It has been close to 2 years (twenty months today) since I returned home from Japan. It was surprisingly not too difficult a decision to make, to turn down an offer of a tenure extension of at least another nine months. Come to think of it, the span of nine months could have given birth to another long stay there. But why did I leave an expat’s life, a contemporary Filipino’s dream?
Japan: a material, egalitarian and nature haven
In my five years with the United Nations Statistical Institute for Asia and the Pacific I earned enough to pay off debts I incurred from getting afflicted with government AIDS (acquired income deficiency syndrome) for having been a public servant for 29 years, in several administrations from Tita Cory’s to Ate Glo’s. And enough to qualify for medical insurance for the rest of my and my wife Cecille’s life.
We resided in a new urban development in Makuhari, Chiba, some 40 minutes away by train from Tokyo station. It is built on reclaimed land, a good seven kilometers inland from the shore. Parks are everywhere. It is near name-brand factory outlets, Carrefour and Costco hypermarts. American, French, Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants are situated next to sushi and noodle joints. The Tokyo Motor Show, at the humongous Makuhari Messe, is a mere 20-minute walk from where we used to live. Narita Airport is only 40 minutes by limousine bus and Manila is less than 4 hours away by plane. The work place was nearby—a leisurely 10-minute bike ride or 20-minute walk. I say again leisurely, because even old ladies would overtake me whether I was on the bike or on foot. Makuhari is also a place for new families. New elementary schools were being constructed at the time I bade farewell to the place. I think it is the only place in Japan with a positive population growth rate. That somehow made me feel I was not far from home, or so I thought.
In my mansion (apartments here), the microwave oven, the fridge-freezer, the washing machine, the satellite receiver, the bidet, the air conditioner-heater and the bath tub-‘ofuro’ ran efficiently 24/7/365 and on fuzzy logic. Oh, the bidet. It was a hot seat with water squirts of varying degrees of warmth and targets that I always looked forward to in the morning. What precious warm comfort it gave the region of my buttocks during wintry days. The water in the bath tub could also be heated to 40 degrees Celsius, like the ‘ofuro’ [hot springs, if you wish] so that you can soak your body after a shower. Upon stepping into the steaming water, one right away gets a burning sensation but as the skin reddens due to the blood rush, the tired muscles and minds become one with the simmering cauldron and one feels as if suspended in buoyant nothingness. It is so easy to drift to sleep, as if your raw emotions are steamed away into quiet transcendence.
Yes, there was always water from the tap and power at the switch. Outages were rare and their schedule as well as duration announced way ahead. Thanks to the numerous nuclear plants: the energy that devastated them in August 1945 now is the source of stability and assurance of everyday utilities and predictability.
One can drink a cup of coffee inside the ‘Shinkansen’ [bullet train] without spilling any of it even at the train’s top speed of nearly 300 kilometers per hour. Whenever it passes you as you stand on the train platform, you will only see a blur whizzing past reality. New car models and new electronic gadgets or variations turn up and disappear in the market like mushrooms. Many car models have a satellite-guided GPS (geographic positioning system) that takes the place of compasses and travel maps. The correct time is beamed by a satellite to particular clock models. Computer hard disk capacities in the 200 gigabyte-range are standard too. Sleek mobile phones come loaded in all sizes and colors; some phone companies even give away free units if you sign up to a plan. Materials science and technology have given them the power to create composites and substances that did not exist before and now have tremendously improved the quality of detergents, pillows, cabinets, and insulation and all at prices within reach of the ordinary salary-man. More and more things are being atomized and automated.
However I did not want to keep up with the material modernity outside; the AIDS I got used to in Manila kept me from setting high earthly standards and needs. I settled for a bike that no one would steal and rather clunky mobile phones that would just keep me in touch with our children in San Juan.
Japan is also a dream for citizens with social responsibility and community spirit. Here most everyone think of the next one who will use the service or facility. No one clogs the intersection. Pedestrians, even toddlers in our areas, and bicycles are given right-of-way not only by vans and sedans but also by buses and lorries. Everyone queues up without question; everyone is equal. They take home their trash during picnics and small litter while out on the streets to sort these out before finally disposing them. There are specific disposal times and days for combustibles, non-combustibles, and recyclables; the garbage area is always dry, orderly and odor-free. If one has to throw away furniture, appliances, bicycles, one has to buy stamps (equivalent to garbage tax) from the convenience store and paste these on the goods. The typical Japanese residence is so small that if you buy new things you have to dispose of what you have—something similar to inventory management: first in, first out. One can also just get from these good ‘throw-ables’ and reuse them, without getting permission from anyone. An open flatbed van goes around the area twice a month, to collect for free these ‘trash’. I am sure some of these can be found in the ukay-ukay or surplus stores here.
The elderly tend to some small gardens by the street through the different seasons to beautify their communities. Trains and buses almost always are on time or miss their schedules by not more than a minute or two; anything longer must definitely have been caused by an accident.
In the office our Japanese counterparts would only come late if the trains are late. The office to them is a work place; their wife, children, friends or relatives do not have an idea of how the Institute looks like. During office hours they barely smiled when you chanced upon them at the hall or during a meeting. After a month at the office I realized that a warm, spontaneous smile can truly disarm; a startled reaction came first before getting back a smile in return. No one smiles at work, the dictum goes.
And do they prepare. Documents are finalized only after so many revisions involving numerous channels; staff work commences long before the deadline. All stakeholders are consulted first so that all inputs that matter go into the document. Japan, Inc. is no propaganda spin; decisions reached are an interwoven quilt of patches of knowledge, insights and experiences from those involved. Hence you cannot come to a final meeting and introduce new additions to the ‘final’ document.
For instance, the Institute I worked in would bring about 30 trainees to a prefecture [province] in late January every year to observe how families record their daily expenditures in line with the Japan Family Income and Expenditures Survey. The coordination work begins in February of the previous year. Schedules are drawn up to the minute; for instance, participants have to be at the ‘Shinkansen’ platform at 0917 hours in time for the departure at 0938 hours. Assembly times are not targets; they are orders. When you reach the hotel and before you go to your room, you are given a map where the tourist spots, and convenience stores, are marked. Times for meetings, meal services, and receptions are planned out way in advance and rarely see deviations in execution. When the trip goes through with little or no disruption, you get the ubiquitous but heartfelt ‘Thank you for your kind cooperation’.
I would wonder how new models of electronics would appear weekly at the shelves of stores in Akihabara, the ‘electric town’ of Tokyo, given this deliberate pace and method at the work place. I surmised later on that work on the new models appearing at the market began years before. Tomorrow began yesterday, not today. I am not sure if their society has spontaneity, ad hoc, and ad lib in their daily lingo.
When the local baseball team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, won the Japan series, there was a ticker tape parade. The Marines organization issued a newsletter announcing the time and route of the parade, the participating cars and buses, the passengers in these and the music the band will play. It advised the bus company which intersections will be closed to traffic and offered them alternate routes. It suggested the desired size of the confetti so that these will float in the air as they fall and would be big enough for easy disposal after. Yes, the confetti became trash after the parade but there was no need for the public services to clean these up. Garbage bags were distributed immediately after to the elderly, the parents and the children who cleaned up the mess. After an hour there was no trace, even the slightest, that a record crowd went all out and passionately cheered their team in their first-ever baseball championship. There is a method even in their celebrations.
Nurture and care for Nature is almost second nature (pardon the pun) for the Japanese. In our area, trees were catalogued by the local government, and were trimmed and attended to on specific months. They did not manicure lawns for they saw beauty in the ordinary. Even in the midst of the bustle of Tokyo, one would always find a park, a place of recluse with a fountain—its water flowing with ‘koi’ (carp) aplenty or a spray of mist amidst the burst of colors from seasonal blooms, perennial greens and clusters of centuries-old trees. If one closes his eyes, these tiny parks would seem like living poems or ‘haikus’ portraying the antithesis, the reality of the internal and the metaphysical in each of us as against the blur of activity and noise just outside our environs. I may have captured the splendor of nature during fall (back) and spring (forward) in digital memory but the subtlety and nuance of the color blends and arrangements by Nature can only remain etched in my mind and sadly cannot yet find justice in my prose. The blossoms at the Imperial Garden and Shinjuku-goen will forever be the clouds that descended from the skies and settled on the cherry trees for a fleeting week at the onset of spring…and their fiscal year.
Unfortunately I was in and out of Japan so often that I did not have enough time to learn Nippongo in a structured way. I also worked in an English environment with a clientele and an audience that was located in the rest of Asia and the Pacific; I needed very little involved interaction with the ordinary Japanese to earn my yen in Japan. The trouble with not knowing their language is one fails to identify with the soul and spirit of the natives. I envied the aliens in movies because they adjust to the environment and disappear among the locals in minutes. This was not the case for this ‘gaijin’ (foreigner). I do look and perhaps think Japanese more than I am aware of but the Japanese know that I could never be, and did not want to be, like them.
My heart and soul have always been in the Philippines. I did not realize until then that there are degrees of loneliness and that I had reached barrel-bottom several times…like while my fingers were pounding the computer keyboard, tears would suddenly well up in my eyes as I questioned my presence away from the children and most of me. I am certain that my wife frequently had her own similar moments.
I salute those of sterner stuff who have chosen to stay in another place, metamorphosed themselves from aliens to terrestrials, and have two homelands in their hearts. I will continue to be a mercenary (with soul) in someone else’s land, should my economic status dictate so.
We were religious about noontime Sunday Mass, going to St. Ignatius Chapel of (Jesuit-ran) Sophia University in Tokyo, some 75 minutes by bus and train away from our Makuhari, Chiba residence, whatever the season or weather was. We looked forward to the Sunday Mass at the end of the month. Before church-goers from many countries, and with permission from the parish, the predominantly Filipino assembly sings ‘Kordero ng Diyos’ just before Communion, led of course by a choir of mostly Filipinos.
By the way, if you are visiting a foreign land, do not miss attending Mass on your first Sunday there. The Holy Mass abroad, even in non-Catholic Japan, is always a unifying event as Filipinos congregate and find fellowship among displaced kababayans. Ushers, lectors and sacristans would also be Filipinos. Outside the church, Filipinas and their Japanese partners take advantage of the heavy Filipino pedestrian traffic to sell phone card vendors are a-plenty along with those selling lugao, pancit palabok, bopis, laing, saging na saba, palitaw, pichi-pichi, daing na bangus, Silver Swan soy sauce, complete set of teleseryes in VHS, and Purefoods hotdogs. And like the sidewalk vendors here they scamper away when the police come because the area is a no-selling zone anyway.
Looking back, this seemed to be the only moment every month when life was breathed into my soul. In this northern spiritual desert (for me), this moment was the oasis but the few minutes of the song ticked away so fast that it seemed more like a mirage for the next 30 days. The vendors outside brought you back to the reality of material existence. I knew that I was not whole, even if I was relatively stuffed.
Fast forward, we arrived home in the Philippines on 12 May 2006.
Back to 3rd world inequality
Outside the Centennial airport, it was humid and on the way home, the lack of road discipline made the traffic longer and heavier. The dust, grime, soot, sweat and smoke welcomed us back, but so did the warmth, spontaneity, smarts and smiles.
No sooner did I realize that no matter how you shake off your immediate past there is always residue left in your subconscious that leads you on. While watching a San Beda basketball game in the Taguig gym, I slipped off a stair step and landed squarely on my right butt, costing me an L5-S1 disc bulge and a damaged peroneal nerve. I forgot that steps here can be uneven; they slope downward and are painted to look good but can be very slippery. There is just no way that this would be the case in 6-sigma Japan where citizen safety is taken to heart.
We have, among others, fruit juice drinks in packs that have to be stabbed with the straw at the bottom in order to be sipped because the allocated holes for the drinking cannot be punched through; expired food on supermarket shelves; do-it-yourself kits with a few missing screws; no return-no exchange policies for everything except for politicians and their kin in public office; policemen driving their owner-jeepneys [now motorbikes from China or Isuzu Highlander vans, perhaps depending on rank] and ‘important’ persons riding in heavily-tinted SUVs exempted from middle-class taxes and traffic rules; pedestrians whose lanes and sidewalks set aside for them put them at risk and who have less priority to sidewalk use than vendors; and unfortunate hapless consumers who bought lemons at the mercy of uncivil salespersons and unscrupulous stores.
The egalitarian dream quickly evaporated as the days went by. I was buying a PAL ticket and there was a long queue. A government functionary from one of the offices in Ermita, one who was of the same Career Executive Service rank as I was five years ago, came in with his assistants. He was done in 15 minutes while I got my ticket 4 hours later. “Kilala mo ba kung sino ako?” is a typical opening expression of the powerful nuclear clans here; by the way, where are our nuclear power plants?
Soon I had road rage and I was not even driving yet. From disciplined Japan streets, it is anarchy and war on the streets here. The one with the bumper sticking out has right of way. To drive successfully, one has to be adversarial to be able to move in and out of traffic jams, unless one has the benefit of escorts and sirens. Maka-isa hindi maki-isa. To our credit though, I did not see more accidents here than in Japan. Either of two things: no accident can happen if the vehicles are not moving or we are truly skillful drivers.
Spiritual and social positives
It was while hearing one Sunday Mass at the San Beda chapel about a month later when I realized why I needed to be home. ‘Wind beneath my Wings’ was being sung during Communion and there my spirit soared so high against the sky while a tear rolled down the side of my eye. Have you ever felt goose bumps in your soul? I knelt misty-eyed on the pews of my boyhood enveloped once more by the ceiling murals portraying the celestial and the after-life ahead of us. My daughter pressed my hand not knowing the reason but reassuring that we were together once more.
There are two generic things, almost trite and threadbare—family and friends—that can shake anybody’s stability, material or otherwise. Often in Chiba I would look at my watch, subtract an hour, and picture what my children were doing at that very moment. I always imagined them having a nice time with their friends but also wondered if these were masks to hide the pain of their separation from us. When I got back, I realized the kind of dysfunction we all had to put up in the past but that also we have the rest of tomorrow to contain and correct it. Oh, to be a ‘bagong bayani’, a ‘hero’, there has to be something that one has to give up, if not one’s life.
Now I can be with friends from school and from work. It is such a relief to just be myself, quiet when I choose to and not be asked if I am unhappy or not imbibing spirits from the bottle. Even if all the stories are told and retold many times over, I know with certainty I will never tire of listening to them. There are no conditions for friendship. You need not smoke or drink the same brand, nor smoke or drink at all. It does not matter if you “womanized” or not. Success in your career, including that of being a bum, is not a pre-condition either. There are simply too many experiences and non-experiences in this life (or some earlier one?) to discern common denominators. Savoring the sharing of life is enough. It is of course always good to come to know that at some point perhaps, you did some friends some good without planning to; you had made someone’s load lighter just by being you.
New citizen initiatives
I discovered while visiting my former staff at the National Statistics Office that a government bureaucrat who is true to his calling should be a second-class citizen, always at the beck and call of the taxpayers (even if they pay taxes themselves) to render best-effort service. When we slowly, surely and deliberately went through computerizing the frontline service of the civil registration system, I felt at times that my persona was being heavily attacked by an angry public. It in fact remains to be one of the very few successful build-transfer-operate (BTO) projects in the information technology sector to-date. But that experience has made me resolve to just be a first-class citizen, God willing.
In the past 12 months, I have been to Indonesia twice to give advice to the Ministry of Home Affairs on how to put in place a viable population administration system for their over 200 million inhabitants. What comforts and surprises a ‘retiree’ like me is that in 30 days they have taken to heart the pointers I gave them, the very same ones I had tried to propose to the skeptical and uncaring leadership here for nearly 30 years. But just the same, what is good with consultancy engagements is that you get paid whether the people who hired you agree or not. There is no media to bug you with citizen displeasure over inefficient public services.
Unluckily though, one time I passed out in a split second and fell into the bathtub at dawn during a Jakarta stopover and aggravated my cervical spine disorder of the C5 and C6 vertebrae during a hectic November consultancy mission. I have accepted now that I have a degenerating spine; at least I know I still have one. That is why I have ongoing intimate physical relationships with my physical therapists (muscular) and chiropractor (vertebral). Alternative medicine does train you to accept that there are no quick fixes and that as intense as your pain during therapy is so is the relief after.
But before I could become comfortably unemployed, I got an offer to steer and run the campaign of a neophyte candidate for the Senate. I could not resist the call to do something on the national stage again and offer the citizenry someone committed to better education and health that could prove a turning point in their future. She only had sheer intelligence, some unpublicized advocacies and the Roco name; there were few resources, no public service history and no political organization at hand. Her kitchen cabinet that included me gave her conditions that had to be satisfied before she filed her candidacy: that she would be a member of a slate; that she would have an awareness rating of 90 percent; and that she would have at least P20 million even in pledges. She managed to satisfy the first one, that of being with the opposition.
Rising from a rank of 37th in November 2006 to 12th place in April 2007, we were close to proving that pera-politics no longer existed. We conked out however in the last two weeks for lack of resources, and a ‘vote protection’ organization. Our month-long local radio and TV strategy in the Visayas and Mindanao proved to be slow-burn. We needed more funds and more time and as a result the Bisaya-speaking locals did not see enough and interact with her in person. She did reach the level of 90 percent awareness by end of April and spent in the range of P27 million total for the whole campaign and got about 8.5 million votes, good enough for 17th place in a field of 37 candidates. We lost the race with grace, as she puts it.
No matter how hard one prays, defeat can be depressing and demeaning especially when you believe firmly that you have a good formula to make life easier and uplifting for the poor. You in all your idealism and energy went all out to tell the electorate that. And yet only the moneyed ones had an effective channel with media and therefore a clear shot at winning, except for the jailed mutineer who got the protest vote.
There were great lessons and one is that in the arena of politics, there are fundamentals that need to be met; only destiny can overcome your lack of these. This might be being bitter about it but the problem is that you get to know that you are Destiny’s child after the fact and not before. The voices you heard may have sounded so much like noise and in your desire to catch the message, what you heard was actually only your whisper of ambition. But to feel better about it, a first try marked by dignity and integrity could be part of the road to Destiny, the destination of the future. Here I confess you will need to summon forward precious insights from silent reflections and a quiet communion with the Lord to discern what mission He has for you and how an honorable loss can glorify His name.
One thing has become clearer by the day: it is exhilarating to be with the opposition. You gain an extraordinary quantum of self-respect and self-righteousness as those in power trample on your rights and sense of fair play on one hand while on the other, fence-sitters watch indifferently. Now the statistics I have as stock knowledge can describe the status quo as half-empty rather than half-full in its attempts to rise to the level of the national interest. Now I can rail against inefficient bureaucracy, and talk to media and to whomever without fear of incurring the ire of the government leadership. Now I can also go anywhere without having to wear jusi or a barong; denims can really be liberating.
The language of home
After more than 50 years of imperfections, spontaneity and day-to-day uncertainty, the predictability of efficient public utilities and services, and an affordable quality of life in some foreign land can lull one into acquiring a sense of complete well-being but surely only for a short while. I have thankfully realized that eventually a healthy body and mind will have to be propped up by a throbbing heart and a soul a-stir. I can only find these at home—only in da pilippins, with family and friends. The language understood by the heart and the soul is not one merely made up of syllables and sound, lines and verses. It more importantly has to amply express the depths of your despair and the deliverance from such. It also has to lift the spirit in praise of the good and simple things in life. And these have to find release and be passed on to the pillars in your life: yes, family and friends.
As I walk with a right foot with two club-footed toes on the uneven sidewalks of home, I know that I can speak my mind and notwithstanding a neck that’s chronically stiff, hold my head up high with my Philippine brand of pride, hope and spirit intact and strong, ready to be tested in the global community again and again, ad infinitum.