Sunday, October 05, 2008

The absence of imagination

Filipinos today can be considered as the new diaspora. They are almost everywhere.

A writer for the Arab News once described Saudi Arabia’s dependence on Filipino workers and reflected that should they choose to leave, Arabs could “die a slow death.”

Outside the Philippines, Saudi Arabia employs the largest number of Filipino workers – about 1,019,577 strong. Filipinos also make up around 20 per cent of the world’s seafarers, and 23 per cent of the world’s total number of nurses. More than 9,000 nurses graduate from accredited nursing colleges and institutes in the Philippines and many of them work abroad in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Singapore.

It is estimated that there are 7.4 million Filipinos working overseas, with 1.5 million in the Middle East and 2 million in the United States. Workers send home more than 6 billion U.S. dollars annually, exactly the amount of money that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is asking the U.S. federal government for bailout to keep the state’s cash-strapped government afloat. This money is also what gives life to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, without which the Philippine economy cannot survive.

Much has been said and written about the Philippine diaspora. A great number of Filipinos have settled in the U.S., Canada and Australia, The United Kingdom is also becoming another country of choice for Filipino immigrants. All these countries appear to be the best destinations for Filipinos abroad, where English is the dominant language.

Filipinos in the United States have long established themselves as an economic and political community. Second- and third-generation Filipinos and children from intermarriage between Filipinos and Americans have integrated deeply into the American social fabric. They have done well in the fields of education, arts and literature, medicine and sciences, and in the public service either as elected officials or professional civil servants.

We have not achieved that kind and quality of integration in Canadian society like our Filipino-American cousins. Partly because we are recent newcomers in Canada; the first wave of immigration started in the early 1970s. Perhaps, this is also due to the quality of our immigrants, the best among us either stayed home or left for the United States. There are a few who are well-educated and intellectually equipped to take the leadership in promoting our national group but they seemed to have been outnumbered and out-led by the more aggressive and fame-seeking ones in our community.

Either we have accepted our lower status in the larger Canadian society by default or allowed the thirst for power, prestige and fame of those who are able to manipulate and exploit the weaknesses of the Filipino psyche to dominate our aspiration for a better and loftier place in our culturally diverse community.

Just take a survey of the leadership and the purposes of organizations in our community and it would not be surprising to find that these are determined by their local origin in the Philippines and the insatiable drive to satisfy our penchant for beauty contests, parades, annual dance galas, singing competitions, and for Hawaiian hula which is not even part of our cultural heritage. Filipinos in Toronto love to showcase our cultural heritage without understanding its historical and social significance, as if audience reaction were the only important metre and not the meaning or relevance of the performance.

Let’s take the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (UPAA) in Toronto, for instance. Founded a hundred years ago, the University of the Philippines (UP) is the country’s premier educational institution. It has produced most of the country’s national leaders after the American occupation. Thus, it is only natural to have very high expectations of UP graduates.

Thirty years ago, UPAA started with a bang with Halinhinan, an evening of Philippine dance, music and fashion. At that time, it was a very big cultural event. No Filipino group in Toronto had yet brought to town cultural fare of this magnitude. That was before Harbourfront became synonymous with Filipino festivals. The next year came Walang Sugat, a zarzuela by Severino Reyes, whose staging made Filipinos in Toronto proud of their heritage. Then the cherubic voices of the U.P. Mixed Chorus regaled the town. During the dying years of the Marcos dictatorship, some UPAA Toronto members joined the swelling protest movement in North America. When our young children fell prey to insidious discrimination and harassment at the Scarborough Town Centre, some of our members were in the vanguard of the boycott of the shopping mall and the protest against racism.

Today, UPAA Toronto is hardly a shade of what it was. The organization seems to have hibernated to the safety of a monthly coffee klatch and the annual ball, impervious to the social justice and labour issues that other organizations have taken a lead. Although it has grown in membership, its agenda seems to have thinned down to participating in the inter-alumni summer sports fest or the occasional fundraiser. In short, it has opted to shy away from the road less travelled, and of late has shown signs of succumbing to AOI, i.e., the absence of imagination.

Why is imagination so important?

Albert Einstein once said "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Imagination makes it possible for us to experience a whole world inside the mind. A developed and strong imagination does not make one a daydreamer or impractical. On the contrary, it strengthens our creative abilities, and it is a great tool for recreating and remodelling our world and life.

Why is there this absence of imagination?

Well, human beings are like most objects: we choose the path of least resistance. It takes less energy to watch television than to read a book. Sometimes the unimaginative can become dangerous; the unimaginative may also become a deadweight.

What to do? Let us all harness our imagination to the fullest, not be bogged down by the easiest and simplest tasks, but to be challenged to do things beyond our capabilities, to reach for the infinite, for our imagination is limitless.

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