‘Where are you from?’
It’s such a simple and casual question that seeks a simple and casual answer. It doesn’t require a lot of thinking, does it?
I was asked this question about a thousand times this past academic year under the Fulbright Global Undergraduate Exchange Program. Through this scholarship grant, I studied at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the United States for a year. US universities are melting pots of intellectuals not just from America but from all over the world, and so I was always asked: “Where are you from?” And a simple and casual answer came automatically: “I am from the Philippines.”
One of the terms of the Global UGRAD Program award, or any other Fulbright grant and scholarship, is that one must immediately return to one’s country at the completion of the study. At first I was a bit curious as to why it had to be one of the most emphasized sections of the agreement. I was shocked when I learned that many scholars sent abroad by the Fulbright Commission of the Philippines never returned to our beloved country. That depressing truth breaks its heart as much as it broke mine.
Of course, I would return to the Philippines. America is not my home, the Philippines is! And isn’t that the purpose of the grant? To improve ourselves and gain more knowledge and insight in our field of study, come back, and use these for the development of our country? During the interview when I applied for the grant, I told the panelists that I wanted to go to the United States to learn more about a specific field in my course that is not yet as fully developed here as it is there. I told them that I would want to share the things I learned abroad by becoming a professor at the University of the Philippines someday and help in molding the minds of young Filipinos and contribute to my country’s future. Yes, I said, I would immediately return to the Philippines after completion of the study, with no second thoughts.
But it didn’t take much time for me to become critical of my own country. After months of living and studying in America, I unfortunately forgot some of my deeply held nationalist principles. There’s nothing wrong in learning to love a foreign country; what’s wrong is that I became too comfortable in my life in the United States that the idea of returning to the Philippines seemed like a very heavy burden. I began to think of America as superior to the Philippines in every aspect: Its universities have all the high-tech facilities and my dormitory is like a hotel. The dining halls offer the best food in the world. Each student has a car. There is no pollution, the streets are litter-free.
I traveled to St. Louis, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, New York, and many other places, and I kept comparing these big cities to Manila’s slums. The exercise was like a big tidal wave that washed away the Philippine pride that once lived in my heart. I constantly thought of how disciplined Americans were, how perfect the traffic, how awesome the skyscrapers, how amazing the technology, how expensive the coats and dresses in Beverly Hills, how wonderful the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, how I could spend my whole life in Disneyland, how “I can make it anywhere” because I made it to New York, how everything and everyone in America are so not like the Philippines…
Why, I asked myself, would anyone prefer hot, polluted, poor Philippines over this “land of milk and honey”? I transformed from the Iskolar ng Bayan to the pretentious girl who tried hard to speak English with a twang. I morphed from the hope of the motherland to a hypocrite oblivious to her national identity. I changed from a Filipino ready to offer her life to her country to a stranger who spat on the sacrifices of our national heroes. I became so comfortable living in America that I forgot why I had applied for the scholarship in the first place: to come back to my country and serve the people.
I returned to the Philippines with a heavy heart. I went back to my old routine of commuting daily from Bulacan to UP Diliman for my last year of college, taking the tricycle and the jeepney under the heat of the sun and the overwhelming humidity. I experienced reverse culture shock: Everything was so different and difficult.
I continued to dream my American Dream until I woke up. It was enrolment day at UP Diliman when the realization struck me. Students had to stand in line for hours just to get into the classes they wanted. I myself was in a queue for three hours, and it was torture. But I saw how UP students faced up to the challenge of enrolment. There’s nothing like that in America, and it makes me proud: We Filipinos know that things do not always come easy, but we are very persistent and patient. We know how to endure hardship. We excel even in uncomfortable situations. We know how to bend when the tough winds blow (and in the case of enrolment queues, we know how to use the pamaypay to cool ourselves).
As I watched my fellow scholars of our nation wait (and suffer) in line for enrolment, I realized that there is no denying that we are a Third World country and that it’s unfair to compare it with those in the First World. We complain about substandard roads, undisciplined drivers, destructive floods, the illiterate masses, and the general poverty. We ask too much from our country without asking ourselves what we can do for it. Maybe we are the causes of some of the problems we complain about, and it’s high time we changed.
In my Philippine Institutions 100 class we viewed a documentary on the life of Jose Rizal. What struck me most was that he studied in and visited most of the countries of Europe, and traveled to the United States, as well as Japan and Hong Kong—and yet declared that no matter how beautiful these countries were, they would never compare to the Philippines, that he would rather go back to his native land and die, than live a comfortable life abroad.
I admire and salute Filipinos who work overseas for the benefit of their families. Their contributions to our country are immeasurable. I saw for myself how some Filipinos in the United States missed their native land constantly and how they had not renounced their national identity. But I admire even more those people who, despite opportunities to live abroad, choose to stay here. They want to serve the country by being in the country. I believe that one can serve the country wherever one is in the world—but those who choose to stay on Philippine soil in this global age are the Rizals of our generation.
“Where are you from?” is indeed a simple and casual question that requires nothing more than a simple and casual answer. But it is only when we ask ourselves this question that it becomes something so powerful, something that takes strength and conviction to answer. I have seen better things abroad, and to see better things in my own country, I should and will always be proud to say that I am from the Philippines.
Junesse d.R. Crisostomo, 20, is a speech communication student at UP Diliman. She was also the Filipino youth ambassador to Japan in 2012 under the aegis of the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths.