Two weeks ago, I was in a taxi when the driver suddenly exclaimed, “Sir, happy ber!”
I didn’t get what he meant and asked for clarification. The driver then explained in Tagalog, like a teacher to some slow student: “It’s five past midnight, right?” Right. “Yesterday was Aug. 30, right?” Right. “So,” he said, almost triumphant, “it’s now September. Happy ber!”
I was amazed. First, and I had to gently explain to the driver, yes, it was past midnight, but the date was Aug. 31, not Sept. 1. The driver was sheepish, explaining that he thought there were only 30 days in August.
But I was even more amazed at the driver’s exuberance over what he thought was the arrival of the first of the “ber” months, presumably because it marks the beginning of what may well be the longest Christmas season in the world. Radio stations begin to blare out Christmas carols at this time (although I distinctly remember hearing last year one carol as early as August), and stores begin to drumbeat for Christmas shopping.
For today’s column I’m going to take off from the “ber” concept to a less pleasant issue, sparked off by being caught in traffic on Ortigas last Tuesday and being approached by a number of beggars. It was 10 in the morning and there were several women and one man, all dressed in malong and carrying children.
Our urban centers are full of beggars, but around Christmas their numbers swell as the cities attract more of them, usually from indigenous communities. In Manila it used to be mainly the “Igorot” (people from the Cordillera) but after the Pinatubo eruption in 1990 there were many Negritos coming in, not necessarily from the Pinatubo area. The beggars on Ortigas were probably Badjao from Mindanao, entire families making their “pilgrimage” to Manila and swarming all over the city.
Unfortunately, the beggars from indigenous communities add to the negative stereotypes we have of “natives,” “ethnic groups,” or whatever names have been given to them. When our family driver saw the beggars on Ortigas, he said in Filipino with a strong tone of condescension: “Badjao. They’re early this year. They’re so lazy.”
I’ve written about these beggars and how they are a sad reflection of the plight of many of our indigenous communities. Marginalized and neglected by government, once proud groups like those of the Cordillera have been reduced to begging in cities. You can still find a bit of their fighting spirit but channeled now into persistence, even arrogance, as they beg, some of them even spitting at you, or cursing, if you refuse to give alms.
Lost in the begging is the history of many of these groups. The Igorot, for example, resisted the colonial powers, and were therefore left out of national development. The Badjao—the term is actually a generic one, referring to several groups—were nomadic seafaring peoples found in Sulu down to north Borneo.
We forget, too, that despite the many beggars from the indigenous communities who invade our cities, there are many more who stay home, too proud to beg and looking down at those who do become “ber” beggars.
Here’s still another issue I think we should reflect on: Does our “ber” obsession also reflect a serious malady, that of national mendicancy? I’ve had many foreign friends who tell me they dislike the “ber” months because they keep hearing people asking for things. Christmas sort of legitimizes the asking, but at the same time, especially through the massive “ber” extension, brings out the worst in our asking…or begging.
But what really struck me was an observation from a Buddhist friend, who has asked not to be identified, who put it this way: We are creating a karma of mendicancy, and the Christmas season amplifies that karma.
By karma, my friend was not referring to some god punishing people. Instead, what happens here is that because we ask for so much—whether through a single “pahingi” or “pautang” to extending a palm to beg—we legitimize mendicancy and get too used to asking.
Even worse, our emphasis on asking and begging destroys our potentials—as individuals, as communities, even as a nation—to be independent and innovative, and to move forward through our own initiative.
I thought about my friend’s comments and thought it made sense. It sometimes takes an outsider to observe what we take for granted. For example, we meet someone who’s about to take a trip and automatically tell that someone not to forget our “pasalubong” (a gift brought back from a trip). It is considered to be in very bad taste by many non-Filipinos but we don’t realize that, and may even wonder what’s so wrong about it.
It’s the sense of entitlement that is so offensive. A more straight-talking westerner may retort, “We hardly know each other and you’re asking for a gift.” I’ve explained to some friends that it’s just an expression people use but unfortunately, that’s not the message that gets through.
It’s much like the way “Merry Christmas” has become, in government offices, a kind of code for “bribe me first,” which is why many such offices, particularly Customs and Immigration, ban their employees from using that greeting.
We need to learn to ask less, if not eliminate it totally, because it does corrupt our national psyche. Note how waiters and waitresses, security guards, elevator operators, even the neighborhood police and barangay tanod…and taxi drivers, become extra-friendly, extra-cheerful, and extra-helpful during the “ber” months, clearly anticipating “pamasko” (Christmas gifts, preferably cash). Which raises the issue: Why can’t we be gracious and helpful all throughout the year, rather than just during the “ber” months?
Similarly with our children, why must we entice them with Santa bringing them gifts only if they’re good, and we dangle that incentive only during the “ber” months? Why can’t our kids be good throughout the year, and not just because Santa’s coming to town? More importantly, if I may use a Christmas carol, why can’t we be good for goodness’ sake, “ber” or non-“ber” months, gifts or no gifts?
It’s time we dissociated the important value of generosity from asking and begging. Instead, we need to build a new karma based on almost unsolicited giving and sharing. You see that even in children, and every time they do that, remind them of how good it feels when they do offer to share, and how difficult, if not shameful, it is to go “pahingi.”
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