Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An Affair and an Inheritance

I'm putting this here for safekeeping: The speech that won 2nd place in the English Speaking Union Search for the Philippine Representative to the International Public Speaking Competition in London, February 9, 2013 at the UP School of Economics. The theme was "A house divided by itself cannot stand." Lenard Robles (UP Diliman) won first place and represented the country in London two weeks ago; third place went to Arman Ghodsinia of Philippine Science High School - Main campus. 

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Allow me to tell you a family secret: My uncle had an affair.  

It wasn’t about the premarital sex, no. It was about whom he had sex with.

See, I’m the fourth generation of a highly traditional Chinese family in the Philippines, and for families like mine, purity of marriage and manner remains an all-important matter. You’ve often heard the saying “The Chinese must only marry the Chinese,” but in fact, it’s not just an issue of blood and lineage. It’s mainly about the preservation of tradition.

Explains why our parents and grandparents are so protective, so silently concerned with the company we young ones keep. It’s evident in the everyday language. You get a girlfriend, the first question is: “Huan-na a si lan-nang?” Filipino or Chinese? You get too liberal, too loud, and you are labelled “huan-na te” – literally, Filipino in manner.

For the generations before mine, our traditions are as much a way of life as they are a window to the past, a lasting link – perhaps the only remaining link – to the so-called ancestral motherland. 

In this sense, then, it can be said that tradition is the greatest inheritance of a people. What we get from the past, we learn from, and in so doing, get to know ourselves a little better – what kind of people we come from, what kind of people we should be.

What, then, do we make of such an inheritance, when it is also a cause for strife?

In this 21st century society, much has been said about tolerance, acceptance, respect; yet, deep within, we still harbor prejudices. Black and White. Christian and Muslim. Chinese and Filipino. Apparently, our traditions still play a huge part in the way we think and look at other people.

It is for this very reason that to most Filipinos, we are still the “chekwas” who control this country’s economy. That every one of us is a math genius, and within the genius lives a miser. None of that is 100% truth of course. For future reference, contact my calculus teacher. 

The question now is: Do we continue to let tradition be our master, or do we altogether forget about it and forge on as globalized citizens of this “borderless” society?

Maybe the answer is neither.

Maybe, what we should aspire for, and truly work for, is to one day be able to live in harmony despite our varying traditions.

In the words of Rodgers and Hammerstein, to create something new, we must first love what is old. Let us learn from our traditions, let us celebrate our differences – because only then can we have the building blocks to make a truly borderless society.

Today, both Filipinos and Chinese call the Philippines home. Yet, if we remain silent slaves to our traditions, this home – this house of 7,107 islands – simply won’t stand. Now look around you: If we can become a city that celebrates the new year twice; if we can close down entire roads and pave the way for lion and dragon dancers; if, tomorrow, Filipinos can feast on siomai and dumplings as much as the Chinese devour plates of lechon, then perhaps… we’re on to something. So, who wants tikoy?

My father once provided quite the simplistic scenario: Imagine yourself with your classy, intelligent, rich, but Filipino wife. Imagine yourselves in our family reunion. Everyone’s talking in Chinese. And then there’s your wife, out of place.

Well, maybe she doesn’t have to be out of place. My one greatest hope is that someday, people like her won’t ever have to be out of place with people like me. Because really, Chinese, Filipino – what’s the difference?

Thank you, xiexie, maraming salamat po!

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NOTE 1 Some parts were (semi-)fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Lots of it, actually.

NOTE 2 The judges for the finals: Germaine Chuabio (winner of the Philippine Finals 2011, Top 6 in London), Gian Dapul (international winner in London 2008), Dr. Wendell Capili and Krip Yuson (of the Palanca Awards), Dr. Marlu Vilches (president of ESU Philippines), Former Ambassador Cesar Bautista, and Claire Jiao (of BusinessWorld).

NOTE 3 Germaine, Gian, Lenard, and I all belong to the batch that graduated from high school in 2009. 

NOTE 4 Hands down, the most thrilling public speaking contest I've participated in since embarking on this "career" (winning 3rd place in the Rotary Club's Voice of Our Youth division level in 2006). Came so, so, so close to seeing Ben Whishaw and Dame Judi in Peter and Alice, Helen Mirren in The Audience, and the Olivier-winning adaptation of Haddon's Curious Incident, but it was a damn good fight and well worth it. 

NOTE 5 Here is my speech from last year's competition, where both Lenard and I also got into the Top 6.

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