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Seasonings and Greetings

December 15, 2006

"I wish you the best of BER - BERy healthy, BERy happy, BERy rich, BERy young." Text message received mid-September 03

To me this was the electronic signal for the beginning of the notoriously long drawn-out holiday season that follows every Pinoy, no matter where the diaspora has taken him. Once the month ends with a "ber," rest assured – celebrations or preparations thereto have begun.

Watch for these inevitable signs:

Jingle Polls

With elections just around the corner for the Philippines in ’07 and the U.S. in ’08, politics will certainly visit this season’s gatherings.

“Tingnan mo ang mga tao dito, puro trabaho, halos walang pulitika (Observe the people here, all work, hardly any politics),” observed John Clarida, a former Pasay cop now employed at Grossinger Toyota, a car dealership in Skokie, a suburb just north of Chicago. “Hindi kagaya sa atin, puro pulitika, halos walang magawang trabaho” (Unlike back home, it’s all politics, hardly any work).”

A short stocky figure in a mostly white male-dominated workplace, Mang John has proven himself at par with the best of them, moving around with the ease of a seasoned salesman with a gold law school college ring glinting on his finger.

“Barack Obama is like Pacquiao, he still has to prove himself,” he muses about the junior Democrat senator from Illinois who’s currently being tossed up as a possible frontrunner in the 2008 presidential elections. Although impressed by his Harvard credentials and performance so far, Clarida thinks Obama is still too young to become CEO of the United States.

Jean T.H., a retired bank executive from Mindanao now living in Arkansas, thinks Obama is “the man to watch.” She and husband Ron, an ex-Navy sailor, support Obama’s views on domestic issues and foreign relations. As to affairs back in RP, Jean says, “We need political maturity” – and leaves it at that.

What these conversations indicate to me is that Pinoy interest in the political process is alive and well, though not perceived as pressing.

Balikbayan boxes

If Santa's reindeer go on strike, our big boxes are to blame. I once heard of a lady who shipped liters of Coke and Sprite to her family. Asked why she bothered when the same beverages are available back home, she replied, “Iba ang lasa ng imported (Imported tastes different)." I know it defies logic but my own mother insists that the Centrum Silver I send her is more effective than ones bought there. Analyze that.

Thanksgiving Day

Forget the super chefs Jacques and Julia and spare the gobbler. This is Philippine-style Thanksgiving, where beets are re-routed to chicken salad, stuffing includes lemon grass, après dinner drinks come in stout brown bottles, and leftovers become paksiw the morning after.

Phone cards

"Ding dong" could very well be "ka-ching!" to dealers of ubiquitous prepaid phone cards. And we just don't care if the other party is snoozing or that the landlord is snorting on the extension – THE Christmas call must go through. Others play mahjong, many shop, some simply have to talk. Or take pleasure in the recently discovered joys of texting.

Caroling

Fortunately this tradition has survived even up North, where Jack Frost cruelly nips at our brown noses. Unlike the old country where obligation ends with doling out a few coins, our version has taken more social significance – ranging from full blown fund-raising parties to elaborately coordinated caravans. It does take logistics, but the take in greenbacks doesn't hurt either.

Parol Atbp

Much as we covet those colorful creations from Pampanga, only a few will have the financial wherewithal to afford them here. The practical have adapted well and settled for plastic lawn ornaments. The sentimental have set up belens (crèches), along with socks for loved ones, on their mantelpieces. Sentimental motorists hang iconographic stuffed bananas on their freezing windshields. And you will know those hardy souls who really go all out and buy real fir trees for Christmas - dried needles show up in their loved ones’ balikabayan boxes months later.

Noche Buena

Drag the adolescents half asleep to the laden table, feed the yelping dog, play the Mabuhay Singers CD. It's Noche Buena ! Midnight is when the Lord was born and the Filipino palate is awake. Never mind that the house smells like a Chinese restaurant, the just-unwrapped ionizer will take care of that.

Food, glorious food assuages pangs of hunger and alleviates homesickness. On Noche Buena, all worries caloric and otherwise are momentarily forgotten.

Dollar Daze

Catch Bus #22 along Clark Avenue in Chicago even in the bleakest of winter days and you're bound to meet a shivering, dollar-bearing yet still grinning kababayan on the way to cash cathedral - the PNB remittance center. Even as parting with our hard-earned cash makes our parkas feel a teeny bit thinner, somehow the thought of having met our obligation is comforting. Between gritted teeth, I hum Irving Berlin's "I've got your love to keep me warm."

Kwitis-envy

Blame it on the Chinese or our own bravado; the overseas Pinoy will make every effort to light up even a puny sparkler at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. Barring that, we stare at fireworks on TV or "The Ball" dropping on Times Square. Missing the loud reports of home, we drown our lonely ears in karaoke sessions deep within the basements, away from cop-calling neighbors. Singing along with "Bad boy, bad boy" sounds apropos.

SAD

Apart from thinned credit card and bank balances, SAD is one of the darker sides of the holidays. It spells “Seasonal Affective Disorder" and it’s disorienting. For a race so used to sun, its absence not only makes us grow fonder, it downright depresses us. So if you meet a morose kababayan after the fall equinox, be kind. He just hasn't seen the light.

One can't help wondering about the future of our people in a culture so spread out. Why did we leave? Will we lose our identity as we assimilate into other societies? Will these dilutions enhance our genetics? Are we ever going to get home?

I will not dissect these issues here. I won't even try. Instead I will tell stories of how we have managed to survive this dispersion from my Midwestern vantage point. Tales abound of Pinoy permutations as masters of adaptation of Darwinian caliber. Most are hilarious; others elicit a smirk but rarely a blank face. Hopefully these accounts will comfort us that even as we find ourselves all over the map, we’re still one with the rest as we wander.

I wish everyone the best in this season of timeless customs and reunions. May our days be merry, and totally bright.

Global Nation welcomes writer, web master, and award-winning photographer Armand B. Frasco, a native of Dipolog, Zamboanga del Norte, as our new regular monthly correspondent in Chicago.

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