This is a story told to me by a woman who had the window seat that was mine before she began her story. Whenever I take a plane trip that is longer than six hours, I do everything possible to get a window seat, but it was such a fantastic tale that I agreed to exchange places with her if she would continue the story up to the very end. She did.
Like me, Ana, the woman who told me this story, is an OCW. I knew she was one when I looked into her dark eyes that had an odd way of turning green or grey, not as often as the surrounding light changes, but during moments of deep sentiment. Ana had the flat face of an Asian and the supple grace of her body was unmistakable beneath the soft green dress that made her look like a tree at dusk.
Mind you, an OCW is not the same as an OFW who are Filipinos hailed as the new economic heroes because they earn the foreign exchange in that dollar-starved country called Pilipinas. An OCW is a cat who has been given the chance to redeem itself by using what is left of its nine lives. Ana and I must have done something so terribly wrong, unforgiveable in the cat universe, that our punishment was to be reborn as a Filipino. Our redemption lay in being an OCWan overseas cat workerand rediscover our identity to get back our cat bodies. There is nothing like living among other species to find ones body and soul again.
In her last OCW job as the maid of the daughter of a Norwegian shipowner, Ana showed remarkable intelligence. She rediscovered very quickly that cats are the masters and humans are the slaves. Anas mistress lived just outside the city in a house that sat on the side of a hill about 100 meters from the city fjord where the colors of the sunset were as varied as each day of the seasons. Miss Havsland had two cats and told Ana that her furry pets have rights and should be treated with respect. She often talked to Ana about how the Havslands climbed out of its past poverty to become one of the countrys wealthy families by never forgetting that rights always have corresponding responsibilities. Ana was treated by her employer and the Havsland family as they did their cats, with courtesy and respect for her rights. Which is how Ana discovered that the Havslands were the slaves of their cats: the cats have rights but no responsibilities other than to let the humans stroke them when permitted to do so.
Ana was really quite happy working for the Havslands but it was alienating her from the Filipinos who disdainfully dubbed her that snobbish dark-skinned Norwegian. Only a handful of the Filipinos were OFWS; most of them were spouses of Norwegians, though they might as well have been OFWs because they took jobs as cleaning women so they can send dollars back home. When Ana asked them why after 10 or 20 years as Norwegian citizens, home to them is and would always be Pilipinas, they merely looked at Ana as if she were an alien from outer space. They used to invite Ana to all their parties that were more of an eating spree, richly spiced with juicy gossip and which always ended with a sing-a-long karaoke. No more invitations came after Ana said that she did not leave Pilipinas only to live in an artificial ghetto called the Filipino community.
But so much about Ana. Here is the story she told
Jose Rizal the national hero of Pilipinas was most assuredly a very cool cat, but not more so than the second Jose Rizal who appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
A boy named Jose Andres was so different from his classmates that his teachers noticed him at once. He would have been the favorite of his teachers if he were not so aloof. Jose was always polite and never alluded to the top honors that he won in all subjects, including physical education and home economics. He spoke clearly and never raised his voice because there was never any need for it; his audience was always totally his.
Everyone expected Jose Andres to be the president of Pilipinas one day. They were all wrong.
As he grew to early manhood, Jose Andres began to look like Jose Rizal. No matter how he combed his hair, it grew thick and wavy, parting in exactly the same way as that of Jose Rizal. His nose that used to be a shapely mestizo nose became broader and his face turned quite flat. Worse, he did not fulfill the promise of height in the long-limbed body of his childhood. He stopped growing taller at age 20 and his height remained 5 ft. 4 inches, which was exactly the same height as Rizals. That was when people began calling him Jose Rizal and it made him so unhappy that his parents sent him to Europe where he could continue his studies in peace.
Jose Andres was born to an affluent couple who would have wanted more children to be the heirs of their vast holdings in Pilipinas. No other children came. Jose could have lived the life of a prince in Europe but he lived as simply as the other students. He had many friends but he spent most of his time with older people who were delighted to have such a bright protegé.
One clear day in the winter of 2000, Jose sat bolt upright at the desk in his bedroom. He heard it first before he saw it on the TV news channel. The president of Pilipinas had been ousted and the whole country was in ecstatic celebration. To his horror, he saw his father among the small group with the new president, the second woman president of Pilipinas. There were several priests too, one of them wearing the scarlet cap of a cardinal. Jose felt sick in the stomach and got up for a glass of cold water. He had to call home. But not just yet, as his father would still be rejoicing with the victors, which means that his mother would not be at home either.
Jose put away the paper he was writing without finishing it and opened a new file folder for what he knew would contain dozens of his working drafts before the week was over. On that day began his lonely crusade. Jose began writing articles and rewriting each in the different languages of his countrymen. For the masa who refuse to read anything longer than a paragraph, he wrote radio skits, illustrated flyers and komiks. Everything focused on one thing: Salvation for Pilipinas is in the hands of the people themselves, not in changing presidents where the social structure remains unchanged.
Ana made a dainty yawn when she heard the stewardess rolling the food cart stopped just behind us. Fish or beef, Ana whisperered to me with a comical roll of her eyes. As if it matters after theyve wrecked the fish and the beef with all that cooking and smothering all the goodness with sauces.
What kind of food did you have with Miss Havsland? I asked with a smile.
Nothing fantastic. Norwegians have so little imagination when it comes to food. In that sense, and only in that sense, will I say that Filpinos are somewhat superior to them.
Somewhat? I asked.
Wouldnt you think that Filipinos would have made something of themselves if they stopped thinking with their stomachs? said Ana, and that was when the color of her eyes changed to a murky green that flashed momentarily.
I ducked, an involuntary movement caused by that brief flash, and asked, Why do you despise them so?
I dont. I truly love them, said Ana, but they suffer from an overextended infancy.
We ate our meal in silence. Ana was right, airline food is boring and I was glad when she continued her story as she sipped her wine with a dreamy look.
As Jose had foreseen, things went from bad to worse in Pilipinas. The president said that in 10 years, the total population would increase from 80 to about 100 million, but she continued to recommend the natural birth control method. Which is no method at all, because the population increased by year. At the beginning of her 2% within the second year in her palace by the river, the president announced that her government was able to collect only about 20% of total collectible taxes. Obviously her government was functioning on borrowed money from foreign creditors and from OFW remittancesYet, big malls were mushrooming in the capital and all sorts . of consumer goods filled the shops. Malls were overcrowded on weekends because people came to enjoy the air-conditioning while gaping at merchandise they could not afford.
Jose was dozing when the telephone rang. It must have been ringing for quite a while because Jose had fallen asleep at his PC monitor. It was his father.
Jose, your country needs you. I want you to take the first plane to Pilipinas.
Why? What do they need me for?
The President wants you to be the Governor of the Central Bank, a job and an honor you cannot refuse.
Of course, I can refuse. Im not coming home.
You must and you will.
Who shall make me?
Your conscience! and his father banged the phone on its receiver so hard, it must have crashed the delicate crystal ashtray beside it. Joses ears were ringing with a painful buzz.
Several months later, Jose was on a plane back to Europe. He did go back to Pilipinas but not as Central Bank Governor. He had travelled across the country in a hunt for leaders who would recruit the masa for a mass organization that Jose had designed for Pilipinas. Judging from the way Jose was charged with destabilizing the government through his seditious speeches and articles, he must have been successful. The NPA branded him a dangerous reactionary without quite explaining why. As if two big enemies were not enough, the Church became a third and insidious adversary, condemning Joses articles as heretical and blasphemous. Jose Andres declared that there is no heaven just as there is no hell, and that christianity was a beautiful idea until the priests turned it into an instrument to control mens mind with the Pope as capo di tutti capi.
Dont look yet, Ana whispered, but I noticed just now the woman two rows ahead in the middle section. She is the mother of Elena Raab, a Filipina who was interviewed in NRK 1, the state-owned television channel in Norway.
Shes praying the rosary, I replied.
Yes, of course, she is reputed to be very pious and has the largest collection of Sto. Niño statues that are displayed in her annual Sto. Niño parade and banquet with a huge lechon flanked by two lechon de leche as the centerpiece. She is leading member in one of the Fil-Am communities in California, organizing beauty contests and pilgrimages to Fatima and Lourdes.
Do you know her? I asked,
Mrs. Sanchez is her name. I remember now, because shes not very happy about her name. She married an American hispanic and she is unhappy that Sanchez does not sound American. Sanchez is a name quite common in Pilipinas, you know.
How do you know all this?, I asked as I watched Mrs. Sanchez fingering her beads.
My dear, there are few secrets among Filipinos; the juicier the story, the quicker it is revealed. But let me tell you now about her daughter. She married a Norwegian and that was how she got interviewed on television.
And ? I asked, prodding Ana to continue because she was beginning to look dreamy again.
Elena was invited to the program about immigrants and their experience in Norway and in their country of origin. I remember she sounded very bitter when she recounted her first and last trip to Filipinas. Elena said that she saved and scrimped so she and her husband can make the trip. Their first week was bliss, Elena said, until she realized that it was all about money. Her relatives did not care about how she worked overtime almost everyday for more than a year and they refused to believe that she does not have a lot of money to dole out.
What happened then? I asked.
To the relatives, you mean? Ana said, laughing softly, You can figure it out yourself when I tell you the last part of the story of Jose Andres.
Back in his spartan flat, Jose transferred all his Pilipinas files in a CD and began another folder. He was going to write a novel. Fiction can be truer than life. Since his countrymen prefer stories to serious reading, well then, he shall give them a good story. As with everything he does, Jose put his heart and soul in his novel that he titled One Hundred Years of Slumber. His characters were based on real people that represented all types of his countrymen, and real events were thinly masked by changing the place names and dates. Beneath the sardonic humor was deep melancholy. One Hundred Years of Slumber was a big success. It was translated into seven of the major languages in Pilipinas. Three movie production outfits were madly outbidding each other for the right to make a movie of it. The enemies who forced Jose into exile were in a helpless rage.
Nobody was surprised when Jose wrote a second novel, a sequel to the first. titled Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Revolutionary. It was an immense success. Many of his readers were pleased, seeing the novel as a complete change of heart in the author. Just as many readers were angrily disappointed for the same reason. Jose was no longer calling for a total overhaul of the social structure of Pilipinas. Instead, he wrote of a failed revolution, a revolution that failed because the people were not ready for it. Jose Andres gained worldwide fame but the country that nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature was not Pilipinas. Jose won, the first Filipino and the first Asian to win the coveted award.
Pilipinas greeted the news with stunned silence, then pandemonium. Politicians hastily tried to get Jose Andres as their standard bearer for the coming presidential elections, the most insistent was the woman president who had charged Jose Andres of sedition. Afraid to lose her bid for re-election to an actor, which for her would be the supreme insult, she saw Jose as her perfect vice-president. Jose Andres was being described as a superman, a miracle worker, the savior who would put everything to right in Pilipinas. Delegation after delegation called on Jose Andres at his simple flat in Europe. They used all manner of persuasion, not the least of which was emotional blackmail. Jose felt hounded and, for the first time in his life, he needed a sedative to get some sleep.
It is not quite clear how they persuaded Jose Andres to come back to Pilipinas and run for president.
All roads leading to Pilipinas National Airport were jammed with people waving flags and banners. Very conspicuous in the crowd were squads of policemen and military detachments. The security escort for Jose Andres wore their dress uniform. Not everybody was happy that he was coming home. The wealthy and the powerful knew their glory days will be over once Jose Andres is elected president. Jose Andres would see to it that his Education for All shall enable people to think for themselves. Running for public office would no longer be the quickest way to amass wealth and power because the people would no longer tolerate corruption in any form. Leaving Pilipinas is not a good idea at all. Outside Pilipinas, they would be little fishes in a very big pond. Jose Andres is the one enemy they cannot afford.
The plane taxied into the runway. The excitement was near frenzy. Suddenly there was a rumble of sound. It started as a murmur that swelled into menacing waves of soundpeople shouting, moaning, crying, wailing. People looked at each other in disbelief. Jose Andres is dead, shot by an assassins bullet.
When Ana fell silent, my eyes pleaded for her to continue. I had to ask, What happened to Pilipinas after that?
What Pilipinas? There is no longer a Pilipinas. She looked at me and laughed, Didnt you know there is no longer a Pilipinas?
A country doesnt just disappear!
Oh, yes, it could, she said. When Jose Andres died, everything just went kaput.
What do you mean kaput?
Half the people began to fill up the churches and prayed 24 hours everyday, going in shifts. I suppose they were praying for a miracle. First there was EDSA 1, then EDSA2. They are now in their 27th EDSA but the gods must have gone deaf, what with all those singing and praying and hallelujahs.
You said half the people are praying, what was the other half doing?
The other half remembered what Jose Andres saidthat there is no pie in the sky, that they should not blame the gods but themselves. These people saw the obvious. They declared independence from the national government and absolutely refused to be milked out of their resources by a shamelessly corrupt and inept government. Borders were heavily guarded and travel within the islands required a passport and visa.
You must be joking, I said,
Maybe, she said and, turning away, she reclined her head on the angle formed by the back of her seat and the window. Frankly, Im surprised you dont know anything about this, you are an OCW after all.
Yes, but from what you have been telling me, it appears I was in cat limbo too long. The last thing I remember from my past life was being slapped away when I was sniffing at the letter the Sultan of Sulu wrote to the President of the United States of America asking him to give back the Bangsa Moro independence or to adopt the sultanate as the 49th state.
Then youve had more than 100 years to think of what you now have to do.
That is close to impossible. I was reborn fully adult, an OCW on the way to some odious job somewhere in the Middle East, and with no memory of who or what I am. What do the Filipinos call themselves now?
Why not ask them yourself? On second thought, thats not such a good idea. Theyre still debating what the name of their country should be and Congress is in a hopeless tangle. The intellectuals are quarreling with the historians and there are as many names proposed as there are sari-sari stores in the Republic of Manila.
What do the people in the independent provinces call themselves?
Only one has an official name, the Bangsa Moro. The islamized groups simply reverted to the name Moro and turned it around into something that meant the unconquered and the brave. I suppose the others cannot agree to a name because they became the way you are now.
At Anas last words, my claws involuntarily unsheathed. She knew I wanted to scratch her face and Ana warded me off with an intimidating miaowwwww, They no longer remember who and what they were before they were mesmerized by their colonial masters.
Chastised and humbled, I shrunk to kitten size . It was a strange story. Maybe it was a true story. I turned to Ana before she fell asleep. I need to know what a Filipino is. But Ana was not there. Instead I saw a beautiful cat with a bushy tail. I blinked several times to clear my sight When I looked again, the cat was no longer there, but no Ana either. I found myself looking into the eyes of a dazzling creature that was neither cat nor woman. I closed my eyes. It was too eerie and distressing, and there was nothing I felt I could do but close my eyes. My eyes refused to stay closed and there was the cat again, and this time the cat was miaowing softly.
Look at me and let me bring you back to the time when you were a cata slave to no one. It does not matter what label humans put on you. You were once a cat and you have to regain that identity and freedom precious to us all. Work as OFW if you must, but make sure you do not begin to think like one.
A stewardess came and gently spread a blanket over Ana who purred, and the stewardess replied with a smile and said Youre welcome. Did the stewardess see a cat, or did she see Ana?
I looked down at my hands, half hoping that I would see furry paws. All I saw were human hands, brown Filipino hands. When I turned back to Ana, I knew then that she has begun to work her way back to the cat universe and poor me . Aaahhh, poor me still has to find the road that would lead me back.
Ana kissed me goodbye before she got off at the last stopover. I never heard from her again.
My job in the Middle East did not last very long because my Filipino passport was declared obsolete and invalid. The gods of the cat universe felt it best to put me on a new assignment. They nudged a German tourist so hard that he bumped into me and I fell flat on my ass. He looked into my cat eyes as I sat on the pavement and he was a goner. We were married not long after.
Now I know what Anna meant by the artificial ghetto of the Filipinos because there is one right here in Osnabruck. They dislike me just as much as they disliked Ana and for the same reasons too. I guess it will take them a long time to accept the collapse of their old country, and they say that the Fil-Ams are the hardest hit. Not only did the Fil-Ams lose the first half of their preferred identity, they were also deprived of their national hero. The Republic of Laguna reclaimed José Rizal and got José Andres too by a DNA certificate of identity. No candidate has been acceptable to the old oligarchs of Manila, since the only nominees were Andres Bonifacio, Erap Estrada, and Fernando Da King Poe. Oligarchs would never accept Bonifacio the Anak Pawis and they are greatly outnumbered by the inhabitants of Smokey Mountain and Payatas that have grown ten times their original size.
Osnabruck has been good to me. Here I can think and act like the cat that I am, specially when I can be all by myself in the little park behind the old abbey. A cold breeze that drifted with the shadows of early evening touched my face, announcing the beginning of the end of summer. The grass felt soft under my back as I watched an orange tabby creep under the bushes to my left. Already I can feel silky soft fur growing in some parts of my body and I licked the underside of my wrist to check its color. It was a vague brown. Fearful that the fur might be that of a dog, I uttered a frantic prayer, Lord of the cat universe, forgive my tresspasses. I cannot imagine being on a leash, totally dependent on its master. Please let me be a cat again. I will do everything to deserve landing on my feet each time.
Soft footfalls were approaching. Karl slipped down beside me, laid a red fox collar on my chest, and purred, Dont worry, darling, you and I will meet Ana again.
Cat illustrations copyright belong to Myrea Pettit
Back to HOME