Monday, December 22, 2008

A tale of two cities

Other than both being old cities and capitals of their respective governments, Manila and Toronto are two very different cosmopolitan centres. The only added similarity we can think of is the dominant religion of their inhabitants being Roman Catholic, about 80 per cent for Manila and 31 per cent for Toronto.

Beyond that, nothing in Manila can be compared to Toronto, or vice versa. We cannot overstate the obvious.

More than twenty years ago, when my wife and I, together with our little children, decided to move to another country, we never thought of coming to Canada. There was very little we knew about Canada. Yes, we had heard of Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s flamboyant prime minister, had studied the “message is the medium” guru Marshall McLuhan, and knew about Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor whose exploits we had learned studying the Chinese communist revolution.

In any case, our future brought us to Toronto. We had travelled abroad before so the experience made our transition to our new life a little easier, except that the credentials we brought, i.e., our lifetime of education and work experience, did not weigh that much to the judgment of our prospective employers. My wife gobbled up her pride and took the entry job of a junior reporter for a small newspaper and worked her way up to become a magazine editor. In my case, I didn’t want to lick my chops so I decided to go to law school to become a lawyer at an older age, at forty years old to be exact.

This is not a story about our lives, though, or how we had overcome all obstacles and become who we are now. Nothing much has changed with us. We are the same people as we were before, content and happy with the little we have as long as we are rich in things we cherish and deem more valuable in life. Like reading books and expressing our ideas without fear of reprisal or censorship. Or appreciating the art collections of the museums we have visited, or watching movies or plays in the city, or just meandering through the grandeur and enormous beauty of nature around us.

In Toronto we came to better understand the great moral questions of the day, issues about human rights, war, poverty, the vast gap between rich and poor, or the fact that somewhere in the Third World a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or disease. We learned more about how global capitalism pushes the Third World to be mired in a debt trap, or about its destructive effect upon communities of people turning into commodities and social relations into market transactions. Or its damage to our environment.

In Manila, before and after we left, these issues remain the core problems that beset the people, yet they are not free to speak about them without fear of being misunderstood and mistaken as rabble-rousers or branded as sympathetic to the radical left whose members usually are easy prey to extra-judicial executions or forced disappearances.

For many of those who left Manila for Toronto, and those who have recently arrived, the singular reason for migrating is to find a better life, especially for their children. We were not on the same boat; we came for another reason. Hardened by poverty and hard work in Manila, these émigrés persevered in their struggle to find their dream in Toronto. Work hard they did, even working double or triple jobs sometimes. It’s easy to have a comfortable life in Toronto if one works hard, so over the long haul the ex-denizens of Manila eventually succeeded. Their sacrifices were rewarded. They have become consumers; but they only buy known brand names. They have even forgotten where they came from. The concept of poverty has become foreign to them, whether it is the poverty they left behind in Manila or the poverty of children, single mothers or the not-so successful immigrants in Toronto.

One prominent Filipino community leader has even dismissed the idea that somehow Filipinos can help in finding solutions for wiping out poverty in Toronto. “If the government, which has more money to spend for poor people, can’t solve poverty, how much more can we?” she argued.

I used to write to a Toronto e-mail group, composed of my fellow university alumni from the Philippines, about issues that affect our society today in the hope that I could kick-start an intelligent exchange of views. Because my opinions sounded like unorthodox or somehow left-leaning, some members of this group ganged up on me and quite successfully, complicit with the elders and self-proclaimed gatekeepers of the organization, pushed me to the level of a pariah, for they didn’t want to talk about politics or serious matters. They simply wanted to exchange mild banter and inane jokes. I was treated like an apostle of despair, the term Life magazine used to call Jean-Paul Sartre for bugging the bourgeoisie.

Ironically, if these people were still in Manila, they would be regarded as members of the intelligentsia, the intellectual elite, for having studied and earned their university diplomas from the country’s premier institution of learning as Iskolar ng Bayan (public scholars.) They would be expected to be natural leaders or opinion-makers, articulate and literate in discussing the current issues that affect the nation.

Life in Toronto must have changed them or the wintry weather could have caught their mindset in a freeze. These days, they talk about visiting Manila over the Christmas holidays, or shooting the breeze along the beautiful white sands of Boracay in southern Philippines or the beaches of Calatagan in Batangas, the fancy restaurants and elegant coffee shops of Manila, if they are not exchanging tips about the features of their new cell phones or latest techie-toys or their recent weekends in Mexico or Cuba. No discussion of issues allowed here, i.e., nothing about politics, which is their catchpraise whenever they write to the e-mail group or when they hold their monthly coffee meetings.

In Manila before we left, it was not easy to publicly air your ideas because of certain dire consequences. Here in Toronto, there is free speech and one can speak about one’s opinions without fear of censorship as long as you do not defame anyone. But free speech is not tolerated in my e-mail group, among my so-called open-minded and liberal fellow university alumni from the Philippines.

In 1905, Mark Twain spoke about free speech as the privilege of the grave. For the dead, according to Twain, “can speak their honest minds without offending.”

Mark Twain wrote: “There is justification for the reluctance to utter unpopular opinions: the cost of utterance is too heavy; it can ruin a man in his business, it can lose him his friends, it can subject him to public insult and abuse, it can ostracize his unoffending family, and make his house a despised and unvisited solitude. Unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinions he carries, and keeps to himself. There is not one individual – the reader and myself – who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.”

So, following Mark Twain, I have ceased to take part in this Toronto e-mail group, because to continue and be subjected to shameful and infantile rejoinders is like inflicting self-punishment. It’s like being in Manila again, its déjà vu all over again.

In Toronto, we have found freedom, and we can cherish and enjoy it as long as it is used outside the reach of those who continue to behave like they were minions of repression from Manila. At least in Manila, when your options have run out, you can go underground and join those dissident sparrows hunting their hunters. Although fear of reprisal hasn’t gone unabated, there are still fervent souls who have kept to their ideals.

Sadly, here in this city of freedom and free speech, fear and apathy among Filipinos have been embedded so deeply that it has erased memory to the point of nullity. Anything or anyone that reminds one of the egregious past must be abhorred and banished. In place of memory, we have created new myths that will cater to our image of what we have become: fulfilled, affluent and successful.

Those poor Pinoys in Toronto? The forever-struggling poor in Manila? We’ve erased them from our collective memory. As in the movie credits, we have disavowed “any similarity in features, ethnic or otherwise” from our common heritage. We have abandoned any affinity to our kababayans for the safety of the tantalizing crowd on the other side of the fence.

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