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By Felix Fojas

(Originally appeared in Not Home, But Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora, edited

  by Luisa Igloria, Anvil Publishing Inc., Manila, 2003)

 

The first time I experienced the so-called Filipino diaspora and joined the exodus of my countrymen abroad in hot pursuit of that greenback goddess, the almighty American dollar, was in 1980. I was then Assistant Vice President and Creative Director of Atlas Promotions & Marketing Corporation, one of the top five advertising agencies in the Philippines that handled such plum accounts as PBM Steel, Baguio Cooking Oil and Tang Orange Juice, the latter a product of GenFoods, a giant multinational American consumer company.

It all happened unexpectedly. Call it fate, synchronicity, or serendipity. There I was occupying a high-paying executive post with no intention or inkling whatsoever that I would soon be working and relocating my whole family abroad. My ex-wife Lala had just graduated with honors from the Asian Institute of Management, the first woman to do so with the accolade of “Distinction,” in the premiere marketing academic institution in Asia, which was then and probably still is a man’s world, so to speak. At that time she was happily employed as hotshot product manager in the Beer Division of San Miguel Corporation.

Out of the blue one afternoon, I got a telephone call from Manuel “Manny” Reyes, a brod of mine from the Alpha Phi Beta Fraternity in the University of the Philippines and who was then connected with the local branch of an American multinational pharmaceutical company. Manny is my batch mate, batch ’66 to be exact, in the fraternity, meaning we were initiated together, and had to literally pass through a needle’s eye in the form of an Indian gauntlet—a row of about seventy to eighty fraternity lords or masters armed with clubs, iron pipes, chains and other crude weapons of torture—a rite of passage which separates the men from the boys, the final bloody climax to those long months of physical and psychological initiation. In fact Manny lost consciousness and almost died as an aftermath of the affair, which could have changed, had really Manny expired, the whole course of my destiny and deprived me of my baptism of fire as an expatriate executive.

“How is Public Enemy Number One, my dear brod from Cavite?” Manny said jokingly on the phone, alluding to my reputation as a troublemaker and “rumble starter” during our rowdy college days in U.P., and referring to me as a pale shade of the notorious Leonardo Manecio, alias Nardong Putik, the Robinhood-like bandit chieftain and overlord of crime in my province of Cavite, who had earned himself the vaunted reputation as Public Enemy Number One in the entire Philippines from the early 1950s to that fateful day in October of 1973 when Nardong Putik was turned into a human sieve by a hail of machinegun fire from an ambush set up by the Philippine Constabulary forces in Bacoor, Cavite.  To make a long story short, Brod Manny Reyes asked me if I were interested in working abroad as an advertising cum product manager of a large American pharmaceutical company. “Since Indonesia is considered a hardship post, the perks, among others, include a hefty salary in U.S. dollars, one-month all-expenses-paid annual vacation for your entire family, a company-paid education for your children at the American International School in Jakarta, a house of your choice in the plushiest residential district in Jakarta, a comprehensive medical, dental and accident insurance for your whole brood, a chauffeur-driven company executive car, two company-provided housemaids and a gardener,” Manny said to entice me to apply for the position. “Well, are you interested, Felix?” “Frankly, I have to consult my wife on the matter,” I confessed. “I may have

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been a fraternity front-liner during our many fraternity rumbles and brawls but I have now evolved into a full-fledged under-the-saya husband,” I added with humor. “Okay by me,” Manny answered. “But if your decision is affirmative, call me within the week and give me a copy of your resume so I can forward it to our head office in New York. Good luck, brod.” “Thanks for the tip, Manny. I really appreciate it. I’ll talk to my better half, ASAP!”

At first my wife and I were a bit apprehensive to try our luck abroad. Both of us were occupying high-paying executive jobs. Then there was the hustle of relocating and uprooting the entire family from its familiar surroundings to an entirely unknown territory, a terra incognita. And to further compound the problem we had just bought a brand-new house. Finally, after weighing all the pros and cons, my wife and I decided to go for the exotic odyssey, the adventure abroad, and that I should apply for the post at once, hardship or not. Later I found out that there were over two hundred applicants from the Philippines for the same position, which was advertised in a leading daily in Manila. It was through sheer luck that I became the chosen one, the anointed son of my soon-to-be stepfather of a multinational corporation. Perhaps the greatest hurdle we had to surmount was the looming reality that my wife had to accept her new role as a housewife from that of a promising young executive. So it was Jakarta or bust. Anyway, we reasoned at that time that if we don’t find our new lives fulfilling enough, I have the option to quit in two years time and we can easily fly back home and work in Manila.

And so we went through the minor trauma of packing our things and closing down the new house in Pilar Village, in Alabang, Muntinlupa City. Of course our major trauma consisted of leaving our beloved relatives and close friends behind, and of saying goodbye to my multi-millionaire boss in the Philippines, Mr. Edward Tan–now one of the main owners of Channel 5 TV Station in the Philippines–who was like a big brother to me, as well as my colleagues in Atlas Promotions. Unfortunately we did not find anybody that was interested in renting our house, given the short notice. But the compensating factor, which the whole family relished, was the privilege of staying, again at company expense, at the Manila Mandarin Hotel for a month and a half prior to our relocation in Indonesia as part of my employment package.

We had a culture shock the moment we arrived in Jakarta. The company billeted us in a hotel condominium in the heart of the city for three months, up until we found our dream home–a brand-new two story, five bedroom house in the plush Simpruk Dua area, fronting the house of four-star army general Susanto, a close associate of former Indonesian President Suharto. At that time very few people spoke English in that part of the world and we managed to survive by communicating in a comical and ridiculous combination of grunts, sign language and pantomime. We really found it exasperating to spend an eternity communicating to the maid before she understood the simple request that we need our clothes pressed, or to the driver before he deciphered the message that he has to go to the grocery urgently because we just run out of something as ordinary and innocuous as shoe polish. It was not just a plain and simple case of communication gap but an awesome language barrier that could be measured in light-years, which my wife and I referred to with sardonic humor as a “community gap”. But soon enough the awesome linguistic void, the black hole in space, would be reduced to a mere pinhole. For within three months my wife and children were speaking Bahasa

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Indonesia like genuine natives. Being a slow learner, it took me about six months to speak the language fairly proficiently, in spite of the fact that my company hired a professional tutor to teach me the aforementioned tongue. Perhaps what retarded my linguistic competence in that exotic Malay language was that most people in our office, being a multinational company, spoke passable English. To my surprise, too, given a few months, I noticed that all my three children spoke with a distinctly American nasal twang or accent, courtesy of their American teachers at the Jakarta International School.

Barely three days after landing in Jakarta, it was crisis time for me. On that fine sunny morning, as I was about to board my car in the condominium parking lot, I noticed that its front bumper and hood lay crumpled like an oversized accordion as if my car had just been deliberately stomped on and crunched by no less than King Kong himself. I immediately blew my top and cursed at my country-bumpkin of a driver Bakri for ruining my brand-new executive car. He tried to calm me down and reason out in an extraterrestrial tongue I could not understand. I called up my staff assistant in the office who quickly came to my rescue, acted as interpreter, and quickly informed me that according to my driver Bakri, it was not he but my houseboy Jagad who was the real culprit behind the vehicular nightmare. Jagad had apparently admitted to Bakri of driving my car without authorization the night before, and inadvertently crashed it into a lamppost that had suddenly ambled in front of the offending company car. As a dire result, I had to ride a taxi for the next two weeks while my car was busy recuperating in the intensive-care section of our company repair shop.

As the saying goes, bad luck comes in a series. Crisis number two blew up in my face like a fragmentation grenade a month after my car got wrecked by my impertinent houseboy who had no business driving my car in the first place and sans license at that. One evening after returning to our condominium in a taxi, I was greeted by the foreboding sight of the shattered front glass door. Entering the lobby, I saw blobs of blood, akin to monstrous Rorshack ink blots, staining the thick tan-colored carpet while glass fragments lay scattered all over the place. Jiminy Cricket! Jumping Jellyfish! I was shocked to see my driver Bakri, bleeding all over, dazed and speechless. I immediately concluded that poor Bakri must have fallen victim to somebody who had just been infected by a common Malay malaise or distemper called amok and had turned rabid, frothing at the mouth and slashing at helpless victims in the lobby with his terrible keris, a dreaded native sword–wavy, razor-sharp and double-bladed. I asked the woman at the front desk what happened. She told me in her halting English that minutes earlier my poor driver accidentally walked right through the tightly shut clear-glass door, thinking it was open, and shattered the glass panels and cut himself in different parts of the body.

With presence of mind I grabbed Bakri by the waist, carried him singlehanded, and helped him get into the car. I drove to the nearest hospital whose location I had not the slightest idea since I was a newcomer in town. To compound the problem, there was the risk of meeting an accident since I was still unfamiliar with the God-forsaken right-hand-drive car and the hieroglyph-like traffic instructions which were all written in Bahasa Indonesia. By some streak of good luck or an outright miracle I was able to spot what looked like a decent hospital after driving straight ahead for about ten miles and rushed Bakri to the emergency room. I spoke to the resident doctor in English and recounted what had happened to my driver.

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“I am afraid the medical treatment would cost a lot,” the young doctor, who looked more Chinese than Indonesian and sported a crew cut, said in a grave tone.

“How come?” I protested. “All he needs is a dozen stitches and some blood transfusion.”

“But it seems that you don’t get the point, sir,” the boyish-looking doctor replied.

“What exactly do you mean?” I asked, a bit irked.

“Well, your driver needs more than just getting the usual stitches. Because of his serious condition, he needs an immediately operation—a brain transplant to be specific.”

“A brain transplant?” I asked with astonishment. “Why?”

“Sir, based on your story, your driver obviously has a brand-new brain which has never been used. Better equip him with a more reliable second-hand brain before he smashes your car against a solid wall and you yourself might wind up in the emergency room.”

I finally got his point and broke into fits of laughter. He, too, guffawed. Both of us nearly died laughing. Bakri, who did not understand a word of what we were saying, stared at us contemptuously and probably concluded that we were a pair of cold-hearted fools  who enjoyed laughing at the miseries of others. For the first time Bakri used his brand-new, non depreciated brain and was one hundred percent right.

In spite of all the corporate perks I was heir to as an expatriate executive, I was unhappy working on the client side in Indonesia, instead of the usual ad agency. The multinational pharmaceutical company I toiled for turned out to be too regimented, boring and lacked the untrammeled creative atmosphere I had expected. This was compounded by the culture shock to which my family I had been constantly subjected. I soon discovered that man does not live by bread alone. I missed the company of my advertising colleagues and literary friends back home. Jakarta in those days was kind of laid-back place and lagged far behind other, more cosmopolitan Southeast Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore or even Manila itself. My sad state of affairs as an expatriate in Indonesia, shriveled my soul, turned it into mush, and jolted me like an electric cattle prod to pen sometime in 1982, the following two poems of alienation and despair while in living in a foreign land:

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JAKARTA BLUES 

The heart bristles with leaves of despair

As I, an expatriate in this land, dare

Prowl this deserted street, an asphalt

Serpent that slithers to the jagged edge

Of emptiness. The street stares at me with

It’s cold eyes of stone, while I walk slowly

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And follow the siren call of darkness.

I ask myself: “What am I doing here

That’s wearing a grey batik shirt

And greets me with a bladed grin. How I long

For the familiar alleys of Manila!

Yet just before the hissing street swallows

Me alive, I bump into Despair who asks:

“Do you know the way to Oblivion Row?”

I reply: “Sir, I, too, am a stranger here.”

 

THE EUNUCH DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN

 

The eunuch days are here again,

The season when the rose of impotence flowers

In that wasteland where nothing blooms

But the sun-bleached bones of animals and men.

And I can hear their vain falsetto voices,

These sly perverts as they joke and giggle

About the coming pestilence of silence

When every poet shaves his bullet head

And wears a sackcloth as an act of faith,

His forehead branded with the ash of death.

Yes, the eunuch days are here again:

The time when the springs of the soul run dry,

When the silver tongue is rusting in the air,

When the oracles are mute as tongueless stones,

When the heart is fasting in its secret cave.

Indeed, these are long, castrated days ahead

When not a single line of verse leaps from

That fount—the howling abyss of despair!

 

     But I have no regrets. My first Indonesian experience had its redeeming value, too. I was deeply exposed to a foreign culture, which enriched my insight into life. It gave me taste of a lavish expatriate lifestyle at first hand, learn a new language, travel to other exotic Asian countries like India, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. More importantly, I met and trained under an

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Indonesian Sufi spiritual guru by the name of Pak Warto who heightened my psychic and spiritual nature of which I vividly wrote about in my book The Supernatural and Beyond regarding my experiences as an exorcist, psychic healer and paranormal researcher.

 

         My travels to different countries during that period I encapsulated in these poems:

 

DRAGON LADY

 I come to you a perfect stranger

Garbed in my armor of shyness,

Yet you receive me with open arms

O Dragon Lady of the Seven Hills.

I do not know how many lovers have drowned

In the depths of your almond eyes,

O woman whose kisses of red-hot coals

Sear my lips with their intense heat.

I thirst for your serpentine nakedness

That coils around me with ecstasy.

Yet how can I shield our sweet encounter

From the onslaughts of oblivion?

For none would believe my flaming tale

In my jaded land where no dragons exist.

Alas, I see you now in my mind’s eye

Like a sampan which I’ve espied yesterday

Slowly fading in Hong Kong’s foggy bay.

 

ORANGE GROVE ROAD

 

The very air in this place

Is charged with disinfectant

And is certified germ-free

Because in this city

Of gleaming skyscrapers

Cleanliness is an obsession.

Even the brown leaves,

As soon as they fall on this road,

Are systematically swept away

By a legion of street-sweepers.

Here it is frustrating not to find

A single fugitive cigarette-butt

Hiding in the grass.

And how can a litterbug survive

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When the fine is fifty Singaporean

Dollars! Those two fat ladies

Jogging there are no exception

Who greet me with their pearly,

Antiseptic smiles.

Personally I think

Dirty cities have more character.

As a silent protest, I will

Not wash for a whole week.

Afterwards, I’m sure,

A policeman wearing a spotless

Blue uniform will politely

Arrest me

For not keeping the city clean.

 

SONG OF THE PEREGRINE

 

I have had my handful of

Voyages and odysseys,

For I am a wanderlust

Like Ulysses, his feet

Forever itching to leave

And sail away from that place,

Ithaca’s familiar port,

Dreaming of foreign shores.

I, King of Peregrines, am

Now here in America,

Treading the avenues

And freeways of nowhere

Though my heart’s fugitive shoes

Are battered and squeaking,

Though my soul’s durable soles

Have holes, have holes, have holes…

 

From 1994 to 1997 I undertook my second sojourn in Indonesia. I was hired as executive creative director by P.T. Rainbow Advertising, a local advertising agency. There I fell madly in love with Nur Salmah, nicknamed Anita, a beautiful Indonesian-born Arab, and we lived together for four years with heart-racking, passionate intensity. The rest is of our love story is a history of despair as evidenced in this poem which I wrote after our stormy parting:

         

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POST DEPARTURE SYNDROME

Now only your fragrance

Lingers in our blanket,

Bed sheet, and soft pillow.

Soon it shall fade like the scent

Of newly crushed wild flowers.

Every midnight I perform

The secret ritual of

Collecting the footprints

Of your smell to allay

My blue fever of despair,

Reminding me of our nights

And days of loving.

But even long after your soul’s

Perfume has winged back

To your homeland, it shall

Resurrect and rise

In my heart, a big-eared

Lumbering grey hulk

Whose memory of love is

Most acute and rententive.

 

Last October 2000, I embarked on a lecture tour of various universities in the United States, including the University of California at Davis, Sacramento State University and Sacramento City College. A month later, I resigned my position as media specialist in the Asset Privatization Trust, Office of the President, Republic of the Philippines. A born-again bachelor, I’ve decided to stay here in America permanently, together with my mother, brothers and sisters in Chico, California–a quiet, rustic university town. I must admit that I am now enjoying my new life in this awesome country where each day unfolds with breathtaking mystery and romance. I am slowly gearing up and getting active in the American literary scene.  I have joined a number of poetry circles and regularly read my poems at Moxie’s, Has Beans Café (as a featured poet), Barnes & Noble Booksellers and at Chico State University during the Eco Fair 2001 in celebration of Earth Day. A number of my poems have also been published in national anthologies and magazines. Since I arrived here eight months ago, I’ve also won a number of modest literary awards like the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2001 International Open Poetry Competition, The International Library of Poets, Owing Mills, Maryland; and an Award of Merit and Fourth Place Award, 2001 Iliad Awards Program, Sterling Heights, Missouri.

Of late I’ve been doing a lot of psychic healing, fortune telling, and meeting a lot of spiritually-minded, kindred spirits. At any rate, a friend of mine, a famous psychic in Manila, predicted two years ago that I would meet my true and last love in the land of the free. In the words of my psychic-friend, “Felix, you’ll met your soulmate in America soon. She is younger than you: blonde, blue-eyed, physically, intellectually and spiritually beautiful.” At that time I had no plan at all of

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becoming part of the Filipino diaspora here in America, although I must confess that I have my own share of psychic ability and made some accurate predictions of future events like the devastating 1991 earthquake in the Philippines, the Mt. Pinatubo eruption and the ignominious fall of President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the latter of which I announced as the guest psychic on Today With Kris, a popular television show hosted by Kris Aquino, the daughter of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino, in December 1999.

It is quite obvious that my American experience is slowly reshaping my poetic sensibility, which can be gleaned from the very first poem I wrote shortly after my arrival last October:

 

THE SKUNK

 

From the subterranean depths of the human

Heart it wills out and crawls into the dazzling

Light of day. With superb survival instincts

The furry black-and-white striped skunk of truth

Blatantly proclaims its territorial

Imperative, the brutal space of its being.

This dreaded thing hisses and growls or stomps

Its feet, a fair warning to all predators

To keep their proper distance lest it spray

Them with malodorous musk secreted

By twin glands at the base of its bushy tail.

Adept in chemical warfare, this strange

Creature detonates its pungent stink bomb that

Lingers in the air for miles around, spilling

The guts of secrets on the busy roads,

Assailing the upturned nose of public

Conscience, tenaciously clinging to the clothes

And skin of memory, and staining the bleached

Foreheads of those that are marked for life

With the scarlet letter of scandal and shame.

 

Following the footsteps of the Filipino poet and National Artist Jose Garcia Villa, I can now say with full conviction and feeling: Have come, am here…

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