Remembering Fr Charles Tchou

taken during Batch 82 25th anniversary reunion in 2007

Fr Tchou was already weakened by the ravages of illness and time here, but still cut an imposing figure.

Dear batchmates, schoolmates and friends :

It’s been roughly 21 months since he left us.  I can’t say my memories of him are crystal clear because he was out of mind, out of sight for a long time until we saw him in reunion pictures and the batch was thoughtful enough to invite him, along with several of our beloved teachers and advisors.
Use all the idioms you want, a shadow of his former self, an old warrior, and all that.  He still stared right through me from the screen, as if he could see me.  I still felt like half of the contents of my thoracic cavity descended into my lower body, if he so much as stared cross-eyed at me.  To be brutally honest, a weird mixture of compassion, buti-nga-sa-yo and closure curdled in me, beholding this amazingly simple man that evoked so many complicated emotions in others.
In truth, he stood much taller than any of the teachers that we were fortunate enough to pass through in life, no offense meant and in fairness, we had more than our fair share of good educators.  But because he represented authority, stability, and continuity for so long a time in our young lives, no one even comes close to what he was for many of us.
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Let me say at the outset (when else?) that I was not one of his biggest fans.  In a Solar System where the do-gooders, the grade-conscious and career-oriented competed to be near the Sun or at least tried to stay within sight of the Asteriod Belt, I usually wallowed in the underachieving fringes somewhere in vicinity of the moons of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (which recently I’ve heard may itself be a moon of the closer planets) ; not that it mattered much.  But as conscientious Judenites, most of you know what I mean.
This is neither an attempt to make up for a lack of appreciation incurred long ago, nor a celebration of one’s admiration for the man.  Right now, the reason I can come up with is that I do this because later I may forget, and I cannot go back to un-forget.  Nature dictates that (unless I’m very lucky) I cannot remember again.
But I digress. Even in Kinder and pre-school days, I already had an idea of who he was.  1st and 2nd Brothers talked about him as if he was a combination of a hawk and ogre, combining the hunting prowess and fearsomeness of two notorious figures of the animal and mythical worlds.  Nothing escaped his perpetually alert senses, and every Judenite schoolboy (or girl) ignored this truth at his (or her) peril.
Later I was to perceive this truth myself.  As I said, although I walked the line and kept my nose clean, some things I could not avoid, like stay out of mischief 100% or remember to have a regular haircut and wear regulation pants and white socks every day of the schoolyear.  It was as if those days I was in violation of those strict rules, were the same days I was to fall within his crosshairs.
Nothing surprising really, considering how often I got careless and how diligent he was in patrolling our corridors.  Like the fool who never learns his lesson, I was to fall afoul of his good books time and again, until fairly or unfairly, I became a regular on his watchlist, a veritable charter member of his list of Undesirables To Be Watched Over Whenever and Wherever.
To be sure, it wasn’t personal.  Untold batches we succeeded and those who would follow us would have their recalcitrants and rebels, lesser and greater than us in notoriety and creativity, and along with my batchmates (you know who you are), we were probably just grist for the mill.
He would conduct his sporadic inspections of haircuts, memorable among other things for their erratic schedules and randomness, and together with the ocular inspections was the climactic scissor solution, where he would just create a scalp exposure prominent enough to be noticed, necessitating an urgent trip to the barber after school.
Very little escaped his attention.  School pins, neckties for the girls, cuts and colors of uniforms, socks and shoes were all within the scope of his radar, and he could spot you and your deviant wear (or worse, behavior) probably within a 10-meter radius.
And talking about behavior, it was because of the strict regime that he imposed, all on his own, that anti-social violations like smoking, bullying, kissing / necking, and hanging idly around corridors ogling at the opposite sex were simply unthinkable for us then.  The irritable things that our children (or grandchildren) treat as 2nd nature, were for us forbidden as heresy, because he chose to be there to discipline, to discourage, and to deter.
Again, talking about deterrence, that was one of his most effective tools.  When you think about it, he could not watch over around 3,000 students (roughly the school population then, I’m not sure if it grew or shrank later) effectively and consistently over an extended period of time.  But this did not lessen his reach and hold any, he continued to exercise effective control over our collective behavior for the majority of our stay in school.
As you may guess, he did this through deterrence, or just letting us imagine, through reputation or our imagination, what would befall us if we displeased him often enough, or broke his rules enough times.
So many urban legends were manufactured, circulated and peddled in his name and probably very little of them were actually true.  But you know the saying, a falsehood (or half-truth) repeated often enough becomes accepted as the truth?  It served him well : dungeons in his quarters, the “third degree”, punishments too unspeakable to mention, and several other juicy tidbits that even the teachers learned to use to keep the restive natives under their thumb.  Couldn’t blame them, considering the barrel of monkeys that we threatened to be, almost every day of the week, unless it was Saturday of course, when we became even MORE restive.
It seemed like our parents did nothing to discourage these stories, probably because they held us in check, prevented us from being too naughty, and on the whole allowed teachers to concentrate on doing their job, which was educating us and preparing us for the world outside.
Perception or not, deterrent or not, Fr Tchou did his job in SJCS, and did it well.  His title was Student Counselor, or probably something closer to Prefect for Student Discipline, or Headmaster, whatever.  Actually he served as our third parent, strict but concerned uncle, or someone very close to that.  We’ll never forget him for being such, and our school could hardly have reached its level of achievement without him.
That much, we know.  It’s a truth that won’t need proving.
Thanks for reading !

Grass Stays Greener Ever

Dear batchmates, kabayan, officemates and friends :

IT WASN’T by choice, but neither was it completely by accident. We lived in a depressed or urban poor area, more popularly known back home as a squatter community, twice in our so-called life.

The first time, a few months in 1988 as head of a young family struggling to survive and foolishly avoiding the well-meaning I-told-you-sos and assistance of relatives, and second, in the early 1990s as part of a two-day immersion activity in fulfillment of a university course.

We don’t deny these events as they are part of our consciousness, having actually happened, but neither do we wear it on the lapel of life experience as a badge of honor.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty. The reality of hot, angry and dirty surroundings, not to mention the foul stench of human urine and excreta too overpowering to romanticize, we lived with everyday. All the cliches’ you hear about urban poor are true. Alcoholics starting their daily reunions at 8 in the morning, couples in shouting matches (sometimes unfortunately degenerating into stabbing matches) within meters of your own shanty, gangs fighting over territory and the spoils of crime, and unlucky stray dogs being roasted over a spit, we beheld all these visual delights not unlike a morbidly watchable train wreck wrapped around a human tableau.

Since then, life has improved somewhat, but we have hardly forgotten those rough times. In fact, the last few years we have been blessed as a guest worker in New Zealand, albeit under a tenuous tenure at the mercy of the prevailing political winds.

We draw from this experience when asked why in the face of all difficulty and uncertainty (we don’t know how much longer working , much less applying someday for permanent residence remains a viable option), we choose to strike it out in a strange new land.

Please don’t misunderstand, all things being equal ( or in a perfect world ) we would rather live the rest of our life and grow old in the Philippines, the only country we have known as home. However-ever, most of us know in our gut, but are too prideful, naive or ignorant to admit it : P-Noy, Kiko and Chiz notwithstanding, it will take more than a generation of inspired professionals, entrepreneurs and OFWs for our compatriots to reach the promised land.

In the meantime, you pocket your 30 pieces of silver wherever you find it, never mind the perpetually disjointed feeling of being uprooted, statelessness, status limbo and all other strangely familiar elements of always being on the way, yet never being able to get home and sift local gravel through one’s fingers, and savor the smog of one’s own sky.

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OFWs and migrant workers’ efforts can only alleviate our misery, not unlike angels carrying pails of water to the parched mouths of scalding souls in purgatory. This much, we know.

Likewise against the barometer of the reality of poverty we try to assess just how hard life is (tongue in cheek) in the land of our hosts. The legislated minimum of NZ$12 / hour, many here lament, can hardly feed or support the standard of life to which most New Zealanders are accustomed.

But in peso terms this hourly wage, projected to a day’s labor, can support as much as three families’ basic needs (food, clothing and shelter for a family of two parents and three children). It’s hard to be outraged about our lot in life, given this backdrop. In a similar vein, locals like to ask why Asians, particularly Chinese and Filipinos, like to wrap the remnants of restaurant meals for consumption later, when such remains are usually treated as table scraps not even given to pets.

In response, we are reminded of a TV documentary aired back home about how whole communities of urban poor would wait for rubbish trucks to unload their nightly deliveries, from which would be sourced their much-needed sustenance. The contents, usually leftovers from fast food outlets (like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC) might contain the most rancid smelling bags of from a multitude of diners but as long as it fills bellies, nobody complains. Unthinkable for most in the 3rd World, but a fact of life for many back home.

Unsurprisingly, many of our countrymen share our quixotic dreams regarding finding our fortune at the end of the First World rainbow. After so many tries, many job-seekers have long since given up the ghost, and only the passport and visa provide redemption for years of deprivation. The paradigm of a better life abroad is too eloquently simple, the formula too efficient for our microeconomic dilemma. Not all the legal obstructions, time and distance standing in the way of our financial goals, and finally the reality that even First World edens must look after their own, first, are enough to stop us from achieving our dreams.

Tough to admit, but the grass is always greener on the other side of the electrified, video monitored and 24/7 patrolled fence.

On the other side of the devalued coin, fellow Pinoys know only too well that no matter how fat the noche buena (Christmas dinner) or well-fed the passbook, we are only a few fat years removed from the most destitute and deprived of our brethren. Sure, we can buy ourselves a little more than the most basic necessities for our kids and our loved ones, and come holiday season, there’s always the balikbayan box full of chocolates, canned goods and Danish biscuits that oddly enough can easily be purchased at any Duty Free outlet back home. But take away our hard-earned foreign exchange and the all-important J-O-B that provides for debts and dreams for all our families, and what do you have? A future as bleak as it is opaque.

Whenever we conceive the slightest thought of giving up and going home, we merely look back on our poorer-than-poor days and realize that when you have seen rock bottom, hope never dies.

Thanks for reading !

NOel B

A Staggering Sense of (dis) Proportion

Dear batchmates, kabayan and friends :

YOU can say anything you want about our hosts, but one thing they’re not : they don’t suffer from a lack of a sense of irony, or a cosmic sense of fairness or justice.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

The world news section was right in front of one of our astute workmates, during morning tea. On page 1 was a woman facing punishment for the supreme criminal act in the Islamic universe : adultery and cohabiting with a man not her spouse. Her supreme crime merited the supreme penalty : Death by stoning, by now an occasionally used but obviously still popular mode among the clerico-judicial establishment in Iran.

Before we go much further on the topic, on page 3 right behind the page just mentioned, was no less than Li-Lo, the darling of the you’re guilty only if you’re caught justice system, shedding copious tears, with rainbow-shade nails (and a cute F.U. greeting  for the judge, on the middle fingernail, for good measure) and hanging on to the dejected countenance of her legal counsel, such a dramatic tableau not escaping our workmate’s notice.

Lookie here, mates. The lady here on the back page is boo-hooing cuz she’s spending ninety days in the slammer, while the lady on the front’s getting stoned to death. No sense of proportion, hey?

Indeed, the two females were on such polar ends of the criminal justice spectrum that there might have been a baby galaxy filling in the chasm betwixt and between, and there would’ve been space left over for dimensions equivalent to the Philippine Trench plus Mt. Everest, lengthwise and crosswise even.

On the one hand you have a woman who with her predicament championed the cause of women in an alternate reality where the archaic and medieval are commonplace, and where women are treated as chattel or property as tradeable and disposable, not unlike poultry and cattle.

On the other side you have an unapologetic product of Hollywood,

Li-Lo right after sentencing

YouTube and the interminable news cycle that perpetually devours (and spits out) the anorexic, alcoholic and addict, to both chemical candy and the edifying glare of the camera.

It goes without saying that while Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s situation is probably the intersection of a culture unwilling to keep up with the 21st century (or even the 20th) and the forward march of gender-neutral laws and statutes, Li-Lo’s present pickle is nothing more than a celebrity-coddling, brat-humoring and prodigy-enabling showbiz regime, so that, ironically, we can’t even fault her alone for her behavior.

To be sure, her cluelessness on how to handle her issues and infatuation with pills and bubbly ; her deportment before those who have the power of her liberty and happiness ; and her piteously misguided view of public sympathy regarding her plight is worrying.

But, compared to the mysterious attention that world media has been heaping on her, and the befuddling relevance that has been assigned to her legal / criminal problems, who can tell what is and isn’t important for the watchers, listeners and surfers worldwide?

Perusing the other side of the fence :

Ms Ashtiani’s appointment with the stonethrowers is abominable on at least two points : first, that a hypocritical system of religion and laws could apprehend, prosecute, condemn behavior that, almost anywhere else in the world, would be deemed quite normal and ordinary, if not actually human and natural.

Second, that a punishment as barbaric, cruel and inhuman as stoning to death could still exist, and moreover be supported in such a state (with vast oil reserves and nuclear warheads, a non sequitur, sorry)and tolerated by the family of nations outside its borders.

It’s almost a footnote, but it’s never truer in a scenario like this, an almost surreal sword of Damocles hanging over an innocent woman by a wild-eyed religious court that time forgot ( if not for the phenomenon of state-sponsored fundamentalist fanaticism ), that more needless deaths are brought about in this world by religion and the self-righteous belief in one’s concept of God than anything else.

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But if media can degrade and trivialize our expectations of acceptable celebrity behavior and the mischief they perform, as Li-Lo proves, it can also crystallize and pool our sense of outrage, as in Ms Ashtiani’s case.

No less despicable, but oddly humane has been the most recent act on the case jointly made by the Iranian Supreme leader and the head of its judiciary, bowing to international opinion and deciding that Ms Ashtiani will no longer be executed by stoning.

Small comfort to the accused, and hundreds of other unfairly condemned women (and men) in many parts of the unenlightened world.

Thanks for reading !


The Gift of Migration

 Dear kabatch, schoolmates, kabayan and friends :

IF it’s true that travel broadens our horizons, then it must likewise follow that migration, in whatever shape or form, broadens our perspective.

From the Bible’s Israelites brought into Egypt and later Babylon, to the global diaspora of Africans, Chinese and Eastern Europeans brought about by the slave trade, economic forces and war, migration has been so wedded to human history that it’s unthinkable to write the story of man without it.

Through force of circumstance, whether it be economics, wanderlust, advancement in career, or just a lucky throw of the dice that Life swings us, we find ourselves on strange shores beholding equally strange people and even stranger cultures.

And since human nature resists change, we hold off assimilating the quirks and peculiarities of our hosts, lest we forget our own. Not even the prospect of one day adopting their homeland as our own can make us abandon the blueprint that molded us from birth and childhood.

A flatmate of ours has been working, like us, as an expatriate alone in a staff of locals. He has adapted deftly and is well-liked by most. On weekends though, he prizes the company of countrymen, hardly goes anywhere unless he sees the familiar sight ,sound and smell of pigment, dialect and boiled rice. Karaoke week in and week out, the singing never goes stale, as long as the lyrics are from back home.

The spirit to socialize with hosts and co-workers is there, to be sure. But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and for him, there are too many awkward moments and silent gaps when he tries to make small talk and find common ground with his workmates and colleagues.

Again as part of human nature, the need to socialize with and reaffirm one’s community and identity with one’s compatriots is basic, and migrants are no different from everyone else. To reinforce the familiar, and celebrate what makes us a hardworking race — these are part and parcel of the assertion of identity.

The obvious question is : can these not co-exist with assimilation with and absorption of the elements of a hospitable host culture, especially one that nurtures, accepts, tolerates and acknowledges the role of the migrant and his culture?

Recently we were asked why it was that despite recession and stricter immigration policy, waves of nurses from the Philippines continued arriving, complemented by a healthy army of caregivers. The courteous answer would’ve been that good nursing schools and an orientation toward the value of the nursing profession were the main factors. But the reality went a little beyond that.

Worldwide, Filipinos are known to combine expert patient care, an attentive nature and warm bedside manner, all very desirable qualities in nursing technique. Of course this evidence is quite anecdotal and needs lot of stats to be proven conclusively.

Our own experience as a guest worker in an alien land is far from ideal. Granted a temporary work permit three summers ago, we gambled with the fickleness of both migrant and work policy of an overachieving 1st World economy, hoping that while we toiled in its factories, mills and workshops, we would someday be rewarded with permanent residency.

So far we haven’t had much luck : we’ve had to apply for new papers every year, as if we were off the boat and wet behind the ears. But when you’ve got a foot in the door and there aren’t too many options back home, you stay ready, good to go and your pump is primed…

Migration is a gift to many people and some are able to work it out to higher or lower degrees of fruition. It’s up to our energies and inspiration to reach our promised land.

Thanks for reading !


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