Wednesday, March 26, 2014

No Medals for Being a Modern-Day Pioneer
The "I was here first, and if it wasn't for me, you would not be here" mentality of some Filipinos I've encountered. 

or: Ang patuloy na pagsingil sa utang na loob!

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Composition: Responding to some "fan mail" which was in reply to an older post
Previous Post: The Duke: The First Pinoy I ever met in Calgary

"Canada is a nation of immigrants", that's one of the most oft repeated statements you'll get to hear describing this place. Indeed, both Canada and the United States were both New World colonies which, through settlement, evolved a separate identity and ideology from its colonial founder(s), and whether through peaceful resolution or the upheaval of revolution, gained self government and independence.

Of course, that's a highly simplistic abbreviation - you should never trust a personal/opinion blog anyway for doing your research, you lazy dope! As well, it ignores the huge history of Native Americans, Aboriginal Peoples, and First Nation's people. Point being: Only they can claim to being truly from here. Everyone else came in after the age of exploration.

In fact, even the redneck-iest of individuals here in this province recognize how their ancestors came here from the old world, risked everything to embark on a journey, faced great hardship taming the west, all just to give future generations a "better life". In modern literature, pop culture, even in the personal stories people tell, the story of the pioneer is a celebrated tradition. They are regarded as heroes, lionized, perhaps even deified. Above all, they are respected.

But the settling of Canada, and Alberta in particular, came in multiple waves from multiple source countries, with each wave of immigrants having their own pioneering individuals. This is not to diminish the true pioneers - the real original homesteading settlers - but for certain communities, what strikes closer to home, appeals to their psyche, and in general are simply more relatable, are those they consider to be their pioneers.

For Calgary, I actually honestly cannot name any pioneering figures for the Filipino community. This should not be surprising since modern immigration isn't like taming the prairie. Without having to cross two thirds of the continent by wagon, without needing to hack away at the brush just to till the soil, and without having to fend off the raw elements and anything mother nature has to offer, there are less chances for outright heroics. However, that does not mean there are no Filipino pioneer heroes that can be singled out. If anything there are just too many of them.

As far as I have observed and were told, the first Filipinos in Calgary arrived during the 1970's and they were a very rare breed indeed! Most of them came as either independent immigrants or as skilled workers - depending on whatever program Canada and or Alberta happened to be running at the time in order to fulfill whatever economic or socio-political need was pressing at the time. When Canada instituted the Family Reunification program, those who had become permanent residents and Canadian Citizens then petitioned their loved ones and close relatives so that they may get here, while they in turn also later became Canadians and petitioned for new potential Canadians. Those first Filipinos - the ones who came here before any discernible Filipino community existed - are, for all intents and purposes, the pioneers for the Filipino community as it exists nowadays. More specifically, they were the personal trailblazers for the individuals and families they have personally helped to get here.

Mabuhay po kayo!

Sounds like such a romantic story, eh?

I suppose it is! So, if you want a feel-good story, you should stop reading right here, because it's about to get ugly.


In my decade and a half of living here in Calgary, I have heard many anecdotes concerning a certain type of Filipino immigrant. Since the behaviour which will be described here is not an isolated case nor is it restricted to one individual, let us make a composite character called The Ensign. While for ease of storytelling in English, this composite character will be called a he, do note that the actions described here can be, and have been, practiced by either of the sexes.

The Ensign came to Calgary around the early to mid 1980's, back when it was very rare for Filipinos to migrate here, what with the usual destination then being the United States, in particular California and Hawaii. There may have been a few Filipinos here and there, but they could scarcely be called a 'community'. By and large, these first Filipinos maintained their cultural roots and memories of the 'motherland' isolated from any Filipino community.

No matter - The Ensign is a resilient individual. Like so many of his fellow pioneering Filipinos in Calgary, he was the rare breed who had been away from his home country since the 1970's. He had been plying the high seas as a Pinoy seaman, while his spouse was a nanny in either the UK, the United States, and of course in Canada. Once he and his spouse found permanence and stability in Calgary, they then petitioned some of their relatives to also come live here in this fair city.

For a while, it was good. The Ensign, his wife, and their extended family all lived together in one household, which is so very  Pinoy naman, di ba?

But a rift happened and The Ensign was forced to kick out his relatives. Just as well, because everyone has to stand on their own at some point in time, right?

Problem was, even decades after The Ensign's extended family had gotten here through his initiative, even though his extended family had been Canadian citizens in their own right as soon as they had the chance, even though they have been living and working on their own for such a long time now and that they really only lived with him for around a year (a mere year!!), The Ensign still considers himself as responsible for having brought them here.

Actually, 'responsible' does not convey the negativity I wish to portray. More like: 'Instrumental' in a way that he feels as though his extended family owes him a really big debt of gratitude. In a not so subtle way, he'll drop it at everyday conversations, party scenarios, and even squeeze it in whenever he can during discussions where immigration and the Filipino community are concerned. "Well, if it weren't for me, some of my relatives would not have gotten here at all!" he would say in a self-congratulatory way.

This might have been excusable, were it not for the fact that deep down, he actually really truly means it - more than that, he means to collect this debt of gratitude. It's a Pinoy thing: Utang Na Loob is what we call it, though his version is far more vile and insidious. Instead of relying on it to maintain good relations, he uses it to leverage power and influence. It's not just that he wants their gratitude (and what kind of loser demands gratitude anyway!?) but he wants to rob them of their self-respect and dignity. In arguments, disagreements, and disputes with his extended family, he'll pull it out as his trump card to bully his own kin: "If it weren't for me, you would not have gotten here at all! You only have me to thank for, you owe me everything, and you have to do whatever I say it is that you have to do!"

"You had it way easier than I did!" he might go on to add, all while enumerating how 'racist white people were' during his time, and how he protected them from 'their kind', and how he 'paved the way' for everyone here... whatever all that means1.  

So now I wonder: How hard was it really back then for him? Why is he, and so many like him, still holding on to such 'sacrifice' as an ace card? Why such hate for white people? Why the bitterness? Why the need for validation in the form of 'cashing' in some debts of gratitude?

Perhaps a bit of insight can be gained from my own self. In another post, after talking at length about the unique challenges I had to put up with, I said this: "Maybe it's not fair to think this way, but I seriously feel as though newcomers have it so easy nowadays". Which means, I feel as though they have to contend with less racism and/or stereotyping. Well, wouldn't you know it, someone challenged my assumption.
A Ron Burgundy: Just so you know, [there is no such widespread] change. New immigrants don't actually have it easier now
I won't know how it was before, but judging by your arguments, it's still there which means there is very little change, if at all.
Now, that brought me back down to earth, which made me scramble for a reply:
Me: You also have to acknowledge, I am probably expressing a "pioneer" resentment. In some ways, I saw that [in] pinoys who were here before me. They always think people who came later have it easier - from [experiencing] the "soft" racism, to stereotyping. Etc. In some ways, there is truth to it - anyone who comes in later does have less racism and stereotyping to contend with.... even if for the only reason that the more time passes, the more multicultural this place truly gets.
I honestly think it was [much worse] before.
So it's not that I was being arrogant about it, nor was I being self congratulatory, and neither was I suggesting that I be rewarded for being first - not at all! All I am saying is that with every generation, things just tend to get better overall: From the arrival of commerce and businesses which specifically caters to your ethno-cultural tastes; to special accommodations/ considerations; to an ever growing community of "your kind", whatever background you may be; to experiencing less stereotypes, fewer instances of bigotry, and dwindling cases of outright racism because people are more used to "your kind". All these things equal an experience that is always ever evolving that, any newcomer who comes in later inevitably has a smoother transition and adjustment period.

I believe this to be true throughout the history of immigration - draw a line from the first homesteaders, to the skilled workers who arrive here almost everyday, ready to start a new life, and it will become apparent that things do change for the better.

After all, it was what I witnessed in Calgary during my first decade here - all the changes it went through, in ways both big and small, made things better and easier for me... in ways both big and small.

Given these, I can't even imagine how much harder it would have been for the pioneering, trailblazing Filipinos back in the 70's and 80's. If I feel I had it worse than those who came here a decade after I did, just imagine how much more crap those who came decades before me would have had to actually put up with. Instead of vilifying The Ensign, perhaps I should feel sorry for him. What seriously awful shit he must have experienced to feel like the world owes him something for being among the very first Filipinos to have moved here. He is a broken man, and I honestly wonder: What was it that broke him? What was it about this place that left him a bitter, resentful man?

I actually feel like I could give him accolades and kudos for petitioning and supporting subsequent generations of Filipino immigrants. For all intents and purposes, he is among the few who built up the Filipino community from scratch in this city - back when it was not this cosmopolitan, presumably less used to 'our kind', and certainly less accommodating to anyone not white. It certainly takes guts and chutzpah to embark on such a journey. He would be my personal hero, were he not such a dick about it...

Instead, I'm just glad that we as a family moved here as independent immigrants, without having been petitioned by anyone like him3.   That way, no one can tell us we owe them anything.

Sorry Ensign, but no medals for being a modern-day pioneer.

Next Post: Dear Expat, Whitey, and Balikbayan: Be Careful What you Say!

Related Posts: The All-Encompassing Rant about what it was like to be NEW to Canada
                       Of F.O.P.s, F.O.B.s and Filipino Clubs

Further Reading: Calgary is Actually Nice, Katie Heindl, Vice
                          Growing up Weird in Calgary, Bruce McCulloch, Swerve


1 = Yep! The Ensign is super racist towards white people. Expect a future post about "Son of The Ensign". 

2 = If anything, I am the one who's wary of accommodations for "my kind" too much. Besides, it's not like "we" need special accommodations anyway. "We" adapt. Or at least I do. I did. I'm awesome.

3 = In fact, in more ways than one, I feel like hearing this story during my first few years made me try a little too hard to be self-sufficient and independent to the point of being wary of asking for any kind of help from anyone - I just don't want to end up owing anyone anything.

On a good note, I myself have sworn to never ever make singil [ask payment for] the utang na loob.

Also, as I have learned after having been challenged by someone who came a decade after I did - never EVER assume those who came after you have it any easier than you did! Sure, some things have changed for the better, but they are going through their own problems; no need to diminish any of it and rob them of their dignity by saying it's peanuts and nothing compared to what you (or *I*) went through. We all have it hard, man.

Above all: NEVER be like The Ensign!

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