Carrying itself over car horns and rowdy high schoolers was a voice singing an old Pilipino love song in the middle of 5th Ave. I slowed down my hurried steps to meet an elderly Pilipina woman with pink drawn on eyebrows, sitting on the side walk and holding a sign that said, “Homeless, anything helps. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
The song ended abruptly and I heard her call out, “Ai!! Pilipina!”
I’d been caught staring.
I smiled and walked over, eager to hear my kababayan’s story.
I learned that Pilipina, in her early sixties, was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a decade ago, with no family in the States except for a friend who took care of her through the duration of her illness. The cancer not only forced her to stay in America - isolating her from her family in the Philippines - but it also depleted her bank accounts entirely.
Now homeless, she waits on the street corners with a coin cup and rosary in hand, hoping to collect enough money for international calling cards and motel stay fees. She refuses to stay at homeless shelters where she had previously been robbed while she slept.
She told me this all very casually. Despite what happened to her, she insisted that God’s blessings outweighed whatever setback she had and all she needed was the friendship she kept for over 30 years. There was no doubt in her strength or her realness. And after we exchanged names and parted ways, I heard her sing my favorite Kundiman.
I felt blessed to have met this woman who dropped tea, truth and perspective on my busy mind.
We are animals of context – if we have no one to compare one context to another, we have no idea who we are. I didn’t realize the gravity of keeping out of one singular context (be it singular in setting, type of people, location, etc) until I met this woman and was confronted with the stark contrast between Pilipino and American perspectives.
It’s not uncommon to meet a Pilipino with such humble positivity. Whenever I go to the Philippines, I’m both touched and envious when I see my family and their friends together. The feeling and atmosphere is distinctive and their approach to life’s daily troubles is one that I wish that my fellow Americans and I could adapt. More often than not, I see my peers react with nervous breakdowns, endless sub-tweets, burned bridges and bad decision after bad decision.
For now, I’m not going to look at their specific difficulties and just look at the way my family in the Philippines handles everything. For one thing, they are constantly aware that an excellent life is happening whether they are present for it or not – and every time they choose to be involved in it, to actively participate in an excellent life. If they feel like singing, they call everyone in the neighborhood to come over and sing with them over San Miguels and Marlboros. If they want to learn how to dance, again, they call every single person they know to come over and watch Mariel Martin's YouTube channel for hours until they get her "Heartbeat" choreo down pat.
And part of this decision to participate is being fully aware of what their problems are. They don’t try to intellectualize or find an existential meaning behind daily stresses. They all have a “I know what I know and that’s all there is to know” attitude, a branch of the controversial “Bahala Na” mentality - and it seems to be working for my family.
Truth of the matter is, we’re surrounded by people going through the same problems we are. The difference between Americans and Pilipinos, though, is that Pilipinos (at least the ones that I've met - I know this can't be said for everyone) are open about it—a family is getting through these troubles as oppose to an isolated individual. Friends are turned into family, and aren’t used as distractions from problems but instead they help get through them.
So with that, I implore you all to take a lesson from our kababayan and stop worrying about what’s polite. Stop keeping your ambitions, talents and troubles to yourself. Stop treating your friends and family as excuses for your unhappiness, unproductiveness, and inability to attain your goals. Stop wasting your time creating distances that aren’t there. Because an excellent life is happening, and a family is there waiting for you.
Photo credit: Josh Cole