Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Steadfast Tin Soldier

The other day, I rode a cab with a particularly chatty driver. He asked me perhaps the most common question I ever get asked since I moved here to Singapore.

"Where are you from?" he asked curiously. "You look Chinese, but you don't sound like you're from around here."

"I'm from Manila," I answered politely.

"Oh yeah?" he retorted stealing a glance at me. "You don't look Filipina."

Again, one of the most common comments I receive, but I never really know how to respond to it. I simply gave my usual awkward laugh.

"How long have you been living here? Are you a citizen now? Or a permanent resident?"

"I've been here for six years now," I said. "But I'm neither. I'm still on employment pass."

I braced myself for the usual retort about how being a permanent resident in Singapore has so many perks -- the CPF that eventually translates to retirement savings, the eligibility to apply to be a citizen, and just having the privilege to live in a country with a raging economy.

But he surprised me by saying, "You're very smart, you know?"


"At least you get a choice where you want to live by not tying yourself down to Singapore," he continued. "If you decide to become a Singaporean, you will lose your other passport. They force you to give up so many other things."

I frowned. I don't get that a lot. "Where are you from?" I asked.

"Singapore. Born and bred," he said simply. As if it was the answer to everything.

Having grown up in a country where colonial mentality is inherent, I could sincerely understand why many Filipinos would jump at the chance of owning a foreign passport. I've gotten accustomed to filling up lengthy application forms for visas whenever I have to travel and trust me, it's not exactly a bed of roses. I silently fume at how people holding privileged passports could take such a thing for granted. And holding a Philippine passport subjects me to various stereotypes and all kinds of racial profiling. It's not something I enjoy, but I've gotten used to it. Once you've gone through it a few times, you'd realize that everyone has the same idiotic ideas about your country and your nationality that you'd end up pitying them more than anything.

Despite all that, it never occurred to me to give up my Philippine passport. Sure, I still fantasize about owning a passport that will allow me to go to any country out of sheer whim. But it's too frivolous for me to act upon. I wouldn't mind holding dual citizenship for pragmatic purposes, but that's all it will be. A practical decision. As much as I curse being Filipino every time I have to shell out EUR 100 for a Schengen visa, I still maintain my pride for my national identity. After all, the Philippines is still my birthplace, my family home and the roots of my culture. I owe it that much.

I haven't lived in the Philippines for the past twelve years. That's about two-fifths of my life. Even though I still look back fondly on my memories of growing up at home, and even though I still keep a healthy amount of close relationships back home, I can't help but feel like I'm being pulled away further and further from it. I've spent my impressionable years in a couple of adopted cities -- I've had to adjust to other cultures and paradigms. While the core of my being is still very much Filipino (after all, it's the culture that molded me while growing up), a significant part of me has also absorbed bits and pieces of other cultures especially those that make sense to me. My ideas and mindsets have adjusted to more global environments, and my decision-making skills have morphed into the practical kind more than the usual traditional and emotional categories. In essence, it was like I was given a palette of cultures to choose from -- and I cherry-picked those elements that I wanted to keep.

I don't particularly strike myself as the patriotic kind. As a matter of fact, I am acutely aware of the shortcomings of being typically Filipino and I try so hard to stray from them. I refuse to fall into some cookie-cutter trap where my nationality defines my individuality. But if I was forced to choose sides, I wouldn't think twice about adhering to my mother land. I may not speak my first language like it's really my first language, I may have been quite a delinquent during voting and election times, I may not have as many Filipino friends than I have foreign friends, and I may not have traveled as extensively in the Philippines than I have in New England -- but these are not testament to my being any less Filipino than the next karaoke-belting woman dressed in a Maria Clara costume.

My passport is the only official document that links me to my country. I don't own anything else that proves I'm Filipino (though I fervently hope my mother still has my birth certificate somewhere). This hit me hard a few years ago when I had problems availing of the local hotel rates at the Shangri-la Hotel in Manila. There's nothing more frustrating than having to prove something true without any hard evidence to accompany it.

So to give up that single thing that reminds me of who I am and where I came from is asking for too much. It's too big of a footprint to discard so easily. As baseball player, Branch Rickey, once said "It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.”


Blogger alpine path said...

Good post! Change Filipino to Indian and you have my story... Though I live outside India, I still can't think of not being Indian.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Electric Bearbearina said...

Pft! What-ever, Dude!
You're a pathetic excuse for a Filipino because you don't have a tabo and balde in your baño! Ha ha ha.
I'll let the tabo issue go once you cover your couch in plastic.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Nasia said...

Your beautiful language is sure to have come up from your mixed upbringing! so kudos to that

12:37 PM  

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