National Cultural Heritage Month

by Bob Lim

I address you all as fellow students because to this day I consider myself one – not to master the XYZ’s of integral calculus nor the ABC’s of Shakespeare and other literary greats. Nor I still am today to solve chemistry equations and dissect amphibian specimens. I am past that almost 40 years ago in this very same ground, a memorable experience thanks in large part to many dedicated faculty.

But I choose to remain a student – of something that is handed down from generation to generation, one that is nurtured and conserved, and one that is passed on or acquired by others so that we all remember and feel proud of our beginnings. It is something abstract yet at the same time factual for all to see. It may be a notion but it’s a pervasive reality as well, ever dynamic and unique to singular groups of people. I am not afraid to admit that I am a student of other people’s culture and its heritage. After all, it is timeless, always happening and constantly evolving beyond mind and space.

We are all Filipinos. Yet each of us is of diverse ethnic origins – some foreign, most indigenous. Each comes from a particular region and speaks a different language. You and I had been raised with distinct sets of values, influenced by parochial customs and traditions and brainwashed, so to speak, with own set of beliefs alien to others. Worse, our low cultural intelligence or CQ for each other is further diminished by false rumors and tall tales about inferiorities of other peoples’ social norms. It is to be expected then that you and I distrust, perhaps even fear each other.

True, when I passed the scholarship test in 1965, my mother begged me to remain in Cagayan de Oro out of heightened maternal concern for my well-being. I myself had balked at first. Why, I asked, should I waste the best four years of my adolescence in a strange land where there was no promise of comfort and in an environment where local culture and religion were both foreboding? It was my late father, I confess, who did convince me to enter MSU. He simply reminded all that if he of Chinese descent assimilated with the people of another country, there’s no compelling reason why I couldn’t with people of the same country. Is it difficult, he asked, to adjust to other people’s social structure, language, law, politics, religion, art and ethics when their paths cross? Isn’t it self-fulfilling, he added, to test the mettle of mixed societies?

So I arrived in the campus with mixed feelings – on one hand, eager to embrace the ways of the local folks; on the other, afraid that I, a Christian of Chinese ancestry and a Bisaya, wouldn’t be able to overcome the imminent culture shock. My personal efforts for social and cultural adjustment were predicated by prejudiced teachings during my childhood – of fanatics running amok, of being dismissed as unrepentant infidels, of being subjected as second-class citizens or slaves, and of other biases that have tended to demonize the tribes of Lanao, Cotabato and Sulu for ages. For days on ends, I harbored a sense of anxiety for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. I felt uneasy and vulnerable to something indescribable, to the extent that I seriously considered returning home. And I wasn’t alone, as I found out the others felt the same as I did.

All these apprehensions shortly vanished after I settled in the crowded boy’s dorm. Not only I was grouped together with Maguindanaos and others of mixed origins but my bunk mate was a Maranao. That I would be sleeping merely a breath away from an erstwhile feared adversary never appeared in my wildest dreams. That I would be sharing the same crude bathroom, partaking of the same local delicacies, listening to similar sad stories and reveling in youthful antics together with them were daily experiences I could never imagine would happen. Running that cultural gauntlet was indeed a daunting sociological brinkmanship like no other.

But it didn’t take long for all to become more than friends. Each turned out to be a brother’s keeper. How could we not be? Nobody ran amok, we tolerated each other’s faith and regarded one another with mutual respect. In due time as well, I relished tales about the legendary bravery of Amai Pakpak, the grace of Princess Lawanen and the nobility of Rajah Indarapatra. I then as now understand why the Tausogs and Maranaos resisted the Spanish and American colonizers or why the Badjaos prefer to be seafarers.

I learned to appreciate the inimitable brassware of Tugaya, the colorful and intricate weavings of the Manobos and Higaaynons, the unique sounds of the kulintang or kubing and the usefulness of the malong. I found out also why Fernando Poe movies extended more than two hours in Marawi theaters and why local folks chewed betel nuts. By then too, I had absorbed the meaning of maratabat and understood the significance of rido.

Although I submit it was a long and steep learning curve, my desire to know more and understand better how domestic folks live, think and act never faltered. Each step along the way was a revelation – that popular legends and indigenous arts had flourished before the Westerners arrived as showcased in the Darangan epic, that aboriginal folktales and drama have survived in tribal communities as later depicted by Sining Kambayoka, and that most of us trace our common birthright to native origins. I, for one, discovered that the Neri ascendants of my mother’s family were originally the Sampornas of Lanao. I gained not only new brothers but regained long-lost family as well.

In more than four years while here, understanding each other’s culture was a heartening two-way traffic. Muslim brothers openly bothered to appreciate too how we from other regions lived. They persevered to treat our customary ways, traits, attitudes, values and beliefs with tolerance and forbearance. As we slowly followed our instincts, their change of heart was genuine. Co-exist we all did in peace, a psychological relief crucial to our daily struggle coping with academic rigors. It was not heaven to all, nevertheless a haven of harmony to many. Little did I realize then that we were all specimens in one big social laboratory that was MSU, a new learning center chartered to promote cultural integration among the different tribal groups of the Minsupala region while providing scholastic excellence to their deserving young. This experiment turned out to be a visionary success.

That unique chapter of my life has taught me that it’s not enough to be merely tolerant of other people’s culture nor to be conscious of others’ heritage. It is to be learned without losing one’s identity and feeling of self worth. At times, it is to be adopted like language and arts without being ashamed of one’s ethnicity. More usual than not, it is to be respected and accepted, for our beliefs and ethics may differ yet we all are guided by parallel high moral principles and similar social parameters that encourage us to beat our swords into ploughshares rather than instruments of warfare. Whatever its roots, culture is to be preserved as part of our national legacy and wealth.

I always believe that culture and theology are not impediments to peace and unity among the people, as long as they are not borne as gifts like Trojan Horses. Looking back at recent history, most armed conflicts arise from political and geographic ambitions of a few under the pretext of that much maligned battle slogan ‘For Country!’. Hitler, Stalin, the Japanese militarists, the imperial powers, and other pseudo-nationalists readily stoked the engines of war to steal real estate or satisfy their egocentric desires at the expense of their people. Rarely had contrasting religions and cultural dominance been casus belli of violent conflicts. Even today, Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, Christians in Northern Ireland, and Karzai’s and Taliban Pashtuns in Afghanistan who adhere to the same faith and abide by the same cultural patterns fight for no other cause than political power and areas of land. In stark contrast, we all envy why peace and harmony reign in Malaysia, Singapore and Switzerland where three ethnic groups with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds live, totally rid of any sectarian trouble.

To me and I’m sure all MSUans who have passed this way once, cultural understanding and even religion should be working tools to pursue peace and strengthen nationhood, not as lip service kits for our suspect brand of nationalism or separatism. The present conflict in our midst persists because there’s been no sincere political will to transcend the great ideological or theological divide by the leadership of both sides. Oft-declared truces fail because there’s inherent distrust and lack of understanding of each other’s cultural origins and beliefs. An unhampered roadmap to lasting peace remains uncharted because military intelligence or MQ rather than cultural intelligence or CQ dominates the contending leaders’ agenda. A final resolution seems unreachable as long as out-of-touch decision makers embed themselves in remote armchairs rather than willingly sleep with erstwhile ‘enemies’, just like what MSUans have done for years. To turn a decisive corner in this elusive pursuit, the ultimate key is to compromise not confront, for collaboration among partners is an option loftier than competition between rivals. More importantly, there should be no winners of space nor losers of face at all.

There are I think as many root causes as doable solutions to the Mindanao problem. As bipartisan scholars and pragmatists have rightly diagnosed, any approach to resolve the conflict should factor in all political, sociological, religious, historical, economic and cultural realities without necessarily carving our country into pieces. They all advocate building confidence first on both sides of the fence, rather than higher walls to keep them farther apart. Among all these knotted considerations and before extremists hijack our aspirations, I believe none opens up a wider window of opportunity to start in the right direction than to learn and understand the respective culture of each people. Besides, the rich heritage it leaves behind is a lasting gift for all succeeding generations to be proud of and for others, like you and me, to learn and study.

Yet what good is there to study further unless new lessons can be drawn? That is why I’m proud to be still a student. And I’m prouder to be an MSUan, a passionate accomplice of its mission. But I’m proudest to be wearing this symbolic Kopia and bearing my ancestral Samporna lineage because I’m at peace and in solidarity with my tribal brothers. I pray you all are too. After all, there’s no other choice. You and I belong to one nation, the only one we have. Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!