this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on July 24, 2001.

Early one morning (well, early for a bum like me), I was awakened by the irritating sound of a jeepney backing into our garage. I say “our” because I shared the garage with an Iranian and her family. I was renting one of two houses in the compound. Unfortunately, the garage we shared ran the whole length of my entire house. Next to the dusty garage was my neighbors’ front lawn, and farther down was the house they lived in.

I opened my eyes and wrinkled my nose in disgust. I could smell the pungent odor of exhaust fumes permeating the living room. I had started sleeping on an old mattress in the living room ever since the beginning of summer, unable to stand the stuffiness in the bedroom. This was the annoyance I had to suffer once a week (aside from the daily dose of car fumes that accompanied my breakfast):

First, a jeepney backed into the garage really slowly because the dirt road was narrow. Then a driver and his companion got off and began to load sacks of rice from neighbor’s bodega in awkward rheumatic movements. After 40 sacks had been loaded, the vehicle would squeeze out of the garage, making it only on the third try to the narrow road and around the corner to who knows where. The neighbors were into this rice business.

I flicked my blanket off of me in the fashion of a matador completely stressed out, and opened the front door. A few strong words “requesting” the driver to turn off the damn engine flew out my mouth like a mantra. I had told them to shut the old thing up twice before already. They seemed never to get it.

Apparently the starter was broken this time. So I asked how they started the damn engine in the first place. They said they hot-wired it. Couldn’t you hot-wire it again? I asked. The guy turned around, got into the jeepney and positioned the monstrosity aslant, with its exhaust pipe pointing toward the lawn as though it would make a lot of difference.

I begged them for mercy, explaining that my lungs were being poisoned slowly each time they came. He got the message and parked the sulfur-spewing demon on the road. I closed the door, satisfied but still a bit pissed off.

They finished loading the sacks after 30 minutes, including interruptions by tricycles and cars that needed to pass through.

Meanwhile my sleep had been completely disrupted. I watched TV and tried to keep my cool until the vehicle drove away.

Insulted

That night the Iranian woman who was my neighbor came over to share with me a piece of her mind: I should have pleaded for mercy with them and not her customers. My house used to be noisy at night when my friends came over, causing her Filipino maid sleepless nights. I couldn’t have everything the way I wanted just because the garage was on my side of the compound.

She only stopped when her husband ordered her: “Come inside now and stop talking to those people!” And then he proceeded to tell me what he thought of me and my friends.

Great! I was too slow in processing what they were saying and lost my chance to defend my actions. The next thing I knew I was closing the door behind me, close to tears after being treated like a child and insulted several times.

The woman had told me I should move to a place where I wouldn’t have any neighbors. But she should be the one to move out of the Philippines and go back to Iran where she and her parents came from. Maybe I was wrong, but so were they. But we never got to resolve the issue. Perhaps both of us were afraid of the damage it might bring emotionally and materially.

What’s with neighbors anyway? What was it that I really wanted to say?

It dawned on me that this Iranian neighbor had a good job and a nice house and a nice car, and, come to think of it, an attitude. So did her parents who have been living in this country for who knows how long. Our government has been feeding expatriates, like my neighbor, for decades now. It has allowed them to work here even while our own citizens cannot get jobs simply because there were too many of them. These expats live in comfortable homes while Filipinos live under bridges and on railroad tracks, ready to be swept off their feet, not by love but by a Bicol-bound train. We have Indian businessmen peddling bed sheets and umbrellas on Isuzu motorbikes. We have American, African, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Pakistani students studying in our leading universities because it’s cheaper here, while our own students quit high school to become janitors, maids (with foreign employers right here), and food servers, abandoning hope of earning college degrees. They come here to bribe our women and seduce our men with their exotic features.

Thinking about all this infuriated me. Due to the unfairness I experienced from this foreigner who lived next door, I came to think about the unfairness other Filipinos are forced to endure.

Citizens first

I have lived a few years in Abu Dhabi. Being an open country, a lot of foreigners live there. While there I learned that every citizen who had the skills, the intelligence or the education was assured of a high-paying job and a mansion and treated with respect. The government made sure to provide for its people first before providing for foreigners who came to work there, to vacation there or to find safety there. The citizens were the No. 1 priority and their well-being was always taken into consideration before the welfare of expatriates.

I learned to act with tact and to be polite there, making sure that I didn’t offend any of the locals because I was a guest in their country. I knew that I didn’t have the same rights as they had.

So what’s the point of my story? It’s really simple: As a guest in my country, my neighbors ought to behave. I don’t have to take crap from a foreigner, including the exhaust fumes I have become accustomed to having for breakfast. There are times when I must put my foot down and say, “Wait a minute, I live here. This patch of earth is mine.”

The experience taught me that I don’t have to bow my head so low to the expats living off my country’s resources whether they be black, yellow, or white. It reminded me that they should be the one who ought to bow down low and show us a little respect. I have every reason to assert my rights because I am Filipino, and they are not.

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