field Museum, locating ancient Filipino artifacts in a more contemporary and inevitably globalized context.

The moving spirit behind this project was the indefatigable Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, a Chicago-based Filipino-American cultural scholar and activist who also happens to be a prizewinning writer and presidential awardee for her work as an overseas Filipino. Inspired by the Philippine artifacts at the Field Museum, Almi—the only Filipino research associate at the Field—had secured a grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation for the project, which both the foundation and the museum acknowledged to be groundbreaking in many ways.

Better known for its so-called “genius grants” awarded to outstanding individuals, the MacArthur Foundation rarely provides funding for large institutions like the Field Museum, Almi says, but they saw in her proposal an opportunity to spur not just a trans-Pacific collaboration among artists but also a dialogue with the past. And there was no better host in the US for this project than the venerable Field Museum, whose collection of indigenous Philippine archaeological and ethnographic materials—numbering around 10,000 objects, most of them brought over by museum expeditions to the islands at the early part of the 20th century—is one of the world’s most comprehensive.

The mural produced by the artists in Chicago—which will be on display at the Field for six months since its formal unveiling last November 7—is both a celebration and indictment of our rich and complicated history, invoking all manner of element from the archetypal bulol and the revolutionary KKK (a symbol that predictably sparked some controversy, given its American context) to McDonald’s and Tito, Vic & Joey.

For the artists themselves, the collaboration was a rich, if sometimes unavoidably difficult, learning experience—learning about themselves, about each other, about art-making, about the mutable meanings of “Filipino” over time and space. Prior to the project, some of the Fil-Ams had never been to the Philippines, and some of the Filipinos had never been to America; that alone ensured sufficient provocation in their approach to the task at hand. The collaborative aspect itself was a challenge, given the need to manage and balance each artist’s individuality with some overarching purpose or design. But in the end, as Joel Javier would tell me, despite all the dialectics involved, it was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” that every participant—chosen by a jury in each country—would have signed up for.

Our sortie into the Field Museum—a place I’ve visited quite a few times over the past two decades, but can never exhaust, like the Smithsonian—was made even more special by a private tour arranged for us by Almi Gilles into the heart of the Philippine collection itself, in the underground vaults of the Field. As a certified museum rat and armchair adventurer, I took it as an invitation to die and go to heaven; the closest I hope to get to Indiana Jones was to wear his hat, which I wore on the appointed day.

We were met at the museum by co-curator Alpha Sadcopen, a young Filipino-American woman with roots in the northern highlands; she held the key to the collection, and led us into a large room where shelf upon shelf of tribal and cultural artifacts—baskets, textiles, weapons, utensils, body decorations, etc.—were preserved, most of them never likely to be put on display outside. “I could feel a shiver down my spine,” Beng would tell me later, and I certainly did myself, walking past the priceless objects, and discerning in each one of them a pair of hands, a face, a story.

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As if that peek into our material past wasn’t a treat enough, Almi then led us down a few more corridors to meet with another titan of Philippine studies—the renowned zoologist Dr. Lawrence Heaney, curator and head of the museum’s Division of Mammals. Larry began studying the wildlife of the Philippines in 1981, a lifelong passion that has resulted in the discovery of dozens of previously unknown mammalian species, in many landmark publications, and in the establishment, with Larry’s Filipino colleagues, of the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines.

We often think of world-class scientists as surly, self-absorbed individuals who can’t relate to anything beyond what they see in their microscopes and telescopes, but Larry defies that stereotype. You couldn’t have met a nicer man, and one who chose not only to sound the usual alarm about our threatened environment, but also to emphasize the positive and the possible. “Hectare for hectare, the Philippines is the world’s richest place for endemism,” he told us, cradling what seemed to be a huge rat saved from a 1946 expedition to Luzon, “and there certainly are serious threats to Philippine wildlife, but we’ve also noticed some bright spots. For example, the growth of overseas jobs for many Filipinos—despite its social costs—has also eased the pressures on the environment and on wildlife in many rural communities.” Dr. Heaney is coming over to Manila next year to launch another book, and I’ll be sure to be there.

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And what’s next for Almi Gilles? She’s looking skyward, into the connections between Philippine anthropology and astronomy. Her colleagues at the museum seem thrilled by the idea, and so are we.

For more pictures of the Philippine collection at the Field Museum, see here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/penmanila/albums/72157660699359089.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 169: I Saw Them Standing There (Almost)

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Penman for Monday, October 5, 2015

I WAS playing Texas Hold ‘Em with a bunch of younger guys a couple of weeks ago in my favorite poker joint and one of them was delivering a spirited rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Nothing on You” (yes, this old fogey knows the singer and the song)—probably to disguise a pair of Kings—and the table talk came around to our preferences in music.

“I can tell where this is going,” I thought. But then they call me “Daddy Butch” in the place—everyone above 50 is a “daddy” or a “mommy,” which is better than the monikers some other regulars sport, such as “Itlog,” “Daga,” “Paos,” and “Payat”—so my age wasn’t the issue. The young ‘uns were really interested in knowing what kind of music my generation listened to, so after everyone else had spoken in praise of pop, hip-hop, grunge, and metal, I yielded the one and only answer any soul born in 1954 can truthfully produce: “The Beatles.”

Some nodded, smiling, and then our dealer—a sweet girl in her mid- to late 20s—shuffled the cards and said, “Were they really big?”

I have to say, I almost lost it at that point.

I pride myself at the table on my poker face, a point my adversaries readily concede—“You can never tell what hand Daddy Butch is holding!”, I’d often hear. But that fearsome inscrutability more likely comes from the fact that, at the freewheeling 10-20 cash game, I’ll bet on anything from a pocket pair of Jacks to a 7-deuce off-suit. In others words, I’m what they call a “loose and aggressive player,” possibly mad, possibly idiotic, possibly serious. I lose a lot of money playing this way (I behave much better in tournaments) but it’s worth the sight of my tablemates guessing and squirming.

But again, I almost lost that carefully crafted coolness when I heard (with better emphasis) “Were THE BEATLES really big???” It was worse, to me, than those schoolkids who asked why Mabini was chairbound throughout that whole “Heneral Luna” movie. I felt a vile sourness welling up from my gut and bubbling out of my ears and nostrils. You might forget the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and I won’t even bother you with trivia like the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Military Bases Agreement, but THE BEATLES????? (Let’s add a couple more question marks for real emphasis.)

I was too apoplectic to answer, but eventually someone on my left, a forty-something fellow who just might have been old enough to be rocked to sleep to the strains of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” said “Yes, they were big.”

“Bigger than Nirvana?” someone else chimed in.

“Yes, bigger than Nirvana.”

“Bigger than One Direction?”

“Yes, bigger than One Direction.”

“Bigger than Michael Jackson?”

“Well, maybe MJ came closest to the Beatles in popularity.”

“Actually, they even claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ,” I finally said, “and depending on the number of Muslims and Buddhists in the world at that time, it just might have been true.”

“Really, they said that? When?

“In 1966—just before they came to the Philippines.”

“They CAME to the Philippines?”

“Sure—they had a big concert here on July 4, 1966—and I ALMOST saw them!” The bile had snuck down my throat now, and I was feeling much better, given a rapt audience for one of my favorite stories.

With full relish, I recounted how the Fab Four flew into Manila, were met by screaming, fishnet-stockinged girls, offended Bongbong Marcos, and were practically chased out of the old MIA by Liberace fans who clearly believed that—at least in the Philippines—the Beatles couldn’t possibly be bigger than the Marcoses.

Somewhere in there I interjected the story of how my mother had promised a 12-year-old named Butch that they were going to see the Beatles at the Rizal Coliseum. The indulgent mother and her eager son get as far as Quiapo Boulevard from their humble abode in Pasig, whereupon she sees a new moviehouse trumpeting the wonders of Cinerama. “Let’s watch this movie instead!” the lady says, and the boy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing John, Paul, George, and Ringo standing on the stage—albeit from 1,674 feet away in the bleachers—vanish into the gutter. That afternoon, as luckier fans swoon to “Please, Please Me” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” tank fire and bazookas echo in the boy’s ears, all throughout the two hours of “The Battle of the Bulge.”

My poker playmates look at me with wide-eyed wonder—I try to read their faces, like a a poker player ought to be be able to do—but I can’t tell if they can’t believe that I’m that old, or if they’re just awed to be sitting at the same table with someone who actually breathed the same jeepney-flavored air in the same politician-infested city as the lads from Liverpool.

They got nothing on you, Beatles!

Picture-'Britain's Finest' Beatles tribute band

AND IF these memories make you feel like suiting up in your collarless jackets and zippered boots and swaying to “Eight Days a Week,” you’ll get a chance to relive the Beatles experience when one of Britain’s finest Beatles tribute bands—called, well, Britain’s Finest—come to Manila for a concert on October 14, Wednesday, at the tent of the Midas Hotel and Casino on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.

You can get your tickets (P3,800 for the VIP and P2,800 for the gold section at all SM Tickets (470-222) and TicketWorld (891-9999) outlets or via www.ticketworld.com.ph.

I’m planning to go, but I think I’ll leave my mom at home this time.

Penman No. 167: The Real Value of Remembering

Penman for Monday, September 21, 2015

TODAY MARKS the 43rd anniversary of martial law, a time many Filipinos have forgotten or would rather forget. Those of us who went through it sound like a broken record when we say that—with the usual addendum that young people today have no idea what martial law means—and the phonograph gets creakier every year, the echoes fainter. It annoys us when no one else seems to make a big deal of the most centrally formative period of our sixty-something years, but it takes just a little math to realize, “Why should they?”

Forty-three years is longer than the interlude between the two World Wars, and longer even than the time between World War II and Vietnam. In the meanwhile, the world went through computers, VCRs, the collapse of the Soviet Union, cellphones, the Internet, and 9-11. Here at home, we went through EDSAs of various kinds, Pinatubo, Maguindanao, Yolanda, and Mamasapano. That’s an awfully long time, filled with mindboggling diversions and distractions, to keep your mind fixed on a scratchy black-and-white TV image of a man in a barong casting some strange voodoo hex on the the nation.

Thus I’m hardly surprised when my 19-year-old students admit to a blithe ignorance of Marcosian times. You can’t call it amnesia, because they had no memory to begin with; even the fervent clamors of today’s young activists draw on borrowed memory (but then again, isn’t that what history is, a sense-making narrative woven out of someone else’s recollections?).

I’m not a historian, but I try to do what I can to make the past come alive for my students in my Literature and Society class—not even to educate them on the nuances of specific events such as the declaration of martial law, but simply to make them aware of a life beyond the present, beyond themselves. An interest in the past can’t be forced; sometimes the best thing we can do is to open a small window on it, and then to enlarge that opening so they can see the bigger picture, and share in the excitement and the novelty of looking backward rather than forward.

Every now and then, when the urge grabs me and there’s an excuse to do so, I bring some odds and ends from my inestimably deep trove of vintage junk to class, as tinder for discussion. A 1923 Corona typewriter leads to a chat about the technology of writing, and how technology affects writing (Eliot and his typewriter, Hemingway and his pencil, computers and revision); a 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian shows how little has changed (“Look, UP was asking for a permanent endowment even then!”); an 1830 grammar book, perhaps the oldest manmade thing these kids have ever held (yes, I pass the book around for them to get a feel of old paper), offers proof of the near-immutability of grammar (“It’s like glacial ice,” I say. “It moves, but you can’t see it.”)

A young person’s starting point very often is, “What does this have to do with me?” I try to answer that two ways: (1) “Why does it have to have anything to do with you?” Part of growing up is learning and accepting that the world isn’t your nursemaid, that it could and will often be totally indifferent to you and your little plaints. But also (2) in a gentler mood and whenever possible, we connect the dots between, say, the god Achilles and his choice of a short but glorious life and, yes, the martial-law activist who didn’t expect to live beyond 25.

Last week, I urged my class (note “urged”—I keep absolute requirements to a minimum) to watch the movie Heneral Luna—to my mind, easily one of the most significant Filipino movies of recent years. Beng and I had seen it the night before; the theater was three-quarters full, and when the movie ended, the audience applauded, the two of us included. The movie reminded me of how many gaps remained in my own appreciation of our past; if I, a full professor at UP and a self-styled history buff, didn’t know the full story of Antonio Luna, how could I expect my charges to know anything about martial law?

That leads me to think that it won’t be the textbooks or balding professors like me who will make our youth wonder about what else they missed, but the movies—or, more broadly, literature and its power to make dramatic sense of events, its humanization of history. More than four decades after the fact, not enough novels have been written and not enough movies have been made of the martial law period (Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 being the standout in both print and film). Indeed, a definitive and comprehensive history of that time—and an independent one that kowtows neither to Marcos nor to Mao—has yet to be put together, although specific aspects of martial law (legal, economic, political, and personal) have been ventilated in various books and forums.

The real value of remembering martial law or some such national calamity, I’ll hazard, isn’t just in mouthing the oft-repeated “Never again!” I seriously doubt that even those who never experienced it will accept its repetition. Rather, it’s in looking back 43 years to take stock of what we’ve become since, as individuals and as a people—in memoir writing, we call this the difference between the remembered self and the remembering self. The very fact that they’re not the same thing should tell us something. It’s easy to say “No” to martial law ca. 1972, but what exactly will we be saying “Yes” to come 2016? The past keeps getting dimmer, but then again, some days, so does the future.

Penman No. 166: Ernest Meets Nestor

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Penman for Monday, September 14, 2015

A COUPLE of months ago, I wrote a piece here about the Nobel prizewinning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s brief visit to Manila in February 1941. When my friend Dr. Erwin Tiongson read that, he sent me more materials about that brief encounter between the literary titan and his local readers, including a reference to a second visit by Hemingway on May 6, presumably on his way back to the US.

(Now based in Washington, DC and a professor of economics at Georgetown, Erwin was recently in Manila himself with his journalist wife Titchie for a vacation and a series of presentations about their fascinating project of historical sleuthing, which you can find online at https://popdc.wordpress.com. I’ll be writing more next time about the Tiongsons and their meeting with Teresa “Binggay” Montilla, the granddaughter of Philippine Commissioner to Washington Jaime C. de Veyra and his remarkable wife Sofia, about whom the Tiongsons unearthed a trove of interesting historical material.)

Meanwhile, I’d like to share a bit of what Erwin sent me, taken from the American Chamber of Commerce Journal of June 1941, unbylined but attributed to the journal’s publisher and editor, Walter Robb. It’s an account of Hemingway as a man and a regular guy—41 years old, 225 pounds, black-haired and black-eyed, whose Spanish “runs along like a garrulous brook… words never fail him, nor picturesque phrases. He likes singing Basque folk songs and he and the Basques seeing him off on the clipper sang them all the way from the Manila Hotel to Cavite….”

Farther down that article, the reporter notes that “It’s easy to get Hemingway’s autograph, just ask for it and have a pen handy…. He autographed many copies of his book while he was in town. The book has been pirated at Shanghai, of course; when one of these spurious copies, no royalty to Hemingway, came along for autographing, Hemingway grinned and autographed it. He likes to use a standard typewriter in his work, which he does of mornings, but For Whom the Bell Tolls was not written that way: it was written in longhand. Hemingway uses a heavy stub fountain pen and this longhand of his, as bold as sword strokes, but honestly legible and well-spelled, flows across the paper as straight as a line.”

I was, of course, attracted to that passage because it particularly mentioned Hemingway’s pen, which I would have dearly loved to see; but also, it talked about Hemingway signing books, which reminded me of a photograph I adverted to in my earlier column, showing Hemingway signing a book for a young Filipino writer named Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez, who in early 1941 would have been no more than 25 years old. I’d seen that picture in NVM’s house in UP when he was alive, and had worried that it might have been lost when the house burned down. But after my piece came out, I was happy to hear from NVM’s youngest daughter Lakshmi that she had posted a copy of it on her Facebook page, and I hope she doesn’t mind if I repost it here—Ernest meets Nestor, you might say.

Speaking of NVM Gonzalez, the literary community marked the centenary of his birth last Tuesday, September 8, in an evening of tributes at the Executive House at the University of the Philippines in Diliman organized by Prof. Adelaida Lucero. NVM, of course, taught with UP—among many other universities here and in the United States—for many years despite the fact that he never completed his bachelor’s degree. As director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, I was asked to say a few words at the testimonial dinner, which was attended by NVM’s widow Narita, and here’s a reconstruction of the remarks I made:

“NVM and I were born only 60 kilometers away from each other in Romblon—he on Romblon Island and I on neighboring Tablas—but also almost 40 years apart, and I never had the good fortune of being his student in UP. It’s actually my wife Beng who’s been closer to the Gonzalezes, having been Narita’s student at UP Elementary. But I had the chance to meet NVM and to enjoy his company when he returned to UP in the 1990s as International Writer-in-Residence under the auspices of what was then the UP Creative Writing Center. I had the honor of drafting his nomination as National Artist, signed by then Dean Josefina Agravante.

“Franz Arcellana was my teacher, and Bienvenido Santos and Greg Brillantes were my literary models; but it was NVM who hung out with us, whom we had fun with in our workshops in Baguio and Davao. And as advanced as he was in years, he was forward-looking and eager to learn. I remember running into him once in what was then the SM North Cyberzone, and I asked him what he was doing there. ‘I’m looking for a book on multimedia!’ he told me with that twinkle in his eyes.

“We didn’t always agree, but the one thing I can say about NVM is that he never threw his weight around, never pulled rank on us his younger associates, never thundered about how much older or more accomplished he was to suggest why he was right and we were wrong, despite his obvious seniority in age, experience, and wisdom. We appreciated that. That’s why, in the foreword to a book of essays by his friends that I edited after his death in 1999, I said that some writers are respected and admired, and others are loved. NVM was both.”

The celebration of NVM’s centenary won’t stop with that dinner—which also saw the launch, by the way, of new books on NVM: his poems, edited by Gemino Abad, and a Filipino translation of Seven Hills Away by Edgardo Maranan, published by the UP Press and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, respectively. At the end of this month, the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature will hold an exhibit of photographs of and works by him. His son Myke, based in the US, is organizing a fiction-writing workshop in January, the first half to take place in Diliman and the other in Mindoro, and the UPICW will be helping Myke out with that project.

It never ceases to amaze me how a web of words (make that a Worldwide Web, these days) can bring people together across the miles and years.

[Photo courtesy of Lakshmi Gonzalez-Yokoyama]

Penman No. 147: On Southern Seas

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Penman for Monday, May 4, 2015

“ON A CLEAR day, you can see Malaysia,” they said. And we did, from the waters off Balabac, on the southernmost tip of Palawan. At that point, approaching the lighthouse at Cape Melville, our guide pointed to a gray mass on the far horizon across the strait, and said, “That’s part of Sabah.”

We had arrived in Balabac the day before, after a six-hour ride by van from downtown Puerto Princesa to the station at Rio Tuba, and then another three- to four-hour trip by motorized boat to Balabac’s poblacion. It was an unlikely adventure for Beng and me, being the only seniors in our party that included our favorite traveling companions—my niece Susie, her husband Toto, my cousin Edith, and our good friends the Puerto-based expat innkeeper Herwig and his wife the chef and baker Theresa. We’ve been to Palawan pretty often—staying when possible with Herwig and Theresa, who run the very aptly named Amazing Villa in Aborlan just outside of Puerto—but had never been down to Balabac. An invitation from a Balabac native, Theresa’s lawyer Atty. Regidor Tulale, proved compelling enough to make us pack our bags and head out to our southern frontier.

I’ve always wondered why our tourists—both foreign and local—seem so fixated on Boracay when Palawan offers beaches just as spectacular, in contexts far more interesting than D’Mall, without the crush of tricycles and tourist vans depositing hordes on fellow visitors on the same crowded stretch of white sand. Puerto Princesa alone and the islands on Honda Bay offer enough pleasures and treasures for the urban straggler, but, as we would discover, the farther out you go, the closer you get to tropical nirvana.

There are buses that ply the 240-kilometer route from Puerto to Rio Tuba, the nickel-mining barangay in the town of Bataraza past Brooke’s Point, but it’s a trip best taken in an air-conditioned van, given the summer heat and the need—especially for the elderly—to stop at a gas station now and then for some private relief. It’s a long but pretty ride, not unlike the run up to Baguio from Manila in the distance and scenery, on a road flanked by views of cloud-topped mountains, and golden showers blooming riotously.

Rio Tuba itself seems as rough as mining towns tend to be, an impression little helped by a recent fire that gutted the area around the pier, the transit point for boats venturing on to Balabac. Nevertheless, there was a plucky, pick-me-up cheerfulness to the locals (the fire, they said, had started accidentally in one of the big stores in the neighborhood, and everyone was busy rebuilding what they had lost), and the pier at the end of a huddle of houses on the water bustled with traffic.

The boats they use in these waters are large motorized outriggers that can easily take 30 passengers, seated four or five to a row on wooden planks; they can theoretically reach Sabah in a few hours, but, we were told, these boats were prohibited from docking in Malaysian ports because their breadth took up too much berthing space; the sleeker and faster kumpit would be the vessel of choice for that voyage. There was clearly a lot of trade going on between Palawan and Sabah, judging from the stockpiles of Malaysian goods and groceries in Rio Tuba, and one had to wonder how much of that went through customs and other legal encumbrances, but we opted, I think wisely, not to ask too many questions.

The three-hour ride to Balabac itself, with one or two stopovers on the way, was smooth and pleasant. “Balabac” is the central island and town in the area, but it also broadly refers to a cluster of more than 30 islands, and you’re never too far from one of these. (“That’s owned by Senator XXX and by former President YYY,” our guide would tell us as we passed by one paradaisical isle after another.) The glassine sea challenged the poet to come up with all variables of blue and green, and with some luck—not that day—dolphins were known to swim alongside the boats.

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Balabac’s town proper was small and compact, with one main street along which shops selling clothes and groceries huddled; the largest and most impressive building in town, aside from the municipio, was the Coast Guard quarters, a sign of how important patrolling these waters was. The local tribe, the Molbog, are said to have migrated from North Borneo and have their own dialect, but what surprised me throughout this visit was how widely Tagalog (or, more accurately in a national context, Filipino) was spoken, even by the locals among themselves.

You won’t have any problems choosing a place to stay, because there’s only one public lodging house in Balabac, above and adjacent to the Sing and Swing Karaoke Bar. Maybe not the best prescription for a good night’s sleep, as some of my companions would discover, but for P300 per room a night with shared toilets and baths (P100 per extra person), you can’t complain.

What to do in Balabac, aside from shopping for Malaysian chocolates and biscuits? Why, island-hopping, of course, and dining on the plentiful fish, which we did the next day, taking a boat out to Candaraman Island and dipping into the cool clear water beside the small seaweed farms cultivated by the people for their livelihood. Unfortunately, the low tide prevented us from docking and marching up to the century-old lighthouse on Cape Melville, but we did get that glimpse of Malaysia along the way, in a day that culminated in one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen.

As the darkness deepened around us, we sat quietly along the dock, watching the southern summer sky. Above us blazed Venus, a solitary sparkle; down to its left, as if a genie had conjured it up with a wave of his hand, emerged a crescent moon. It was a long way from home, but a sight well worth the journey.

Penman No. 143: A Foray into Fairyland (2)

IMG_7281Penman for Monday, April 6, 2015

LAST WEEK’S piece on “Fairlyand”—the mountain of Calatong in my home province of Romblon—elicited quite a bit of interest among my readers, and I was very pleased with the response until my mother, who grew up around the place, called my attention to a potentially lethal mistake I’d made in my retelling of my cousins’ and aunts’ stories about that enchanted kingdom. (I’m thinking that “lethal” might depend on whether you believe in spirits or not, and I don’t, but talk like this always reminds me of a conversation I had with a sharp old nun whom I met in one of my Italian sojourns, who said: “The question isn’t “Do you believe in God?’ but rather ‘Does God believe in you?’”)

The mistake I’d apparently made was in saying that eating quinta, or black mountain rice, was an antidote to fairy spells. “It actually works the other way around,” my mother told me in our little garden in Diliman. “They’ll offer you black rice, and if you eat even a handful of it, they’ll take you to Calatong and you’ll never be seen again.” So folks, be so advised; beware of strangers offering black rice, although it’s not very likely you’ll be seeing any soon. The last time I saw truly black rice was in an American grocery store in the Midwest, where it was being sold as Indian wild rice, and cost considerably more than any other exotic variety on the shelf. But then maybe that preciousness implies more than a smidgen of magic. If black rice banishes people to oblivion, I’d like to buy a sack of it, whatever the cost, to feed to certain politicians before 2016.

Which returns us to the more prosaic realities of modern-day Romblon. Not too many people, even Filipinos, know about Romblon, which if they ever board a ship for Panay they’re likely to pass unseen in the night, after Mindoro. It’s composed of three main islands—Tablas, Sibuyan, and Romblon—and was a sub-province of Capiz during Spanish times. As Philippine provinces go, it’s a pretty small one, with less than 300,000 people (excluding encantos), and my favorite quote about it comes from Jose Rizal via NVM Gonzalez (who was born in Romblon in 1915), who passed it on his way back to Manila from exile in Dapitan, remarking that it was “muy hermosa pero muy triste.”

Much of the hermosa part remains. On this first long visit home in two decades, we took an SUV around Tablas, a day trip I’d never taken before, and I was awestruck by how lovely the place was, fringed by one emerald cove after another. I lost no time in telling my friends to consider Romblon as a vacation alternative to Batanes, Palawan, and Boracay.

Indeed, Boracay’s a short hop away by motorized banca, and being on the other side of the same oceanic basin, Romblon is also blessed with many white beaches, most of them yet undiscovered. (All these islands and their people belong to one ecosystem, as it were, their languages familiar to one another, though subtly different; my paternal grandfather must have come from the Dalisays of Ibajay, Aklan, where a playwright named Marianito Dalisay Calizo wrote moro-moros in the mid-1700s.)

Some of these natural getaways have been found out, and the developers and entrepreneurs have begun streaming in, and foreigners with Filipino wives have been buying up prime beachfront property for a fraction of Boracay prices. (The best fish catch in Romblon still goes to Boracay, where it can fetch two to three times as much.)

One happy discovery we made was just a 15-minute ride from my hometown of Alcantara: Aglicay Beach, owned and managed by an affable balikbayan doctor, which offers a white-sand beach, great snorkeling, and spectacular hilltop views, all within a resort with the usual amenities, including conference facilities and wi-fi. You’ll have to pay the admission fee, though—all of 30 pesos. (To know more, check out www.aglicaybeachresort.com.)

The triste part, I don’t know. There’s certainly enough to be sad about, as much of Romblon remains painfully poor. On the other hand, the tougher things get, the harder many Romblomanons work, with their brains if not with their hands. I was puzzled by the knot of schoolchildren who gathered in front of our beachside house at dawn every morning—they carried their shoes rather than wore them—until I realized that they had walked over barefoot from a nearby island at low tide. I would later learn that one child, barely nine, had drowned this way when the tide came back in too quickly. But there was no fear in these survivors’ faces, only an insistent resolve that now and then would fracture into laughter.

We were roused one morning by the thump-thump-thump of techno music in the plaza. “They’re just testing the sound system,” said our host. “It’ll be fiesta soon.” They called the uncanny practice of waking every one up pag-di-diana, and I thought that it might have had something to do with Paul Anka’s karaoke staple.

A few other discoveries I learned on this trip were rather more personal. I had always wondered why I had spent such a long summer there as a ten-year-old in 1964—an experience I recounted in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place—and I learned that it was because we were then so hard up in Manila that we children had to be farmed out, as it were, to save some money. My aunts recalled me as a smart but prissy boy who wore long-sleeved shirts in a seaside village and who would recite long poems in English at the drop of a hat.

We also solved the mystery of why my grandmother Pinang left my Lolo Tolio in the mid-1920s shortly after marrying him and giving birth to my father Jose. It had been something of a forced marriage to begin with, and Pinang was a headstrong woman, but the story we heard was that she hated being made to serve hot chocolate when some constables came visiting one day, and took that as the last straw and left. (They would live a kilometer apart for the next 60 years, and would inevitably run into each other in town but never speak.) Now it emerged that Tolio was having a saucy little affair—an explanation that makes Lola Pinang much less petulant than the chocolate story would make her out to be.

Whether sad or funny, it felt good to hear and to understand these stories again in Romblomanon without having to defer to my wife’s more widely spoken Hiligaynon, to say udi instead of diri, basi instead of ngaa; it’s still palangga in both languages. I felt at home.

Penman No. 142: A Foray into Fairyland

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2015

LIKE I promised to do after an all-too-brief overnight sortie last January, I returned to my birth province of Romblon a couple of weeks ago—my first real visit home in almost 20 years—for a full week of catching up with a barangay of cousins, uncles, and aunts, some of whom hadn’t seen me since I was a boy.

But the family reunions and the endless festivities aside, what stood out on this trip was a foray into Fairyland—a highly unusual detour for this hardcore skeptic, who nevertheless went gamely along for the ride, and who came out richly rewarded with fairy tales if not with actual encounters with the other kind.

You won’t see it in any of the tourist guidebooks, and you might need to know the cousin of a cousin to navigate safely around the place. They call it Calatong—a word for which, in the local dialect of Guinbiraynon, there seems to be no precise translation, but it’s otherwise known even to the place’s youngsters as fairyland, the mountain inhabited by encantos, the enchanted ones. It dominates this corner of Romblon’s largest island of Tablas, both physically and culturally; from far at sea, Calatong’s tall hump offers an unmistakable landmark; by land, along the winding dirt road from Alcantara to Guinbirayan, it rises on your left, a massive mystery, although it might take some time and tuba to get the stories about Calatong flowing through the conversation.

I had seen and known about Calatong from my earliest years in Guinbirayan—my mother’s hometown—and even on this most recent visit, it was the first thing I would see outdoors when I stepped out of the house at daybreak, because the sun would emerge from behind it like a glowing crown above a dark and brooding head.

But I had never gone out there, although it seemed close enough to walk from where I stood on the shore. On this trip, at age 61, I told myself that it was now or never, and on the appointed morning we rode out to Calatong, but not before Letty, the retired schoolteacher who kindly hosted us, armed each one of us with a sliver of ginger. My mother Emy, now 86, had not been back to Calatong since she was a nine-year-old schoolgirl on a field trip with her class. “My teacher never let me out of her sight the whole time we were here,” my mother said as we parked the SUV as far up the dirt road as it could go. We walked up to the shore and took a banca over the glassine water—now turquoise, now emerald—to view the mountain from the sea, turning back only when the waves grew choppy.

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It’s said that during the War, when the Japanese flew over Calatong, they saw a brightly lit city, but then found nothing on the ground. This gave rise to the legend of Calatong as a ciudad, the name by which many of the locals still call it.

Somewhere in that sylvan cosmopolis was a waterfalls or a spring they called Labhang Dalaga, or “where the maidens washed,” from which flowed bubbly water, fragrant as if it had carried soap. We didn’t venture far enough inland to catch this frothy spectacle, but the rocks did sparkle in the sun in Calatong, as we were told they would; it was easy to see that the rocks were granitic, and contained liberal inclusions of quartz and mica, among other shiny minerals.

The mountain resists poachers and souvenir-hunters unless they’re locals who respectfully ask permission. They say that a woman who picked up a black rock and brought it home was horrified to find that the rock, left in her bathroom, had turned into a snake. A man who reportedly dug up oil and brought it out would find his precious discovery turning to water. There’s talk of siphoning water from Calatong to serve the nearby barangays, but already there’s grumbling about irregularities in the process, and about the likely consequences of displeasing the spirits.

The encantos, our cousins said, were fair-skinned, and one way of ascertaining who they were was to note the absence of a philtrum—that depression in the skin on your upper lip beneath your nose. The encantos liked to come to town to join the dances during the fiesta, when beautiful strangers typically appeared from nowhere, enjoying themselves and charming the locals. The encantos seemed to particularly favor the pretty nurses from far away who came to serve in Romblon as part of their martial-law-era YCAP duties. The antidote to their charms was to eat quinta, or black mountain rice; marriage to a local boy also seemed to ward off any further claims by the spirits—so swore my cousin Fred, who thereby met and married his wife Nanette.

You had to be careful about whom you made friends with, as a boy would realize when he accompanied his new friend home, and made the Sign of the Cross to be on the safe side of things—only to suddenly find himself hanging from the limbs of a tree. The townspeople would also see their neighbors jumping out their windows—and these neighbors would later return with fantastic stories about riding golden chariots over the mountaintops.

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The most persistent story also happens to be the most fantastic one, its incredibility only magnified by the insistence of the storytellers upon its veracity. Among those storytellers was an aunt-figure we’ve always known as Manang Munday, who recounted her story at the dining table, thusly:

One mid-afternoon in 1942, when she was in the fourth grade, Manang Munday heard a large commotion brewing and joined a throng of people rushing to the Guinbirayan shore. There, she says, she and the others saw a light-colored ship—the kind that plied the Romblon-Manila route—with the name “COSME YAP” brightly emblazoned in gold letters on its side. It sailed behind Calatong, but when the people tried to follow it and view it from afar, it was nowhere to be found. Years later the villagers would swear that they had heard the sound of an anchor chain being unwound in the night from the direction of Calatong.

Cosme Yap was my maternal grandfather, a merchant and a goldsmith, one of the richest citizens of Guinbirayan in his time. Lolo Cosme did own a sailboat, a batel as they call it in those parts, but it rather dramatically sank in a storm on its maiden voyage, Titanic-like (his wealth survived the catastrophe, but how it eventually vanished is another novel unto itself, albeit an unimaginatively prosaic one). The boat and the gold probably explain the persistence of this tale, and of its variations. Relatives say that when my Aunt Nieves was close to death, she had a vision of Lolo Cosme coming to fetch her in a golden airplane.

Again, unlike my sweet Beng who’s wired to the Universe, I don’t believe in spirits—but if something golden flashes before my eyes in my final hour, at least I’d have an inkling where that was coming from.

Penman No. 137: The Other Filipino Values

Penman for Monday, February 23, 2015

 

DURING THIS most recent US visit, I had a chance to have a chat over a few beers with Ray Ricario, the older brother of our daughter Demi’s husband Jerry, and with some of Ray’s friends. Born in the US to parents from Albay, Ray’s a retired naval officer and an entrepreneur. He and his family are registered albeit moderate Republicans—as you might expect of Filipino immigrants steeped in a proud military tradition—and Ray knows that Beng and I are passionate liberals, so we have a lively but always civil conversation going about current events in the US, the Philippines, and around the world.

More often than not we end up agreeing on more things than we disagree on, especially when it comes to strengthening ties between Filipinos and Americans, and raising the profile of the Philippines in America. I always look forward to meeting with Ray, not the least because he and his wife Lorie are unfailingly gracious hosts and we both love beer and barbecue.

Our last conversation revolved around a common concern: the preservation of Filipino values and their transmission to the next generation of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. As the father of three children, Ray feels strongly about the need for them to have some vital cultural connection to the old country, even as they join—as they should and inevitably will—the American mainstream. The others around our table lamented how Filipino values seemed to be eroding among the Filipino-American youth, but were rightfully proud at the same time of their efforts to preserve them. One of the ways mentioned was the practice of taking the hand of one’s elder to one’s forehead in a gesture of respect—our famous and unique “mano po.”

That was fine and laudable, I said, but it also got me thinking about what other values we seek to pass on to our young, aside from the respect we expect and sometimes demand of them. I had to wonder what a young Filipino-American, told by his dad or mom to do mano to an older Filipino stranger entering the room, would be feeling at that moment of contact—would that be genuine respect, or a grudging sense of obligation, accompanied by a shudder at the external silliness of the deed?

The mano po is a wonderful tradition (even though, to be honest, you hardly see it being done anymore even in Manila), and those of us who still practice it know and understand that the value it embodies is respect for one’s elders. But how well is that value valued in such a place as America, where the native-born young—without necessarily meaning to be disrespectful or impertinent—might see things (such as authority) differently? How well can values and traditions carry over in another context—or sometimes, without the context that gave them meaning in the first place?

I suggested that perhaps “respect for elders” could itself be revisited and explained in a way that young people today (as we ourselves were, not too long ago) could better understand and accept. Having been social rebel in my own youth, I refuse to see “respect for elders” as the blind acceptance of the authority of the old; that will only ingrain resentment and resistance. I’d rather take and present it as a willingness to listen, an acceptance of the possibility (however remote it may seem to a 16-year-old) that this older person might actually have something sensible and useful to share with you. When I do the mano po, I accept you—in all my youthful arrogance—as my equal.

That brought me to other Filipino values—both of a philosophical and practical sort—that I don’t think we emphasize enough, whether in America or at home. I’d argue that principled resistance is one of them. We’ve had a long tradition of protest and rebellion against tyranny, injustice, and bondage, as our many revolutionary heroes will bear out—but instead we seem to emphasize acceptance and acquiescence, in the desire not to give offense or to create conflict. That’s why we wear our crown of thorns with misguided pride, sometimes reveling more in our capacity for suffering rather than addressing its causes.

Our table talk didn’t get this far, but I could have proposed two more—and truly practical values—to push among the young today on both sides of the Pacific.

The first is respect for food—especially in America, where so much of it goes around, and goes to waste. This can be one of the most personal and practical applications of a social conscience—don’t take or order more than what you can eat, and finish what’s on your plate. For Beng and me, that especially applies to rice, having which we always take as a privilege. If we can’t finish our meal at a restaurant, we have it wrapped up—even that half cupful of rice—and bring it home, or hand it over to some needier person on the street.

The second is cleanliness and tidiness. We Filipinos like to keep ourselves and our surroundings clean and neat, and it’s important that we do this by ourselves. Growing up as children, our day literally began by folding our mats and mosquito nets; even if we didn’t have much, we never saw poverty as an excuse for becoming slovenly. Want to promote democracy? Teach the señorito to clean up after himself; forget any thoughts of achieving national greatness if we can’t even discipline ourselves.

Knowing Ray and seeing what a wonderful family he has, I know that I’m not shouting in the wind when I bring up these notions. I wish he’d vote for Hillary, but that’s another topic for another day.

Penman No. 135: Democracy and Cultural Expression

DSC_0024Penman for Monday, February 9, 2015

 

I SPENT the past two weeks as a Pacific Leadership Fellow at the School of International and Pacific Relations of the University of California, San Diego, and the highlight of my fellowship was a 40-minute talk I gave on the general topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting Modernization in the Philippines.” The PLF—usually a government or business leader from the Asia-Pacific region—is asked to make a public presentation to a large audience composed of academic and community representatives, to introduce and discuss major issues facing his or her society.

I felt it safer to presume that the non-Filipino members of my audience last January 28 knew very little about Philippine history and politics, so I began with a broad overview of that history, bringing things to the present and the medium-term horizon, considering both our strengths and resources—noting the robustness of our recent economic growth—but also the longstanding inequalities and structural weaknesses that continue to hold us back. Here’s a slightly edited excerpt from the rest of my talk:

We have to pause and wonder exactly what kind of democracy we have in the Philippines, and what needs to be done—particularly on the cultural front—to achieve a fuller sense of the word.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Philippine democracy a sham, because most Filipinos enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms absent in patently undemocratic societies—freedom of expression, of association, of mobility, of enterprise; the right to vote, and a presumptive equality under the law. But that presumption is also the weakest leg our democracy stands on, undermined by gross economic and social inequalities in our society showing Philippine democracy as more a democracy of style and spirit than one of substance.

Indeed, economically and politically, the Philippines has been ruled for more than a century by an elite, a roomful of families from the landed gentry and comprador capitalists who developed their wealth and power as agents and executors of colonization, and have taken turns at governing the country well into the present.

We cannot have true democracy without achieving a better balance in our economic and social structure, and its best hope in the Philippines could be in our enlarging middle class. They may not yet have the economic and political clout of the elite, but coming from the poor and aspiring in their own way to become more prosperous, they have the most at stake in creating a new regime of opportunity and fairness.

It is the middle class that has served as the voice of Philippine democracy, primed by its education to value freedom of thought and expression. It is the middle class that stands at the vanguard of modernization, having not just the desire but also the means—through education and entrepreneurship—to change the future.

… One out of every ten Filipinos now lives and works abroad in a decades-long diaspora that has kept the Philippine economy afloat through remittances amounting to more than $25 billion in 2013. But they bring home not only money but new ideas, and I feel confident that, in the long run and for all its social costs, this diaspora will have salutary effects because that domestic helper in Milan or plumber in Bahrain will no longer be simply a domestic helper or plumber when they come home. Tourists bring home snapshots of pretty places and exotic food; foreign workers bring home real learning, lessons in survival and getting ahead, and raised expectations of their local and national leaders.

This exposure to global culture and its elevation of local aspirations will be a major force in reshaping the Filipino future. And again, it is the middle class—the dwellers of the Internet and the Ulysses of this new century—that will lead in this transformation, just as they have led the most important movements for political and social reform in our history.

… One of the bright spots of Philippine society today is the fact that civil society is very much alive, constantly on guard against governmental or corporate abuse and wrongdoing, ever ready to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens and communities, and firmly rooted in those communities. It has stood at the forefront of the movement to fight corruption, which recently came to a new climax with the explosive revelation of a billion-peso pork-barrel scam going all the way to the Senate and even possibly higher.

One of the greatest challenges of our modernization may be that of electoral reform—not just a reform of the electoral process, but a reform of the voter’s mind—not to vote for popular candidates, but to vote wisely, to see the vote as a chance to short-circuit a historical process and to lay claim to one’s equality and patrimony.

And this is where culture comes in, as an instrument of social and political reform and modernization. If we look at culture more proactively not just as a way of living but a way of thinking, then there is much room for the promotion of true democracy through cultural expression.

By cultural expression I don’t mean simply the writing of stories, poems, plays, and essays, which is what I do most days, partly as my civic duty. I mean the use of all media at our disposal—the arts, the press, the Internet, whatever can influence the Filipino mind—to forge and sustain a set of core values, of national interests that cut across family, class, and region.

Of course, we can take “cultural expression” in its more popular and familiar forms—stories, poems, plays, music, painting, and dance, among others—as gestures toward the idea of a larger, national culture. After all, with every poem or painting, the artist seeks to palpate, from an audience of citizens, a sense of what is common and what is important—or to put it both ways, what is commonly important and what is importantly common. This has always been the social value and the political mission of art—not just as a means of self-expression, but of establishing, affirming, and promoting certain commonalities of thought and feeling.

… We need nothing less than a new cultural revolution—focused on the assertion of the ordinary citizen’s rights over power and privilege, on the importance of the rule of law, and on our understanding and acceptance of what it means to be a Filipino in this globalized world. Forging that sense of national identity is crucial to securing our future, again in a world and in a part of the world where the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Americans seem to have very clear ideas about their roles and capabilities. In this ocean of resurgent nationalisms, we Filipinos need to redefine ourselves as more than America’s students and surrogates.

In sum, much remains to be done to lend more substance to Philippine democracy in terms of addressing age-old economic and social inequalities. But the first field of battle exists in the mind and spirit, and the first campaign in this battle, the first declaration of freedom, has to be an act of the imagination.

I prefer to see democracy as a process rather than a product; the aspiration can be as powerful as its actualization. This democracy is first formed by its assertion: by seeking democracy, we begin to achieve it, and this assertion is the task of our artists, writers, thinkers, and opinion makers, the imaginative shapers of our national identity.