Thursday, August 11, 2005

[Essay] A Man for All Seasons

When I was in high school, I was no stranger to outreach programs. At least in name. A number of my more popular batchmates were busy tutoring public school children during their spare time, while all I did was hang out at their org room, listening to their tales of this and that experience. To be honest, I didn’t find teaching kids appealing at the time. I was happy for my batchmates though, and one of the things I envied was their camaraderie. And so it was from them that I encountered the organization called ERDA (Educational Research and Development Assistance), which was responsible for one of the more popular outreach programs in our school.

Little did I know that six years later, I would meet the man responsible for such a prolific and altruistic venture, Fr. Pierre Trizt S.J.. Born at the borders of France and Germany, Fr. Tritz would eventually became a citizen of the Philippines in 1972 after switching allegiances between France and Germany several times. He originally enrolled in a school that gave its students a choice of which order to graduate from, and he chose the Jesuits, mainly because he wanted to go to China. He was inspired to do so after reading a book that dealt with the life of Matteo Ricci, one of the four original Jesuits who managed to penetrate China and befriended the emperor.

Life in China was everything Fr. Tritz imagined and more. In the span of a few months, he learned the language and began what would be his calling in life. He could not yet write in Chinese, but could read and understand the spoken word. Armed with those tools, he began teaching, and would set the pattern for his life. His vocation though was halted with the attack of the Japanese. It was a two-year head start before World War 2 began in Europe, and so the Japanese did not harm the Jesuits for they did not want to antagonize the French at this time. Fr. Pierre relocated to the Philippines, hoping to return to China one day.

When the war was over, China had changed and adopted a communist policy. Fr. Tritz remained in the Philippines, and eventually gained his citizenship during the Marcos era. During his stay here, he continued what he did in China: that is to teach and teach and teach. He was teaching at three universities, but as the years passed by, he had to give up one of them, especially in light of his health.

It was a book that originally inspired Fr. Tritz to pursue the life of a Jesuit in China. It would be another book that would inspire him to set up the foundation that is now known as ERDA. Receiving a copy of a digest given to guidance counselors, Fr. Tritz was shocked to find out that millions of children were uneducated and living in poverty. The advantage of the rich, he cited, was that they had kindergarten. The poor enters school at grade one, knowing nothing. Worse, few actually pay tuition or could afford to. All they have is whatever the government offers them.

Fr. Tritz was supported by the government and given permission to set up a 5-year high school. This high school taught a variety of skills, and one of the more important programs it had was on-the-job training. Once the students graduated, they had the skills necessary to find employment. And so began ERDA, which would later transform into a huge enterprise it is now, drawing aid from various people and volunteers.

When I was sitting in Fr. Tritz’s office, he had a photo of one of the students who were benefiting from ERDA. The student also gave a hand-written letter to Fr. Tritz, which he showed to me. Near his office were several stacks of boxes, each containing school supplies to be delivered to various parts of the nation. It would seem ERDA is successful in its goals, but Fr. Tritz remembers his roots. He tells me of various benefactors, such as Mr. Yuchengco, a wealthy but amiable man who supports and funds ERDA.

I leave the ERDA building, happy on one hand because of all Fr. Tritz has managed to accomplish, but disappointed as well considering how many Filipinos are still stricken by poverty and a lack of good education. As I rub off the shit I stepped outside ERDA’s gates, the one thing I am certain is Fr. Tritz’s sincerity. I mean a Jesuit could have been living in a more comfortable abode, yet the building in which ERDA resides is at the heart of the people they are trying to help. In front of me was a street littered with manure, dirt, and various street folk. The building itself, while sturdy, was unassuming, and could easily be mistaken for an abandoned warehouse.

Others might see outreach programs as a diversion, or perhaps a duty one needs to perform once in awhile, akin to attending Sunday mass. But here was Fr. Tritz, in his ninth decade, continuing an endeavor that might never be finished in his lifetime. For the man who’s survived the World War, migrated to a country half a continent away, and set up an altruistic foundation, he’s still working at it. I think I’ve caught a glimpse of what it is to espouse the Jesuit belief of magis, to strive for excellence, to strive for more.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

[Essay] Friendships

Vin and I were talking about friendships the other day and I was narrating how I often felt like a third wheel in most of the social circles I was in. For those who don’t know me, I don’t have a best friend, nor do I belong to a clique (or “barkada” as we call it in Filipino). Rather, I’m the guy who knows a lot of people (friendly acquaintances if you will), and perhaps the tragedy is that it stops there.

Not that it always began that way. I mean early on in grade school, I was a popular kid. I got high grades, I regularly had parties at home, and had a few sleepovers at my place with friends. But a part of me changed when I realized that I wasn’t being a good friend to those I was with. I mean when we were playing video games, for example, I always wanted to be one of the players and didn’t want to pass it on to other people. There was also the fact that yes, I was popular in school, but I was also teasing a lot of my other classmates. And I had a best friend at the time. Unfortunately, he was also a bully (more of the physical kind, not that he ever really hurt me physically), and shared my propensity for self-centeredness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t know what happened. The day I stopped teasing other people and started caring, the world around me changed. From predator I became prey. I faced the insults, the bullying, and the social isolation that kids were capable of. I survived, and found solace in the few friends that stuck with me.

And then I graduated from grade school, and three-fourths of the class weren’t my classmates anymore. Those that did remain my classmates were well, let’s just say that they weren’t exactly my top ten choices. High school was filled with new discoveries, new challenges. Unfortunately, few people wanted to be my friend.

Vin was mentioning that in maintaining and making friendships, one has to take a proactive stance. You shouldn’t just depend on the other person to keep in touch with you. In high school, I was very active to the point of annoyance. I talked to a lot of people and tried to be their friend. Unfortunately, no one in class truly wanted me. They had formed their own social circles, their own cliques. At best, I was at the fringes, tolerated but not invited. There’s always group activities in school. You know that feeling when classmates immediately know who to team up with? I was one of the rejects, the clumsy kid you usually picked last during a sports contest. And so I drifted into various groups, never truly belonging to any one team. I tried insinuating myself into their cliques, but I was merely rebuffed. I tried opening myself up to them but they didn’t care.

And so for four years I attempted that. But by my last year, I knew it was a futile effort. In a soap opera, I was the guy who courted the girl, but the girl was in love with someone else and would say that we could still be friends (and he’d help the girl nonetheless despite knowing the fact that they could never be together). I was accepted up to a certain point, but never brought in. I was the person you could rely on if you needed something, but not the person you invited to your birthdays, to your celebrations. And true enough, this would be the pattern in the various organizations I would be part of in the future. Of course I was foolish back then, and perhaps my weakness was that I was too eager to befriend people to the point that I was “clingy”. Which as you know, turns off some people, and makes them less trusting of you. So if I lacked good friends back then, it wasn’t due to the lack of effort but perhaps too much of it. And people who would call me friend always kept me at a distance.

Graduating once again, I had a paradigm shift. But the results were still the same. I was a bit more amiable, a bit more friendly, and perhaps a bit more cunning. Unlike in the past where I was mister unpopular, now I was the guy who knew everyone. Yet the same problem persisted. I was kept at a distance, never truly having close friends. Lots of friends, yes. Close friends, no. So many of my weekends were lonely, and school actually gave a comforting aura because I was around people. Honestly, when you’re in college, making friends is easy. They’re all around you. And because you’re all facing common adversity (i.e. terror teachers, difficult schoolwork, merely belonging to the same class), there’s something you can talk about and one doesn’t need to be shy about approaching other people. Compare that to the real word, where you don’t talk to the stranger sitting beside you in the jeep, or the person you come across at the supermarket. The only place where you’re perhaps forced into forming friendships is the work place. Aside from that, you revert to your old habits, and party with the same set of friends you previously had.

Of course nowadays, I can’t say I’m brimming with effort to deepen friendships. When somebody asks me how was my day, I reply with a generic answer of “okay lang” (just fine), mainly because explaining the trials and tribulations would take too long, and I feel I shouldn’t burden other people with all my worries and complaints (that’s what reading my blog is for). Or at least if they’re sincere about it. How do I know if the other person is just finding an excuse to make casual conversation, or if they’re really interested in my day. The other reason why I reply with such a generic answer is because of confidentiality issues. Suffice to say, there are some stories I can’t tell other people because they’re not my right to do so (case in point: as a call center agent, you can’t really talk about your clients because that’s a breach in protocol; the best rant I can do is talk in vague motions, but nothing really specific).

Not that I’ve stopped being friendly to people. In fact, I’ve made a few new friends over the past year. But the fact is that I’m usually at the periphery, and no one wants to take the risk of deepening the friendship. On my part, I don’t want to take on the role of the uninvited guest, because I’ve played that part too often in the past, and all you get are disgruntled people. And perhaps the other factor that’s impeding me is the fact that I’ve developed a reputation. Sure, some people like me. But a number of people hate my guts, or hate my habits, or have reasons to dislike me (whether justified or unjustified). Just look at my friend’s list in livejournal. A number of people there hate me. But I add them to my friend’s list anyway, because to tell the truth, I don’t usually break the relationship. It’s usually other people who do so. Offhand, I can only remember one incident where I was the one responsible for breaking off with the other person. As for the rest, it’s usually the other side that gets mad at me, gets angry, or simply stops being my friend because their friends got mad at me.

Moral of the story? Well, it takes two to tango when it comes to forming deep relationships. I mean I could be the most amiable person in the world, but if the other person is unwilling to accept me, then there’s no friendship. Vin says you can win them over with persistence. Well, that’s true. But the opposite can also happen: they’ll get so annoyed with you that from mutual acquaintance you’ll turn into a pariah. And of course, even if you’re already friends with someone, unless you take the time to keep in touch, that relationship will eventually drift. People change, after all, and it’s the gradual changes that we can live with. When you keep out of touch with someone, you’ll one day discover that he or she is a totally different person. And perhaps another fact I want to tell is that people’s perceptions should change as well. I mean people do change, yet more often than not, the way we treat other people is as if they were static. I mean personally, I’ve grown and matured. Some people who dislike me before have seen the changes and have grown to accept me. Some still perceive me as the foolish kid I still once was though. And the opposite can be true as well: a person might have been a good friend to you once, but now, they’ve changed whether for the better or for the worse. The relationship shouldn’t remain static but change appropriately as well.

A fitting end would perhaps be my experience just a few hours ago. On my walk home, I passed by Robinsons Galleria to take shelter from the rain. A Chinese boy, with pale skin and shaved head, looked at me and started following me. He eventually came up to me and introduced himself as Allen. What’s your name, he asked. Charles, I said. Can I be your friend, he asked again. By now, I was suspecting he was a retarded kid or something (and his speech pattern didn’t help him either, because they were far from fluent). I hesitated, but I eventually said sure. He then asked me more details, such as where I was heading and where I lived. Of course I remember the warnings parents usually give to their children: don’t talk to strangers. And so I answered truthfully but vaguely, mentioning that I was walking home and that I lived in Mandaluyong. I asked him whom he was with and he said his companions were at the basement. By now, I was eager to get rid of him. Honestly, I appreciate the gesture. But why did he choose me of all people? I suspect it’s because he has nothing else to go on but by appearances, and by my appearance, I looked like one of his kin: that is, a fellow Chinese.

Before I walked out of the building, he eventually left me and said goodbye. We shook hands and I was only too eager to be away from him. Perhaps we’re not so alone in the world as we think we are. There are people willing to be our friends. The problem with us (and me in this case), I think, is that we choose our friends. We don’t accept who’s available, but rather pick the ones we think we deserve. It’s much like courting a girl: you think is the perfect one for you. Unfortunately, her opinion greatly differs from yours. And you have this friend, waiting patiently for you at the outskirts. But we ignore her, because we think she’s not the one for us. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes… we’ll never know. Stranger friendships have been born out of stranger circumstances.