Saturday, November 3, 2007

Homecoming Tales and Religion Blues

[Note: This piece was written in March 2001 and published same year in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s YOUNGBLOOD section and several other publications.]

I am an NPA and I am glad. (NPA – as in, “no permanent address”). I was born in Mindanao but spent half of my childhood in the Netherlands and the other half in a remote town in the Visayas before eventually returning to Mindanao. After years in Europe it was good, finally, to return to the Philippines, but not without some major adjustments at home, at school, and especially with regard to religion.

Coming home meant paying someone else to do all the cooking, washing and cleaning – things middle-class families in the Netherlands typically do themselves. It meant holding on to my father’s motorbike as we zigzagged to school at break-neck speed unafraid of apprehending cops. It meant walking into our neighbors’ living room anytime to watch television without having to go through the elaborate ritual of asking permission.

After class, my brother and I would join the neighborhood kids and play Patintero on the street till we were covered with dust. Before dinner, my family would admire the green tunnel of Madre de Cacao trees as we strolled to the beach with towels draped over our shoulders. We would noisily swim to our hearts content in the Sulu Sea, pausing only to count down the colorful setting of the sun.

Living in this paradise also meant that I had to learn English, Tagalog and Kiniray-a all at the same time. It meant pretending not to notice the stares (as if I was some bizarre half-breed). There was the unbearable heat and the greedy flies and mosquitoes that feasted on me. Even the endless supply of powdered milk – after having become accustomed to fresh milk – was just one more thing I learned to take in stride.

My parents, perhaps because the peso was worth so much more when they last lived in the Philippines, gave me an allowance so meager that I had to spend every snack break watching my classmates happily cram themselves with delicious junk food. Complaining I seldom did for I reasoned that a measly pack of chips and soft drinks wouldn’t satiate my hunger anyway.

Though I didn’t show it much, I had the longest time getting used to the “unusual” religiosity of the people. Compared to the reserved Dutch, Filipinos were more showy. A day wouldn’t go by without someone making the sign of the cross or mentioning something about their faith, God, Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary.

The prospect of studying in a Catholic school seemed no big deal except for wearing a uniform. I was told this was to “prevent the richer students from flaunting their expensive clothes and making the poorer students feel inferior.” How sensitive of them, I remember thinking. Sensitive ha! I had to wake up at six in the morning and go home at five in the afternoon after endless copying from the blackboard.

Gifted with a bad memory, I got headaches from having to memorize the exact definitions of terms only to forget them after the tests. Not to mention the loads of homework I had to do. It was certainly not easy being a fifth grader in the Philippines.

The biggest shock was having to pray before and after every subject. What an entirely new way to go through the day! I just wished they didn’t pray so fast as if they were in a rush to get it over with. But boy was I wrong in thinking that all the praying would end there. My clever teacher checked our attendance to make sure that we didn’t skip mass on Sundays. Being the grade-conscious freak that I was, I had no choice but to politely listen to the priest’s monologue.

As for my classmates, they would talk about growing horns if they even missed just one homily. And to think that in the Netherlands, the only time I went to church was during the weddings and baptisms of my relatives - certainly not every week. My horns must be huge I thought. Not that it bothered me. It was more the never ending standing up and sitting down during mass that got on my nerves. Then there were the religion teachers who had a way of telling us what to believe and what not to believe in a tone that said don’t-you-dare-contradict-me. Second opinions were rebuked with, “The teachings of the church can’t be questioned.” How could I possibly accept this finality when they didn’t even want to listen to what I had to say? Where was critical thinking?

To save myself the embarrassment of being put on the spot, I pretended to be agreeable by nodding my head once in a while like everybody else. I played this part to the limit even during tests writing answers that the teachers wanted to hear but which were not exactly how I felt. The more “saintly” the explanation, the higher the score I discovered.

Ever since Papa started reading to my brother and me from the Children’s Picture Bible, I grew up thinking that the creation story was just well, a meaningful story. It was major culture shock to find out that my classmates and teachers believed the world really was created in six days and that Adam and Eve really were the first man and woman.

What about the Big Bang? That is only a theory. What about the fossils? Oh, God put them on earth to test our faith. Yeah right. No “superior” human beings would want to admit their ancestors were some dumb and ugly apes who got tired of swinging from trees. The religious inputs left me confused for a while. It came to a point when I began to envy my classmates’ unwavering faith. They were so sure of everything.

Nevertheless, all the church-going, was not in vain. I learned some nice songs. Plus, my family began to make it a point to pray before dinner, thanking the farmers and fisher folk for the food on the table. I also developed the habit of trying to pray before sleeping, but always with the door locked. I would lie down and ask myself, “So okay, who did I hurt today?” I would then realize I should not have said this but I should have said that and feel guilty the rest of the night. I would end the prayer saying, “Please help me be a good girl tomorrow.” My Catholic education was a real eye-opener, thank you.

Now I’m back in Mindanao, a fourth year college student with religion still very much on my mind. I am still studying in a Catholic university that requires Theology to be taught to Christians and non-Christians alike. No one is exempted. Thank God my current teacher approaches the subject as “a sharing of religious experiences.” My heart throbs in frustrated anger no more.

According to one teacher, religion is supposed to “avoid misunderstanding in a world that is shrinking towards one global community.” Nice words indeed. But come to think of it, since I’m studying in a Catholic school and since the subject is Theology, the “sharing of religious experiences” is always done from a Catholic point of view – which helps a lot in making me know almost nothing about Islam. I’m sure the majority of students in the Philippines don’t either.

Filipino youth, especially in Mindanao should not grow up ignorant of Islam. We could read books about it. We could interact much more with the Muslim communities around us and visit their mosques. Better still, we could be taught Islam in class. Yes, why not? While we’re at it, why not teach us a little bit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etcetera… –isms – after all, we’re Asians too.

Of course, teachers would have to give the world’s religions equal emphasis and trust students to discover that they are alike in many ways. Meaning: puhlease resist the urge to be so dreadfully imposing. Teenagers are old enough to make up their own minds you know.

If you ask me, Comparative Religion will lead to understanding and eventually respecting other people's culture. For how is this possible if we breathe only one religion all the time? Who knows? It might even be part of the long-term solution to the problem in this “Land of Promise” which I plan to make my permanent address.

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