Saturday, 30 December 2006

A very Filipino Christmas

IT started as normally as many Filipino parties often do—a few “fashionably late” minutes later than scheduled.

The food was great, with an eclectic regional and international culinary selection that only Filipinos can pull off so well. Bicol express, Chinese yang chow fried rice made from Indian Basmati, Italian spaghetti and other favorites from around the country and the world over graced the table, way in overabundance for all the partygoers to consume twice over.

Oh, and there were the favorite Filipino games alright, both for the kids and the adults to enjoy. There was even a special edition of “Deal or No Deal,” complete with the Kris Aquino mannerisms and expressions that we all love so much. Prizes aplenty too for the winners, with some even for the losers as well.

And what gathering can be complete without the dancing — to the beat of Gary Valenciano and VST & Co. no less. With happy couples swinging away until the small hours, it was a Christmas party truly worthy of being called Filipino. For few can really enjoy a party as we do — just ask the occasional foreigner lucky enough to be invited to one of these soirees, and I am sure they would all wholeheartedly agree.

Typical of so many of our gatherings at this time of the year, this one could have been held anywhere in the country. The only give-away was the freezing cold and damp outside the hall, something not really typical of the Philippines at this time of the year, or the whole year for that matter.

The celebration I speak of was held in Cheshire, in the suburb of Cheadle — home to a good number of Filipino migrant families here in the United Kingdom. Many of them engaged in nursing and allied health professions, the Filipinos here are a vibrant group, proud members of a community that they call their own, at least for now.

Like a good number of Western countries today, the United Kingdom relies on foreign workers to take care of its healthcare needs, and our Filipino brothers and sisters were only too happy to respond to the challenge. As a result, most of the hospitals in the area are staffed with familiar faces, not unlike the wards of our hospitals back home.

Badly needed though their services may be, however, our brothers and sisters here face uncertain times ahead. Some in the United Kingdom (UK) medical community have voiced concerns over the fact that too many foreign workers have come, at the expense of UK and European Union (EU) nationals.

With many Eastern European countries already in the Union, their workers will soon have equal rights with UK citizens to work in the country. In the case of the health industry, this will come at the expense of non-EU nationals, including Filipinos.

With so much agitation over the issue of migration (especially the connection with the sensitive subject of foreign-sponsored terrorism), controls over immigration are only bound to get tighter.

This will not be helped by the planned exit of Tony Blair in May, and the expected strengthening of the Conservative Party— whose immigration policies can only be described as less-than-friendly to foreign workers.

And still, we party on.

Looking around the dance hall that night, no threat of immigration clampdowns or foreign worker restrictions seem to be imminent.

In terms of resiliency and stoic resolve, we Filipinos are legendary. Perhaps due to our happy go lucky nature, and certainly because of our faith in Divine Providence — adversity or not — we simply continue to live as we normally do, and party as much as we have always done.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 30, 2006 (

Saturday, 23 December 2006

The gift of time

MURDER. The investigation into the murder of five young girls in England has taken on a dramatic new turn.

This week two men were arrested and formally questioned for the killings, and just this morning one of them was released without charges. The other has been charged with the crimes, bringing with it the promise that finally the killer will be brought to justice.

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And yet, even with the capture and possible indictment of the suspected murderer, the case seems to ask even more questions than have already been answered. More so because the crimes took place during a season of celebration that is so close to all our hearts.

At the heart of the matter is the extent to which the bond of family relations has deteriorated in the West, and the attendant problems and difficulties that this brings into the society at large. Both the victims and the suspected killers seem to have been affected by this ominous development—this shared misfortune bringing them together into a destructive end.

Hearing the relatives of the young girls speak, almost to a family they echoed the same regret—that their daughters had already been “lost” to them long before they had actually died.

Most had no more contact with their kin, and all had very difficult relationships with their immediate family.

Lost because all had succumbed to the temptation of hard drugs—a habit so insidious that they seem to have surrendered all their humanity and self-respect, resorting to whatever means to fund their addiction, including selling their own bodies to virtual strangers for cash. In the end they traded even their lives for a craving too strong to resist, even potential harm mattered little in the equation.

The suspects seem to have suffered the same sad fate as the victims. From the little that we have been informed about their circumstances, it seems that they led pretty isolated lives themselves, either divorced or without loving relationships to speak of. In the end it seems that this took a heavy toll on their sanity, leading them to act in the way they did.

Victims and suspects alike were “victimized” by a phenomenon that now seems to consume most of the West, and spreading fast in our part of the world – the destruction of the family as a solid social unit, reinforcing positive behaviour on its members, and acting as a rock-solid support in terms of personal crises.

How has this happened when Christmas is as busy as it has ever been, with everyone engaged in a frenzied rush to get their loved ones the fanciest and most expensive presents? How can this be possible when it has been estimated that more and more people now go into debt every holiday season, their shopping sprees taking them a good part of the next year to pay off?

The answer, I fear, is lost in our orgy of spending—buried beneath the Playstations and Ipods, masked by the scent of Armani and Gucci perfume, and thrown away like the tons of tinsel and wrapping paper that we discard at the end of it all.

As my wife reminds me every now and then, there are three gifts we can give to one another—our time, our talent, and our treasure.

And we know of course which one is the easiest to part with, and which is the most difficult to give away.
But we need to give of our precious time.

We need time to listen to our children’s worries, address their anxieties and allay their fears.

We need to take time to praise their work and celebrate their accomplishments. And difficult as it may be to do at times, we need to spend time in firmly reminding them of the error of their ways, so they may walk on the right path again.

Our time is the most precious gift we could ever give our loved ones this Christmas.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 23, 2006 (

Saturday, 16 December 2006

When Progress Is Not

WHILE Christmas should normally be a time of merrymaking for most families, sadly it will not be to five families in England this year. In a gruesome tale of murderous frenzy, not seen since the time of the infamous London killer Jack the Ripper, five women have turned up dead, killed in similar circumstances by what is most likely a single individual.

All women had one thing in common — they were all “working girls” — the term euphemistically given to females who are in the business of exchanging sexual favors with clients, for a fee.

Prostitution is technically not legal in the United Kingdom, but its existence is tolerated by the authorities. Overall estimates vary but there are thousands and thousands of females and males — often young and vulnerable individuals — who are in the trade.

Invariably, their circumstances will have certain similarities—broken homes, sexual abuse as children, and more often than not substance and alcohol abuse as adolescents and teenagers. Selling their bodies for cash is often their only means to finance the dire circumstances they are under.

The trade normally operates “under the radar” of the police. When things are under control and no crimes are committed, normally law enforcement officials look the other way and leave the workers and their customers on their own.

However, when killings of the sort that just took place occur, things really start happening.

Not since the height of the London terror bombings has such well covered police activity taken place in the country. Forensic teams from all over the UK have been brought in to bring their expertise into the case, in an effort to catch the daring murderer before he could strike again.

Such was the bravado of this individual that even when the police had already started with their investigation a week ago, he still had the audacity to kill two more women under their noses.

The irony, of course, is that with only a fraction of the resources now at the disposal of the police to solve this murder mystery, these tragedies may not have happened at all.

Men and women in the flesh trade are perhaps the most vulnerable to this kind of tragedy. Though their activities are generally tolerated, they are shunned by the communities where they live and work, and are not really given priority by the police in terms of protection.

Intervention to get them out of the trade they are in is often ineffective — by the time they go into the profession, their problems will have been too complicated to solve.

Their stories are not unlike what we have at home in the Philippines — of young children left to fend for themselves or look after others, young people led into crime and drug addiction by the misery of their circumstances, and a society too apathetic to heed their cries for help, until it is too late.

Despite the progress many societies have made, especially over the last few years of expanding globalization, many of our young people are still as vulnerable as ever to neglect and abuse.

Left on the margins of progress, there is no hope for them in terms of social mobility, and the only recourse is to crime, drugs and prostitution.

It is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed, whether in Europe, or here at home in the Philippines. For no progress can really be considered as true advancement if it leaves the weakest and most vulnerable members of society behind.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 16, 2006 (