Sunday, November 27, 2005

Unwanted American Influence

"Then, as the American economic machine gained momentum, and our cinemas and industry were swallowed, television came into being, we began to change. Attitudes, insidiously inserted, changed us again .. and this one, whether we know it or not, has been flying over Parliament House in Canberra for quite some recent years..."

Davo, an Aussie blogger who used to go by wombat, wrote an interesting piece on the Australian flag. As you can read above, he observes that American influences are so great on Australian government and culture, that in actuality the Union Jack has been replaced by the Stars & Stripes. I added a comment to the 8 already there, opining that the U.S. appears to be universally hated JUST BECAUSE we DO seem to be everywhere. Our culture invades and overwhelms everyone else’s. I said that Americans don’t worry about OUR outside influences, and WE are influenced every bit as much by other cultures. The difference is, it DOESN’T concern us. Perhaps that’s because there are more important things to worry about?

Before getting to the “weighty” stuff concerning the worldwide influence of the United States, lets look at sports as a tiny example. Compare professional baseball in the U.S., Taiwan, and Japan. The Asian lovers of the “summer game” levy quotas on the number of foreign players allowed per team. Not so in the United States—we’d field a team of cockatoos AND root for them, IF we thought they could win us a World Series! And if all the best basketball players to be found were black and from Nigeria, and they could win us a championship, then by God we’d sign ‘em up and root for ‘em! Hey, that’s generally what happens anyway, except maybe not the Nigerian part. Still on the Bball angle, people like to point at the one or two white guys on each team, and call them “tokens.” I don’t believe it. These guys get paid HUGE bucks; if they couldn’t play, they wouldn’t be there. It’s a business after all, and NO FAN pays $30 to watch a couple of underqualified Caucasians ride-the-pine. Here’s the point, we don’t hire our sportsmen based on nationality or color; they make it because they can PLAY!

Another example is Hollywood. I just watched a movie about the American Civil War called “Cold Mountain.” Jude Law played the male protagonist, a southern soldier from North Carolina. Nicole Kidman was the female lead and Donald Sutherland played her father. It’s a great movie and I hardly noticed that those three main characters were NOT Americans. Jude Law is English, Nicole Kidman is Australian, and Sutherland is Canadian. Anthony Minghella, the director, is Italian-English raised on the Isle of Wight. Imagine the furor in most any other nation, if an important period piece came out, and didn’t have “local talent” in the leads. Only in the USA is this an absolute non-issue, and well it should be.

It’s time for the “substantial” side of this bit of writing about America's apparently overwhelming influence in the world. I’ve started a new category in my Internet ‘favorites.’ I’ve labeled it ‘Idiot Blogs.’ Quite a few of the sites I’ve saved there concern themselves with spewing hatred against the U.S.A. and they blame the United States for every conceivable international and local problem. I keep coming across the term “neo-colonialism.” Basically, it refers to the world’s “new colonial master,” that is: THE USA. And as the world’s NEW colonizer—WE seek to control and influence EVERYTHING, in ALL countries. These skewed essayists assert that via globalization and “culturalization,” America seeks hegemony over the world. Wow! What a claim!

Not long ago, I was sitting outside my gym after a workout, watching the afternoon turn to evening. I was shooting the breeze with a pretty young English girl in her late teens, a resident of London, who was visiting relatives here in the Philippines. In a beautiful London accent she asked me, “Why are you Americans in everyone’s business?” She was bewildered as to why we seemed to be everywhere and involved in everything, and although she didn’t really understand the reasons, what she did know is that she felt resentful. It’s a widespread question asked by many, even by Americans. Here’s the answer I gave her:

We are everywhere because we have no choice.”

George Bush didn’t intend to embroil us in world events to the extent we are. His intention was to reduce American interventionism, especially compared to his predecessors; and when you go back and look at his 2000 electioneering speeches, he was just shy of being an isolationist. But like I told my attractive gym pal, once he was in office, George found he truly didn’t have a choice. Our economy (and the world’s economy for that matter) demands that we stay internationally connected, and the security of the world depends on our continuous involvement. That sounds rather arrogant doesn’t it? That the security of the world depends on us? Well, call me arrogant, because it’s true.

I asked my young English friend, “What do you think would happen here in Asia if we completely disassociated ourselves from this part of the world, which seems to be your want? She shrugged. I continued, “A power vacuum would form, and in this part of the globe, that means China would seek to fill it. Would that make you feel more comfortable? Would you rather have the U.S. providing security or communist China? Because THAT would be your choice. The fact is we can’t leave here if we wanted to. China scares the hell out of virtually every country that borders it, and if we tried to leave, countries like the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and even Vietnam would go into Post America Stress Disorder!”

I went further. “Do you really think the U.N. “mouth” can keep peace in the world without U.S. “teeth” to keep despots with expansionist aims in check?” At the risk of boring her, I went on: “The U.S. military has made valuable examples of Saddam Hussein and Slobadon Milosevich. Now, everyone knows that you can doubt our political will, but do NOT underestimate our military might. They know IF we want to stop a bully from invading his neighbor, we CAN do it! And believe it or not, THAT knowledge keeps the world more peaceful.” (Pax Americana anyone?)

I’m not sure I convinced her of anything, but at least she had some thoughts to mull over. I gave her a final analogy:

“I used to resent my dad’s authority and power over me when I was a young man. He was stronger and knew more than me. I knew I didn’t like it, and it was maddening that he really didn’t care if I liked it or not. I actually hated him because he was stronger and smarter than me, and THAT’S where YOUR resentment comes from as well. Here’s this big, swaggering, rich, arrogant country that does whatever it wants—who the hell does it think it is?!”

The United States is THE most powerful nation in the history of the world. Just saying that truism creates resentment and hatred toward us. But being king-of-the-hill is tough. It makes us a target and there are difficult, expensive responsibilities that fall upon our shoulders BECAUSE of our supremacy. We actively exert our influence on as many foreign governments as we can, and why not, that’s what ALL countries do! And, unfortunately, for countries around the world, like davo’s Australia, worried about maintaining tenuous control over their societies and customs, so-called American culture seems to steamroll over their music, cinema, and societal mores. We don’t do this deliberately, but that IS the reality, and it’s undeniable. (Sorry about that davo!)

So, we find ourselves involved everywhere and in everything, and we are resented for it. So be it.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Ghost of Fortunato

For much of my life, I didn't believed in ghosts. I do now.

In 1984, I lived in base housing on Yokota Air Base in Japan. It was around 11 p.m. I was lying in bed, wide-awake, next to my wife, and trying to doze off. For some reason, I felt compelled to look towards the end of the bed. That’s when I saw him.

My vision back then, before my corrective lens surgery, was 20/400. In other words, I was almost blind. Because of my blurred sight, I wasn’t completely sure that what I was seeing was actually there. Without turning my head, I reached over with my left hand and grabbed my glasses from the nightstand. I pushed them onto my face, and with vision as clear as day; the coldest chill I have EVER experienced invaded my spine. I actually felt every hair on my body stand on end.

There was a man standing at the foot of my bed! There was and IS not a doubt in my mind—HE WAS THERE! At the same time that I realized this, I also KNEW he was NOT real. I felt it more than knew it, that he was some kind of apparition—whether a ghost, illusion, or hallucination. Whatever he was, I knew he wasn’t a flesh-and-blood man, because he did not move. He didn’t reposition his feet or shift his weight; he didn’t move his arms, not even a fraction, from his sides; nor did he turn his head, even subtly. No living person could possibly be that still in that situation—standing in someone else’s bedroom. Unexplainably, I figured all this out in a fraction of a second.

My eyes grew involuntarily huge with fear, but there was no terror. I was keenly curious about this nighttime phenomenon. I wanted to absorb the experience, even as my heart beat like a drum in my chest. I intently studied this uninvited guest, and what I saw is seared into my memory more than 21 years later.

He was Asian, and fairly tall for one, maybe two or three inches shy of six feet. He was slender, perhaps on the gaunt side. With the bedroom window behind him, he was in silhouette, but not completely. From that window, a bit of moonlight and streetlight took some of the edge off his blackness. He was wearing tightly fitting, straight-legged blue jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. His sleeves were rolled up just below his elbows. His “mug” was lost in shadow, but I could discern shoulder length straight hair that covered his ears and framed his face, a style common in the 70’s.

Because I couldn’t see his face, I couldn’t tell exactly what he was looking at, but it appeared that he was gazing at my wife. It’s a strange thing to say, but it didn’t seem like he had any interest in me at all. After a few seconds of staring at the unmoving phantom, I wanted some affirmation and verification. Without taking my eyes off the creepy guy, I reached out with my right hand, and after one miss, I found my wife’s hip. I shook her as hard as I could. She didn’t stir. I kept shaking her and said sharply and repeatedly, “Hey! Hey! WAKE UP!”

At last she came around. Groggily she asked, “What?”

I pointed at the man and said, “Look!”

She turned her head, and before she could settle her eyes on him, the man seemed to implode into nothingness, exactly like the old-time TV sets used to do when turned off.

“What?” she asked again quizzically.

Dejected and disappointed, I answered her, “Nothing. I’ll tell you tomorrow.” I didn’t want to freak her out, and I didn’t feel like trying to explain what I had seen. I thought for sure I was too upset to fall asleep, but once my heart and breathing returned to normal, I must have nodded off almost immediately. Go figure.

The next morning I told my wife about her “secret admirer,” and she knew immediately who it was from the description I provided. It was Fortunato, her son’s father. They had had an affair before she knew he was already married with children. Even when she was still with him, Fortunato suffered from TB, and she learned a few months after his “visit” that it had finally killed him. It seems that he “appeared” at about the same time that he died.

This story would be strange enough without relating another word, but there’s more. About ten years later, and half a world away in Jacksonville, Arkansas, Fortunato made another nocturnal “appearance.” This time instead of me, it was my daughter looking up towards the end of the bed and seeing the exact same guy! Again, like me, she was lying next to her sleeping mother, when something caught her eye. Humorously enough, her reaction was exactly the opposite of what mine had been.

Not wanting to believe what she was seeing, my teenage daughter pulled the covers over her face. Convinced she must be “seeing things,” after a few moments, she snuck a peek. He was still there! The poor thing went back “under cover” and stayed that way, scared to death, till morning, hardly catching a wink of sleep.

Not wanting to frighten them, I had never told my kids about seeing Fortunato’s specter those many years before. Yet my girl described the exact same apparition that I had seen, right down to his clothes, hairstyle, and bearing. Other than seeing Fortunato’s ghost, the other commonality of our two experiences is that we were both lying next to the same woman at night. Could she be “projecting” his image so forcefully, that other people can see it? Other than the existence of ghosts, this is the only explanation I’ve been able to come up with.

I’ve had other strange experiences that fall into the realm of the strange and otherworldly, but nothing comes close to seeing the ghost of Fortunato!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Amazing Survival, Inspiring Courage

I first spoke to Ken late in the year 2000. I was visiting my parents at their home just outside Saginaw, Michigan. Before my visit, they had told me that a gentleman lived down the street, an ex-marine like myself, who had lived through the Bataan Death March of 1942 in the Philippines. This small hint of what turned out to be a truly epic survival story stimulated my historic sensibilities; I told them with all eagerness that I must meet him, and in fact I couldn’t wait to meet him. At my persistent insistence they arranged a get-together.

What first struck me about Ken was the humble nature of the then 80-year old gentleman. As we got to know each other, sitting at my parents’ dining table, he told me that he really couldn’t understand why I would care about his experiences. At the time I was in my 25th year of active military service, first with the U.S. Marines and then the Air Force, and knowing this, he thanked me for my service. He said it was fellas like me that made it possible for him to survive his ordeal during the war, and if the war hadn’t been fought and won by the people of the U.S. military, he would most certainly have died as a slave prisoner of the “Japs.” I was embarrassed by his praise, especially after learning that this man had earned The Silver Star for bravery because of his actions while a prisoner.

Ken was 18 years old when he joined the United States Marines in 1938. The Corps trained him to fly, and so he did as an enlisted man, piloting cargo planes. Many years before the U.S. was drawn into the war against the axis powers, the Japanese had already invaded China. It was there that Ken found himself supporting the Chinese defensive effort with the 4th Marines, the famed “China Marines.” During this period, he clandestinely flew supplies to Colonel Claire Chenault’s legendary Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer American fighter pilots. To bring supplies to the "Tigers" Ken and his fellow cargo pilots had to fly over the "top of the world," from Indea over the tallest mountains in the world, the fearsome Himalayas. These "civilian" mercenaries he helped support flew combat missions for the Chinese against the Japanese. Ken had met the celebrated Chenault, but the person who really impressed him was the wife of Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, Madam Mayling Kai-shek. Ken said she was a down-to-earth gal who showed a lot of concern and appreciation for American’s, like himself, for helping her country against the aggressor Japanese. I don’t think he realized she was still alive at the age of 102 at the time we spoke. (She died October 23, 2003 at the age of 105).

As the war engulfed the Philippines, at the time still a commonwealth of the United States, his unit, the 4th Marines, was ordered there to assist in it’s defense. Before the fall of Bataan, Ken was piloting a DC-3 along with his co-pilot and some passengers, when he was surprised by a Japanese fighter and shot down. His aircraft “pancaked” flat into the ground, killing everyone else on board. His back was compression fractured, and he was taken prisoner. This was only the first of a series of “close calls” that could easily have resulted in death, but dying was not yet in the cards for this brave young man. He still had a whole lot of suffering and surviving left to do!

After running out of food, ammunition, and all hope of the relief promised by Douglas MacArthur, the tens of thousands of sick and starving American and Filipino fighting men were ordered to stack arms and surrender their fighting positions, where they had made their last stand on the peninsula of Bataan. Along with the rest of these hard fighting and emaciated men, his cruel captors forced Ken to make the deadly march to the railhead at San Fernando, about 65 miles away. During this march-of-death, he witnessed the brutal and capricious killings of many of his fellow prisoners, usually by bayoneting or a rifle shot, as they struggled to walk in files of four in searing heat without food and water over endless miles of macadam and gravel. His voice became emotional as he recalled how ordinary Filipinos endangered their own lives, and to be sure, some were killed when they were caught sneaking food and water to the hapless prisoners. If truth be told, every time I speak with him, he tells me to thank the Filipino people for their selfless kindness. He managed to endure the endless march and the senseless killings and made it to the temporary prison enclosure called Camp O’Donnell outside of the town of Capas Tarlac. But this was only after undergoing a grueling and seemingly endless ride in a suffocating railcar—again without food, water, and almost without air—a ride that many of his fellow POWs did not live through.

During captivity, like many of his compatriots, he was forced to work on labor details throughout the country. At one point, he was the ranking prisoner in a detail of POWs at Nichols Air Field in Manila. They were manually lengthening its runway so it could accommodate the large Japanese “Betty” bombers. For hours, the weakened men worked in scorching heat without water and sustenance. When he realized his men were going to die, he ordered them to stop. He confronted the guards and told them his men could not go on without water. His words incensed a Japanese sergeant. The wrathful sergeant ordered two subordinates to hold Ken by the arms. The sergeant took an axe handle and beat Ken with it from his buttocks to his ankles. The beating continued as Ken lost consciousness, but again his life was spared, this time through the intercession of a relatively humane Japanese major. The POWs called him the “White Angel,” for his other acts of humanity, and this "angel" ordered the beating stopped. It was for this action that Ken was awarded The Silver Star medal for bravery. He suffers nonstop pain to this day because of the nerve and tissue damage he sustained that day, and it has worsened over the years. He has had to learn to live with constant agony with the help of drugs and therapy. No one can blame him for his feelings of bitterness and anger toward Japan even until now, especially as you hear the rest of his story.

Ken’s life was again in the balance when he came down with acute appendicitis. For most prisoners this was a death sentence. Without an operation he was dead anyway, so an American POW doctor performed the appendectomy under unsanitary and primitive conditions. There was no anesthesia and only rudimentary surgical instruments. Some men restrained Ken as the doctor prepared to cut him open while he was still fully conscious. Just before being opened up, Ken was given an ampoule of weak opium-based painkiller, a kind commonly issued to Japanese infantryman. It did little to allay the agony to not only his body, but to his mind. He watched the whole operation through eyes almost closed with pain. He can describe today, more than 60 years afterwards, what it looked like to watch his own skin, muscle, and peritoneum sliced open to expose his intestines, and finally the swollen appendix. He continued to watch through delirious eyes as the doctor excised it. Most people would not have lived through such a thing, but again Ken persisted.

I asked him if he could explain how he managed to live when so many of his comrades did not. One explanation he offers is that while stationed in China he was introduced to Oriental concepts based on Kung Fu that had made his mind and body sturdy enough to undergo those three and a half years of physical and mental challenge. Ken also said that he ate anything green that he could find. Men who lost all interest in food did not last long. Ken never stopped looking for food no matter where he might find it, and instinctively he knew that green was good. Whatever it was, whether Kung Fu, his marine training, or his steadfast midwestern background, it kept him going through unimaginably difficult hardships, even as his days in the Philippines became numbered.

In 1943, the Japanese began shipping the fittest POW survivors to Japan for use as slave laborers. Ken’s turn came and he was loaded with scores of others into the black hold of a freighter. It was of a type American prisoners aptly called “hell ships.” The unventilated, dimly lit cargo spaces deep below the decks of these rusting old derelicts were indeed hellish, and became more so, as sick and weakened men filled the holds with the stench of diarrhea, stale sweat, and vomit. The Japanese intent was to keep as many of them alive as possible, so they could be used to support their war effort by toiling in tasks considered too dangerous or difficult for Japanese. They also had a serious shortage of workers due to the millions of Japanese serving in the imperial armed forces.

The conditions in the first hell ships caused many Americans to die. The Japanese sought a way to keep the death toll down. It became standard practice on POW ships to bring the prisoners up in shifts to deck level and hose them down with seawater. One benefit was the few breaths of life-prolonging, disease-free air they managed to suck into their lungs in that short time topside. This was the situation Ken found himself on his hell ship, cruising slowly towards hell’s continuation. One day while it was his turn on deck, he and some fellow POWs enjoyed a view of blue skies and fresh air. Implausibly, a sudden explosion threw him skyward, over the side and into the water. Along with a few enemy sailors, Ken held onto some floating wreckage for hours, until they were found and picked up by another Japanese ship. An American submarine, not knowing that it was filled with fellow citizens, had scored a direct hit on his freighter. Once again, amazing luck and Ken’s unfaltering fortitude enabled him to survive. Incredibly, he was the only POW to make it, along with only a handful of Japanese sailors. His days of misery continued.

In Japan, Ken spent the rest of his POW years mostly deep underground, buried alive, so-to-speak, as a miner of coal. Again he lived from day-to-day, watching fellow prisoners waste away and die off by ones and twos. He knew that if the war did not end soon that his own end was inevitable. Like most survivors, he did not dwell on the possibility of his coming death, only on continuing to live. Then the long-sought day arrived when he once again saw the light of that day as a free man. As he emerged from the blackness of the mine, back into the world of the living, he looked across across an expanse of water. Spread out below him were the charred, smoldering remains of Nagasaki, just destroyed by an American atomic bomb. He looked upon that destruction with satisfaction, realizing that its devastation was his salvation. Today, he doesn’t wring his hands about whether it was right or wrong to destroy that enemy city, because his own destruction was only days away. As far as he is concerned, Japan had reaped what it had sown.

Surviving allied POWs were offered the chance to witness the execution of those Japanese who were tried and found guilty of class A war crimes. Ken took them up on it, and he says he was only a few feet away when he beheld the hanging of General Yamashita. Even after almost six decades, he recalled that moment of justice with great pleasure, if not elation, as he also recalled his own suffering and the needless deaths of so many of his fellow prisoners.

The war was over. Ken had managed to survive almost four years of misery and unnecessary cruelty. Incredibly, he had lived through the shooting down of his airplane, the misery of The Bataan Death March, an agonizingly malicious beating, a crudely accomplished appendectomy, slow starvation, hellish diseases, the sinking of his hell ship, and spirit sapping months slaving beneath the earth as a coalminer. I would suppose that anyone going through such things would have a life shortened by those terrible events, but he’s alive and kicking today at the age of 85. God willing, he’ll be with us for many more years, but no matter how long he is with us, his story will serve as a stirring tribute to the power of the human spirit.

Men like Ken make me proud to be a fellow citizen. I hope his kind still exists, especially in this time of war when our enemies gather in dark places, plotting our ruin and destruction. They’ll never have their way, however, if as a nation, we show even a small percentage of Ken’s perseverance and courage.

(Ken does not like the limelight, and asked me to keep his complete name and address anonymous).

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Philosophy of Exception and Compromise

I was watching the news the other night. A woman from the “left coast,” from the state of Washington or California (what’s the difference?), was interviewed on her stand that military recruiters should NOT be allowed on ANY school campus. Her final comment was delivered smugly, in that self-righteous, all-knowing way that only those who feel they possess perfect moral superiority can display. What did she say? Just this: “Some things are worth dying for, but NOTHING is worth killing for.” I suppose it’s a cliché, but not to me, since I’ve never heard it said before.

I was outraged. After shaking my head over her imbecility, I searched my soul for the reason I felt that way. After all, I AM a Christian, and going by Christ’s teachings, that is EXACTLY what I am supposed to believe too. So why don’t I?

But is my ostensible lack of moral clarity limited to ONLY me, and people like me? I will bet you a month of Sunday chicken dinners that this same liberal woman is just as outraged by MY belief that no fetus should be aborted. To me, it’s murder—the killing of an unborn human being. She would argue that a fetus is not yet REALLY a human, and so aborting it is not REALLY killing. Even if she doesn’t admit it, she’s making a moral exception, a compromise based on expedience (the so-called rights of a woman to “control” her bodily functions, or so the argument goes).

Unless you happen to be one of the few “pagan conservatives” out there, most Christian conservatives are FOR the death penalty. This also is against the teachings of Jesus, yet we reconcile our beliefs to include the rightness of putting to death another human being. I can’t imagine Jesus EVER allowing for the correctness of the killing of one human by another regardless of the misdeed. I challenge anyone to “spin” that out of The New Testament. You have to get into The Old Testament to justify putting someone to death. Yet our American, Christian-based culture says it is an appropriate thing for society to do--to keep it safe from murderers, and as a proper means to exact justice for abhorrent crimes, like murder. Again, we ignore our professed religious beliefs out of our need for societal convenience.

Jesus says to turn the other cheek; nevertheless, I was instilled with the completely opposite concept of “standing up and defending myself.” Our culture tells us we should defend our loved ones and, if necessary, ourselves. In other words, fighting is an acceptable method of solving conflict, IF we are not given a choice in the matter. The problem is that we have to once again go to The Old Testament to find passages to allow us to ethically do it. The only violence I can think of, perpetrated by Jesus, was when he whipped and drove the moneychangers from the temple. But in this instance, it seems that he was acting more as the direct representative of HIS Father. In effect, he was acting AS God, and no Christian would dare question Jesus’ credentials to do that. In effect—“Do as I say, NOT as I do!”

Let’s get back to the left coast liberal lady who says there is NOTHING worth killing for. Is she right? Maybe she is perfectly right from a strictly moral perspective, AND, I believe she has a RIGHT to say so. Thousands of men have died (and have KILLED) to give her that right. But were we ALL to follow HER precept, she would NOT have the ability to say it, only the ability to THINK it.

Possibly, we can find some way to die for our freedom WITHOUT killing for it. Would that meet HER standards? She didn’t say we aren’t allowed to FIGHT; it’s ONLY the killing she objects to. How about this—we can throw ourselves bodily at our enemies, talking and beseeching the whole time as they strike us down, so SHE can smugly declare her absurdities. We could drown and choke them in our blood, and make them uncomfortable under the weight of our dead bodies, until THEY decide they have had enough, and surrender. If we change the country’s military strategy in that way to suit her kind’s moral imperatives, would she then allow military recruiters access to schools? Would she really rather have us be an army of suicide fighters? That is exactly what we must become to comply with HER impractical rules of engagement—fighting and dying WITHOUT killing.

This wholly pacifistic woman enjoys a life of liberty and free speech, because men have killed; and whether she likes it or not, they have done so FOR her. I wonder if she has ever looked at it that way? I doubt it. As for me—I’ve gotten used to the idea that my way of life, that the ways of my society, do not always square with my Christianity. As a Catholic, I hope God will forgive me my prideful insistence on the necessity of fighting and KILLING, if necessary, for my life, for my family, and for our continued freedoms.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Uncle Mike Memories

Uncle Mike has been gone for months now, and still I think of him often. I've been meaning to record my thoughts and memories of him, especially the important ones, and now that I have a place to display them, here they are. I was gone from Michigan more than I was there, so my recollections are disjointed and scattered. Because of the fleeting nature of my memories, this tribute will be a kind of stream-of-consciousness.

Probably my earliest memory of Uncle Mike takes place in Birch Run. It was when he and Aunt Nan got married. I don’t know the exact date, but I must have been 9 or 10 years old, so I would place the timeframe around 1966, give or take a year or two. The wedding and all the post-wedding fun took place (at least in my memory), first at the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church, now destroyed, but still standing in my mind. The wedding seems like any other, but the post wedding shenanigans at Aunt Nan’s parent’s house was really cool to the little guy I was back then. I couldn’t believe grownups could be so lively and childish! They put saran wrap and Vaseline over the young couple’s toilet; they strung the obligatory cans off the rear bumper of the newlywed’s car along with the “Just Married!” sign; and the men grabbed Uncle Mike and rolled him down the Bell’s long sidewalk and then along the street in a red wheelbarrow. I guess that crazy tradition comes from our Irish roots. Later, from 1971 until 1975, I delivered newspapers to the Bell’s, and everyday, riding my 3-speed down their sidewalk, I was reminded of Uncle Mike’s zigzagging wheelbarrow ride. He took it good-naturedly, and I still see his big grin as he joyously enjoyed being the butt of the festivities.

When I was in high school, I began a short-lived interest in chess. I read every book in the school library on the game, and played solitary matches to try out the various methods and strategies I learned in the books. One afternoon, we visited Uncle Mike and Aunt Nan. Uncle Mike had a chessboard out, and he asked me if I wanted to play. He didn’t know how immersed I was on the subject and I didn’t tell him. We settled into our game. I proceeded to win, and about as quickly as one can in chess. He hid his emotions like he tended to, but I sensed his tenseness. Immediately, he set the pieces up for another game. In short order I beat him again, and again, and again. I was 15 years old or so, and I was an insensitive jerk (just ask my sister). I should have let him win, at least once, but I didn’t know how to lose on purpose. That sort of virtuous deceit wasn’t in me yet. I don’t know how many games I won, but it got very late, and still I beat him, and easily. Even when I tried to play sloppily I couldn’t lose. Uncle Mike had an intensity about him that would not let him quit. I think he was determined to find the key so he could win at least one game, but it was not to be. Finally, my mom insisted that it was late and we had to go. I never played him again after that, and I’m not sure he ever forgave me. I wish like crazy that I had thrown a game, but I was just as stubborn as he was. Unfortunately, Spear’s hate to lose too! I feel terrible about it to this day.

Another “Uncle Mike moment” stays with me. We had just returned from Turkey and we were staying with Grandma and Uncle Bill. It was early in 1971; the war in Vietnam was still raging. I had set up a desk and reading lamp under the stairs in the tiny sump pump room, and I could hear my dad and Uncle Mike clump down the stairs above me. They were talking about the war. They didn’t know I was in my tiny private “study” working on a school report, and I enjoyed being able to eavesdrop on the excited grownups as they argued. I don’t remember my dad’s side, except that it was more or less opposed to my uncle’s, but I vividly remember the passion and fear in Uncle Mike’s voice. My cousin, Little Mike, was just a tadpole back then, and Uncle Mike was worried about his young son’s future. He wanted his boy to grow up in a world where he didn’t have to worry about having to serve in a war that might kill or wound him. He was so impassioned and concerned for his boy, and I had never heard a grownup sound that way before. It was very touching, and affected me deeply. I remember that it made me determined to join the military so someone else’s boy wouldn’t have to. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but its true.
Buster's Story

This is my fondest image of Uncle Mike: We had just driven up from San Antonio, Texas to Birch Run, Michigan in our VW camper; we were visiting Grandma and family before we were to head back overseas to Karamursel AFB, Turkey. Uncle Mike had agreed to watch Buster, our little brown dachshund, until we returned. Then, tragedy struck. Buster had a horrible epileptic fit and it was shattering. The fit happened during a party while we were all outside, playing horseshoes and whiffle ball. Buster was happily running around the yard when a horseshoe accidentally glanced off his head. I cringed as he yelped in surprise, and then the glancing blow seemed to set off his epilepsy. Or maybe he was already having a fit, and then wondered into horseshoe range and got beaned, regardless, his epileptic gyrations were horrible to watch for a young boy in love with his dog. When he came out of the seizure, he was so addled that he blindly charged into a chain link fence. He rebounded in terror and took off running, only to fall, then up into a staggering run, before tripping and falling again. In this agonizing fashion he took off across the bean field that used to spread off into the distance behind Grandma’s house. All the men went after him, everyone but me. I couldn’t bear to. My dad said he’d have to be put to sleep, and my knees were jellied after that. Finally, Buster was corralled and brought back to the house wrapped in a blanket. It was too dangerous to carry him; the little fella, normally sweet-natured and friendly, growled and snapped at anyone who came near. Then Uncle Mike spoke up: “It’s no problem, I’ll take care of him.” For a brief time, I took heart. At that moment, Uncle Mike was my hero! He saw my agony and sadness and wanted to ease my pain. I’ll always love him for that . Even though Buster was put down before we left, Uncle Mike was willing to take on an unpleasant task for family. I’ll forever treasure him for it.

I have many other recollections of my uncle, but I think I’ve captured his spirit and why I loved him with the few stories I’ve already put together. But I do recall a number of other moments, days, and exploits involving him. I recall the winter when he bought the big white Polaris snowmobiles and all the family adventures and “misadventures” those smoking, roaring monsters spawned. His passion for “toys” continued on with the purchase of his big lake boat. We had a wonderful day on Lake Huron when he invited our entire family out on the water. And finally, I remember how he worked his butt off for months on end, turning the ancient old farmhouse on Burt Road into an absolutely lovely home for his family. He and Aunt Nan stripped and tossed out every piece of original wall lathing, and shoveled out all the decades-old plaster and resulting dust. What a mess, but what results! Before he started, he knew virtually nothing about building and remodeling, but boy did he learn! He poured himself into that house like he poured himself into everything he did. One of my regrets is that I didn’t talk my parents into keeping the old front door my dad salvaged from Uncle Mike’s place. It was made of solid hard wood with handcarved scrollwork topped off with a translucent window. My dad showed me how to strip off the many layers of old paint, and then I sanded and varnished it to match the green walls of my bedroom, where it became MY door. I would love to have that 100 year-old door right now. It would be a nice way to remember my Uncle Mike. He’s gone, but no one truly leaves us as long as we cherish them. With that being so, Uncle Mike will be with us for a very long time to come.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ON ON!!!

Back in the late 1930s, some Brits stationed in Malaya started a game still in existence today and played all over the world. The witty inventers of this informal running sport were just a bunch of typical English blokes, some in the military and others diplomatic workers, all intent on working hard all week and partying hardy on weekends. But, they realized that the weekends of socializing and drinking were taking a toll on their health. Simply put, they were getting soft and flabby. The solution, they realized, was to come up with a fun physical activity that could get them back into shape, but minus the drudgery. Putting their heads together they came up with an idea for a form of exercise that they first called “Hare and Hounds,” but ultimately became “The Hash House Harriers,” or after years became just “The Hash.”

The basic premise of the game is that one of their numbers, “the hare,” is pre-selected to take off running ahead of the rest of the chasers, or “the hounds,” or “harriers.” The hare’s job is to make a trail for the other runners to follow. That sounds simple enough, but there is more to it than that.

The hare is expected to make his trail twist-and-turn and zigzag through various types of interesting terrain with several delaying areas called “checkpoints.” The purpose of the checkpoint is to allow the slower or older chase runners a chance to catch up with their faster comrades, and to rest while those in better shape range out in search of the trail’s new beginning.

Making a checkpoint is an art on to itself. A good one is situated in an open area with many possible places where the trail can start again. To make a checkpoint even more interesting and time consuming, a clever fox uses “false trails.”

A false trail is a promising path designed to lead unwary hounds off into wrong directions. These fake tracks are the reason why usually only strong runners take off and explore newfound trails at each checkpoint in case they turn out to be false.

The proper blend of terrain, checkpoints and false trails is what makes for a successful “Hash,” but without a means for the runners or “hashers” to communicate, the game is virtually impossible. So, the British creators came up with a shouted language that in time developed naturally of itself as the runners called out to each other on the run. The primary phrase is a hearty, “ON ON!” This means depending on the circumstance either, “Let’s go!” or “I’m on the trail! Follow me!” When the lead runner arrives at a checkpoint he calls over his shoulder, “CHECKING!” To find out if he has found the trail or not, “ARE YOU?!” is yelled out as a question to a lead runner. If the lead runner is still searching he yells in return, “CHECKING!” If he comes to the end of a false trail he runs back towards the checkpoint and informs the others with a robust, “FALSE TRAIL!” Conversely, if he is sure he is on the real trail he bellows out, “ON ON!” over his shoulder as he continues on up the trail.

The Hash ends when all the runners finish following the hare and his trail. Some followers of the Hash actually seek to catch the hare before he can finish his trail, but the real objective of the game is participation. Ironically, one of the most widely followed of the original Hash-House traditions is that the hare must provide libations for all the runners at the end of the trail. Its ironic because it was excessive drinking that led to the conception of the Hash in the first place.

My first acquaintance with running with The Hash was in Sub-Saharan Africa in the city of Monrovia, Liberia in 1977. By that time the game was more than 40 years old and had spread around the globe. We were a diverse group consisting mostly of non-Africans including Brits, Americans, Dutch, and Germans. Traditionally, the Hash is run on Monday afternoons to give the Hashers a way to “burn off” all the drinks they had indulged in over the weekend. As a young marine embassy guard who found running second nature, I took to Hashing like a duck to water, and soon I looked forward to Monday afternoons like I used to anticipate weekends.

I was so taken with Hashing that I started my own group in the U.S. in 1989, and so it is with the Hash that others like me took this charming game with them to even more corners of the world. In fact, a Hash is run here in Angeles City every Sunday afternoon from the Anchorage Inn. I think in future installments I will relate some of the funnier and more interesting things that happened during the many Hashes that I’ve run in over the years. And so, as they say in running the Hash, “ON ON!”

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Number One Filipino Hero--Rizal or Bonifacio?

Almost as soon as I arrived here, I began to steep myself in Philippine history. To understand a country and its people, study their history—learn their heroes and villains—that’s my philosophy. One of the first things I discovered from talking to the average citizen is that most Filipinos know little about where they come from historically, and how things got to be the way they are. Of course, most Americans are just as woeful concerning their own historical background, so no finger pointing from me.

Even before my arrival, I had heard about an almost mythical Filipino hero from days long past named Jose Rizal. I knew he was a prolific writer who wrote about Spain’s cruelty to native Filipinos, and that Spain killed him for those writings. That’s pretty much what my Filipino friends know as well, but now I know a hell of a lot more. And from what I’ve studied, if Rizal were alive today, I’m convinced he would be just as important as he was more than 100 years ago, perhaps more so. This country, rife with corruption and stagnation, needs a dozen selfless renaissance men like Jose Rizal.

Rizal was phenomenonal. He earned his first degree at 16 in the Philippines and never looked back. At 18 he ran away to Europe and earned a medical degree in Spain, and followed it up with degrees in ophthalmology and philosophy in France. While in Europe and in many in other countries during his travels around the world, he taught himself fluency in Spanish, German, English, and French and he did it all in a short 35 years of life. From childhood, he was a prolific writer and he remained so right up until minutes before his martyrdom.

Rizal’s reputation as a hero is well earned. He hated how the Spanish treated the natives of the Philippines, whom the Spanish called Indios. The novels and essays he wrote were aimed mostly at Spaniards back in Spain. His objective was to get them to stop the callous practices of Spanish friars and governors in colonial Philippines. I believe he was convinced that if the Spaniards in Europe knew of the cruelty and injustice going on in their colony of almost 350 years, that they would finally interfere and stop the merciless brutality that had gone on for centuries. IN Spain, Spaniards treated Rizal with respect and admiration, but for some reason the Spaniards in the Philippines were entirely different. They did not hesitate to use torture, terror and execution en masse to keep their “unruly” Indios under their complete control, and that included controlling Rizal as well.

Rizal made a huge error in judgment. His years outside of the Philippines in Europe and Hong Kong seemed to cloud his memory of the great mercilessness in the hearts of Spanish priests, called friars, who called the shots in his home land. In 1892, after years away, he returned to Manila and almost immediately the friars found a means to get him out of the way. He was found guilty of spreading sedition based on his anti-friar novels written while he was overseas. These novels were not intended to cause a Spanish overthrow, but to show decent, liberal-minded Spaniards how unjust things were back in his beloved islands. Jose was found guilty and exiled hundreds of miles away to the very fringes of the archipelago to the tiny town of Dapitan on Mindanao. He spent four years there, and during the end of that time, a man named Bonifacio back in Manila put together the beginnings of a major revolt against Spain.

When I first started reading about Andres Bonifacio I was immediately captivated. He reminds me of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington rolled into one. Although he didn’t have the natural genius of Rizal, he was an incredible fellow just the same. He came from nothing and taught himself everything. The fact that he was poor, self-taught, and self-made, a man who could not afford ANY formal schooling, much less college, and yet excelled as a leader and independent thinker—all that reminds me of Abraham Lincoln. As the leader and initiator of the first almost successful insurrection against Spain, he reminds me of Washington.

The more I read of Bonifacio the more I realize that this guy is the epitome of an AUTHENTIC Filipino. He has more in common with the bulk of the population here than most any other figure from this country’s past. He was born and raised in Tondo, a very poor place in the mid 19th century, and even more so now (Ever hear of Smokey Mountain? It’s on the outskirts of Tondo, Manila). He was dirt poor and suffered through the same troubles and problems that most Filipinos suffer today. Yet he overcame all those issues and became known as El Supremo, the leader of the revolutionary government against Spain. Unlike Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio hated the Spanish and wanted nothing to do with them. Where Rizal wanted justice UNDER THE RULE of Spain, Bonifacio wanted ONLY Filipino sovereignty.

As I got into Bonifacio, the man, I was puzzled at how little my Filipino acquaintances know of him. They all recognize his name, but virtually NONE of them know WHY he was so important to their country’s beginnings. It’s become an obsession with me—to quiz people about him. I ask: “If you had to choose between Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, who was more important in the formation of the post-Spanish Philippines?” Then I decided to ask local folks a simple, more general question—I asked people like students, trike-drivers, my in-laws, and neighbors: “In your opinion, who is THE most important Filipino in your history?” Instantly they answered: “Jose Rizal.” When I asked why they thought so, most cited his intelligence or that he died bravely at the hands of the Spanish. Logical reasons, but personally I disagree with the choice of Rizal as the most crucial member in the pantheon of Philippine heroes. In my opinion, Andres Bonifacio should be number one in Philippine hearts and minds; and he should be particularly special to Filipinos who are underprivileged, which is the majority of Filipinos.

As I said, Bonifacio, like most Filipinos today, was poor and underprivileged; his family had no money for education; but he was a prodigious reader and became an important writer and leader. Conversely, Rizal came from means; through his family he had access to money and privilege. He could afford the luxury of living and studying abroad. Therefore, based on the backgrounds of the two men, I would suppose that the average Filipino would prefer Bonifacio, yet that is NOT the case. So why DOES the Philippines collectively bow at the altar of Rizal while virtually shunning that of Bonifacio? I think that the primary culprits are this country’s educators. Indoctrinated as students in Rizal’s intellectual primacy, they in turn push this opinion onto their students. But aside from profuse writings, what else did Rizal do to deserve to be considered THE most central figure in Philippine history?

There is no doubt Jose Rizal deserves our respect. As I’ve said, he wrote prolifically and more notably, his writings stirringly spoke of insufferable conditions in the Philippines due to greed and cruelty of Spanish friars and governors. Also, his words and actions did much to inspire Philippine nationalism and helped convince folks like Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo that independence was the only answer. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Jose Rizal was valiant. He wrote critically of the Spanish, knowing full well that doing so endangered his life. In fact his written words were used in finding him guilty of treason and to his credit when he was sentenced to death, his last words and actions were courageous and patriotic. All that makes me sound like a big fan of Jose Rizal and its true—I think he’s an extraordinary figure, but I still place Bonifacio ahead of him.

Consider this—despite no formal education, Andres managed almost single-handedly to spark THE most successful insurrection ever against Spain—and going back hundreds of years, there were scores of revolts and uprisings, all horribly crushed into bloody oblivion. His rebellion was so successful that today we call it THE Philippine Revolution. Also, Bonifacio was instrumental in writing the Katipunan, the guiding document of this country’s first home-grown government. Rizal, on the other hand, counseled AGAINST the revolution, refused to lend his name to it, and in no uncertain terms told Bonifacio from exile that he believed his fellow Filipinos could NOT win, and the truth is he preferred Spanish provincial status over independence; whereas Andres had had enough of Spain and felt Spain would NEVER grant Filipinos parity or any sort of justice.

Another reason I don’t laud Rizal as high as Bonifacio are the events leading to his death. Rizal had spent four boring exile years in a Philippine backwater and his ennui led him to volunteer to serve with the Spanish army as a doctor in Cuba, another brutally oppressed colony. Rizal would have actively aided the oppressive Spaniards as they domineered Cuba just as they ran roughshod over Filipinos. It’s no wonder that this bit of Rizal history is not widely known, as it does not put Rizal in a very sympathetic light. Ironically, his future reputation was saved, and made, when he was arrested aboard a ship bound for Spain on his way to Cuba!

And what of Bonifacio’s death? Few Filipinos know he was callously executed before he could see his long-planned revolution to fruition. Rich Filipinos, who felt that his lowly background made him unworthy to serve the revolutionary government that HE had started, falsely accused him of treason! Gutlessly, Aguinaldo—the man voted in as president over Bonifacio by these same low-lifes—bowed to the will of these Spaniard-like Filipinos, the forerunners of today’s leaders, and signed Bonifacio’s death warrant. Andres was led into the mountains of Cavite and hastily shot along with his brother, their bodies kicked into a shallow hole. The appalling and almost offhand murder of this great man has in effect been covered up and glossed over. It’s apparent that his fellow countrymen unjustly killed him and THAT is the main reason his legacy has been shamefully ignored and underplayed.

To sum up—Rizal, a man of means, opposed the revolution against Spain, supported continued Spanish rule, and was on his way to aid the Spanish army when he was falsely accused of being a part of the revolution. In reality, he had nothing to do with the revolt, and went out of his way to avoid complicity in it. In actual fact, during the trial for his life, Rizal argued bitterly that he had nothing to do with the revolt that was still raging even as he was being tried. In trying to save his life, he denied the revolt like Peter denied Jesus. Was that the act of a patriot? By contrast, Bonifacio, the self-made man of the barrio, overcame all odds to successfully start a revolution and wrote the momentous Katipunan—the constitution of the revolution. Now you tell me—who is more deserving of national reverence and college classes specifically devoted to biographical study? In my opinion, if not for the disgraceful details of his scandalous death at the hands of his own jealous and arrogant countrymen, Andres Bonifacio would be the number one Filipino hero today instead of Jose Rizal.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Greatest American

This text, like much of what I write, was aimed at my Filipino college audience, both fellow students and teachers; so some of the narrative is devoted to explanations of historical elements that might seem basic to an American. Months after I wrote this I learned that top U.S. history academics were surveyed in 2000, and by a significant margin they selected the same three people that I did. I suppose that means that either I think inside the box, or that academically, I’m in good company.

As a student of my country’s history, I often consider who I think qualifies as the greatest American. There have been many Americans considered great, but here I narrow the list down to the top three, and finally to the very greatest of the three.

To begin with, it’s important to define the qualifications. First I ask this question about the candidate: “Historically, was the existence of this person crucial to the existence of the United States?” If the question is answered “Yes” then the credentials are met.

I believe that the top three greatest Americans are all past U.S. presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Anyone familiar with United States history agrees that these three are generally considered crucial to the country’s existence, with all three being at the helm during dark and pivotal times. In fact, their actions ensured either the origination or continued existence of the USA.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was president from January 1933 until he died of a brain aneurism in office in April 1945. The fact that he was elected four straight terms is remarkable in itself and resulted in the Constitution being amended to limit a president to no more than two consecutive terms. He won his first election in 1932, barely three years into the most devastating financial depression in world history. The U.S. unemployment rate was at an all time high of 25%, and even people lucky enough to have a job were suffering, mostly from a lack of confidence in the future and in them selves. Roosevelt had the ability to make people believe that there was hope, although some economy experts aver that his anti-business policies actually delayed our economic recovery—but that is debatable. What is undeniable is that Roosevelt was instrumental in guiding the United States through the travails of World War II. His words to the American public during his weekly fireside chats on the radio were reassuring and inspirational during the darkest times of his administration. Although he died just before final victory against Germany and Japan, much of the credit goes to him as Commander-in-Chief.

Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, running primarily on a platform of anti-slavery. It is ironic that this great man was THE most UNpopular president in U.S. history, and was seen by the pro-slavery southern states as one to deprive them of an institution that they saw as necessary to their way of life. They felt so strongly about their “rights” to own slaves that they seceded from the union just two months after his inauguration. Without hesitation Lincoln mobilized the loyal northern states and the American Civil War was begun. For two years Lincoln’s Army of the Republic was defeated in battle after battle, yet he never wavered. At times when the war seemed hopeless he always rejected advice to seek reconciliation with the rebel south and remained steadfast. He continually changed commanding generals until finally finding his champion in Ulysses S. Grant. He won his 2nd term to office in 1864 as his Federal army wore down the under-funded and out-manned southern army. In April 1865, only days after southern capitulation, southern sympathizer and actor, John Wilkes Booth, at Ford’s Theater, assassinated President Lincoln. If not for "Abe" Lincoln’s determination, there is a good chance that two sets of United States might now exist—a federal north and a confederate south.

George Washington was commander of the American Revolutionary Army from 1776 all the way through the five desperate years of the war of liberation against England. At the time, England was regarded as the world’s finest military power and virtually unbeatable. The American army consisted mostly of inexperienced and nearly unpaid colonials. The Brits beat this ragtag group of militia and regulars in almost every battle, yet Washington kept them in the fight by successfully retreating to fight another day. This went on for five years until 1781, when the over-confident British army allowed themselves to be trapped on the Virginian peninsula of Yorktown, where they were left with no choice except to surrender to a victorious General Washington. After this, the Brits sued for peace, and largely to the efforts of Washington, 13 disparate British colonies became the sovereign nation now called The United States of America. Not long afterwards he became the first president in a runaway election, but what seals him in my mind as the greatest American is what he did shortly after the end of the war. His triumphant army had not been paid or adequately supplied for months, and there was talk of a coup against the inept interim Continental Congress. Washington delivered a simple oration to his troubled officers and men, and shamefully with tears in their eyes, they realized they were about to throw away everything they had fought for. This single action prevented a successful revolution from imploding into chaos. Thanks goes completely to George Washington that the United States had survived its first test as a nation and it has pretty much prospered as the first modern democracy ever since.

Consider this—without George Washington, there would be no America. No one else could have kept together the faltering American Revolutionary Army--HIS army--during those many years of revolution, when materials were scarce and victories even scarcer. After liberation was won, he accepted the presidency PRIMARILY because the American people would have no one else for the job. So revered was Washington, that many wanted to make him king. He was appalled at the prospect and would not hear of it. In fact, he started the unwritten precedent of no more than two consecutive terms in office when he refused to run for a third term, even though he could have easily continued in office. In my mind he is without a doubt our greatest American!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Explaining the U.S. Family to Filipinos

Soon after I started school here, I began to realize how distorted the Filipino point of view is of the American family. My sociology teacher, within the first week of school, began to make one silly assertion about us after another. At first, I thought she was just pulling my leg because she would make a statement about Americans, look at me challengingly, and then ask, “Isn’t that true Mr. Spear?” When I realized she wasn’t actually interested in my answers, I began to say, “Well, not exactly…” When her eyes glazed over, I simply wrapped up my weak explanation as my voice trailed off.

One of her favorite stories is that we are kicked out of the house when we turn 18 years old. Another is that we dump our parents into nursing homes when they become too old to care for themselves. These and other oversimplifications are fiction, but most certainly based on kernels of fact. Many American students like myself find ourselves trying to explain in class to our teachers and classmates the basis of the culture behind the typical U.S. family unit, and at times it seems like the more we attempt to enlighten them the more confused they get.

Perhaps the Filipino perplexity concerning our half-baked familial elucidations is that the American lifestyle is SO alien to the average Filipino, that the more we endeavor to describe how U.S. families operate, the more mystified our local listeners become. Excluding rich Filipinos, of which I know none, most of the differences between our two cultural constructs come down to economics. A fellow classmate, Danny, who has been here a few years longer than me, first pointed this out to me behind his hand as we listened to yet another myth about us being spouted by another teacher. Enough is enough! It’s time we had our say.

In the States unemployment is about 5% of the working population, while here it is probably upwards of 50%. This difference in our financial circumstances drives the disparity in our cultures. The average American home is absolutely bereft of people in the day, because everyone is either working or in school; whereas a Filipino home is NEVER empty of individuals. It’s this sort of societal difference that makes it almost impossible to make clear the “how and the why” to people who haven’t been a part of the American experience. It’s like trying to explain to people who have never driven a car how to drive one without ever showing them an actual car.

So, let’s talk about the myth that we are forced to leave home when we reach 18. Admittedly, most of us do leave when we reach this age—including myself. I turned 18 on June 23 and I left home permanently on June 28. It took me less than a week to go, but leave I did. The truth is that we aren’t kicked out; no, the reality is that we can’t WAIT to get out! Americans are inculcated to strive for independence. We want to get out on our own and start our lives, and that means dropping out of the nest and trying out young wings. We wouldn’t have this option in a mostly jobless society, but if one wants to work in the United States then there is employment to be had. In the U.S. even an 18 year old can find work, buy a car, share an apartment, and be mostly independent. I believe many Filipino 18 year olds would do the same if they could, but most don’t have the opportunity. This American striving for self-reliance continues through out our entire life and applies to other Filipino myths about us.

Speaking of self-reliance, quite the reverse, many Filipinos won’t hesitate to go to a more prosperous relative for help. Indeed, most consider it quite appropriate. After all, they think—‘what good is it to have a rich uncle, if you can’t reap the rewards now and again?’ On the other hand, an American would rather gnaw off a foot before putting himself through the shame of asking family members for financial aid. When I first married a Filipina and experienced her family’s limitless capacity to ask for money, I was floored. I couldn’t believe they didn’t shrivel up in disgrace. Again, this attitudinal difference is based more on the differences in our economic realities than on our societal differences. It follows that our more vibrant economy makes possible and drives the American insistence on self-sufficiency.

It is this same self-sufficiency that underlies the myth that we consign our parents to nursing homes because we are too selfish or lazy to care for them ourselves. This invention is completely ridiculous. The American system of caring for our elderly is different first of all, because we HAVE a system. There is NO system in the Philippines. In America we have Medicare, Social Security and health insurance, whereas the Philippines has virtually nothing, no institutional systems of elderly care whatsoever. It’s ironic that the very reason the aged and infirm are able to be cared for at home is because so many family members are there due to rampant unemployment.

Filipinos clump together in extended families mainly because they have no choice, they cannot afford NOT to; thus there is always someone around to take care of grandpa or grandma. I don’t have to take care of my parents, because due to their long range planning and investments they are set for the rest of their lives. And if one or both need continuous care for any reason, they can afford to live in a full-care facility with access to all the therapy, medication, or medical procedures that they will ever need.

The point is my parents would hate to burden their children, and they’d consider it a personal failure if they had to. We don’t look at our kids as parental retirement insurance, and our ability to provide for ourselves is a blessing of the U.S. economy (more than being attributable to our society). I don’t negatively judge Filipinos because their institutions don’t allow them the same luxury, and I hope they will give us “quirky” Americans the same kind of open-minded understanding. The fact is that both our systems work within their own context.