What’s in a Name?

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Christine Mae Calima (5th from right) with her comrades in the 2016 graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy

Who are Pia Wurtzbach, Cherrypie Picache, Empress Schuck, and Christine Mae Calima? The first is a no-brainer; all Filipinos know she’s last year’s Miss Universe, and the celebrity culture has always been alive and well in this country.

Sober or bizarre, one’s name is one’s most treasured possession. When I once took the course of Teaching English as a Second Language for Hong Kong students, I learned a riddle for young learners: “What belongs to you but other people use it more than yourself?” It was a real puzzler, and when they were told the answer, “Your name,” everyone said, “Of course!”

One’s name is truly one’s brand. Nowadays name recognition is very important because it upholds one’s individualism, especially among egotists (for example, Donald Trump). Notorious celebrities and eminent personages are instantly recognizable. Making a name for oneself drives many humans forward.

Today’s pervasive media which foster the celebrity culture means that Pia Wurtzbach’s name is better known around the archipelago than Christine Mae Calima’s. This is because the latter has barely had publicity despite her fine achievement at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), where she placed second in the 2016 graduating class.

It may be natural for a country like the Philippines that struggles with its lopsided economy to be fixated on beauty contests because these provide dreams of celebrity for many folks faced with the daily struggle to survive. Doubtless, Filipino beauty queens, even those with foreign fathers, make many of us believe that our pretty women put the country “on the map,” as was said of Imelda Marcos in her heyday. People who feel the nation lacks real champions feel a sense of national pride, which is why boxer Manny Pacquiao is seen as a hero despite his many flaws.

Sadly, not much attention has been paid to Miss Calima, whose life seems to have been dedicated mainly to her studies. While the media focused on the winners of various Miss Universe pageants, half-German Pia Wurtzbach was hailed like a conquering hero. But no one praised a young Pangasinan girl for her academic and military achievements.

Because Miss Wurtzbach is leggy and busty (something unknown in our society’s early Maria Clara days), her triumph has been viewed as a great achievement. The media binged on her long “struggle” to learn the ropes of modeling, high fashion and cosmetology, and the overblown prose over every bit of trivia in a Filipino woman’s reaching the apex of Hollywood perfection highlights the usual emphasis on the Western concepts of beauty, to the detriment of Asians. It showed the Filipino penchant for popular entertainment, beside which serious academic achievement pales.

In her few media interviews, Miss Calima was reported as long having hankered to enter the PMA and having consistently earned top marks in her early studies. Placing second in the PMA’s graduating class was no mean feat for the determined young lady.

Interestingly, one of Miss Calima’s colleagues in the lineup of top graduates (who placed fourth) proudly bears the name of Joseph Stalin Fagsao, whose father thought that Russian dictator was “a great leader.” Indeed, other Filipinos sport equally extraordinary names: One of Pacquiao’s daughters was christened Queen Elizabeth, a Cebu reporter goes by the name of Princess Dawn Felicitas, and then there’s a Davao newspaper columnist named Mussolini Lidasan. For a country that has elected officials like Vice President Jejomar (Jesus/Joseph/Mary) Binay to high office, this is perfectly normal.

It’s nice to have a sober name like Christine Mae as a role model in a society awash in names like Bongbong, Dingdong, Jocjoc and other colorful monikers. It shows that Filipinos shun the drab and don’t mind the absurd because it makes them stand out among the crowd of plebeians.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Feb. 5, 2017 –

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Crooning on the cross in 2017

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The crucifixion scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

 

The past year has been a messy muddle for masochists who seemed to revel in it, but we really should stop fretting about what’s in store for the new year. Worrying about what 2017 will bring, thinking it’s the end of life as we’ve known it, won’t get us anywhere.

Let me hark back to the time at the turn of the century when 1999 was ending and folks worried that clocks would stop, nothing would function, and the planet would be in chaos. I was working in Berkeley, California, then (my favorite place in the United States which some people unkindly call “Berzerkley”), and I’d go to an internet café to check my e-mail. The place was run by savvy young Indians, and when I voiced my alarm over reports of impending doom predicted by the naysayers—social media was still not rampant then even though the bright boys some miles down in Silicon Valley were tweaking their techie talents—I was told by the young proprietor, “Don’t worry, we Indians have got things under control. Clocks will keep ticking and everything else will function smoothly as always.”

He said it with such confidence that I was reassured. True enough, when I woke up as Jan. 1, 2000, dawned with the arrival of the new millennium, there were no cataclysmic results. The worst that happened was many folks wasting paper by still writing “1999” instead of “2000.”

Today, when so many worriers are gnawing at their nails about the end of history, with some even contemplating suicide, let me dispense a term of Teutonic wisdom: “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung!” It’s several German words rolled into one that means, more or less, struggling to overcome past traumas. It may have been Nietzsche who intoned that portentous term, but whoever the wise guy was who coined it certainly nailed it.

We’ve had a train of traumas to last us till the next millennium, but as in that wonderful ditty “Look on the bright side!” sung by Brian as he hung on the cross on Calvary alongside a couple of thieves beside Jesus Christ, we really should try to be optimistic. (For those born yesterday, the scene was in the British film “The Life of Brian” by the Monty Python gang.)

Meanwhile in our benighted nation, we have had such a heap of hard knocks, thanks to our new fork-tongued leader who keeps his subjects on tenterhooks with his blowtorch babble, that we tend to forget the equally benighted Americans who are themselves experiencing dreadful ructions under an even more obnoxious oaf soon to occupy the Oval Office.

It’s a dismal state of affairs for humankind, but we ought to view it, like the cheery Brian, as a comedy for citizens crooning on their crosses.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Feb. 5, 2017 –

A Numbered Life

Chi Ma Wan prison on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Chi Ma Wan prison on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

It can be pretty jarring to find, one day, that you’ve lost your name in Hong Kong and will henceforth be known as “Sam-ling-yat-yat-lok-pak.” That’s what happened to Nida Naturan (not her real name) when she wound up at the Chimawan Correctional Institution on Lantau Island not too long ago. She was told she would be identified as #301168 while serving her six-month sentence.

Having steeled herself ever since she finally decided to turn herself in to the Immigration Department, Nida, accompanied by two weepy friends, was fully prepared to face her ordeal. After all she’d stayed in Hong Kong for 12 years with an expired visa and passport, surreptitiously working at parttime jobs while lying low and ducking the police. That was after her Chinese employers suddenly emigrated to Canada and left her with just two weeks in which to find a new job. But she dithered and wasted time haggling with various employment agencies over their placement fees which, in this hard-nosed town, range from HK$8,000 to $12,000.  In the meantime her savings and three different house-cleaning jobs were only enough to cover her meals and a bunk-bed at a Sheung Wan boardinghouse, so she decided to tough it out and live underground in Asia’s World City, as Hong Kong styles itself.

Once she surrendered herself at the Immigration Department in Kowloon Bay, Nida expected to be subjected to stern grilling, as well as a lot of finger-wagging – which is what happens to lawbreakers in her home country. Instead she found that Hong Kong officials are not just dispassionate, they’re coolly efficient. She couldn’t believe they didn’t look angry and even seemed bored by her tale of woe (perhaps, she thought, because they’re used to dealing with many other over-stayers).

When she approached the counter and greeted the official there, he asked “What’s your problem?” So she told him. He took down her personal details in a deadpan manner and asked “Why did you overstay for 12 years?” She replied, “Because I needed to earn money for my sick father” (which was true).

The man scribbled some more, then gave her an official-looking piece of paper and told her to report back the following week. She looked at him incredulously because where she hails from, anyone not jailed immediately after confessing to a crime or misdemeanor and told to return in a week would be gone with the wind. That’s easy to do in a country with lots of islands one can hide in (officially numbered as 7,107) but not likely in Hong Kong (which only has 235, most of them uninhabitable).

Nida had fully expected to be fined and deported forthwith, so ending up in prison the following week after she reported back was pretty shocking. She was detained for two days at the Tai Lam Women’s Remand Centre where, to her bewilderment, she was examined vaginally — later she remembered hearing that some of her compatriots arrested over the years had had their private parts probed for drugs, the sort of smuggling of which she would never dream of doing. Then she was taken to the Shatin Magistracy where she was stunned to hear her sentence pronounced — “Six months’ detention for breach of condition of stay.”

When she was put on board a police launch at a Kowloon pier, along with a dozen other Southeast Asian women, Nida learned that they were headed for a Lantau Island prison. Once there, their bags were confiscated and they were shown the dormitory, their assigned bunks and daily work schedules; they were given baggy brown checkered prison outfits and small packets of toiletries. And Nida was given the numbers that were to be her name from then on.

The jail at Chimawan Bay is on two levels – a lower bunker for inmates like Nida whose sentences are for five years and under, and a higher one for more serious offenders. Not too long ago Vietnamese refugees were housed in the buildings. Now used as a women’s detention centre, the correctional institution is overseen by all-female Hong Kong officials and staff. The only males calling in at various intervals are the Chinese and Vietnamese pastors who appear each Sunday to minister to those wishing Christian services, and the psychologist who assesses each inmate’s state of mind periodically.

Nida’s tale of woe is the time-worn migrant worker’s story. Born in a poor country which exports its women so as to keep its economy afloat, she was just another statistic, a victim of her nation’s corrupt government.  For decades, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India have turned their female population into export commodities to generate income for their graft-ridden governments. Hence the phrase “the commodification of women” often used by feminist sociologists studying migrant worker patterns.

A couple of years ago the Philippines earned some $283 billion in remittances from its migrant workers who are now estimated to total about l0 million (some 70 percent of them female) in various parts of the world. Their remittances have contributed to roughly 14 percent of the country’s GDP growth – fourth in the world next to India, Mexico and China. The figure is higher today.

The magic word “remittance” is cherished not just by the remitters’ relatives but by their governments.  But economists point out that such income, being temporary, is not the solution to any developing nation’s chronic economic problems. That’s because only a small portion of those funds is used for investments; instead the money goes mainly into consumer spending. This is what has fueled years of consumption-led growth in the poor countries.

The situation in the Philippines is reflected in the other countries whose women toil abroad — dependents at home expect their wives, mothers, sisters and aunts to provide them, not just with the basic things in life, but with coveted high-end items as well. The money sent is meant mainly for food, rent, school tuition and clothing, and offspring are often showered with the latest electronic games, toys, gimmicks and foodstuff by guilty mothers trying to make amends for their absence. And there are, along the dependent chain, siblings who likewise expect to have their studies financed, jobless brothers and male cousins expecting hand-outs, as well as ageing parents needing medical care – all members of the traditional Asian extended families. One result of this dependency is that too many able-bodied male relatives feel no incentive to work, knowing that those precious remittances arrive regularly to cover their necessities like cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets and cockpit charges.

Inevitably, many fractured families result among the women abroad acquiring new, often foreign, mates (divorce is not recognized in Catholic Philippines). The lucky ones find well-off Western men seeking pliant Asian partners, while the unlucky ones resort to seeking domestic employment for their children, thus keeping the poverty cycle going. Meanwhile the males back home further ignite the population explosion by acquiring new mates and producing more children. It’s an old story replicated in many developing countries.

The unlucky women who, like Nida, overstay their visas or commit minor crimes face similar jail experiences like hers. The numbers fluctuate. As of January 2010, there were 122 Filipinos in Hong Kong prisons, 98 of them female. As for the Indonesians, who have now outnumbered the Filipinos, 177 women and 33 men are currently serving sentences for various misdemeanors.

Luckless women who overstay abroad tend to rely on a network of friends, NGOs and some religious sects to bail them out of sticky situations. But Nida, before her incarceration, had met a divorced British businessman in a Wanchai bar who was in the market for an exotic Asian woman. He found one in the vivacious Nida. After a few dates and after learning of her sad situation, he urged her to turn herself in to the authorities, promising to see her through her ordeal, which he did. He visited her at the jail each weekend, and when she was released four months later for good behaviour (hair all grey since dyes are banned in prison), he flew with her to her home country where they had a quiet church wedding before he had to return to his job in Hong Kong.

A year later, Nida’s knight in shining armor arranged to bring her back to the territory where they now live happily ever after. That was easily accomplished, once she’d acquired a new married name and passport – one that no longer bore the numbers “Sam-ling-yat-yat-lok-pak.”

– Originally featured in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Dec. 20, 2009 with the headline “Nida’s Tale of Woe and Redemption” –

Is the American Dream now a Nightmare?

 

Cover art for Harper's Magazine (Feb. 2017 ed.) by Steve Brodner

Cover art for Harper’s Magazine (Feb. 2017 ed.) by Steve Brodner

In contrast with the protests that erupted in major US cities after Donald Trump’s election, I recall how it was when George W. Bush won the US presidency in 2000. Working then in Berkeley, California, I noted gloomy reactions among folks of that liberal city. But there was an underlying civility which didn’t burst into noisy protests, as has happened over the Trump victory.

In 2000 the standoff between Bush and Al Gore lasted for some days, when the US Supreme Court ordered a preliminary halt to the Florida canvassing. Thousands were furious at the injustice toward Gore (who won the popular vote) because the irregularities gave Bush the lead. The recount, which was done manually, was ordered because of glitches in the new voting machines.  It was a suspenseful time, with legal experts defending Bush and Gore supporters accusing Florida officials of disenfranchising black voters in some counties.

After extended deliberations by the divided Supreme Court, Gore conceded as a prolonged delay would have torn the nation apart. The result was a general acceptance, amid grumbling on one side and jubilation on the other. The controversy lingers today. Some speculate that if the knowledgeable Gore had won, instead of the political tyro Bush (whose main qualification was his link with a Texas dynasty), there might not have been the fiasco over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, the financial crisis and others.

I was living in Hong Kong when Barack Obama won the US presidency in 2008, and the general jubilation, not just in America but around the world, was thrilling. Although some Americans derided Sweden’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama, the act was generally hailed. This, despite his not having accomplished much yet (besides becoming the first elected black president of the United States), the reason for which the prize is granted. He inspired countless people with his intelligence, eloquence and grace, after the sorry Bush years, and made us feel it was a well-deserved award.

The racism toward Obama is different from the hatred for President John F. Kennedy, which ended with his assassination in 1963.  A number of Americans were leery of JFK because he was Catholic; they feared he’d act according to his religion on vital issues like birth control.  But he firmly declared he believed in the US constitution which mandates the separation of church and state.

My husband, since deceased, was then with The Associated Press in Bangkok, and I recall seeing the shocking report in his office wires of cheering that erupted in a school in Texas when Kennedy was killed.

Analyses of Trump’s victory include the fact that US demographics have changed drastically. White people are gradually being eclipsed by immigrants from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, fueling much resentment. The economy, which Obama inherited from Bush, has also been wrongly blamed on his watch and thought to continue if Hillary Clinton were elected. Criticisms of her were used to whip up support for Trump.

Like our President Duterte’s use of foul language, demeaning of women, threats to kill miscreants, and insults toward the West, Trump’s personal nastiness has made no difference to his fans. That he has been thrice married, insults women, knows little about the outside world, and has refused to show his tax returns, also lost him no fans.

Social media during Obama’s campaign was even more weaponized during Trump’s. It succeeded in penetrating the electorate, stoking grievances toward the establishment and promoting hatred toward Clinton.  By shunning her, Americans missed their chance to have their first female president who has vast experience and knowledge of the world.  Much of the opposition showed pure misogyny.

Someone has quipped that a test of genuine American democracy would be if a disabled black Jewish woman were elected president.

But has the American dream turned into a nightmare? Seeing that many still want to emigrate to that country, it seems not.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Nov. 15, 2016. –

The Smile That Lingers

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attend a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima, Peru, November 19, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attend a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima, Peru, November 19, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev via REUTERS

We all know what it’s like to fall in love, even from a distance. For some, seeing the idolized one in the flesh can be thrilling. And so it was that RRD, the brown leader of a small warm country, told his people about his meeting with VP, the white leader of the large frozen continent on the other side of the globe. The smitten RRD reported that the former commissar was “already a friend” because he had smiled at him. “It’s very seldom that he smiles, but every time we shook hands, he smiled at me,” RRD explained. Having been bestowed a sunny look by someone who ordinarily frowns and makes his enemies quake in their boots, this was no mean achievement.

Today, even as American politicians of both parties are calling for a probe into reports that VP had a hand in the US election, enabling orange-topped DT to win over his opponent, RRD is not fazed as he’s still in a daze over VP’s smile that lingers above him like the Cheshire cat’s.

This brings to mind GWB, that other paleface from the opposite continent who had claimed there were WMDs in the land of veiled women. He, too, had met the usually taciturn VP and declared that “I looked him in the eye … and was able to get a sense of his soul.” Few people, it seems, who meet VP are immune from those cossack eyes!

RRD also said VP had promised to help his poor country by buying tropical fruits and native gewgaws and, in exchange, would sell him some modern blowtorches, slingshots and stuff. That display of largesse overwhelmed RRD, who declared that he would no longer accept second-hand exterminators from his old enemy BHO who was prone to nag him for his policy of rubbing out the creatures feeding on weeds in the streets.  Instead he’d buy such things from his “new friend who has plenty of them… As a matter of fact, he is selling them: buy one, take one.”

This display of hubris differed somewhat from what the little leader said in a TV interview overseas. He had announced then that “I’m not ready for a military alliance” but wanted to cooperate with his “new friends.” The alliance was not just with VP’s country but also with the one located closer to his little country, the one led by the enigmatic XJP who had made his octopuses spread their tentacles over RRD’s land but kindly allowed the native squid to fish and frolic in the surrounding waters.

Hearing the wondrous things RRD had done in his travels made his people marvel at his words, with some comparing him to that girl in the film some years back who was able to rotate her head in all directions while a priest kept frantically sprinkling holy water on her.

The glowing reports made the warm country even warmer, but it suddenly got really hot when one of his idols, who had expired years ago, decided he would rise from the grave and plant himself in the national pantheon, propped up along his way by mournful-looking zombies who looked like him, backed by some skittish soldiers.

This produced ranting in the streets by the furious fringe. They got more agitated when RRD suddenly changed the locks of his exclusive establishment to bar his supposed partner, the lady LR. She had been hanging around its edges all this time, so she sent a note saying she was tired of being dangled like a rag doll and would go off to do her own thing.

And so RRD finally became the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, like he’d always wanted.  Whether he lives happily ever after is unknown.

– This op-ed originally ran in the Philippine Inquirer on Dec. 22, 2016. –