Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blindsided with Purpose

Analiza Gobaton & Family

Every now and then life hits you with devastating news; the kind of news that comes out of nowhere and hits you on your blindside and sends even the strongest of men to their knees; as was the case when I received that dreaded phone call in 1995 informing me of my baby sister and parent’s fatal car accident in Georgia, or when I got the text from my sister yesterday that her best friend and dear friend of ours, Liza Gobaton, was shot in the head by a stray bullet while driving to her kid’s school (read about it here).   I write this just after receiving a text that Liza was declared brain dead since 10am this morning and that the life support, her earthly plug, will be pulled after her loved ones finish saying their goodbyes. 
I wasn’t as close to Liza as my sister, Anne, who considered her a sister and best friend, but my heart still aches with sadness because of how wonderful of a friend she was to my sister and us each time we visited Anne in Florida.  After going through Liza’s Facebook notes and pictures of her husband and three young kids one last time, I am reminded yet again about the certainty of our death and the uncertainties of life.  Since the deaths of my sister and parents, I have searched for answers to why God allows such things to happen to good people.  I’d like to say I found the answers, but I haven’t.  Instead, I am left with only the “faith” that I will come to that complete understanding when it is my time to leave this earth.
Meanwhile I (we) are left in this place we call life trying to make sense of all the uncertainties that life constantly throws at us.  The biggest of these, at least in my mind, is our purpose in life.  Unquestionably, this is the biggest question that mankind asks every day.  For me, it took getting pummeled on my blindside by the deaths of my sister and parents to take this into serious consideration. 
I am already in my forties and am convinced that life doesn’t have to be as uncertain as it is if only the certainty of its end were clearer to me at a younger age, say since age one.  Thanks to my parents though, I have learned that I will be accountable to only one question in the end: “Did I love.”  To me, that is the goal, end zone or purpose in life. 
Unfortunately, society creates all sorts of different goals that blur and takes us off course from who we truly are and what we truly should be doing.  The media of today makes it especially harder for people with its creation of “Idols,” reality shows, and “self” focused messages.  Even without the media, our society feeds us with notions of what the world wants us to become instead of making the best out of “who we are.”
Take my father, Crisanto T. Delson, for example.  In a nutshell, he followed the worldly advice of society by doing what he was told to do.  He went to school like everyone else and became the pride of many Igorots by achieving academic accolades such as valedictorian and high honors.  His academic achievements spoke volumes about the intelligence of Igorots amongst the overwhelming majority of Tagalog Filipinos in his school and university, thus "momentarily" dowsing the kindling belief that Igorots were stupid then. 
After working as an engineer in the Philippines for several years, he brought our family to America where he quickly realized how expensive it is to raise a family of five (and later six) kids.  It didn’t take him very long before he “threw out” the notion that education is everything and left his engineering “career” to take on a “vocation” in America’s entrepreneurial world by going into real estate, and later; financial services.  “If only I knew then,” were his words to me on many occasions.
Now, when people hear the word “vocation,” they think it has to do with becoming a priest, minister, nun or something like that, but that’s not always the case.  Vocation comes from the Latin “Vocare,” which means “To call.”  It is a calling in life.  A goal.  The purpose.
When we are asked, “Did you love?” we could look back and see whether we lived a “career” life or a life of loving vocation.  For my mother, she quit her nursing profession to become a loving stay-at-home mother, which I feel is one of the greatest vocations there is.  In my dad’s case, I could say his vocation and work were essentially the same since he provided for us while sincerely helping others.  He taught me that work "should" be a vocation since we spend so much time doing it, and that it doesn't have to be a separate entitity.  In fact, much of his decision to leave the corporate world was because he wanted to spend more time with his family, his primary vocation.  Some people have asked me and wonder why I didn’t continue with my father’s business, especially since the financial rewards are great.
My answer is simple: because he told me not to.  My father never told me this in those words.  Instead, he asked me on several occasions, “Why are you doing this? (working with him at the time)  You’re too creative.  Maybe you should think about applying it (creativity) towards something that will benefit others.”  In essence, he identified a God given gift or characteristic I had and told me to use it to help others.
Did I listen?  No, because I was sold on society’s image of success and happiness.  Even my father’s own words, which I deeply respected, were muffled by the world around.  I wish this wasn't the case, but it was.  "Life is too short," were also words I often heard from him.  I should have listened; it would have saved me alot of wasted time. 
So, now that life has blindsided me again with Liza’s tragedy, I find myself pausing to regain my bearing again only to reflect on the two things that makes sense to me: 1) We will ultimately be asked if we loved, and 2) it is up to us to either apply our gifts toward a worthy vocation or not.    I am confident that Liza's answer these two things is “Yes.”  Her family will continue on in testament to her love.  Please join me in praying for her husband and three children, who I pray will also love as much as Liza did and does. 

A purpose-filled life is a much richer life than one filled with worldly achievements, yet lacks selfless purpose.
I dedicate these written thoughts to our dear friend, Liza Gobaton and her family.  Rest in peace. 
If you would like to share your condolences to her family, you can send her husband, Jon Gobaton, a message on Facebook.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Siwsiwan Fabric

Most people have at least one or two things about their cultural heritage that remind them of their roots.  For me, two things always come to mind: handwoven fabrics and dipping sauce.

The fabrics are anything but ordinary. Mainly red with black, white, yellow, and green accents; these pieces of cloth represent my indigenous Igorot heritage. During my elementary school years in Oak Park, Illinois, they were used to decorate the top of our dining room credenza and other pieces of furniture.  In Palm Coast, Florida, they covered the same furniture moved there from Oak Park and my parent’s bed.  The same was true in Forest Park, Illinois.

As a child, I did not know the significance of our fabric.  I thought they were just normal Filipino fabrics every Filipino family owned.  I remember stories of how they were hand woven by my aunties in the Mountain Province back home, but I was too consumed with becoming “American” to appreciate it.

It wasn’t until my early thirties that I went home to the Mountain Province to see how they woven.  I watched as one of my aunties sat on the ground and demonstrated the process that went behind the creation of our fabrics and gained an instant appreciation for it.  I learned how each Igorot tribe had their own distinct colors and patterns, and how they were used for clothing as well.   

Since the fabric was always used for decoration at my house; I didn’t realize how it played more of an integral part of our ancestral attire.  The fabrics are used for the men’s “wanes” (bahag or g-string) and the women’s “lufid or getup” (tapis or wrap-around skirt).  Unlike the fabric of other Igorot tribes, our Bontoc tribe fabrics are unique in that they have symbols woven into the patterns.

The typical symbols are images of a human, star, eye, shield, spear, snake, and lizard.  Each one has its own meaning, which makes the Bontoc fabric even more meaningful. For instance, the eye represents guidance and the human figure represents the Igorot warrior, who is the epitome of bravery.

The second thing is the small bowl of dipping sauce that accompanied almost every meal called “Siwsiwan.”  My parents always made theirs with sabaw (soup stock), salt, and sili (hot pepper). I always found this to be a perfect pair with meat, but when it comes to fish and seafood; I use a mix of soy sauce, sili, and calamansi. Another favorite is a concoction of vinegar, garlic, sili, salt and red pepper.  There were always different variations, but these were the most common.

My parents made it a point to always eat together as a family.  Our meals were almost always homemade and filled with memories.  Conversation and laughter often made its way to the table.  I still remember my mother sneaking a tape recorder into the kitchen to record our babbling jokes, laughter and conversations.   So much took place around the kitchen table.

Both fabric and siwsiwan are two of the many sinulid (threads) that are woven into my “inner Igorot” fabric in life.  Some say that one cannot identify themselves as Igorot just by bloodline.  Others say one must be part of an Igorot community in the Cordilleras to be Igorot.  The whole topic of how one identifies oneself as an Igorot can get very diverse depending on one’s point of view.  The same can be said with many of the other ethnicities in America and abroad.

I may not intimately “know” the land my parents once spent their entire childhood and much of their adulthood, but it is part of me.  Every time I look at my family blanket on the wall or dip the pinch-full of fish into my siswiwan; I am reminded of my parents, who were Igorot.

Thus, how can we first and second generation Igorots in America and elsewhere outside the Philippines keep our heritage alive in a world that often makes it difficult? Maybe it’s as simple as keeping the siwsiwan at the kitchen table with the family gathered around and the fabrics nearby.

Figures in the Lubid (from left to right): eye, man, lizard, star, star variation, snake, butterfly, shield, spear and flower.
All the figures, except for the flower, are woven into the garment.  The flower is embroidered.
photo by: Christina Nguslab courtesy of: Maria Luz Delson Fang-asan

Igorot Gump

A recent sound byte from the movie, “Forrest Gump,” that led to my earlier “Balut Meets Chocolate,” resurfaced again when I watched the movie with my family last night.  Prior to watching the movie, my daughter asked me to help her understand the instructions of one of her homework assignments.  The assignment asked her to list and write about the attributes of a novel she read. 
After explaining what an attribute is, we sat down in our living room and watched the movie.  As we watched, I began noticing particular attributes of the character, Forrest Gump.  These were things I overlooked the first time(s) I watched the movie fifteen years ago.
First, was his ability to know what a real friend is.  It struck me that out of all those hundreds (maybe thousands) of people who cheered him on, followed him, put him on a pedestal and presumably called him their friend; only three turned out to be his real friends: Bubba, Lieutenant Dan and Jenny.   It got me thinking about my kids, their generation and today’s dilution of the meaning of a friend.
With Facebook and all the social networking going on, it seems more and more people are either subconsciously or consciously measuring themselves by the number of friends they have.  Just look at how many Facebook profiles have thousands of friends and how so many people are “spamming” others to become their friends just to get their numbers up.
I became concerned about my children’s ability to discern for themselves the true meaning of a friend, and later addressed this with them.  I basically told them that real friendships require real “actual” personal involvement and urged them not to get caught up in society’s web of lies.   This led to thoughts about the BIBAK organization in Chicago that I recently was elected President.
At last Sunday’s gathering and jam session with Igorot friends, someone asked me what my plans for BIBAK are, and I replied with some ideas, but I was really thinking of something else.  I was thinking about the need to get together more often as families (like what we were doing then). 
I always noticed how Filipinos here in America are generally not as close to each other as other ethnic groups.  The Chinese have their China towns; the Koreans have their Korea towns; the Mexicans and other ethnic groups have much closer knits with each other than what I have observed with Filipinos.  However, I must say that I have experienced much better knit groups amongst Igorots.
It seems so far that we tend to be closer to each other (generally speaking) than other Filipinos.  There is less of the competition and “keeping up with” that I have observed with Filipinos in the forty some years living in America.  I suspect it has to do with our culture and social structure in the Cordilleras.
This leads me to Forrest’s second striking attribute: his ability to not worry about what society and the world around him was thinking and doing.  The Vietnam era was a very confusing and difficult time for many, yet Forrest just did what Forrest did.  He was himself.  Not swayed by the political and social currents of the time, Forrest had no need to build himself up to be accepted or keep up with others.
My other blog, “Igorots of Character,” is being interpreted by some as just that: a way of getting Igorots to be as equals as the rest of the world; a way to overcome the discrimination or so-called oppression Igorots back home have had to endure and continue to endure.  If so, these people are wrong.
The last thing I want to advocate is the need to achieve stature, accolades, notoriety and such for the sake of telling the world we Igorots are equal and/or better at something.  I have met many people (Filipino and American) who have achieved fancy letters at the end of their names, high positions in companies & politics, PH D's and Doctorates.  However, many of these people have the character and moral fiber of a Sponge Bob.  Their big achievements were motivated for selfish reasons.  To clarify, "Igorots of Character" is about featuring the good hearted Igorots who chose to do good for others for the sake of doing good.  

Why do we need to even feel the need to keep up with anyone?  Why can’t we just be like Forrest Gump and be content with being the person we are created to become?  Forrest was given certain gifts, of which, he used to directly and indirectly help others.  Shouldn't we also identify our own individual gifts and apply them to the best of our ability for the betterment of others?
Close your eyes and try imagining Forrest wearing nothing but his wanes (bahag or g-string).  Now picture him sitting down on that same bus stop bench with his box of chocolates.  The first lady he encounters, the black lady, immediately drops her magazine and can’t keep her eyes off his almost naked splendor.  Now picture him on a bus with discriminating Filipino kids on the bus.  Instead of the boys saying, “Seat taken,” they say, “No tails allowed.”  Then, he befriends a beautiful girl from Bontoc.  Later he becomes the only football player with helmet, shoulder pads, jersey and nothing but his wanes flapping in the wind as he blows by his opponents on the football field.  His opponents freeze and don’t know whether to be amazed by his speed or his sneering butt cheeks.  Oh, can’t forget his military experience.  Picture him on the American tanks leading the U.S. Army through the thicket of jungle to defeat the Japanese as General MacArthur looks on with awe.  Later, President Johnson awards him the Medal of Honor and asks where Forrest was shot, and of course, Forrest turns and flips his wanes up to expose his baataaacks.   Shrimp boat?  Well, let’s just say Bubba forgot to mention, "Shrimp bagoong."    
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. . . Igorot pride?  How about just being an “Igorot Gump.”

Friday, October 15, 2010

Balut Meets Chocolate

An Igorot man named Fanusan was walking towards Otucan with a small basket of balut when he came upon a very small store along the dusty dirt road. Sitting on the porch was a man dressed in jeans and a PBL jersey drinking a bottle of Cokes Sprite. Fanusan loved talking with strangers and saw an opportunity to engage in conversation while eating his lunch.

He greeted the stranger by smiling and nodding his head upward. The man smiled back, but kept silent. Knowing how people love balut; Fanusan placed his basket of balut on his lap with the intention of sharing one with the stranger. In a very slow and enticing manner, he slowly removed the cover. The stranger turned and watched Fanusan scratch his head while deciding which one to pick.

There were six eggs. Each was very similar, but different in size and blemish. After a minute of turning each egg around with indecision, Fanusan finally selected one and held it up in front of his eyes. He could see from the corner of his eye that the stranger was staring at him.

“Bababalut,” Fanusan said aloud in a slow and stuttering voice while still looking forward at the egg. “KaKanayon ibagan ina ay San bbiag et kaman balut ay naka paey si lagba. Egagagay mo tinango no sino San mapidot mo.”

Fanusan turned his head to face the stranger and saw the man looking at him with an empty smile and rolling eyes. He could tell that the stranger didn’t understand him and immediately assumed the man was Ilocono. This was not a problem for Fanusan because he also spoke Ilocano.

“Kakanayon nga ibagan ni inang, ti bbbiag ket kasla balut a naka labba. Awawawan naka ammo no Anya ti mapilim,” repeated Fanusan in Ilocano.

“Hugh?” replied the stranger with one eyebrow raised and eyes squinted.

“Oh, a lowlander,” thought Fanusan. Being somewhat proficient in Tagalog, he smilingly said, “Ang bububuhay ay parang isang kahon ng bababalut. Hindi mo mamamalalaman kung ano ang madadaampot mo.”

“Dude,” said the stranger. “I’m from Chicago. I’m just visiting for a few weeks.”

Fanusan laughed with surprised, and then continued, “My momomom always said life is like a basket of bababalut. You never know wawawhat you will get.”

The stranger had no idea what he meant, but smiled and nodded his head pretending to understand. Then, Fanusan asked the stranger if he would like an egg to eat. The man graciously accepted his offer and reached out to get the egg Fanusan held out. Fanusan looked at the man staring at the egg with wonder and knew he had never eaten a balut before.

“Dddo as I do,” instructed Fanusan as he handed the stranger a small pocket knife.

“Sure dude,” replied the man.

Fanusan punched a small hole on the top of the egg with another knife, turned the egg upside down and drank the juices that dribbled out of the hole. The man watched Fanusan smile with delight and did exactly what was shown.

“Mmmm,” said the man as he drank the liquids. “A bit nectarous and pleasant.”
Fanusan smiled and began slowly removing the shell patch by patch starting at the hole. The stranger immediately followed by copying him. After a few patches were removed, the man’s eyes grew big as he quickly realized that it was no normal egg.

Staring at the man in its entire ghastly splendor was something that reminded him of an old movie that depicted a radioactive experiment gone horribly wrong. The blood drained from his face as he stared at a small duck fetus surrounded by its own albumen with sprawling red blood vessels all over it. A small beak jutted out while small feathers poked out here and there. Tucked in another area was an unidentifiable organ that looked vital in some way.

Fanusan began slurping the slimy membrane covered fetus into his mouth and then chewed. Even though the man felt like vomiting at the sight of what he just saw; he didn’t want to look like a sissy, held his breath and slowly slurped the fetus into his mouth. Unable to hold his breath longer, the man took in a breath and was surprised to find the taste of the small slimy mass in his mouth to be pretty good. Except for the crunching of pre-mature bones and parts, it wasn’t as bad as it looked and was actually delicious.

After wiping his mouth, the stranger introduced himself to Fanusan as Alex. Fanusan replied by introducing himself, and both began conversing about where Alex was from. When Fanusan learned he was an American-Igorot visiting his relatives after twenty years of being away; he became happy knowing he had just made a new American friend. During their conversation, Alex couldn’t help but notice how nice Fanusan’s handmade basket was. He picked it up and inspected it closely in appreciation for its craftsmanship. A few hours later, Fanusan stood up to leave and gave Alex the basket filled with balut as a gift. Alex gladly accepted and said goodbye to Fanusan.

Now that I made some of you terribly hungry or terribly sick, I would like to shift your attention to something sweeter: a box of chocolate. This morning I heard a sound byte from the movie, Forrest Gump, and thought how it would be if Forrest was Igorot holding a basket of balut instead of chocolate. Thus, resulting with the previous story about Fanusan.

Life is filled with constant changes. According to Fanusan, “It’s like a basket of balut. You never know what you’re gonna get.” According to Forest Gump, “It’s like a box of chocolate. You never know what you’re gonna get.” I couldn’t agree more with their assessment, but rather than delve into the “chocolates” as I did with the balut; I would like to focus on the “box” that the chocolates come in.

Although the box is much less interesting than the chocolates, it can be “a” key to greater things. Without it, the chocolates become predictable, without-surprise and would make for a far less inspiring Forest Gump story. So for now, dump the chocolates and marvel at the wonders of a flat cardboard box or woven basket for that matter.

Imagine the different colors available for such a box . . . white, various shades of brown, various degrees of black, yellow, red and so on. Now imagine the different sizes and shapes . . . short, thin, tall, round and so on. Does this ring a familiar tone yet? I thought so.

If you know me, you would know that I am a firm believer that what matters most is in the inside of people. Yet, I recognize the importance of the “outside” as well. If you were an Igorot growing up as a kid in white suburbia America during the 70’s and 80’s; you would most likely know what I am talking about.

Wanting to be accepted and wanting to have the same looking boxes as the rest of society was a common occurrence for me.  I used to wonder why my box had to be so different than the “puraw” boxes that enveloped me then.  At times it was difficult growing up with a totally different box as everyone else in school and around. I still remember being teased and called names like chink, nip, zipper head, zero, pinhead and so on.

Today, I am so thankful that my children live in a more accepting and multi-cultural world where I have observed the “coolness” of being Asian. They and their generation, for the most part, are better able to do what I found difficult to do as a child – love and appreciate my own God-given box. Unfortunately, many will still want to throw their boxes away and trade it in for another as more and more people continue hearing society’s version of what is cool and acceptable these days.

Assimilation is a normal process most immigrants undergo, but the dangers that come when we begin rejecting our own boxes to adopt the boxes of others need to be addressed. Kids these days call it being “white-washed,” whereas I used to refer to it as being “coconutized.” When we do not appreciate the box we were given, the sweet chocolate inside melts and loses its goodness. In other words, our inner balut rots and becomes unbearable to that person and that person’s box maker.

Cheers! Enjoy your balut and make sure to finish it off with a good portion of sweet chocolate.