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 se?orito 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. 136: Back to the BlackBerry (Sort of)

IMG_6926Penman for Monday, February 16, 2015

 

THIS MONDAY, I’m going to take a break (and give my readers one as well) from my ponderous ruminations on Philippine culture and politics and revert from PenMan to GadgetBoy, that now-overaged fancier of technotoys who still nurses a na?ve faith in technology as the savior of humanity, or at least the bringer of boxed delights.

One of those boxes (in matte black, natch) came my way last month on my US trip, when—shortly before my departure—I discovered that the LG clamshell that I had been using as my US Verizon phone had finally died, refusing to boot up after four years of faithful employment. I’m in the US at least once a year to visit family and attend conferences, so a dedicated US phone has been good to have, which I simply load with prepaid credit when I go there.

Like human life itself, the eventual death of anything digital is a foregone conclusion, but in the case of these gadgets, it’s a passing not necessarily met with lamentation; rather, it’s cause for relief and release, making possible that word that brings joy and profit to every technotoy maker’s heart, “Upgrade!” I was frankly glad to see the little LG go; it was SIM-less and locked to Verizon, and I wanted a US phone that I could use somewhere else. (My iPhone 6 is unlocked, but as my local mainstay, I can’t afford to switch it over to another network while I’m away. Note to Apple: how about a dual-SIM iPhone?)

Enter—or rather re-enter—the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry? Remember, that once-upon-a-time smartphone market leader and innovator, the darling of the business and political crowd? For those born around the time when the world worried not about ISIS but Y2K, the emergence of the BlackBerry and its kickass keypad tore us away from our beloved Palm Pilots and Treos… until the iPhone came along in 2007 and rendered everything else instantly obsolete. (Of course, the iPhone itself has since been periodically upstaged by some Android upstart or other—until the new iPhoneX is announced.)

So the BlackBerry and its shares of stock have languished in the dumps, experiencing a momentary spike only when rumors of a buyout (recently, supposedly by Samsung) skitter through the Web. Which brings up the obvious question: why would anyone still want to get a BB?

That was No. 1 on the mind of BlackBerry CEO John Chen, who in mid-December boldly announced the release of the company’s latest model, the BlackBerry Classic—or I should say, latest but not quite. The BB Classic is premised on the idea that the BlackBerry got to where it did because it stuck true to its most prominent design feature—the physical keypad—and that people still long for solid keys to punch rather than pecking away like mad chickens on a flat screen.

It’s a bold gamble, an appeal to our deepest retro urges, and the design of the Classic revives and reinforces everything we felt about the BlackBerry of old. The Classic, said John Chen, would bring back the old BB faithful who had deserted the platform for the iPhone and Android, typically the more mature business user who felt more comfortable with the tactile keypad, who didn’t mind if their phone came only in black, and who valued security in communications (note that Sony executives hit hard by the Interview hack resorted to BlackBerrys for their fallback). I listened to Chen saying all this to CNN’s Richard Quest and found myself mesmerized—yes, that business user was me, I’d been away from the BB too long, and I missed that keypad like my first serious girlfriend.

Convinced that I needed a new US phone anyway, I ordered an unlocked Classic off Amazon, and had it delivered to my daughter in California in time for my arrival in the US in mid-January. I got a T-Mobile prepaid nanoSIM and a 128GB SanDisk microSD card to complete the package, and was back in BlackBerry heaven.

Sort of. As a phone, the Classic is everything Chen touted it to be—rock-solid, a delight to use, and by far the best in its class (given that it’s a class that graduated six or seven years ago). Externally, it’s the bigger brother of the old BB Bold 9XXX, with the familiar belt, trackpad, and keypad, the square screen, and the rounded corners. It’s a bit heavier than the iPhone, but I don’t mind—my one complaint about the IP6 was that it was so thin I kept panicking to think it was lost. It’s perfect for one-handed operation. The screen is sharp and crisp, the sound is good, and with System 10, you don’t need to go through the old BIS provisioning routine—it’s plug and play.

The downside? As I’d been forewarned, apps are sparse, although the BB can now use many Android apps through Amazon’s AppStore, MobiMarket, and Snap. I was able to get decent versions of many of my favorite iOS apps (WorldMate is BlackBerry Travel, for example); Skype and Viber work just fine, and a free program called Navigation provides useful and accurate street-level guidance. I wanted to give it every chance to become my main phone in lieu of the IP6—but in the end, I just couldn’t do it, on two accounts: the BlackBerry still has no true equivalent for FaceTime, which for those of us with daughters and mothers in the US is the iPhone’s real killer app, and its camera can’t hold a candle to the iPhone’s, which I and many others use semi-professionally, forsaking our bulky DSLRs.

So I say welcome back to the BlackBerry, and the Classic does live up to its name; it’ll be a great backup phone, for a second or a US line. Buying one in 2015 is a bit like choosing a new car with manual transmission, but oldtimers like me know what fun that can be—sometimes.

(The BlackBerry Classic is now available in the Philippines from MemoXpress.)

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.

Penman No. 134: Frontiers and Pioneers

IMG_6867Penman for Monday, Feb. 2, 2015

 

I’VE BEEN to California quite a few times over the past 30 years, on such varied missions as covering Steve Jobs and the iPod Shuffle in MacWorld 2006 and tracking Jose Rizal’s footsteps in San Francisco. Just last September, I was there again to interview a cohort of former activists from the First Quarter Storm.

California’s the kind of place that promises to never run out of surprises for the game and attentive visitor, and this time around—on this ongoing Pacific Leader Fellowship with the University of California in San Diego—I ran into more wonderful discoveries that straddled the past and the future.

My program allowed me to make specific requests for visits to places of personal interest, and after consulting with knowledgeable friends, I settled on two destinations that couldn’t be more different from each other: the old mining town of Julian, about an hour’s drive up the mountains away from downtown San Diego, and The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), a cutting-edge facility overlooking the blue Pacific. This way I could encounter two extremes, from the museum to the laboratory, from the anciently analog to the dazzlingly digital.

I was accompanied on both visits by Mrs. Julie Hill, a good friend and old Manila hand whose life story and travels to dozens of countries I’ve been privileged to edit in three books, going on a fourth. We were graciously driven to Julian by Greg Mallinger, the coordinator of my program. I usually undertake a digital reconnaissance (meaning, I let my fingers do the walking on the keyboard) of points on my itinerary before the actual visit, but this time, I did no such thing, prepared to be surprised by whatever the place had to offer.

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The drive to Julian in itself proved a delight, with a view of wide valleys fringed by rolling hills dotted by huge boulders that might have been left by titanic geological upheavals but were now simply picturesque. A brief stop at Sta. Ysabel just before Julian led to a Spanish mission from 1818, recalling our own acceptance in the Philippines of the friars and their message; I had visited another California mission years ago, and had seen there a Chinese-eyed santo carved by a Filipino sculptor in the 1700s—so far, I thought, did Spain’s colonial reach extend.

Julian emerged on the road, a scenic huddle of tall-fronted houses along Main Street. It had experienced a brief boom in gold mining after the discovery of the precious metal there by a black man named Fred Coleman in the 1860s, but the miners have long since been replaced by tourists eager to sample the town’s new gold, its famous apple pie. We were met by the town’s historian, a retired engineer named David Lewis, who also operates the town’s museum (chock full of choice artifacts and very tidily maintained) with his wife.

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Our tour began in Julian’s windy hilltop cemetery, where David introduced us to Julian’s founding fathers and mothers—notably the Baileys who started a mine and the Robinsons who put up a hotel that still stands today—emphasizing the unusual role of African-Americans (such as the Robinsons) in the town’s development. The Julian Hotel is a living museum of 19th century charm—except that it now offers free wi-fi—and I made a mental note to bring my wife Beng there sometime, a wishful thought no doubt shared by the busloads of tourists who descend on the town every Wednesday.

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We met another kind of pioneer and another kind of frontier at the Scripps, an impressive complex of buildings devoted to biomedical research. Lying in La Jolla close to UCSD, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Scripps is a key part of a science complex probing the frontiers of medicine and leading the laboratory fight against AIDS, Ebola, cancer, influenza, and other deadly diseases.

Our first stop might have belonged to a Hollywood props or special effects studio—a special lab where what seemed to be colorful toys in all kinds of shapes were laid out on a table. David Goodsell—a professor at TSRI and a molecular biologist who also happens to be an accomplished artist—explained that they were physical models of cells and cellular structures, created by machine through 3-D printing, and creatively colored to be used by researchers and teachers for educational purposes. Dr. Goodsell has exhibited his fabulous watercolor illustrations and published them in a book titled The Machinery of Life (Springer, 2009).

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As beautiful as the structures of life may emerge from Goodsell’s work, TSRI scientists don’t forget for one minute that some of them are the very carriers and agents of diseases that can cripple and kill, understanding and defeating which is a major part of the institute’s mission. (TSRI is also looking into such varied areas as deafness, memory disorders, autism, aging, and stress.) They help discover and develop new drugs to combat diseases and correct disorders.

Those drugs include Zmapp, also developed in San Diego by Mapp Biopharmaceutical. Zmapp gained prominence as the experimental drug used to successfully treat some Americans who had contracted Ebola. To better understand exactly how ZMapp worked, TSRI scientists employed electron microscopy to see how antibodies from the drug bound themselves to the Ebola virus.

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One of those scientists was Andrew Ward, an associate professor in his mid-30s who, when we met him in his lab, looked like he might have just stepped off the stage from playing with a grunge band. Dr. Ward heads a team of 14 scientists pulling long hours at TSRI’s electron microscopy lab, which has seven state-of-the-art electron microscopes, including a $7-million, 12-foot Titan Krios whose million-dollar camera (not part of the package) can see into the smallest corners of cells. Ebola was all over the news, so it was important to work on it, said Dr. Ward, but he emphasized how even more vital it was to lick influenza, a common disease that could kill milllions.

Stepping out of the lab, I remembered how, as a boy, I had marveled at the effects of the 1966 sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, in which a miniaturized medical team ventures into the bloodstream of a man. That day at TSRI, I felt like that boy again.