Friday, June 1, 2007

Hiding Place.

For many of us, Anne Frank is probably just that teenage girl who told the world the story of the fate of the Jewish people in hiding during the Nazi occupation in Europe. She died just the same in a concentration camp, together with the other millions of Jews. But her diary gives us a glimpse of that historic past.

When I was 14, I have read her diary – the book that was translated to over 70 languages. It did not move me. It was just another book lying around the house that caught my attention. But her story made me realize that there is a world outside my world.

Her story gave me a vivid impression as to how Hitler and his party have made the Jews the scapegoat for all of Germany’s social and economic problems. Wars always start like that. They always look for scapegoats.

I haven’t really thought about Anne Frank for a long time, until I moved to the Netherlands and went to see the Achterhuis or the Secret Annex. It was that empty section between the attic and the second floor --- sort of a mezzanine. It is said that it was concealed behind a moveable bookcase built in front of it, so that the Nazi police will not find them during raids. The building was owned by Anne’s father, Otto Frank.

As I walked through the narrow staircase, I started to hyperventillate. I was completely overwhelmed by her story. I got so emotional and upset at one point that I felt the need of screaming. But it made me think for a moment about how the Filipinos have totally forgotten what the Japanese did during the war. Why don’t we have stories like Anne Frank?

I remember having excavated a metal box in our backyard when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My sister CP, brother J, and I were playing and digging the ground when we accidentally stumbled upon a box. J opened it. There was a rusty gun inside, some bullets, letters, and pictures of a Japanese woman. We showed them to my grandmother who instructed us to immediately bury the box. We never saw that box again. In fact, we never spoke about that box ever again.

Meanwhile in the Achterhuis, one could only imagine the horror the Frank’s family must have felt. They have been prisoners for more than 2 years in that Secret Annex.

They watched the seasons change through a tiny hole in the roof. They were lulled to sleep by bombs and gunshots. They can not go out. They have to be as still as mice during daytime when the lower portion of the house was used as an office. It is then no wonder that when their hiding place was finally discovered, most of them felt relieved and to some degree, happy that they no longer have to hide.

What struck me about the Anne Frank story is that, the Frank’s Family were migrants too. They were originally from Frankfurt, Germany. But because they were Jewish, Anne’s father decided to move to the Netherlands in 1933.

Fast forward ….

Almost 60 years after the Second World War, you will be surprised to know that there are still people all over the world who are “in hiding”. These are the many modern-day migrants who, like the Frank’s Family, go to developed countries to seek political asylum, be reunited with their family, and to seek for greener pastures.

However some of them, like the Frank’s family during the Nazi occupation, end up prisoners. Like my Turkish and Afghan friends here. Or myself.

During the cold, dark winter months when everything practically goes to sleep, I too go to sleep. I confine myself to the living room, where I have a good view of the outside world. I feel like a bird in a cage really. Except that in my case, I caged myself.

Fatma my Turkish friend, studied Mining Engineering in England, worked in a very prestigious company in Istanbul, was assigned in Africa for awhile, and is now married to a Turkish guy with a Dutch passport. Her husband, being a second generation migrant, speaks Dutch fluently, went to a Dutch university for his MBA, and has been unemployed like Fatma until quite recently when he decided to put up his own company and started to publish his works.

As for my friend, she has completely abandoned her desire to build a career and is now devoting all her time to cooking, cleaning, and raising her son. I see less and less of her these days, because her husband prefers that she spends more time with her Turkish female acquaintances. Just like those women in the ghettos.

I also have an Afghan friend who fled here together with her son, almost 10 years ago when her husband was taken as prisoner by the Taliban. She comes from a wealthy family, and was a teacher in Kabul. She was educated in Bulgaria. She lost her sanity two years after she arrived here. She is now a psychiatric patient, in catatonic state most of the time.

When she is lucid, she talks passionately about her motherland. About how she longs to go back home. A home that only exists now in her mind. She can not work because of her condition. So you may say that she is also a prisoner of some sort. The irony of it is that, she came here to be free.

Yes, there is an Anne Frank story in all of us. But we all hope for a better life. No hiding places. No secret annex. Just plain freedom.

But sometimes to feel "safe"..... and less b r o k e n, we retreat to our sanctuary --- the Hiding Place. Hoping that when the war is over, tomorrow will bring fresh hopes and new dreams. And we will be whole again.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Sometimes, I don't think we realize that we too are growing older. I still feel pretty much the same when I was in my early twenties; and I am in my late thirties now.

Perhaps the reason why I feel this way is because I don't have children and am not responsible for another human being other than myself.

I had a friend here. Her name was Marietje. She was a kind, gracious, funny person. Whenever I was with her, I tend to forget that I am a migrant here because she treated me like one of her kind.

The last time I saw Marietje was in November. One evening, she popped round unexpectedly. That is not common here because Dutch people always schedule their activities, including visiting and spending time with friends. But Marietje was different. She was spontaneous and flexible.

Between November and last Tuesday, I did not bother to keep in touch with her. I am like that. I tend to take people for granted. And it’s not that I am not thinking about them. I constantly think about my friends. I just don’t like friendships to be like a social obligation. That you feel obliged to email, send sms or call them --- because you think of your friend as an obligation.

I am not like that.

So when I went over the newspaper last Tuesday, you can just imagine the horror on my face when I came across the name of my friend Marietje in the obituary section. My world turned upside down. I never thought and never imagined of seeing her name there. Not that evening anyway.

Like the sentimental fool that I am, I played in my mind the times that Marieje and I were together. Just like an old favorite movie.

The times when I would call her and tell her that I was not coming to work because of the pile of snow lying on the street and in my frontyard (I still don't have a driver's license so I could go to work either by bus or by bicycle only. Since I am too impatient to wait for buses, I always end up taking my bicycle).

Marietje would remind me over and over again, that I live here now. That I should not be scared of snow; that I should get used to braving the cold, dark winter's day.

I am not really "scared" of snow. My worry really is getting ill --- you know, pneumonia and bronchitis. Because getting ill during the winter months, entails months of coughing and sleepless nights. Besides, I am too often sick here. I even acquired asthma already.

There are times when I am too embarrassed to skip work. So I would saddle on my bike and brave the icy cold winter's day.

When I arrive at work, Marietje would have a hot cocoa ready for me. She would always greet me with a big friendly laugh, with her naughty comment that I should attach an electric heater to my bicycle. She also makes fun of my attire, but in a friendly way. She said, I looked like an astronaut.

I don't blame her. I mean, with my thick jacket, leather boots and hand gloves, woolen scarf, and leather hat. The only thing lacking in this picture, is a spaceship to make me a full-pledged astronaut.

And now, she's gone. She was only 54. I did not even know that she was lying in the hospital the past 6 weeks. She had cancer of the lungs. When I went to the wake last night, I barely recognized her but the smile on her face looked familiar.

I feel so crushed. I did not even have the chance to thank her. To tell her that she made those cold winter less cold for me because of her warm personality.

That I appreciated the fact that she would wait for me outside of the building when it was time to go home. That although I was annoyed during those times when she was laughing at my astronaut get up, that I was actually also laughing deep down because I know how ridiculous I look. That it was so sweet of her to have the cup of hot cocoa ready for me, when I arrive.

The little things that she did, made her different from the rest.

So yes, it’s true that people will never forget you for how you made them feel. Because although Marietje did not offer to be my bestfriend for life, she certainly made me feel loved and cared for.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Going Dutch.

It was Fall of 2001. I remember the plane touching down at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. It was my first trip to Europe.

I’ve always loved Europe for its sense of history. You see, I majored in the study of Western music (Musicology) back in college. While the rest of my classmates, friends and acquaintances at UP were focused on getting a scholarship to the Ivy league schools in the US, I was actually more keen about and more interested in getting into a school in Europe.

I wanted to listen to a live rendition of Bach’s chorale preludes, or to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I dreamt of going to an opera house to watch a live performance of any Wagnerian opera. I didn’t care so much about what they say about Wagner having written music for the Third Reich and especially for Hitler. For Wagner too was a great man.

I aspired to listen to the world’s finest pianists compete at the annual Liszt pianoconcours. And perhaps if I get lucky, I could even pay a visit to the birthplace of the composer I fell in love with when I was 12, Ludwig van Beethoven.

My logic then was rather elementary. If you want to eat puto bumbong, a Filipino delicacy available in Sorsogon during the Christmas season only, you go to Tia Tinay Hayag's carenderia. If you want puto lanson (rice cake), you go to Jaymalin’s. I wanted Western music. Where do I go? Europe, of course, the cradle of Western music civilization.

So when the plane finally came to a full halt on that cold Autumn morning, I was overwhelmed by a strong feeling of being reborn. I felt physically weak, almost nauseous. But I remember promising to myself that I will have a great marriage; that I will be a good wife, a good mother. I will be the friendly neighbor. I will have a career, perhaps even write my own book. I will make my own history.

Yes, I dreamt of greatness for Europe deserves only The Best and The Great. This continent has produced so many great artists and thinkers. I belong here now, or that was what I said to myself at least.

I was welcomed with tulips, balloons and warm big smiles by my husband and my new family. On our way to Zoelen where my in-laws live, I sat in awe and in an almost semi trance-like state at the backseat of the car.

I watched the falling leaves and what seemed like a display of brilliant colors of red, yellow, orange, purple, and brown. And in the distant background, the windmills paraded like quick snapshots from a sad, nostalgic film. Everything is so beautiful and organized. No traffic jams. No honking. No smoke-belchers. And there’s more. They observe road courtesy! I didn’t know that was possible. I was ecstatic.

At the same time, I was totally self-absorbed and was just internalizing all the impressions that were quickly passing before my eyes. Those moments were my rites of passage --- the transition of my life from one stage to another.

This is my rebirth, I said to myself while I hummed the first few bars of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in my head. Not that I felt like the girl who was offered and sacrificed to the god of Spring. But those were the moments that marked my initiation to another culture. An ancient culture. And while many say that rite of passage is emotionally charged and entails life crises, mine did not feel that way. Not at that moment anyway.

It really felt like coming home. Not that I consider myself great ever. But I thought that if I am in the same environment that produced the world’s great masters, then maybe I too could feel like one of them and one with them even if that means playing only for my own ears in what Rudyard Kipling calls “sixty-seconds' worth of distance run.” Yes, playing music for my own pleasure. Feeling good in what I do ---- alone, or sometimes, in the presence of my imaginary audience and great friends.

For those of you who are now jumping into conclusions, I did not marry my Dutch husband to get a visa to Europe. In fact, I was offered to teach in a posh school in London in 1996. But that is an entirely different story that has no bearing whatsoever to my story here.

Yes, while others were busy dreaming (and making their dreams come true) about the American dream, I was dreaming of the great masters. One time, I remember reading a book about Mozart and picturing in my mind’s eye the earth that this great man had walked on his way to see his patron, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymos von Colloredo of Salzburg. Little did I know that I, too, will be walking that same alley one day.

Why, I even went inside his house in Salzburg. It was of course a very moving experience. I cried while I raced up the stairs, and continued crying on our way to see the Danube River. I called my mother home and cried to her. I cried not because a dream was fulfilled. I cried because I was humbled by his modest flat. I thought that such a great man as Mozart, who produced so many GREAT master pieces, does not belong in that flat. He should have lived in a palace and should have been accorded the comforts of a king. He only deserved the best. He was after all MOZART, music genius.

So I cried my heart out. I felt very small and something was revealed to me that very moment. I discovered in Austria that genius knows no boundaries. It is not bound by a small, impoverished flat but rather thrives in the hearts of those who are gifted. It is brought to life when the beautiful melodies are put on paper to live forever in the hearts of those who listen to them long after this man named Mozart is gone. But I am not here to talk about Mozart. I am here to talk about my story.

In June 2002, my father died suddenly. Yes, life doesn’t always happen the way we plan it to be. It was a reality-check for me. For the first time in eight months, I felt homesick. I even felt the physical distance between my family and me. I felt detached, cut loose and separated from my loved ones. It was only then that I realized the impact of the decision I made about leaving home to be reunited with my husband.

But the rational side of me justified that feeling. I thought that I felt the way I did because I was grieving over the death of my father. My husband hardly knew my father, so he could not possibly provide me with the emotional support that I needed then, whereas my siblings and my mother know my relationship with my father.

He was my king, and I was his little princess. My father did not love me because I brought home the bacon ­ you know, winning contests or excelling in school. He loved me because I am his daughter. I made him happy and that was enough for him. He adored me the moment I was born.

So when I came back to the Netherlands after we buried Papa, I became terribly unhappy. The dark embroidered veil that hung over my face that was making everything here looked rosy and fairytale-like, has been lifted. I was suddenly confronted with my own mortality. I started asking myself questions like, if I die where will I be buried? Will someone go to the cemetery and bring me flowers, light a candle, and say a little prayer for me? Will there be mourning?

This reminds me of a story about a Filipina acquaintance who came running at my door. She was hysterical and in tears. Her Dutch husband apparently had asked her openly to decide already the coffin, the snacks that will be served, and the cemetery where she will be buried. She said in between sobs, “ano, papatayin nya ako?” (Is he planning to kill me?) She was so horrified.

She asked me to enlighten her why her husband was already talking about death whereas they are still at the prime of their lives. I told her that Westerners always plan ahead. And by that I mean, their coffins, the snacks to be served at the wake and the burial. That poor woman.

But I started thinking about my destiny, too; about the fact that I have uprooted myself from my own cultural environment and, like an exotic plant from the Cordillera mountains, am re-planted in a foreign soil where I am expected to grow robust roots and hopefully bear fruits. Fruits of productiveness.

After all, being unemployed is a luxury in the Netherlands. Or in any Western society for that matter. They do not encourage people here to stay at home and they definitely do not tolerate people to idle and be lazy.

So they send you to schools free of charge to learn the language, culture, the Dutch law, and tolerance. They call that the Integration program, our initiation to the Dutch society and the European way of life. I theorized that this is the Dutch way of colonizing you, taking control of the most powerful parts of your body. The brain - your logic, and the heart - your passion.

Yes, through the intensive Integration program, we are programmed just like the automatons in a Steven Spielberg film --- make that George Lucas' Star Wars.

I have also learned here that the most effected way of “colonizing” or even owning these modern- day mutant automatons (having mutated from one culture to another), is to indoctrinate them with your own customs and traditions through education. Make them think that they think like you do, and let them do voluntarily the sordid work and feel proud about themselves because they are not sitting home and watching TV. That is the Dutch way. Or what I call here as, “Going Dutch”.

The beauty about this way is you never hear these automatons complain because they feel that they have contributed something to society. In case you are looking for the word, it’s called Calvinism. The belief that “god” appointed his elect to eternal life, and condemned the rest to everlasting punishment.

Yes, this country is like one big factory. Everyone does his/her own share to produce something. It’s all about production. Nobody in the factory is above anybody. Everybody is dispensable. Or to be more brutal, can be discarded.

Now I understand why Rizal told Bonifacio that the only way to win the Philippine revolution of 1898, is to educate the masa because if people understand, they will know the difference. They will know when they are being exploited. And they will know that it is their responsibility as human beings to say NO.

I use the word responsibility because some of us actually just surrender our fate to these anointed gods. We think it is okay to be “automatons,” to be the condemned one, doomed to eternal damnation. Because between the physical hunger and material deprivation that we experience in the Philippines, many of us would rather choose the security blanket that Western societies have to offer, robot or no robot.

I understand that I am painting to you a cultural landscape based on my own belief system. I also recognize my shortcoming in what may appear to you as contradictions of statements because I am trying to get an objective description of what may seem a harsh reality. And believe me, it is far from being harsh. But let me continue my story.

Europe is not only known for great masters and great thinkers. It is also once upon a time the world’s most powerful continent having colonized and “discovered” as we so have read in our old history books, perhaps more than two-thirds of the world’s population.

Remember the so-called barbarians looting the treasury of small communities, even raping women? How about the crusades and the Age of Chivalry? Gallant knights in gallant armors, killing people in the name of God. The Age of Discovery and their quest for gold and spices. And who could forget the famous cogito ergo sum and the Age of Humanism?

This is the reason why there is such a thing as Eurocentrism, the tendency to interpret the world in terms of western and especially European values and experience. Because this race has a long tradition of invading and “conquering” other cultures; of making the outsiders subservient citizens. And if this method has worked for them for thousands of years, why shouldn't it now?

The idea of integration is then just an illusion. It is but a political discourse of the truncated memories Europe has of their colonial past. That they now have EU and open economic policies do not say much either.

My story probably sounds now like I am full of bitterness, disappointments and disillusionment. Even a bit tragic perhaps. And as I have said, my life is far from being tragic. So let me go on and seek the roads that never end. (poetry, poetry, poetry! hahaha) Let me consider the good things about being in this culture.

I consider living in the Netherlands: the gateway to Europe. I could wake up to the beautiful sound of the Notre Dame du Paris carillion. Have breakfast in Brussels. Take a long mid-morning walk in the Swiss Alps. Have a hearty lunch in Munich where everything comes in large portions. Afternoon tea in Berlin. Dinner in Copenhagen. And perhaps if time will allow, a night cup in London. The word we’re looking for is access.

Amsterdam is strategically located at the center of Western Europe. It offers an excellent network of air, road, rail and water connections to the rest of Europe.This small nation has one of the best railway system in the world. The trains always arrive and leave on time. If you have an appointment, you are expected likewise to be on time. Like the trains.

It also has one of the most systematic and efficient airport in the world. The Dutch are meticulous and highly-regimented. They are well-organized that even a child of five here has already his own agenda to follow his daily activities.

Yes, it is a small nation. But like any other small country with a community-like mentality, there is warm intimacy.

Also, the Netherlands is perhaps one of the few places in the world where even the dumbest of the dumb is entitled to speak out his mind and have a captured audience who will listen intently to every single word he says. The reason for that is, the Dutch people value everybody’s mening (opinion). Hence, freedom of speech.

This country allows its citizens to be responsible individuals in every conceivable way. So you can buy soft drugs like marijuana over the counter in coffee shops, without running the risk of being arrested. You can buy and sell sex. The word we’re looking for here, is accountability. You are accountable for your behaviour, at all times.

They also tolerate gay marriages and gay couples having children. This is also perhaps the only country in the world where it is acceptable for couples to live and grow old together, copulate and have legal children, and still remain unmarried. By legal, I mean to say that the children carry the name of their father and do not have the “illegitimate” stamp on their birth certificates. I call that open-mindedness.

Dutch people are also very generous--- but for a good cause. If you want to have lunch with a close Dutch friend however, be prepared to go dutch. Don’t expect your friend to pay for your meal. Now, that is fair.

They are likewise not showy about their wealth. They never talk about their possessions, investments or savings. In fact, they will tell you that they only shop in second-hand stores. And they are not ashamed either to tell you that. If that is not modesty, I don’t know anymore how to call it.

Status quo is therefore less-evident here than in any other democratic society.

I have lived here in the Netherlands for five years now. I have done my time at a local Dutch school for my inburgeringcursus diploma, the diploma you earn and receive after finishing your integration program and having passed a national examination.

In those times that I was in school, I have observed people (my fellow migrants and the Dutch teachers) and even myself. I discovered that I have developed an egocentrism which everyone perhaps has sincere liking or disliking for, and yet no one tries to understand. I have also come to realize that here, the notion of understanding others, is non-existent. It is an non-existent because there is a lack of desire to understand others .

Likewise, I have come to know that trying to understand a culture’s system of meaning is difficult, especially when, as Wittgenstein once said, “we cannot find our feet with them.” So, trying to grasp and interpret something as complex a concept as the Dutch culture, could already be a life’s work for a social scientist.

But what I am doing here is trying to read peoples’ actions and interactions, and de-fragmenting them as if they were melodic sequences. That's why this is my story. For as Clifford Geertz put it: “At the end of the day, we must appreciate that the generality thick description contrives to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstractions. The essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.” --- D r o o m v l a