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Pinoy Kasi

Life’s columns

Reflecting on the 15 years of writing “Pinoy Kasi,” I’ve come to realize how much a part of my life the column has become, from thinking of topics to write about, writing up the columns, reading and sometimes responding to letters from readers.

In the 15 years I’ve been writing, we’ve had four presidents: Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Arroyo and now Benigno Aquino III. My own personal circumstances have changed, from being single, to still being single but raising very young children, while caring for very elderly parents. In 1997 my work at the University of the Philippines was limited to teaching and research; over the years I’ve had to run a department, and now a college. All those circumstances shape the way I write Pinoy Kasi.

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Time has become a premium, and so I’ve learned to wake up very early in the morning, sometimes as early as 4, to work on the column. At the same time, I’ve found, amid the many busy routines, more ideas for columns, ideas that pop up while carrying one of the kids, for example, or waiting for the pediatrician or my mother’s doctors, or sitting in a long university meeting.

I can finish a column in an hour but more often it takes between two and three hours mainly because of research. The Internet’s been such a help here, but it is also full of peril, with so much misinformation floating around. I do cross-check, but still get the sting, or in local journalists’ jargon, kuryente, from time to time, moving on a false lead or inaccurate information.

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It’s been an advantage being an anthropologist, which straddles the natural and social sciences. The natural sciences trained me to observe everything, down to the smallest detail; the social sciences taught me science is also feeling, and developing empathy for places, and people. Often, too, I find myself writing about how biology and culture interact, why sticky songs are so detestable, yet popular (here’s one: Shalala la la, there do you feel it sticking now?). Being in the academe, I have to read science journals, and will pick up ideas from there as well, especially when they resonate for our own daily lives—for example, a study last year looking into the way child caring brings down testosterone levels in fathers.

Human interest

It’s hard to tell what kind of columns will take off. I was surprised at how a recent one on how “I’m sorry” has been trivialized in the Philippines drew so many letters. I did a sequel on “Pasensiya,” another phrase disliked by many Filipinos, but that column also drew more letters, insightful ones at that, so I’ll probably do a third column on this topic.

Predictably, human interest stories always appeal: moms, kids, cats, dogs.  As a medical anthropologist, I write a lot about health issues, including popular medical knowledge and practices. Columns on usog, pasma, kulam and bangungot always bring animated letters from readers. Columns on the educational system, and UP, also click, but the UP columns seem always to lead to Internet rumbles between pro- and anti-UP readers.

I like it when columns turn into conversations, but I know, too, that sometimes we can’t keep going on one issue. Sometimes, too, I decide not to take on burning issues, like the Corona case, because so many columnists are better at handling it. I also go slow with issues where I suspect political maneuvering, as in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. With elections around the corner, I’m wary of saber-rattling for political mileage, and, frankly, I’m alarmed at how we’re called to defend Filipino sovereignty and yet go whining to Uncle Sam to help us fight China.

Readers send requests, too, for particular topics, or ask for more information about what I’ve written. I’ve had to ignore most requests for help with term papers or research projects because of time limitations. I’ve also had requests for help with tracking down Chinese roots; I do write back with tips. But requests for looking for absconding fathers—I’ve received two of these—I’ve had to sadly turn down.

Some years back I ran into photojournalist Sonny Evangelista, who greeted me with: “Hey, how did you become Leo Echegaray’s godfather?”  Echegaray was the first person to be sent to the lethal injection chamber after we reinstated the death penalty in 1999, and I had written several columns calling for a rethinking of executions. I never met Echegaray, but figured he probably had read my columns and made me ninong for his prison wedding.  By the time I found out about my new godchild, he was gone, long gone.

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Humbled

The late Adrian Cristobal once wrote that columnists eat nails for breakfast. I’ve had my share of nasty letters, the worst ones dating back to the time when I criticized the US invasion of Iraq and drew the ire mainly of Filipino-American readers. I also had quite a few angry letters, although still outnumbered by supportive ones, when I called for the abolition of mandatory ROTC. Through the years, I’ve noticed that the nicest, as well as nastiest, letters come from women, and that included the ROTC issue. Go figure.

When I was first offered Inquirer space, my friends all pushed me to accept, saying I could reach so many people. I’ve found that happening, and know I’ve touched many people’s lives, but the 15 years have also made me realize my limitations, and this is a good time to share a rather humbling experience.

For years I’d been buying fruits from a suki vendor at Farmers Market in Cubao. One day the vendor asked me in Filipino if I had a column in the Inquirer, and when I answered yes she began to jump up and down, calling on the other vendors and telling them, yes, yes, “Sir” is the one at the Inquirer.

I was beginning to get embarrassed with all the attention when the vendor explained to me what had happened.  Turns out she was wrapping fruits one day, presumably with the Inquirer, when she suddenly recognized my photograph next to Pinoy Kasi. She told me about how thrilled she was, and how impressed she was after reading the column. “Ang galing-galing mo (You’re so good!)!” she said, adding that she didn’t understand a word I wrote because it was in English.

I never got to find out what fruits she was wrapping, and recently, I had a similar encounter with an egg vendor, a humbling reminder that writing in English is a handicap.  All that has challenged me to be more conscious of language use in school, and at home.  I belong to the generation that was penalized in school for speaking in Filipino and although we did have Filipino classes later in grade school, we were not really encouraged to think, much less to write, in Filipino.

And so now, with my kids, I am determined they will speak and write in Filipino, whether in formal and elegant prose, or with the earthy wit of daily conversations.

Stay with me and follow my adventures with kids, with students, with life. With time, I hope these young ones will themselves write, in Filipino and in English, and we will nod in agreement, and in pride, Pinoy kasi.

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TAGS: anthropology, featured column, human interest, Michael tan, newspaper column, opinion
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