Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Admiring Japan's 'No Looting' Culture

Photo by REUTERS/Asahi Shimbun

Yesterday’s news that Japan’s nuclear crisis appears to be spinning out of control only adds to the myriad of concerns I have for Japan and its people. The thought of more than 10,000 people dead, which is more than eight times the death toll of Hurricane Katrina, is stifling enough. I can’t imagine the devastation that could result if the nuclear crisis escalates.

Two years ago when the landslides and typhoons hit the Philippines, similar feelings of concern ran through me as they do today. This time it’s much different. This time, the people being affected are not Filipinos, but they are from a country I deeply respect.

I was at the gym the other day exercising while watching three television screens displaying horrific images of the disaster. There were thirty other people on treadmills looking at the eight screens above, but only a handful, including myself, chose to watch the news of the devastation in Japan. Sadly, the others were more interested in watching sports highlights and Hollywood shows about Justin Beiber and Charlie Sheen. The sight stung more than the sweat that kept entering my eyes.

“How can I help?” I asked myself. Part of me wanted to leave to volunteer in search and rescue missions, as was being at the time. Part of me wished I had extra money to send to victims. Part of me wanted to organize a fundraiser like before. Part of me wished my book could be published this month so I can donate a percentage to victims, and so on.

After reality and my priorities were just about to rule everything out and leave me feeling helpless, the sight of a lady closing her eyes and bowing in prayer-like fashion reminded of the power of prayer. She reminded me that despite one’s limitations, one should pray. For some reason, I still felt that prayer without action, especially when one has the ability to act, is an empty prayer. Then I was quickly reminded of my love for writing and decided to shed more light on a particular aspect of the Japanese culture that inspires me.

Victims gathered around fireplace

As I write this, I am very much aware of all media surrounding the disaster that touts how Americans and other nations are flooding Japan with support and aid, and I admire this fact. It is a strong testament to the good that still exists within the human race, and is also evidence that unity is still possible. For me though, there is something more admirable and inspiring happening amidst all this disaster than the help coming from the outside of Japan.

Japanese forming orderly line for kerosene
Despite all the chaos and tragedy going on in the earthquake torn regions of Japan, there are no reports of mass looting or unlawfulness. This phenomenon is a stark contrast to what has happened in the wake of other catastrophes, such as in New Orleans, Manila, Haiti and Chile. I still remember all the horrible reports of theft, murder, rape and so forth that took place during the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

For some reason, crime has always been associated with natural disasters, but how can such a tragedy of this magnitude result in much different behavior from those within its grasp? The answer has much to do with culture. Today’s Japanese has both good and bad ingrained in their culture. Since the end of WWII, they have chosen never to repeat the unspeakable of their past, and the result of their decisions thus far reflects on the culture that flowers in the dark soil of their tragedy today.

During my last visit to Kyoto, Japan in 1997, I recall an analogy told to me once by an American who married a Japanese woman and has been living there for fourteen years. He said something to the degree that the Japanese are like the passengers of ship embarked on a long voyage around the world, and Americans are like people on a ferry boat going from one side to another. The Japanese passengers are well aware of the long duration and seek to become as humanitarian as possible amongst each other. They seek not to make enemies or cause trouble, but to maintain an orderly sense of unity. Americans on the other hand, know their boat ride is short and that they will probably not see the other passengers again. Rather than having the same outlook as the Japanese, they tend to have a “looking out for myself” or “take, take, take and prosper” attitude. When I first heard this, I didn’t know enough about the Japanese to give my opinion on his analogy, which I’ve heard several times more since then. Today, I would have to agree with him in a very general sense, though I believe there are many more good Americans than there are bad.

Patiently waiting in line for relief supplies

Every culture stands to learn a valuable lesson from the examples taking place right now within the Japanese people who are directly involved in this devastation. It would be great if their sense of unity and affinity for each other were exemplified by every ethnic majority and minority. Strangely enough, when I think of them, I think about my Igorot culture and how we share that sense of unity, despite our war-filled history between tribes. It makes me more appreciative of my roots and ancestry, and yes, I dare say that our cultural bond is something all Filipinos and other cultures can also admire.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Rhythmic Salvation of Youth

Cultural dance has always played an integral part of civilizations throughout the world.  It is one of the vital threads that make up the cultural fabric of many ethnic groups.  Without it, a large part of history and the livelihood of any culture are lost.

Fortunately, here in America, many ethnic groups continue to keep their culture alive by keeping their cultural dances alive.  The Irish and Indian communities are notably two of the more popular groups.  Past Broadway and Hollywood appearances of Riverdance and Slumdog Millionaire, have attracted a captive audience.  As a result, more people continue learning and participating in their cultural dances.

We Igorots, do not have anything of such magnitude to promote and encourage the continual appreciation of our dances, but the need to do so has never been as great as now.  Among many other things, our cultural dances are being threatened by modernization and the continual rapid loss of our elderly, who possess such knowledge.  This is why the Igorot culture needs to “revive” and “keep alive” its dances.

Our dances are more than just “performances.”  They are our culture.  Anyone can put on an Igorot “costume” and mimic the movements, but by doing so only scratches the surface of its totality.  Our dances should not be considered performances, by rather, the continued appreciation and “practice” of our culture.  It has been, and should continue to remain a reflection of our past, present and future “way of life.”

They have traditionally been associated with ceremonies and rituals that mark the mile stones of our people’s life cycle in the Cordillera Mountains.  Its many different meanings are signified by certain steps and movements that ultimately show our close affinity to ancestors and mother earth.  When we dance, we express our love for our culture, our freedom and the unity we are so blessed with.  When our ancestor danced, there were no such things as scores or votes.  The only idols were that of the supernatural or spiritual, and certainly not any one particular individual.
In the spirit of preserving our Indigenous Knowledge, I hope more people continue their interest in our dances for the sake of keeping our heritage alive.  I hope that Hollywood and its relentless efforts to create idols by focusing on ego do not taint our dances.  Let’s leave all the critiquing and competition to those who put on “costumes” and “perform” for the sake of ego and “show.”

The evolution of our dance needs to continue with our youth because they are our future.  They should not be discouraged to partake in our music and dance, as I have heard in the past.  I am not sure why, but I have heard how kids were once “shewed away” from playing our instrumental gangsas.   Adult and elderly Igorots can no longer afford to keep our gangsas, drums and other instruments out of the hands of kids.  Instead, every Igorot kid in the Cordilleras and abroad should be given the opportunity to partake in our native music and dances.

When my cousin recently posted a video of Igorot kids dancing, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy.  It was much more than a cute dance.  The kids demonstrated a sense of appreciation for their heritage that I wish more people had, including myself.  They possessed a kindred spirit so raw that it is so contagious.  I would love to have interviewed them to find out just how much the dancing meant to them.
So next time you see the absence of children dancing among adults performing dances like the Bedian, Taycheck, Takik, Salidsid, Tadok, Pinukla and others, ask yourself why there aren’t children dancing them.  Then, think of the words said in Mathew 18:13, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gorals and Igorots

A few Sundays ago, after attending Mass, I took my family to Downers Delight, a nearby family restaurant known for their breakfast and brunch meals.  As we pulled into the parking lot, I immediately noticed the lack of parking and knew we would have to wait long.  I briefly thought of driving away to find a less populated place to eat, but my stomach convinced me otherwise.

After waiting approximately twenty minutes, we were finally seated in a cozy corner table that comfortably accommodated my family.  We took our time reading the menu and finally placed our order.  While waiting for our food, we engaged in our typical conversations the normally surround the table as I looked around the restaurant.

I noticed many families seated at their tables and thought of how nice it was to still see families making time to eat together.  Then I noticed the waitress walking towards us with a large tray of food.  My stomach became excited, but I knew it wasn’t ours because it was too soon for our food to have been cooked.

The waitress began distributing the dishes to a family of five sitting at the table next to us.  When the youngest boy, who looked to be five years old, received his food, he smiled from ear to ear and his eyes lit up like Christmas morning.  I smiled as he picked up a piece of bacon and held it in front of his face while licking his lips before biting into it.  He caught me looking as I smiled and gave him a big thumbs up.  He responded by nodding his head before stuffing the rest of the piece in his mouth. 

After that brief moment of amusement, I turned my attention back to my family.  Moments later, my right ear caught something that took me attention away from my family again.  The father next to me said something in another language to his oldest son, who looked to be ten years old.  I wasn’t sure of the language, but it sounded Polish or Russian.

The boy answered back in English.  Then the mother joined in and said something to the younger bacon-loving boy in the same language.  He too responded in English.  I casually turned my head slightly their direction as I continued to eavesdrop on their conversations. 

The parents would say something in their language and the kids responded in English.  Then, I noticed how the kids threw in some of their parent’s language into their English sentences.  I thought the parents must have been first generation immigrants because of their language, but when the mother flagged down the waitress for some syrup and the menu, I was surprised how perfect her English was.

My curiosity grew so much that I slowly turned toward them and politely said, “Excuse me.”  The father turned and looked at me in response.  Then his wife also turned her head toward me.
“Sorry to disturb you,” I continued.  “I couldn’t help but hear you talking to your kids in another language.  Is that Polish you’re speaking?”

The husband smiled and responded with an accent, “Yes, do you know Polish?”

I answered, “No, but I’ve worked alongside many Polish people and I’ve heard it often.”

His wife jumped in and said, “It’s actually a unique dialect that’s spoken where we’re from.”

“Oh, where’s that?” I asked.

“We’re from the mountains,” she replied with enthusiasm.

“Really!” I smilingly said.  “We’re also from the mountains where we are from.”
I looked at their kids, who were all looking at me, and asked, “Do they understand everything you say to them?”

Before either parent could respond, all three proudly nodded their heads and smiled.  The mother went on to tell me that their kids go to Polish classes every week to learn about their culture and practice their Polish dialect.  I congratulated the kids and their pride swelled as they smiled and continued listening to my conversation with their parents.

Our conversation revealed more about their culture, and I found it very interesting to learn that they referred to themselves as Gorals, which literally means “highlanders.”  Like Igorots, they had their own language, food and cultural ways that differed from the lowlanders of Poland.  Also like Igorots, they have an organization that unites the Goral highlanders called “Polish Highlanders Alliance of North America.”  After our 10-15 minute conversation, we both returned our attention back to our families.  Before they left, we exchanged pleasantries again and said our goodbyes hoping that we would bump into each other again.

After they left, I thought about how great it was for their kids to learn about their culture and to feel proud about it as well.  Then I thought about a Polish friend, who except for his last name, knew almost nothing about his culture and didn’t care much about it either.  Finally, I thought of how I forgot my own language and couldn’t help but feel envious. 

Since then, I have been thinking of the Goral’s ability to understand the importance of preserving their culture while assimilating in America.  That was a young family, yet they somehow knew the importance of their culture.  The mother had to have been at least second generation because of her perfect English, yet she knew her native dialect and chose to preserve it and her culture by sending her kids to a cultural school once a week. 

Two weekends ago, I visited some new Igorot friends in Elgin, Illinois.  Kankanaey dialect, Ilocano or Tagalog, she said, “But how’s that possible?”  Well if she only knew how strong the pull to become “American” is for new immigrants and their kids, she would understand just how easy it is.

I can’t help but keep thinking about a stark difference I notice between the Goral people and Igorots here in America: Igorots do not have the same motivation to preserve our culture here in America.  We have no such classes that the Gorals have, at least not that I am aware of here in Illinois.  Also, I “suspect” most Igorots who immigrate to America would rather raise money to help our people become better educated and more modernized than help preserve the Indigenous Knowledge of our heritage.  I hope I’m wrong, and if I’m right; I hope this will change. 

If any Gorals are reading this, I take my hat off and salute your efforts to keep your culture alive in America.  It is truly an inspiration.

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