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papa osmubal
oscar balajadia I. The take-off

I DID not know airplanes were very much like marketplaces.

"Pakialamera naman nung Intsik na stewardess. Tinatanong pa kung ano ang nasa handbag ko," said one lady to her friend, as she tried to force her bulky luggage in the top cabin.

"Oo nga. Pagbukas nung baggage ko, naamoy ang dala kong tinapa at bagoong, akalain mong tinakpan ang kanyang ilong. Tingnan mo naman ang mukha niya nakakasuka," blurted the other.

"Please, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelt," announced the voice from the airplane speakers in Chinese accent. To be addressed as ladies and gentlemen by a high-salaried pilot was sweet to the ears, considering the fact that many of us onboard the plane were going to face our life, or bitter fate, as domestic helpers, security guards, street sweepers, and dish washers.

We were all Filipinos heading for Hong Kong and Macau. Others would just be laying over Hong Kong to pick some gifts for their kith and kin back in the United States and Canada. These were the envy of many in the plane; these were the paragons of Filipino success abroad, the models. These "brown Americans and Canadians" did not feel whatsoever for the situation of the other fellow Filipino passengers whose bones and veins were filled with worries and uncertainties. The way they spoke their English was the envy of many on this flight, especially their speech's lack of that notorious Filipino rolling "r" and their delivery of clear distinction between "s" and "sh" sounds.

English, to many Filipinos, is the sign of prosperity and superiority. One who knows English is above other Filipinos who struggle to learn it. English is prestige and high social status. Filipinos invest more effort and time perfecting and advancing their English, while they ignore their technological, scientific, cultural, indigenous linguistic, and aesthetic advancement. A writer, artist, or scientist who does not speak enough English, with or without the rolling "r," is nothing but a common ignoramus who should not linger around university campuses and should not rub elbows with the so-called scholars and intellectuals. This is the norm in the Philippines and this is how colonialism succeeded.

"Ay naku, nabali na yata ang walis-tambo na pinabili ng amo ko!" suddenly complained one lady from behind, fixing the broom she was carrying, clearly indicating the sort of trade she was in.

One lady next to me was fingering her rosary. Unmindful of everyone and everything else, she was intent in conversation with her Lord. I reminded her to fasten her seat belt. Her hands were shaking. I loosened my seatbelt and fastened it back so she would know what to do with hers. She momentarily put her rosary on her lap and fastened her seatbelt the way I showed her.

"I am a seminarian. I am traveling to rediscover myself and God," I jokingly told her to crack up a little conversation. She smiled. She picked her rosary and put it back into her pocket. Her face looked slightly relieved, as though she encountered her redeemer. Seminarians and priests are a treasure the Philippines can never afford to lose. The Philippines does all things possible to produce them. And it is a blessing or privilege to get acquainted with at least one seminarian or a priest because they are the beau ideal of wisdom and enlightenment.

"Call me Manang Trinidad, from San Jose del Monte," she confessed, the sound of her name and the name of the place where she was from reconfirmed her spirituality. "I am praying so that the Hong Kong Immigration officers will allow me entry in the territory, you know---to get into Hong Kong is like forcing a cow to enter into a needle hole. These days, I heard, they are denying entry to so many Filipinos. I will try my luck there. But if things turn against my favor I will then go to Macau. I heard it is a bit easier to enter Macau. Is that true?" I shrugged my shoulders.

That was why she was praying.

"This is my first time to travel by plane," she explained, her voice was trembling.

That was the other reason why she was praying.

"It is scarier and much more complicated than simply taking a jeepney or a pedicab in Tondo," she added.

I calmly nodded, not showing that her hopelessness and jitteriness had already affected me. I did not say anything more because at this point any conversation would seem pointless.

Manang Trinidad's story was the story of many of the passengers on this flight. Hers was the story of countless Filipinos daydreaming of Utopian life abroad. Hers was the story of almost all people back in the Philippines .

Was it a favor from Heaven or a social privilege that Manang Trinidad's story was not my story? My travel to Macau was of a different nature and purpose. I was on my way to Macau to join a Catholic mission group formed by the bishop of Macau to do apostolate work among Filipinos and non-Chinese migrants in his diocese.

The next thing I knew was that Manang Trinidad's story gradually became my own story: I left the mission, married a Macau Chinese, and to feed our two kids I had to do all jobs available to migrant workers. So I got to be what I did not want to be---a Filipino looking for that elusive job in a place that hesitates to accept me.

"O etong address ko sa Macau. Maari ka roon sa amin habang wala ka pang matutuluyan. Kaso dalawampu na kami roon, maliit lang yung tinitirhan naming 'yon," said one guy to a lady seated in front of him.

"Naku naman, may umutut pa yata. Ang baho! Hindi naman ang amoy ng mga dala kong daing iyan!" feigned one gap-toothed middle-aged man. I would have believed him if he was not wearing barong tagalog, maong, and dark sunglasses.

"In five minutes we will be taking off, ladies and gentlemen," said the voice from the plane's speakers, "please fasten you seatbelt." To the passengers, the voice sounded like the almighty pronouncement from the holy burning bush that they obeyed with the great awe of old Moses.

Silence finally prevailed.

Manang Trinidad groped for her rosary and started (or continued) her prayer. The others closed their eyes, they all seemed to be in prayer, well, just in case... I mean, in a situation like this---on air, among thick and blinding clouds, in turbulent winds---something might suddenly happen. I fancied what I would have possibly done if the apocalyptic four horsemen suddenly appeared from out of those thick clouds. Filipino Christians are all vulnerable and helpless in this particular situation.

The marketplace that was the airplane miraculously turned into a silent cathedral where one could hear a pin drop. Nothing could be heard except the nagging sound of the aircraft engines.

II. The story

A few days ago, for some unknown reason, perchance out of boredom, I started writing a strange story. I entitled it "The Story of My Life." It had nothing to do with me, but it was as strange and ironic as my life.

The story was real and the people in it were flesh and blood, because I did my seminary apostolate with them. I wrote it because seminarians were required to write their experiences from their particular apostolate.

Frankly, I was originally assigned to do apostolate service among the lepers in a leprosarium but I complained that I could not work there. I was just too unwilling to do what Blessed Damien de Molokai did. I told my seminary rector that that was not what my heart told me to do. The rector then assigned me to work with the urban poor and workers.

Manang Trinidad seemed to have fallen asleep. Not one a word was heard from her. I slipped my hand in my pocket to get the crumpled pieces of paper where I wrote the story. It was an opportunity to reread it, I thought.

The story read:

1.

I am a Filipino worker. When I say Filipino worker I mean I am starving. To be precise, I am an underpaid casual worker. There seems to be very few regular workers in the Philippines where the main industries are politics and show business. I am a bit fortunate for I got the position temporarily vacated by one regular worker whose son is the godson of the town mayor. His failing health confines him in bed. Some casual workers say I can become a regular worker when he is gone (insinuating that I pray to expedite his exit) if I gave the general manager a fat gift. To one who is in his best wits, this is surreal and very hard to believe, but it happens here.

Science calls it survival of the fittest; Christianity calls it sacrifice. How many times has the Almighty done this? It happened to the heathens during the Inquisition. It happened to the Mayans and other American Indians in the hands of the Spanish soldiers and missionaries. Through the help of God, Samson smashed the Canaanite royal pillars like a baby crashing his crispy oat crackers. Through the power of prayer, God can easily be cajoled to join in one's crimes.

In every workplace in the Philippines, people get too impatient that they take matters into their own hands. One killed a regular worker a week ago in the hope of filling the job he would vacate. He was caught and beaten black and blue by the police before throwing him behind bars for life. And as odd as it may seem, there are even workers who kill other workers in the hope of getting free board and meal in the prison.

I am on a rush. I am still very sleepy but I need to get to work earlier than the manager. He is legendary for being so tough on his workers. Since I got this job I have never been late to work. And every time I walk in, the manager, who we call Bosing, smiles at me. That makes other workers dead envious, because Bosing's smile is an annointing fire, a hand from heaven, a sacred caress.

Sleepiness buzzes in my mind like the disturbing mosquitoes that bugged me last night. I am before the mirror. It just seems that something or somebody is talking to me.

2.

"Good morning," says a voice. I do not know whose voice it is. I do not know who is talking and who is listening. I do not know who is me—the me who is dead sleepy, desperately preparing for work, or the reflection of me in the mirror who worries about nothing and knows nothing about anything except its frozen life behind the mirror?

"Morning? What is morning and what is evening? Time is just a figment of the imagination."

"I do not understand."

"Because your senses distract you. You see you are a slave to your sleepiness."

"Still I do not get it."

"Because your senses corrupt you. You see you cannot still overcome your sleepiness."

"As far as I am concerned I know myself. Nothing and nobody can ever distract and corrupt me."

"Myself? My? Self? Self is sacred. You cannot know it, much so own it like you would a fancy ring."

"I am you."

"You can't justify your existence through me. Seeing me does not give you the right to proclaim your existence."

"But you are really me; we are totally the same."

"That's a shortsighted judgment of your distractive and corruptive senses."

"What do you mean?"

"Sameness is total violation and negation of the Self."

"Nonsense! Look, when I wink my eyes you wink yours!"

"Maybe it's the other way around: maybe you do what I do."

"Meaningless! What if I shattered this mirror to fine dust!"

"That does not do anything to me."

"You will disappear when the mirror gets wrecked."

"Existence can't be contained by anything."

"I am contained by my body."

"No, you contain your body."

"You sound like an old man, no one buys that kind of quip anymore."

"Age is just a product of time."

"Who are you, by the way?"

"Names have no relation to things or to their existence."

"Where do you come from?"

"You're asking me of a place with boundaries, limits, and frontiers."

"They are all like that."

"A place is a state, a condition. Like love. Like pain. Like happiness. Like sadness. When I say I am here, it is not quite different when one says he is in love or he is happy."

"Those are products of senses!"

"No, senses, in fact, ruin the real essence of those."

"How can one feel those without the senses?"

"You don't need to feel them. Let them surface in you, like life, at their will, on their own course."

"Vague!"

"Senses manipulate and abort the entire meanings and purposes of those."

"Sorry, I was just about to fix my tie. I might be already late for work!"

"Everybody seems to have been born just to fix everything and be a slave to time."

3.

The flow of traffic in this country is maddening. We are, in a very annoying way, the most patient, most gullible, and most forgiving people on earth. I woke up at 5:30 AM to get to work at exactly 8:30 AM, en punto, on the dot. I live relatively near where I work but slow traffic gives me the impression that it is light years away. One can walk at the expense of one's shoes and pants getting muddy and soaked. Roads are often flooded, riddled with lake-size puddles of muddy rainwater. If this ever happened in Japan, people would surely shout war and stage a simultaneous national harakiri. In China , millions of Mao Tze Tungs and Zhou Enlais would surely cry blood, brave the mountains and rivers to institute a brand new government. This country is hopeless because it is peopled by patient and forgiving souls, thanks to the Christians and Catholics who don't have a practical solution even to the simple problem of population explosion.

4.

I have not yet had my breakfast. As usual I will not. Having breakfast here is a violation of time and wallet. Having breakfast here is against the norms. Having breakfast is a challenge against the status quo. Breakfast is simply not a privilege for all citizens in this country.

5.

The boss, as what I always hope and pray, smiles at me. He asks if I had a nice breakfast. I nod, forcing a pretend smile. Before asking me what I had for breakfast, he tells me he has had hot chocolate, sausages, hotdogs, and toasted bread, as if his smell does not explain it all. I tell him I have had a nice hot café latte, fried rice, luncheon meat, bacon, and egg. To extend the morning greeting, he asks me if the egg I putatively had was scrambled. I shake my head. He taps my shoulder a couple of times, before slipping back into his office. He sarcastically smiles because he knows so well that I am lying about my breakfast. He knows what I earn here. He knows no worker here can afford a human meal. I walk to my post, with my tongue drowned in bitter saliva.

6.

I am not the only early bird here. A few of my co-workers are already in. As expected, they eavesdrop on my conversation with Bosing. They look at me as if I were a culprit, the worst criminal deserving the gallows, or a leper to be incarcerated.

7.

I am before a roaring machine. A machine from Germany. Nothing is made in this country. Even the Filipino soul and dream are not made in the Philippines. They are made in Spain, the United States, China, Taiwan, and Japan. Poverty is the only thing this country can patent as the product of its genius.

What about the canned goods produced in this factory, the place that Bosing runs---the sardines, jams, preserved meats, fruits, prawns, squids, vegetables, and others? This factory is in the Philippines, but it is not owned by the Philippines. Everything here is not Filipino. Only the dirty and greasy hands that make the machines work are Filipinos. This factory sends to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States whatever it manufactures.

8.

Bosing is from Taiwan, married to a 19-year old Filipina who used to be a Japayuki. Bosing knows where and what to get what his money is worth: all blokes in town dream of sleeping with his wife. He claims to have been a legal bachelor till he met Joana a couple of years ago in Manila. He met her at a famous disco house frequented mostly by rich foreigners, curious tourists, and businessmen. Struck by love and love's infallible charm and magic, Bosing married the beautiful Joana barely three weeks after they met. Bosing narrates this "love story" with gusto while I smile and nod, with Frank Sinatra songs hovering in my head. Bosing's discreet virility is the envy of the handsomest mammal in the city. Bosing will be 79 years old in two months' time.

9.

Here we also manufacture artificial flowers to be exported to Europe. They are artificial, of course, because they are made of plastic, paper, and thin wires. Everything under the sun is natural, except those made by man. This is simply unfair. This is total discrimination against the human species. Beavers make dams out of twigs, and it is natural; man makes dams, and they are regarded as hazards to nature. People make love in the bush, it is taboo; chimpanzees make love on a tree, it is natural. I guess the human race looks down on its own self. It is perhaps man's nature to look down on himself. In fact people look down on each other. This is perhaps the reason why equality is just a political concept and has nothing to do with reality, just a figment of the imagination.

* * *

III. Waking up

"Sir," called the soft female voice that stirred me awake.

I had fallen asleep. The sun was just wonderful from where I was seated. I had not seen anything more beautiful than this. I was seated by the window. Up here the sun looked bigger and brighter. Up here everything was colorful.

"Sir, what would you like for your breakfast?" asked the stewardess.

"Noodles is fine, and hot coffee," I said, as I folded the pieces of paper I was holding and put them back into my pocket. I just did not know how to finish the story. In fact I was not intending to finish it.

Manang Trinidad by this time seemed to have regained her courage to live on her own again. Her first flight was not an ordeal anymore. She seemed to have gotten the hang of it. Her rosary was out of sight now; there was no need for it at this particular moment. She had started talking to people around her, ignoring my presence. Using the usual sweet street vocabulary and diction, she started revealing her life and the reasons why she was going to Hong Kong to the lady seated next to her. Wide-eyed and curious, she was soliciting ideas on how to convince the immigration officers that she was a legitimate tourist with a deep pocket who just wanted to see the beauty and marvel that is Hong Kong. She had to believe what people around her had to say because many of them were seasoned "tourists." They had been through this many times, so theirs was the last word, the authoritative gospel that every rookie "tourist" had to take and believe hook, line, and sinker.

The Hong Kong Immigration officers should believe that Manang Trinidad was really a "loaded" tourist, ready to spend thousands of dollars in the territory, and they had to for obviously very good reasons: she was well-dressed, manicured, pedicured, and most especially she had the sum of money to show to the immigration officers, not to mention the jewelry that peppered her brown body. Her "show money" was lent to her by the recruiter who was waiting for her at the airport. She said her recruiter arranged a job for her already and a place for her to stay in. Did she not receive a heavenly message through her prayers and litanies that the recruiter was one of the apocalyptic beasts?

The noise gradually came back. The airplane was again trembling with voices.

"Umuwi lang ako para awayin ang asawa ko at ang kanyang walanghiyang kabit. Pinagsasabunutan ko sila halos," one lady murmured to one seated next to her.

"Ganyan talaga ang mga lalake. Iyon ngang ka-boarding house ko sa Hong Kong may kinakasama, samantalang may asawa sa Pinas at tatlo ang anak," said one.

"Kilala ko iyong kabit niya," said another. "May asawa rin siya sa Pinas. At lima na ang anak."

For sure the flight attendants did not understand anything they heard. But I just wished they hadn't called us "Sirs" and "Ma’ams." I wished they hadn’t addressed us "ladies" and "gentlemen." We acted as if we needed no respect. Our manners showed how we should be treated. I just wished the noise had not come back.

IV. The V.I.P. room

All visitors were allowed to enter by the immigration officers, except for the Filipinos. Immigration officers grouped them together and ushered them into a room, a scene that was exactly like a sheepdog herding nervous lambs to get into the corral. It was a room especially for the Filipinos. This was what Filipinos called the "VIP Room." It was the dreaded room where immigration officers would, in their commanding voice, interrogate Filipino "visitors," investigate their passports and documents, and check the pocket money they had. Their military voice alone would make the faint-hearted tremble and piss. One by one, without exception, Filipino "tourists" had to go through this nerve-wracking process.

We numbered around 300, filling the "VIP room" with worried brown faces. While others waited, sitting or fidgeting around, others were called in batches of ten for the "interrogation." Interestingly, many Filipino "tourists" were allowed in today, except for three or four unlucky ones who were ordered to immediately go back to the Philippines. They were "A to A," as veteran Filipino "tourists" would say. It was not really a complicated mathematical equation; it was just a simple code where "A" meant "the Philippines." Having said so, "A to A" meant "from the Philippines back to the Philippines." "A to A" meant that one did not reach one's destination; it was like back to zero, back to the drawing board, back to the Philippines.

I was almost caught in the dire "A to A" situation. Immigration officers required me to show my pocket money or "show money." I was not able to show any, except for the meager sum for my taxi fare and some loose change in pesos.

"I do not have any," I admitted to the immigration officers, feeling myself subdued, weak, and overpowered for the first time in my entire life, my saliva clogging in my throat.

"You will not be allowed to enter Macau then," said one officer, sounding like he believed that all Filipinos who showed them money really owned the money. I should have asked the bishop to lend me a million dollars to show to these officers.

"The Bishop will be providing for my stay," I retorted, showing them the documents from the Bishop of Macau. "My seminary recommended me to work for the bishop. Look, here are all my documents and letter personally signed by the bishop. You can verify them, call the bishop. He is expecting me tonight, sir, it is getting too late."

My interrogator suddenly stood up and went into the next room. A minute later he came back with another officer, obviously of a higher rank. For a while they stood in one corner not too far from where I was standing. "Filipinos! What will you get from them!"

"Like so many others of his kind he just wants to find a job here. Tell him to collect his baggage at once and go back to where he came from," the officer whispered to his colleague. "Let him go back to the Philippines!"

"I am a missionary, sir, and the bishop is expecting me tonight," I said, this time sounding more belligerent, but with missionary spirit I did not throttle the officer. I was told to go away. I was not granted an entry to the territory.

One Filipino who had already been granted a visa approached me. He took pity on me, giving me a brotherly advice that next time I just have to bring "show money" so as not to face the same trouble again. He said immigration officers do not believe in documents anymore, learning their lessons from the Filipinos themselves—the officers thought my documents were counterfeits from Quiapo. Overhearing my heated conversation with the officers, he knew that I did not have money, so he offered me 30 Macau dollars or patacas. I declined because I was there not to beg for a dinner; I was there fighting for my inalienable rights, anger running up and down my spines and limbs.

The officers were still curiously inspecting my documents when I asked them to let me use their phone, telling them I would be placing a call to the bishop. They directed me to where there was a public phone. But I didn't even have coins for the phone. I was intending to buy a can of Coke to break one of the patacas bills for my taxi fare when one Portuguese officer came. He carefully read the bishop's letters and documents written in his language. I gave him the bishop's number and asked him to call and verify matters with the bishop himself. He grabbed the number and entered his room. When he came back, his face was much more intense and serious than it was before he entered his room. He cautiously nodded to his colleagues and I was granted entry to Macau.

I left that "VIP Room" with inexplicable pains in my heart. "So this is what we are like in front of other peoples. So this is our image to the rest of the world. And this is our own doing," I murmured to myself as if I was blaming myself for being a Filipino. For the first time in my life I did not want to be Filipino.


[About the author. Papa Osmubal is Oscar Balajadia of Magalang, now Macau resident and married to a Chinese local. He has been a Catholic seminarian, Catholic missionary, bookstore staff, teaching assistant, and teacher. Currently at daytime he is the Assistant Librarian at The International School of Canada in Macau, while at nighttime he moonlights as part-time teacher and tutor. His poems have appeared in various anthologies and publications, online and hardcopy. He has work archived in the University of Columbia Granger's World of Poetry and other places. A work of his will also appear in the forthcoming W.W. Norton Poetry Anthology of Contemporary Voices from the East. He is a contributing writer to Chick Flicks, Our Own Voice (OOV): Writing from the Filipino Diaspora, and other publications.]

-Posted: 3:54 AM 9/2/07 | More of this author on eK!
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