Sunday, October 26, 2008

Amorsolo and the Birds

It is late at night and I am exhausted. I really should get some sleep as I am facing another hell of a week in a series of hell weeks. Today, for the first time in a really, really long time, I have decided to fail an NGO I am working with by not submitting an article I promised to contribute.

I am in dangerous territory here. My over-developed superego is screaming: "there will be dire consequences for you and the entire international feminist movement!!!!!"

But this triumph over guilt and compulsion comes from something I did this afternoon. Something I promised I would write about instead of the TRULY IMPORTANT AND EARTHSHAKING 25 year anniversary of a global network on reproductive rights.

I went to the University of the Philippines Vargas Museum and enjoyed the exhibit of Amorsolo paintings. (See it, it's lovely and historical and has much more even for those who for some reason cannot enjoy Amorsolo's stupendous evocations of light.)

Then I went birdwatching. The lovely people at the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines( gave us a free guided tour right on the UP Campus. According to their brochures, the Philippines has a 600 species and UP Campus has at least 100 of them.

It's funny that having grown up on the campus, and now ending up teaching there, I am only beginning to appreciate a whole other universe that has surrounded me for most of life.

I am afraid I cannot recall the names of the kites, the shrikes, the swallows, the woodpeckers and the doves that were pointed out. I can't recall which one was white-necked or yellow-bellied or long-tailed. I recall the white necked one was really beautifully colored and wondered why they would name it after the little swath of white on its neck. I recall seeing what is called in Tagalog a "batobato" which is the name of the street one corner down from where I live.

I made one of the guides laugh by calling a piece of birdwatching equipment, "that fancy thing".

But it was glorious. Having grown up on the campus I know how beautiful it is. Despite the encroachments of the city it remains a haven for nature and thereby, the birds.

UP campus at dusk is also my absolutely most wonderful place to be. As far back as I can remember I would take walks in the Campus at twilight.

All the birds I saw where sweet and seemingly non-aggressive creatures. Except that someone said that the bulbuls flew away because a kingfisher came. But it did not seem as if there was any harm done.

Anyway, I prefer to keep my fantasy of those sweet harmless birds. I have to deal with an an unethical woman in my work life these days, and I have much to do before I can stop working with her. So it was a treat to be away from the mud-slinging, innuendos and hypocrisy of pot-bellied, yellow-spined, chattering humans to watch those sweet, yellow-bellied, white-throated and long-tailed birds and hear their odes to nature.

I think I will buy me one of those fancy things and set it up in my UP office. My only real goal: to spot a yellow-bellied something or other for myself.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


My work involves a fair amount of travel abroad. I guess this makes me a business traveler. But I am not rewarded with multimillion dollar bonuses and perks like the heads of those investment banks who have managed to imperil the world's financial systems. I am not rewarded like those World Bank people who have caused so much misery by their failed economic policies. I am not even rewarded like those police generals of the Philippines who went to an Interpol conference in Russia recently and were caught carrying 100,000 EUROS which they said was the unspent portion of their contingency fund.

In short, I am sour graping because I always travel coach. Always. So I make grape juice out of sour grapes. Outward bound, I am often seated beside the seaman or nanny or cleaning woman working abroad. I have learned many things from them and sometimes have been of some help. I will never forget the young woman who was going to Singapore to become a maid and who was upset about a last minute payment demanded by the recruiter at the boarding gate. She had no money and was also unsure about why they checked in her bag. Though I was not getting off at Singapore, I had an unused phone card from a previous visit. I gave that to her, US$ 20 that I could spare and my mobile number. I also assured her that her bag would be at the airport and explained to her how airport procedures work. Crisis counseling all the way to Singapore.

But my real intellectual treat is going home. Naturally the economy section is full of Filipinos. Up there in the sky; under the flag of whatever nation the airline is registered in; made equal by the fact that we are all given the same service and privileges of economy class; divested for the moment of our degrees and ranks and most of our possessions---Filipinos still manage to impose on themselves a sophisticated form of social stratification. It took me years of travel to figure out but it is there. Of course the lowest rung is occupied by overseas Filipino workers in blue collar jobs. This rung is further stratified by the type of blue collar work of course, with the women entertainers looked down upon. The next rung is occupied by the viajeras who are based in the Philippines and go off to Singapore or Hongkong to buy things for their shops. The next rung is occupied by returning white collar workers and students. Next, people who have more or less permanent jobs in the US, Europe or Canada and are on the way to citizenship. Then, Filipinos who have become citizens of these nations. Also at the top are Filipinas who have gained their citizenship by marrying Canadian or American or European men. This is a special category because many of the mixed race couples are in first of business class if the man is wealthy. But people try to distinguish white collar Filipinas who married white collar foreigners from gold diggers who married a foreigner.

I am sorry to be so blunt. None of these categories are my own and I certainly decry the fact that female entertainers of any sort are put down. I do not think that everyone in the plane subscribes to this nonsense, though I doubt whether anyone is completely unconscious of it. Was not this sort of elitism in air travel by a former columnist the subject of protest sometime this year?

Anyway, the intellectual treat involves observing how this system is put into place. How culture and behavior are caught up in a system of signification that re-establishes class and gender differences.

I will never forget the Filipino woman who spent our entire trip from San Francisco warning her white male seatmate about the heat, the chaos and irrationality of "people in Manila". From her exaggerated American twang, I figured she was not a second generation Filipino American, but a newly naturalized one. Her loud comments eventually led me to confirm this.

I will never forget as well the time when the Narita-Manila section of my flight from the US got severely delayed. Classes fell immediately in with each other as we spent the long hours of waiting together. OFWs hang around with other OFWs. Seamen banded with other seamen who flirted and patronized with the Japayukis. The Fil-Americans and Fil-Europeans stayed together. I decided to hang around with the OFWs who assumed I worked as a nanny until someone decided to clarify the off-vibe they were getting by asking me what exactly I did. When they learned I was teaching at a university, the social relations changed a bit. Luckily where I teach has a reputation for serving the Filipino people. Filipinos being very gracious and friendly folk, I was "re-accepted" into the group. But they treated me not as a familiar but with mixed amounts of deference for my position and amusement at my obvious choice of hanging out with them. Seamen began offering me imported cigarettes and the women started offering me cologne at the 6th hour of our waiting. Unlike the columnist mentioned earlier, I prefer the honesty of simple folk to the pretentiousness of the spoiled Filipino elite. At least with this bunch, no privileges are assumed, none of us are spoiled by the benefits of unmerited entitlements. Indeed, we all had a sense that we there despite the absence of anyone's helping hand.

My point is that our poor, feudal and oppressive society survives on schooling people from an early age in the intricacies of a hierachical social system. The children of the poor are taught early to fall into subordinate positions and subservient attitudes. This is a scourge on the self esteem of the majority poor. It is also a scourge on the moral foundations of the children of the Filipino wealthy.

Most of all it is a scourge on our well being as a nation because democracy thrives only when each person believes deeply that they are of equal worth and have access to the same basic privileges.

Yesterday a poll came out that the majority of Filipinos are supportive of reproductive health initiatives and the proposed reproductive health bill being deliberated in Congress, despite their understanding of the Roman Catholic Church's opposition. In response a Roman Catholic Bishop said that morality was not a popularity contest. He forgets that the Church also says that each person's conscience is fundamental to moral judgment and must be respected greatly.
This is one of the most profoundly democratic element of the Church's teachings. Indeed, the sense of the faithful is meant to guide the Church. The Bishops are guilty of a horrendous sense of elitism and have been that way since the time of Spanish colonialism. The Church's patriarchy survives because the Bishops believe we are all their caciques in the fields of moral righteousness.