Sisyphus’ Lament

Sentimental ‘basura’ from my Harvard dorm

SINGAPORE — “Nakakatuwa doon kasi pinupulot lang namin sa basurahan ’yung mga gamit. ’Yung mga hindi nabentang gamit ng iba, iniiwan lang sa basurahan at doon kami namumulot.”

(“It was heartening there because we just picked up things in garbage/recycling areas. People would leave their unsold items and we would take them.”)


Vice President Leni Robredo recounted the modest beginning of her eldest daughter Aika’s prestigious Edward S. Mason Program, the same Harvard Kennedy School of Government program her late husband took.

Each summer, students moving out leave slightly used belongings. The next wave happily inherits them, particularly students from developing countries. Even a vice president’s daughter.


When I moved into Harvard Law School, the happiest moment came when preloved items were sold on a nearby lawn. For a few dollars, I became the proud owner of my predecessors’ plates, bowls, glasses, knives, nonmatching spoons and forks, lamp and iron.

I splurged $20 on a used mini-refrigerator. It became the most treasured possession in my 8×10-foot room, the dorm’s smallest and cheapest.

A June 9, 2007, Inquirer headline read: “Filipino recounts surviving in Harvard on leftover food.” I had mystified reporter Volt Contreras when I tried to describe “leftovers.”

I dreamed of taking Prof. Laurence Tribe’s legendary Constitutional Law class, like former US president Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts and ICC Judge Raul Pangalangan. But so did everyone else. My first priority lottery bid only landed me on top of the waitlist.

Miraculously, a mainland Chinese student left the first lecture with her head spinning. Freedom of speech was completely alien to her. I rushed to enroll when she dropped out.

But even better, Professor Tribe enjoyed giving out free apples from two large baskets every Friday. The mostly American students ate less than half a basket. Janitors threw away the rest.

The next Friday, I brought my hand-carry suitcase. I left with my books in my arms and one and a half baskets of apples in the suitcase. Not only did I have fresh fruit my whole first term, I made friends by giving out apples.


My free food radar won me countless friends. I joined both Asian clubs’ recruitment lunches, ate La Alianza burritos after explaining that the Philippines was a Spanish colony and even had drinks with the Black Law Students Association. I celebrated iftar with Muslims and Purim with Jews. I joined Democrat and Republican dinners alike and just nodded my head.

Ed Francisco, unstoppable president of BDO’s investment bank, spoke at this year’s UP Virata School of Business graduation. He confessed similar tactics when he took his Wharton MBA. He joined recruitment events for free dinners, volunteered for psychology experiments for extra money and even donated blood because that also paid.

Like me, he flew to the United States knowing he did not have enough money.

His speech made me feel bad—I had volunteered for brain MRI scans for $25 but never thought of donating blood! But Ed and every other Filipino Ivy League graduate have nothing but fond, proud memories of used furniture and free food.

Every two weeks while in Harvard, I borrowed the granny cart of Jen, the nice girl from Alaska. I walked to Market Basket, the supermarket in the next town where sandwich ingredients were one-third cheaper. After I began practicing international corporate law in London, I found my last can of pea soup, packed by mistake from the dorm.

I poured the soup into the bowl from the yard sale, turned on the microwave and smiled at a last taste of Market Basket. I later dropped the bowl but still have some of my basura, from my dorm plate to the Harvard Law necktie my departing neighbor threw out.

They remind me that perhaps one day, I might hope to be someone like Ed and help advance our screwed-up country, so that the next idealistic daughter of a vice president or tenacious son of a tricycle driver who won a UP scholarship might set foot in Harvard and dream loftier dreams beyond used furniture and free food.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: Aika Robredo, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Inquirer Opinion, leni robredo, Oscar Franklin Tan, Sisyphus’ Lament
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