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Soap, water, and toothbrush – how Filipino hands rediscover quality

When mom sets up the balikbayan [gifts and goods sent to family and friends remaining in the Philippines] box, she disappears inside the cardboard container with a roll of duct tape to secure its corners. Stacks of canned food, toothpaste tubes, hard candies, and linens surround the basement floor in a line-up of what will go into the box first. We’d stock up on these items over a few months, keeping in mind our family’s preferences and favorite American products. Along with groceries, mom would ask everyone to sort out what we have and find things we’d be willing to send as a gift abroad. Mom’s guidelines to balikbayan box hand-me-downs: 

Clothes that are too small would fit your younger cousin.

Clothes that are out of style would be a big hit with the teenagers.

Old shoes and clothes with a little bit of wear and tear, your tita can fix that. 

Even pairs of sneakers covered in dirt were acceptable to add into the box. If using an old toothbrush to scrub the shoes clean worked for us, it surely wouldn’t be a problem for our relatives to do. Though I’ve never been to the Philippines, I imagine the skill of my family’s hands as they handle the balikbayan box, in all its excessive duct tape glory.

Everything we would have typically tossed aside as unwanted is a gem in their eyes. It doesn’t mean that our relatives have bad taste and don’t deserve brand new clothes. What this whole gesture proves is that we are so quick to find a replacement for the sake of convenience. If there’s a major stain on a shirt, I might buy a new shirt instead of experimenting with bleach. In the Philippines, our relatives would handwash the stain away. With soap and water, they’d use a toothbrush against the dirty soles of shoes. They’d get every corner until it looks brand new.

My relatives don’t necessarily need the balikbayan box, but sending these goods to the Philippines is considered our pasalubong. It translates to “something for when you welcome me,” similar to the concept of souvenir giving. Coming from a nation whose greatest export is its people, Filipino immigrants pack balikbayan boxes as a way of giving back to the family they left behind. It’s a thank you for the continuous support and an invitation for the whole family to enjoy the success gained abroad. Sending balikbayan box isn’t necessarily an obligation, but duty to the family plays a strong part in the giving. It’s a thoughtful gesture that reminds family in the Philippines that they’re remembered despite the long distance. However, in most cases, many overseas Filipinos’ leave home in order to support their families in the homeland.

Along with requested items and groceries (Toblerone by the bulk and all the canned goods after a ShopRite Can Can Sale), secondhand items are part of the pasalubong. Mom encourages us to give what we don’t want because in the Philippines someone will treasure them. They may not be the family member who the gift is intended to (we’re all guilty of regifting what we don’t like), but the wealth of balikbayan boxes are typically shared in the neighborhood. Growing up, my parents expressed the importance of valuing what we own and how as kids they maintained the condition of their belongings. They understand the resourcefulness of Filipinos and thus, pack the balikbayan box for our loved ones.

When the box finally arrives after a month of shipping, I would see things I once owned worn by someone in a photograph. The person may not even be a relative but someone in the neighborhood my family extended the gifts to. Somehow my clothes don’t look the same in these pictures. They appear spotless, clean, almost perfect. My family’s kamayan—both the givers and receivers—values what we have as blessings. One end prepares a box to send on a ship across the world, and the other puts in the effort and skill I wish I had. With clothes in a tub of water, my relatives rub the fabric against itself to rid dirt and stains. They know how to take care of their belongings with a hand labor that seems natural. They know the friction that rediscovers the quality of hand me down clothes. My relatives in the Philippines preserve the condition of their material goods. They are the best people to send gifts to because most of the time, they know its worth more than we do. 

A Matter of Identity

You don’t mind me constantly sharing my homeworks in my blog, right? :)

Throughout the course of Philippine history, different types of social disputes have marred every possible action the country would have done in order to attain sustainable growth. Popular issues which have withstood the perils brought by the sands of time while living in tedious fray—with reference to civic dilemma—include the general thought of Muslims being terrorists, the rage of the puritan Catholic Church against the implementation of the RH Bill, and the struggle of the Low from the unjust trampling upon of the High. However, to assert my thoughts in blunt paradox, the country is home to a large population of people with various culture, faith, and moral upbringing. Thus, it’s barely qualified to achieve uniformity and equality in any way. Nevertheless, Filipinos aren’t easy to be rendered submissive. They remain profoundly dedicated to their creed and however profoundly dedicated to their creed and hence, continue to struggle for the belief they hold on to.

More and more people from the heterogeneous race choose to break the plebeian habit and stand up to declare their goals through intrepid upheavals. From scholarly debates to fearless street occupations, the options on how one would strive to defy the opposition seemed to appear in a continuum. Such sociological dispute can never be sincerely reconciled. The victor can only be decided by outranking the other, granting defeat to the less revered. Yet, the phase seemed to be spun in circles. Righteous and zealous Filipinos, those who veer away from malice caused by bribery, prove themselves to be undaunted individuals who defend their opinions by spurning the adversary’s tricky pledge for acquiescence. With a strong character and an oath that survives, the boldest ones struggle to be heard and shove away compliance, if it would mean to protect the least unalterable thing humankind has bequeathed them: identity.

Arts and literature are probably the most venerated devices people rely on when it comes to the need for something to quench their thirst for knowledge, entertainment, or just a nonsensical way to have fun. And among others, these can be considered as the most favored means to disseminate one’s thought—or should I say ‘advocacy’—to publicity. Different forms of arts provide certain importance to draw an observer into persuasion, or at least open his mind to whatever message they want to convey. But as long as humankind is still addressed to have a mind of his own and are wholly distinct from automatons, the observer himself still holds the right to see the work in a sense he opt to believe.

By watching two fruits of something that aims to deliver a similar implication, I’ve had a better grasp of the value of protecting one’s identity—or rather my identity. To have an unflinching pride for oneself despite the hindrances that surround is needed too. I have understood it through the lives of a group of OFWs who despite of the raging war and sociopolitical differences, chose to make their work-driven stay in Israel more joyful by taking night shifts at a resident bar and flaunt their true selves. Embrace their true identities.

By scanning some of the reviews posted on Paper Dolls’ page in rottentomatoes.com, I’ve been introduced to the catch they commonly share. They’ve interpreted the documentary as something that implores watchers to give recognition and acceptance to transgender males. And being a mortal creature as I am, who has tendencies to be aloof and semi-permeable at times, I managed to accept their views and claim to have the same as my own. To be honest, I never tried to meddle with my thoughts again or put more mind into it and left it as it is, arrested by the words given by movie buffs. Not that I choose to be fathomless though. Anyway, when I finally saw the prompt and read the guide questions, I knew I had better look back on it and drift into a fitter and less bigoted conclusion.

Reading it again with the immersion of the word “identity” in my mind, I inferred Paper Dolls as a film that doesn’t take the hoisting of colors as it only aim. Upon saying so, I should have already verified that what other people on rottentomatoes have said didn’t vilify the true purpose of the documentary. In fact, that was the most familiar brief idea everyone would have had the moment they see it. But by seeing the picture in a broader sense, one will perceive how the characters tried to let the light of their incandescent lamps survive amidst the harsh, humid winds of Israel. The faithful and more sensible thought could by observed not only from the characters themselves, but as well as how they cope with the foreign environment and lives as a whole. A group of transsexuals hit the stage in sky-high heels and fabulous drag outfits during the cold of the night, and then at day, they shed their colorful nocturne fashion into basic working clothes, ready to serve their old orthodox Jewish employers. Yes, the conversations they had and the interviews they’ve given didn’t have consistent comedic tone in them—which others might think to be vital for gay characters—but how they managed to keep a bright outlook while struggling in an outlandish land is somehow striking. That and seeing the smiles on their faces made me remember the general description known about us Filipinos. How, despite of all the troubles, challenges and wickedness of life we have experienced, we still have reasons to laugh as if the problem has already dissolved into oblivion.

On the other hand, the musical adaptation of Paper Dolls, Care Divas, contrived to duplicate the esteemed thought in a more jocund mood. While the documentary kind of affects in a more serious tone, the play has put rich extravagance to reach out the story to the watchers in the most splendid way it can. The cast were all very amiable and charming in their own acts of portrayal. It has been successful in presenting the vivid context of drama, comedy, and a bit of romance in the characters’ lives, while accentuating another precious part of the story—the unbreakable bond of friendship the Divas are blessed with. How the lives of the characters under their employers differ from one another would be noticed too, and therefore judged accordingly. Among them all, Chelsea seemed to have the most fortunate life in Israel—a kind employer, a steady job, and even a potential lover—but the tables have made an abrupt turn when his beau crossed the border-line of intifada trouble and has dragged Chelsea’s to a tragic fate in the end. Shai, the fastidious leader of the group, Kaila, the caregiver on the run, Joni, the seldom noticed entertainer, and Thalia, the gorgeous airhead—all of them knew that there was no use in grieving too much for the death of a beloved friend. So, using Chelsea’s advices and radiance as their guide, the bereaved Divas didn’t take life to a full stop but continue writing it down with a bunch of ellipsis. All in all, the musical play was a feat. Care Divas retained its wistful aim to bring the viewers to a confluence of open-mindedness.

It is not necessary that you have to be part of the LGBT community in order to understand whole-heartedly the message advocated by Paper Dolls and Care Divas. To OFWs for instance, an important lesson in life could be learned from viewing the aforementioned works. The transgender male characters, despite a multitude of concerns—their job, family, and the watchful eyes of a foreign environment—have pursued their dreams of performing as drag queens inside a bar. It would only be during those times that they can flaunt all together their homosexuality to its fullness. Protect your identity. Do not let yourself be trampled upon. To have the littlest chance to prove yourself as unique is the most wonderful thing an estranged overseas worker could do in a foreign land.

One frequent reason that hinders an individual from revealing his natural identity is the powerful trend of stereotyping, wherein one prejudices another person through a general image that he will conclude from the subject’s prevailing features. For me, this preconceived judgment is an appalling misdemeanor of personhood. It tries to consistently constrain someone until he withdraws from his appeals or defining an identity opposing the forthcoming. It’s one of the major faux pas society has crafted and endured, for after it came a surge of other disputes followed suit. People start to think it’s kindness to rectify someone out of a certain personality, deed, or ideal, and coerce him to align himself on what the majority thinks is correct. Shouts of protests are deafened, defenses are abashed. Those who are less in count have their thoughts decried by the ruling power of the mass. The dominant society of today is seemingly afraid of the revision of the ever so editable philosophies of man and stick to their belief no matter right or wrong. And it was never a good thing. A dull, confined conscience will never be good. There is a plethora of things people should be aware of. Most of them can’t be appeased by a wand of hand. Although, for example, the case of same-sex marriage aims—if put in better light—to make available the true hedonistic and partly humanist happiness of man, leaving the cost of gender aside. Shouldn’t the opinionative be the ones more worthy to be tormented by the malign things they impose without credible testimony?

However, a hasty revolution for tolerance can’t be completed in a short time, and it may not even be after several years. Because demand for tolerance may be approved, laws be made and early statements apologized. But if the dominant agency chooses to be hard-headed and there would, laws will just be words to keep wary of, and tolerance is an act of deceit. Human perception can’t be obliterated and people would still have the option to keep their beliefs. Yet, no matter how blurry the image of a better society would become, strong defenses will never be shaken. I, along with the people who wanted to extricate themselves from the manacles of simpleton prejudices, will continue to fight even when the only weapon left in hand is the strength of soul and price of identity.

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A Documentary Every Filipino Needs to See: An IndioHistorian Film Review of “Gusto nang Umuwi ni Joy” 

It’s not usual for me to post anything unhistorical on this blog. I do take exceptions on films, plays and music that in their own way move me, not only as a historian, or as a Filipino, but as a person. The film, “Gusto nang Umuwi ni Joy” by director Jan Tristan Pandy is one of those exceptions.

The film debuts as part of GMA7’s Cine Totoo, the first Filipino international film documentary festival introducing this kind of films to Filipino audiences. The film is about Joy, an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in the U.K. whose only wish was to be granted a visa so she could return home and be with her family without sacrificing the employment opportunity in London.

It is not uncommon to watch this kind of story on screen. Migration and being away for lengths of time from the Philippines is part of our DNA as a people, historically speaking. Even Rizal struggled with the same engulfing homesickness when he left the country to study in Europe. He said in his diary:

“…little by little, the buildings were becoming smaller, their outlines were becoming confused…That was my motherland, my dear motherland. There I left love and glory, parents who adore me, solicitous sisters, a brother who watchers over my family and me, and friends. Oh yes! How many loves, how many hearts, which could have made me happy, and nevertheless I’m abandoning them! Will I find them free, just as I have left them?”

Indeed, many directors, writers, and playwrights have adapted this OFW material to films and on stage, understandably so, since it is almost a universal experience today among Filipinos to have one, two or more loved ones—families and friends—who migrated, or work abroad to earn a living for the family they left behind.

And yet Pandy’s film stands out, simply because the treatment allowed him to focus on that one life, and in effect highlighting the struggle of that one life.

There were certain scenes that make me wonder how in the world was that captured on film. Joy, the Pinay with a family back home, who works as a helper for a British household, was well aware of the lens that was focused on her, following her wherever she went. What’s more, Joy, the subject of the documentary is actually the director’s aunt. And yet despite all that, there was nothing in the film that felt contrived. The film simply let Joy speak for herself. The genius of the film lies in its un-wordy telling of Joy’s story. Even in the breaks and silences whenever she spoke, the audience could feel the loneliness Joy felt—it was not told per se, it was shown implicitly, and unapologetically. And those silences and breaks build up, as near the end of the film, she seals one balikbayan box she sends to her family and stares at it long enough with a relieved sigh—alluding that all her hopes and dreams are on that box to be sent home.

One of the bittersweet scenes in the film was when she swipes her phone for photo after photo of her family, and talks to them—as if she was there with them—to somehow relieve the silent pain and the overwhelming loneliness she feels being separated from her family by oceans.

No one knows the suffering of Filipinos abroad, especially those who only had meager means to go there and risk their lives and security for “greener pastures.” We on the receiving end here in the Philippines do not have the slightest hint of what our loved ones go through, out there surrounded by the unfamiliarity (and at times, hostility). They hold back their fears, and just live out the drudgery, hoping that one day, all their sacrifices would pay off.

On a personal note, I was reminded of our kababayans who I got to interview in Singapore on March 2010. In an unkept mall in Singapore called the Lucky Plaza, droves of Filipinas just sit there to cool themselves and spend their idle weekend break. And when I interviewed them, seeing that I’m also Filipino, they treated me as their own, pouring out their painful stories as if I’m a son they left back home. One even showed me her back full of burns from a flat iron, thanks to the merciful “amo” who made her eat only one cup of rice every day. “Gusto ko na umuwi, pero hindi pwede kasi nag-aaral pa mga anak ko…” I remember thanking them, and walking away tearfully and helplessly.

When I watched “Gusto nang Umuwi ni Joy,” I remembered their faces, and countless more whose stories we would never get to hear—experiences more painful than that of Joy. The documentary stripped away the statistical figures and showed on screen a pulsating life of a person in quiet desperation. The film resonates because the sense of exile is an almost universal experience. While it never explicitly pushed any advocacy for the OFWs, the film simply told the story. An OFW was given a voice. And that was more than enough.

Amidst the good cinematography, and great editing, here is a Filipino film documentary, with a heart.

I give it 5 stars. Highly recommended.

Catch it while you still can on September 29, at SM Megamall Cinema, 6:30pm.