this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on March 29, 2001.
I’M an NPA and I’m glad about it. (NPA, as in, no permanent address, get it?) I was born in Mindanao but spent half of my childhood in the Netherlands and the other half in a remote town in the Visayas before eventually returning to Mindanao. After living for many years in Europe, it felt good to return to the Philippines, but I had to make some major adjustments at home, in school and especially with regard to religion.
Coming home meant having someone to do all the cooking, washing and cleaning-chores that middle-class families in the Netherlands do themselves. It meant holding on to my father’s motorbike as we zigzagged to school at break-neck speed without fear of being stopped by traffic cops. It meant walking into our neighbors’ living room anytime to watch television without having to go through the elaborate ritual of asking permission.
After class, my brother and I would join the neighborhood kids and play patintero on the street till we were covered with dust. Before dinner, my family would admire the green tunnel of madre de cacao trees as we strolled to the beach with towels draped over our shoulders. We would swim and shout to our hearts content in the Sulu Sea, pausing only to make a countdown of the colorful setting of the sun.
Living in this paradise also meant that I had to learn English, Tagalog and Kiniray-a all at the same time. It meant pretending not to notice other people staring at me like I was some bizarre half-breed (my father’s Belgian).
There were the unbearable heat and the greedy flies and mosquitoes that feasted on me. And I also had to get used to drinking powdered milk, after having fresh milk since I could remember.
Perhaps because the peso was worth so much more when they last lived in the Philippines, my parents gave me an allowance so meager that I had to spend every snack break watching my classmates happily fill themselves with delicious junk food. I seldom complained for I reasoned that a measly pack of chips and soft drinks wouldn’t satiate my hunger anyway.
Though I didn’t show it, I had the longest time getting used to the unusual religiosity of the people. Compared to the reserved Dutch, Filipinos were more showy about practicing their religion. A day didn’t go by without someone making the sign of the cross or mentioning something about their faith, God, Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary.
The idea of studying in a Catholic school seemed to be no big deal to me, except for that part about wearing a uniform. I was told this was to “prevent richer students from flaunting their expensive clothes and making the poorer students feel inferior.” How sensitive of them, I thought, but my admiration vanished when I remembered that I had to wake up at six in the morning and go home at five in the afternoon after spending several hours copying lessons from the blackboard.
I got headaches from having to memorize exact definitions of terms only to forget them after the exams, not to mention the loads of homework I had to do. It was certainly not easy being a fifth grader in the Philippines.
The biggest shock was having to pray before and after every subject. What an entirely new way to go through the day! I just wished they didn’t pray so fast, like they were in a rush to get it over with.
The praying didn’t end in the classroom. My clever teacher checked our attendance to make sure we didn’t skip Mass on Sundays. Being the grade-conscious freak that I was, I had no choice but to politely listen to the priest’s monologues.
My classmates talked about growing horns if they even missed just one homily. Remembering that in the Netherlands I went to church only during the weddings and baptisms of my relatives, I thought my horns must be huge indeed. Still it was the never-ending standing up and sitting down during Mass that got into my nerves.
Some of our religion teachers had a way of telling us what to believe and what not to believe in a tone that said, “Don’t you dare contradict me.” Doubts were dismissed with the reminder that “the teachings of the church cannot be questioned.”
But how could I possibly accept what they were telling me when they didn’t even want to listen to what I had to say? What happened to critical thinking?
To save myself the embarrassment of being put on the spot, I pretended to agree by nodding my head once in a while like everybody else. I played this part to the hilt even during tests by writing answers that the teachers wanted to read but which were not exactly how I felt. The more “saintly” the explanation, the higher the score, I soon discovered.
Ever since Papa started reading to my brother and me from the “Children’s Picture Bible,” I grew up thinking that the story of creation was just, well, a wonderful story. It was a major culture shock to find out that my classmates and teachers believed the world really was created in six days and that Adam and Eve really were the first man and woman.
What about the Big Bang? That is only a theory. What about the fossils? Oh, God put them on earth to test our faith. No “superior” human being would want to admit his ancestors were some dumb and ugly apes who got tired of swinging from trees.
The religion lessons left me confused for a while. It came to a point when I began to envy my classmates’ unwavering faith. They were so sure of everything.
Nevertheless, all the churchgoing, was not in vain. I learned some nice songs.
My family is not irreligious. We make it a point to pray before dinner, thanking the farmers and fisherfolk for the food on the table. I have also the habit of trying to pray before sleeping, though always with the door locked. I would lie down and ask myself, “Okay, whom did I hurt today?” I would then admit that I should not have said this but I should have said that and feel guilty the rest of the night. I end my prayer by saying, “Please help me be a good girl tomorrow.”
Even in my fourth year of college, religion was still very much on my mind. The Catholic university that I went to required Theology to be taught to Christians and non-Christians alike. No one was exempted. Thank God my last teacher approached the subject as “a sharing of religious experiences.” My heart throbbed in frustration no more.
According to one teacher, religion is supposed to help people “avoid misunderstanding in a world that is shrinking toward one global community.” Nice words. But since I was studying in a Catholic school, the “sharing of religious experiences” was always done from a Catholic point of view, which helped a lot in making me know almost nothing about Islam.
The Filipino youth, especially in Mindanao, should not grow up ignorant of Islam. We should read books about it. We should interact much more with the Muslim communities around us and visit their mosques. Better still, we should be taught about Islam in class. And while they’re at it, why not teach us a little bit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etc., since we’re Asians too?
Teachers should give the world’s religions equal emphasis and let the students discover how they are alike in many ways. Meaning, teachers should resist the urge to impose their own beliefs. College students are old enough to make up their own minds.
A course in comparative religions will lead to understanding and eventually respect for other people’s culture. This cannot be possible if we breathe only one religion all the time. Who knows, this might even be part of the long-term solution to the problem affecting this “Land of Promise” which I plan to make my permanent address?