pop goes the world: leaving on a jet plane

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  26 April 2012, Thursday

Leaving on a Jet Plane

San Francisco, California – It was the old woman’s first time on a big plane, she said.

It was a Boeing 747-400 with an upper deck where business class passengers could lie down to sleep, unlike us cattle in economy, herded three in a row where in business class they sat two. Before taking this Manila to San Francisco flight, she’d only flown to Davao and back.

On board a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to San Francisco.

Over the twelve-hour flight, the old woman told me her life story. She was migrating to join her daughter in Sacramento. She had five other children; all of them were college graduates, two were in South Africa, one in the USA, the other worked on a cruise ship, two were in the Philippines taking care of her husband, who had had a mild stroke.

“He had a mistress,” she said darkly, as if that were explanation enough for his illness.

She told me about their properties, two lots in Valenzuela that she bought “back when land was a lot cheaper than it is now,” and several more in Nueva Ecija. One of her sons had their old home torn down and a new one built at a cost of seven million pesos.

Perhaps she was nervous and wanted to allay her anxiety by chatting. Certainly she was an extrovert; it never occurred to her that I wanted to be left alone with my book. I listened to her, making noncommittal noises at the appropriate moments.

When the flight attendants went around with the debarkation and customs forms, she turned to me and said, “You told me you’re a writer. Please help me with the forms. My daughter said the chances are my seatmate would be Filipino, and to ask them to help me if I needed anything.”

As she shrugged her heavy black knit coat on, and adjusted her gray knit cap on her hair, I filled out the blanks on the forms for her, referring to her passport for some of the information. She was born in 1938, and her given name was “Maria”, simply that.

“Sign here,” I said.

“Thank you, anak,” she replied. “How lucky I was to be sitting next to a writer when I needed one.”

“You’re welcome, Nanay,” I said.

The plane taxied to a stop. I bade her good luck and farewell, and sped to the door. It wasn’t open yet. People were milling around, waiting. I crept too close to the door and the flight attendant, who was on the in-plane phone, gently nudged me back under the telephone cord.

From the deck above, other passengers were descending and joining the crowd around the door; their arrival caused waves to ripple and eddy within the mass. A strident voice cut through our anticipation. “Would you let us through, please?” It was a middle-aged blonde. She sounded annoyed. We Filipinos stared at her. There was no need to say anything; all one had to do was push one’s way through the milling group. The waves of people parted as she passed, then closed again upon itself.

Filipino culture stays the same no matter where the Filipinos are. We assume that young people will defer to their elders, and that in an unfamiliar situation, a Filipino will help a kababayan.

Our concept of personal space is carried within us, so that we don’t mind if we are gently jostled as part of a crowd, unlike Westerners who require about a couple of feet of personal space around them (refer to cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s studies on proxemics).

We think of ourselves as family, so that we can share stories about our personal lives and not feel it an intrusion upon our privacy, and address each other – even perfect strangers – by kinship terms – “mother” and “child”.

When you are Filipino you are part of something bigger than yourself, wherever in the world you may be.   ***

Photo taken 20 April 2012 with an iPhone 4S, edited with Instagram effects.

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