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Fall 2002

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Correspondence Course

Scholar chronicles personal discovery in Asian motherland

by Robert Ingenito ‘01
edited
by Kathryn Gallien

A Filene Scholar and double-major in music and anthropology, Robert Ingenito received a 2001–02 Fulbright scholarship for research in the Philippines. There he studied anthropology with Eufracio C. Abaya, of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, and conducted fieldwork at a resettlement area among indigenous children who had been uprooted following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. In letters and journals, Ingenito chronicled his year of adventure and insight in the homeland of his late mother, Emma Magay Ingenito.

June 5, 2001
The journey from New York to Manila was very long, but luckily I sat next to a nice elderly Chinese woman whose stories about her family made the trip go by faster. During the plane’s descent into Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I looked out the window. Scattered across the dark expanse of Manila Bay, I saw lights from small fishing boats reflecting off the water. More than two years after Mom’s death, finally her little boy was returning to the land of her birth.

A hike along the ash-filled valley leading to the crater of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano, which erupted in 1991
June 7, 2001
I am slowly getting used to the new time zone and climate (at the time of my arrival, 10 o’clock in the evening, the temperature was about 90 degrees!). I’m in Makati City, the business district of Manila, where the Fulbright folks have provided me with a brief orientation. Very soon, I shall move to Quezon City. Graduation from Skidmore didn’t mean the end of classes—next week, I begin classes at the University of the Philippines. Mabuhay! (Long live!)

July 1, 2001
It was dusk on a Thursday afternoon, and my first class with Dr. Abaya had just ended. The sunset was a magnificent display of gold, orange, and peach (one of the positive side effects of air pollution). The jeepneys had stopped running, and I had to take a motored tricycle to my home. These five-foot-high carriages attached to a motorcycle can carry at least six people, three in the carriage and three (including the driver) on the motorcycle. I didn’t expect to have to ride one so soon, much less while carrying a backpack full of books and a laptop computer! Somehow this tiny mode of transportation managed to accommodate the maximum number of passengers plus our belongings. We began our bumpy journey down Katipunan Avenue, and I “settled” (I use the word loosely) into my seat. I looked outside the carriage, noticed the short distance between me and the fast-moving ground, and wondered, “Gee, if we get into an accident, would I survive?” While pondering this question, I tilted my head back up and noticed that our driver had changed lanes. We were now traveling into oncoming traffic!
     I have immersed myself in the academic community of the University of the Philippines (UP). For the next few months, I’m taking intensive one-on-one Filipino lessons with Mrs. Jovita Orara —“Tita Jo”—who has designated herself my “surrogate mother.” I’m also sitting in on two graduate courses taught by Dr. Abaya—“Theory in Anthropology” and “Research Design and Methods.” These courses will help me develop the theoretical and methodological framework for my upcoming fieldwork in Zambales. For years, I’ve been reading anthropologists’ ethnographies. Now I’m actually going to be doing my own fieldwork.
     Dr. Abaya and I have become good friends. When I first walked into his office, I noticed a beautiful electronic piano standing in the corner. Once in a while, he asks me to accompany while he sings in his beautiful tenor voice.

August 9, 2001
Each day I reflect on my Filipino-American (“Phil-Am”) identity and see it as a point of juncture and contradiction. Intellectually and emotionally, I stand at the borderline of two geographically distant, yet socially and historically close nations (such are the results of American colonization and the Philippine diaspora). I am a foreigner, but I am also a person who shares a commonality or at least a partial identity (one-half to be exact) with the Filipinos. These reflections on identity have led me to seriously consider how I express my knowledge of the Philippines. For years, too many academics and journalists have portrayed this country as just another marginalized third-world nation. Such representations only exaggerate the cultural differences between “us” and “them.” I don’t want to do that.
     I was five years old the last time I visited the Philippines, with my mom. Even though my memories of the trip are few, I do have one that has remained close to my heart: my mom showing me this magical plant called makahiya. This very small fern-like plant blossoms with numerous heads of pink and lavender flowers. When touched, as if by magic, the leaves close up onto themselves. My mother instructed me to touch this plant, and I remember very vividly seeing the leaves curl and close and giggling with glee as I ran around the garden looking for more. A few weeks ago, Tita Jo kindly invited me to her lovely little summer home in Antipollo (about one hour north of Quezon City). There in her garden she pointed out the makahiya plant. I again touched the leaves, and with just as much delight (if not more) I watched them curl and close up.
     This past weekend, I accompanied a small group of young Filipino-Americans (mostly from California) to Banaue, in Ifugao Province—a nine-hour bus ride north of Manila. We visited an Ifugao community, witnessed and took part in the sacrifice of a pig, hiked to and harvested in the famous Rice Terraces (where I fell and twisted my knee), and spent a night in a traditional Ifugao hut. The trip replenished me in so many ways.

September 10, 2001
I’ve been invited to attend a farewell party for the outgoing U.S. Ambassador at the embassy. It sounds very exciting. I’ve never attended an event as fancy as this before. On a more serious note, the U.S. Embassy also released a notice regarding terrorist threats throughout Asia and has advised all of us to “maintain a high level of vigilance.”

September 13, 2001
I find it incredibly heart-wrenching to watch from the other side of the world the tragedies that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C., a few days ago. These tragedies have made me think a lot about home and the many issues that I faced when my mother died. When you hear the stories and watch interviews on the news, your connection with those people who have lost loved ones becomes closer. I see the tears and the emptiness in their eyes and I remember what that pain feels like. It is raw, it is real, and it is powerful.
     Today, my professor’s secretary shared with me an e-mail discussing how Filipinos could donate money and relief to this terrible disaster. I began crying. Ever since I got here, I see the poverty people live in. I believe the average yearly income is around $4,000 (U.S.). Despite how little these people have, they are still willing to share with their brothers and sisters halfway around the world.

September 22, 2001
While I was switching back and forth between CNN World (which is quite different from regular CNN) and BBC today, I noticed a distinct difference between the quality of news coverage the two networks had to offer. I recommend trying to get a non-U.S. perspective on these recent events.

In a sixth-grade class, talking about geography and the different places people come from
October 25, 2001
In the Philippines, it is the celebrant’s responsibility to organize his birthday party, rather than letting his friends and family organize it for him. With that in mind, I made arrangements at a nearby restaurant for my twenty-second birthday party. I have frequently visited this restaurant, and the folks who work there know me quite well.
     Among the items on the menu were pancit kanton (dried Chinese noodles), lumpia shang-hi (spring rolls), sinigang (sour stew of fish and vegetables), sweet and sour chicken, and leche flan (crème caramel). I put a lot of thought into my guest list, because for the first time I was offering something in return to all the people who have helped me since I arrived.
     The party was everythingI wished for and more! So many people showed up that we had to bring in extra tables. The food was absolutely masarap—delicious. Dr. Abaya sang a few songs, which I accompanied on the piano. He also sang a few Filipino kundiman songs with my cousin and aunt. Once everyone had left, the owner of the restaurant pulled me aside and said, “Robert, tonight you were a Filipino!”

After completing course work at the university, Ingenito conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Zambales province, among children of resettled victims of the Pinatubo eruption. His research examined the children’s verbal expressions regarding place and identity.

Brushing teeth with students, who congregate every Friday in the schoolyard for a lesson in dental hygiene from the town dentist
February 1, 2002
The other day, I interviewed a shy twelve-year-old girl who lives in a rural hill community. Like other girls her age, she likes pretty dresses, colorful flowers, and nice songs. She also enjoys watching TV soap operas like Pangako sa ‘yo (Promises to You), where the women dress in fine clothes, live in big mansions, and drive fancy cars. Unfortunately, this girl sometimes doesn’t have clean clothes or enough food for breakfast. I tried asking her what she likes about Pangako sa ‘yo.

    Q: Why do you like Pangako sa ‘yo?
    A: The people are beautiful.
    Q: What makes them beautiful?
    A: Their makeup and their clothes.
    Q: Do people really live like that?
    A: I don’t know.

     Her simple answer made me stop the interview. I guess you could say I had a little “crisis.” I live in a nice home, drive a nice car, eat good food, and wear clean clothes—things this girl can only see on television. TV has this amazing power to produce an imagined community where people can escape from the worries of poverty and everyday life. Are the images true? Do people really live like that? Each picture, sentence, and word expressed through the media has powerful cultural, political, and transnational meanings that go well beyond their supposed intent. Those of us with access to different kinds of media, like the Internet, newspapers, and the BBC, can make informed conclusions about the world. But for this girl, such choices aren’t available.

February 25, 2002
Tomorrow I’m flying to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the birthplace of my mom. I’m very excited! In addition to visiting some family, I hope to visit the Tabun Cave archaeological site, and city hall to see if they have any records about my family, and…who knows what else. Adventures and discoveries around every corner!

March 28, 2002
My visit last month to Palawan was wonderful. I did a lot of work on my mom’s father’s family tree and discovered that I have over 150 second cousins!
     Many refer to Palawan island as “the last frontier.” The virgin resources that the island has to offer are among the last remaining untouched places on the face of the earth. The island’s extensive forests, clear water, clean beaches, and few resorts and hotels make it absolutely breathtaking.
     Palawan is also home to one of the country’s oldest penal colonies—Iwaig—a “prison without bars” intended originally for insurrectionists who were trying to overthrow the Spanish colonial government. According to my relatives (I should mention that I don’t know how much of this story is true and how much is fiction), my great-grandfather was one of these revolutionaries who was captured by the Spaniards and sent to live out his life in Iwaig. After the Americans “liberated” the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule, my great-grandfather was set free and decided to settle there. He and his wife had ten children—one of whom, my grandfather, became the mayor of the province’s capital, Puerto Princesa. My mom was one of his four children.
     Growing up in the U.S., I learned that the United States “won” the Philippines from Spain during the Spanish-American War. Since I’ve been in the Philippines, I have also learned that immediately following the Spanish-American War, there was also the Philippine-American War. History is a story that depends on who is telling it.
     During my trip to Palawan, I got to witness something that reminded me of what a wonderful and special woman my mom was. She was a child psychiatrist and loved working with children. Many of them were what the establishment would call “problem children”—some were born already addicted to drugs, some didn’t have any parents—but she never believed a child could be a problem. Whenever she came into contact with a child, her face would brighten into this wonderful smile.
     In Palawan my aunt showed me the video of my uncle’s 1997 funeral. At the time, I was unable to accompany my mom to the funeral. Unfortunately, that trip was the last time she got to visit the Philippines. At first, it was weird seeing her alive in the video; but there was one moment where my little cousin, who was only a baby at the time, began playing with Mom, and Mom looked down and smiled at her. Despite the somber mood of her brother’s funeral, that special twinkle in my mom’s eyes entertained and transfixed the baby’s attention, bringing back a flood of tears and memories for me. I remembered that smile so well and was so happy that my little cousin got to experience it.

Farewell party in May, with teachers from the elementary school, including Edna Morzan and Eunice Cabangon
April 1, 2002
I returned to Manila a short while ago from my research site in the northern Philippines. I spent most of the past three weeks talking to people (especially children) about hunger. The narratives and interviews really drained me emotionally and physically. Furthermore, I’m dealing with mixed emotions about leaving the Philippines and returning to the good ol’ U.S. of A. The people in my research site have been so kind. They’ve opened their homes and their lives to me, and soon I’ll have to say good-bye to them. I feel awkward returning to the “luxuries” that I get to enjoy simply by being a U.S. citizen.

May 19, 2002
Only a few days to go before I return home! Ingat kayo! (Take care!) Tomorrow, I give my Fulbright end-of-grant presentation, “Children of Resettlement: Place, Identity, and Hunger in the Rural Philippines” at the Philippine-American Educational Foundation (Fulbright Commission in the Philippines).

June 18, 2002
I’m catching up on a lot of things since I returned to the U.S. It’s good to be back home [on Long Island, N.Y.,] with my dad, family, and friends. So many things have changed in the past year. I visited Ground Zero a few days ago and was just amazed at its size and scope. I’m impressed by the frequent displays of patriotism, like American flags and bumper stickers that say “God Bless America” or “United We Stand.”

July 24, 2002
Mom died from cancer three and a half years ago. She was not only my mom but also my best friend. Losing her was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. Over this past year, I gained an appreciation of how my mom’s country, her family, and her culture helped mold her into the woman I knew. Whether it was playing games with the poor children at my research site or shaking hands with Gloria Macapagal-Aroyo, the president of the Philippines, I was given the wonderful opportunity to relive Mom’s life. I saw her in their smiles, I heard her in their laughter, and I met her in their hearts.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College