Xin Nian Kuai Le! Gong xi fa cai! (Hong bao na lai -- just kidding!)
Just finished watching a rather riveting show about Transitions on National Geographic. I missed the first story, because I tuned in late, but the second story was about a young Apache girl going through the Apache rite of passage for girls who have reached womanhood. It was pretty amazing. And sad also, to see yet another beautiful, ancient culture losing its language. (Whenever I hear about a culture losing its language, I regret never having learned Ilocano, my father's dialect. Ilocano isn't anywhere near extinction, of course, but I feel bad that it's one less language I learned and one less language I can pass on.)
The last story was more depressing. It was about, as the narrator said, one of the saddest transitions, and saddest accompanying "rituals" that can be found in any culture. The story was about an old couple in the United States--a eighty-seven year old woman and her ninety-one year old husband--who were about to move to a facility for the elderly. And that was the "ritual": elderly Americans' move from independence to dependence in one's old age, symbolized by nursing homes and "assisted-living" facilities.
It got me reflecting about my own fears of getting old.
When I was a child, one gift I did not have that I envied other children for having, was being able to speak comfortably with elderly people. Growing up, I spent the holidays every year with my grandparents, but I couldn't speak their native language, and I didn't know how to carry a conversation with them, and so they were always somewhat alien to me.
When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother came to live with us for a several years, but still, I didn't know how to talk to her. I would simply watch her quietly, fascinated by the miles and miles of thread that she would crochet.
When I reached adolescence, I began to regret not being able to talk to my grandmother. I knew that she was a remarkable lady, with incredible stories to tell, but I was never really sure what to say or how to start conversing with her.
I think that not really knowing how to interact with elderly people when I was growing up, made old age a great Unknown for me. When I was younger I think I hoped that I would die before ever reaching a point where I had to be dependent on other people, where my body began to give in.
The story also disturbed me because I come from a country and a culture where the thought of "sending" one's parents to a home for the elderly is usually unthinkable. Here, guiding a parent into old age, and from old age to death, is the children's responsibility, and no professional care can ever substitute the children's duty of making sure that when their parents die, they are surrounded by their loved ones.
Of course, I realize the difference between American culture and Filipino culture. Here, extended families usually live very nearby each other, so there are always more than enough children and nephews and nieces and grandchildren who are willing to look in on lolo or lola, and to help them out. Among middle class families, hired help is readily available: caregivers and nurses who can come over to the house to take care of lolo and lola's more complex medical needs.
These are things that, I realize, the United States does not have. So many families in the United States are spread across the country. And it is very expensive to hire someone who can attend to just your grandfather or grandmother's needs on such an individual, exclusive basis. And so their answer has been to do the opposite: have the caregivers and nurses stay in one place, and then just bring Grandma and Grandpa to them.
But I still find it so, so sad. My aunt used to run a home for the elderly in the United States, and she had so many heartbreaking stories of clients whose last time they ever saw their children was when they got dropped off at the home's doorstep. Tipo bang, pagkaiwan sa nursing home, kakalimutan na at babalikan na lang pag dating ng burol. :( Really, really, really heartbreaking.
One of the anthropologists on the show was trying to explain the difference between the way America treats its elderly and the way that many other cultures treat theirs. She said that in other countries (and while she said this, they showed footage of China, the Philippines [or some other South-East Asian country with Malayan people], and an African country), the people take care of their elderly because they consider their elderly to be wise, revered, and symbols of Tradition.
I semi-laughed at that, because coming from one of "those" countries, I think that the reason why we care for our elderly the way we do is a lot simpler. We personally care for our own parents (rather than have them sent to a home) because, well, because they're our parents and most kids could never dream of having their parents spend the last few years of their lives in a place where they are simply miserable.
And so we understand and accept that that his how life works. When we were babies, dependent and unable to fend for ourselves, our parents took care of us, fed us, changed our diapers. Then we grew up, and went on to discover our own lives. And as we grow more independent, our parents grow older, and they become more dependent, and so the equation changes: our parents now become less and less able to fend for themselves, and so now it becomes our turn to take care of them, feed them, and change their diapers. And that is way the world works. And that is how we show our love and respect for the people who brought us into this world.
As my uncle likes to warn my cousins and me everytime we complain about someone who's elderly: Hoy!! Balang-araw, tatanda ka rin!!! Yup, someday we will get old too.
The show suggested a few more explanations as to why the United States has a nursing home culture. One was the suggestion that it might have something to do with American culture's obsession with productivity: things are only worth keeping if they are productive and useful. It could be, the show suggested, that people are treated the same way: only worth keeping as long as they are useful.
Another idea the show raised was that it had something to do with the premium placed in American culture on independence and individuality. While many other cultures emphasized community and togetherness over solitariness, American culture prized independence and individuality.
I reflected on that too. The ritual that the Apache girl was going through was a ritual of community. It was a ritual wherein the entire Apache tribe gathered together for four long days, working to guide these young girls into womanhood. And when the ritual was over, the girl was now an Apache Woman, a woman who represented her community.
From what I know about modern American culture, I guess the rite of passage of youth is the opposite. Moving from childhood to adolescence is not a transition to greater responsibility for one's tribe; rather, it is a transition to greater independence from one's tribe. The greatest transition into adulthood, I'm guessing, in modern American culture is the act of going away to college. When a teenager goes away to college in the U.S., she effectively declares her independence from her family. I think that most parents don't expect their children to ever move back into their houses once they've "gone off" to college.
And so, what characterizes the transition from childhood to adulthood also characterizes the transition from adulthood to old age.
Old age in my country is usually a return to one's family. Lola is widowed, and so she moves back into a larger family setting, this time moving in with one of the children. The extended family is revived.
In the U.S., on the other hand, if that show I watched was anything to go by, the transition seems to be the opposite. Old age often becomes the final act of severance from one's family.
I know it's a lot more complex than that, and I run the risk of not making a fair commentary. But the situation really, really is so sad.
I'm beginning to realize something. Ours is not a very expressive culture. Yes, we are very emotional, but I don't think we are particularly mushy about showing love within the family. There aren't a lot of families that routinely say, "I love you" to each other, or gather together in a gigantic group hug, unlike all those families on American TV shows.
But even though we don't express our love for one another in those ways, we are an extremely loving culture in a different way. I think that Filipino families are extremely loving in that we are willing to go through the painful, ugly, dirty processes of caring for one another. To put it crassly, we are willing to wipe elderly people's bottoms, if that elderly person is someone whom we love.
Okay, this post might be a little controversial ....
I was watching a show on Channel News Asia (the Singaporean cable channel) that featured several Singaporeans who had written songs about life in Singapore. All the songs were in English, and something struck me ....
The Philippines is really one of the most musical countries in the world; anyone can tell you that. And we have some of the most amazing, heart-rending music. But, as M and I have often agreed upon, Filipino songwriters are really at their best when they write their lyrics in Filipino.
I thought about that again while watching the Singaporean program. Almost all the songs sounded just a teeny bit awkward, and I wondered to myself whether they might sound better if they had been written in their own language.
Then it occurred to me ... But which language? The official national language of Singapore is Malay, but only half the population speaks it. When I was still living in Singapore, all schools were bilingual, teaching half of the subjects in English and the other half in one of the dominant languages (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil). But, I've heard, since then, the government has moved for a more Anglicized curriculum, so right now, English is really the most common language. Apart from that, the other dialects--Hokkien and Cantonese for example--are also slowly losing native speakers.
There are many Singaporeans with excellent British English. But there are more who, despite a relatively competent grasp of school English, don't have complete command of the language.
The Philippines' grasp of English is worse. There are a few who have excellent American English, but the greater majority, though capable of understanding basic English, cannot speak it fluently.
But here in the Philippines, the national language is not English; it's Filipino, a language based on one of the northern dialects of the country, Tagalog. About half of the country do not have perfect command of Tagalog; in the central, southern, and extreme northern parts of the country, Tagalog is only occasionally used. In Metro Manila, residents speak a rather corrupted form of Tagalog interspersed with either many or a few English words (depending largely on one's social class or level of education).
But if there's one thing I've noticed, it's this. No matter how badly a Filipino speaks Tagalog, it still sounds natural to him. Even when my Bisaya friends mix their words with Bisaya verbs, or when my friends who grew up speaking English fumble with grammatical error after grammatical error ... the Tagalog still sounds like it comes from the heart.
And it shows in our music. When Filipino musicians write songs, whether they are Ilocano or Cebuano, or "conyotic" private-school-bred English-speakers, they can write incredibly beautiful Tagalog lyrics.
And that's another thing I noticed. Even for a Filipino who speaks another language or dialect more frequently than Tagalog, Tagalog, when it comes out of his mouth, will still sound so incredibly profound. Find any Filipino musician who grew up speaking English and ask him to write a song in English, and chances are, the lyrics will still sound awkward, repetitive, or at the very least, uncreative. (With only a few exceptions, like Cynthia Alexander, or maybe True Faith.) But ask the same Filipino musician to write a song in Tagalog, and without him even trying, the lyrics will move and inspire. Easily.
It's really difficult for anyone, no matter how perfect his English is, to be an English poet in the Philippines. But really, any Filipino can sound poetic in Tagalog. (I should know. I learned Tagalog when I was already eight, and studied at a high school not exactly known for perfect command of the language ... but even then I managed to churn out some respectable Tagalog verse in college.)
The spread of Tagalog as the national language was not without controversy. When it was first suggested, in the first half of the century, the central and southern provinces felt insulted that it wasn't their dominant language--which more of the population spoke anyway--that was declared the official language of the country. Lately, with globalization and an economy increasingly dependent on the international market, many people are questioning the wisdom of having allowed the mastery of English to slide since the American occupation.
These are all difficult issues, and I'm not always certain about where I stand on them. I do see how it might help our economy to have a better command of English. I do see how a national tongue based on the language native to only half the population can raise regionalist issues. They are difficult issues.
But I also know that I'm really glad that for all our fumbling in the language (we Ilocanos and Bicolanos and Cebuanos and Ilonggos and English-speaking Metro Manilenyos) ... we do have a language that holds us together, and a language that is really truly ours, and not just an inheritance from our colonial past. Maybe it will continue to be our official national language for the rest of history, maybe not ... but I am really, truly glad that our most common tongue is one of our own.
(Note: I'm not saying that Singapore was mistaken in choosing English as its common language. Theirs is a much more difficult situation, with a population comprised of so many different ethnicities. The Singaporean program was simply what got me reflecting about this in the first place.)
I am not a veggie-eater. I hate most vegetables and when I do eat them, I only eat them because I have to.
Except for a few exceptions...
... like broccoli. I know, it's weird, but one of the few vegetables I do like happens to one of the vegetables that most people hate.
Anyway, I've been munching on steamed broccoli since yesterday night. Usually, Emilie (our housekeeper) does the "wet" marketing (fresh vegetables, meat, chicken, fish) in the wet market where fresh food is cheaper, while I do the rest of the groceries (dry goods and processed food) in the supermarket.
But the only money I had yesterday was on the credit card, and the refrigerator was empty (I had been living on spam for two days). So Emilie and I did the "wet" marketing at the supermarket for a change, and I got to choose the vegetables. :) And of course, I picked out a lot of broccoli (and realized for the first time just how bloody expensive it is compared to other vegetables!).
So I had broccoli with my dinner yesterday, and more broccoli with my dinner today ... and now I'm munching on broccoli as my late night snack.
Frankly, I hope the guy wins the Nobel Peace Prize before he dies (he has been nominated for it in the past). He probably won't, because the Nobel committee will probably reserve the award for diplomatic/government types or for Suu Kyi-type freedom fighters who have risked their lives for peace (and the world has many of those) ... but still, if he does get a Nobel before he dies, I'll be tickled pink.
I've been slightly off-kilter these past few days. Slightly irritable (sorry, M!), physically tired, stressed .... The demands of the "holidays" (they never really are) and their inconstancy of schedule have worn me out and, strange as it may seem, I'm actually looking forward to going back to the regular rhythm of work.
What I really want is to go get a massage, but I just had one two days ago. To get another one so soon would be a sin.
A high point of the holiday, though, was the beautiful wedding M and I attended yesterday. Congrats and best wishes to the happy couple! :P
I knew, as my classmates did not, where to find a hiding place. In fact, we were standing on top of one. Months before, I'd noticed the rusting tin sign proclaiming FALLOUT SHELTER bolted next to a disused entrance of our school library....
"It was built because of the Cuban missile crisis," he explained. "It had food, water, blankets. We also had some games—Scrabble, things like that."
Scrabble? For 500 teenagers? I imagined a rapid descent into anarchy—a low-ceilinged Lord of the Flies. In any case, the school hadn't maintained the shelter in decades; it was used for storage now. When I asked why, Taylor muttered something about détente and SALT treaties. Then something about the school budget.
We were gonna fry.
A few days ago, I was in a conversation about how, when the people of my generation were still children, many of us thought that the world was going to end before we reached adulthood. The only world order we knew was polarization of the Cold War, and many of us thought that before we reached adulthood, the U.S. and USSR would destroy each other--and the rest of the world--by nuclear war.