Home Is My Country

Home Is My Country

F. Sionil Jose

By F. Sionil Jose

I am awed by Bill Gates’ multimillion-dollar house, its enormity, its high-tech gadgets, its security systems. I know that even if I had all his money, I couldn‘t live there. If it were atomic bomb proof, it would be the ultimate refuge, but not home.

Let’s go back in time and trace the evolution of the house – or home. It’s the first thing that the ancients built to protect themselves from the onslaught of the weather, primordial enemies, and animals as well as fellow humans.

First, there was the cave, in the Arctic regions the igloo, in the desert the tent. When I first went to Spain in 1955, I expected to find buildings like those in Intramuros. Instead, I found magnificent structures, palaces like those in other parts of Europe, castles, too, that were formidable fortresses. Anyone who has visited Versailles can imagine the sybaritic life of the French kings. It‘s no wonder the French Revolution erupted.

“Every man’s home is his castle” is an English judge’s declaration of the right to privacy and refuge. The Japanese daimyos believed this as well. Their castles were also forts constructed according to possible threats. For the richer Japanese in those days, their homes had secret panels and entrances leading to hiding places. The floors were built to creak if stepped on, warning them of intruders.

One winter in Tokyo, I wanted to experience living in a traditional Japanese house. Fr. Gaston Petit, my old Dominican friend in whose Nampeidai atelier I always stayed, arranged for me to stay in a house in Nakano. It was a wooden bungalow with a cement bathtub. In the middle of the house was an enclosure with kerosene stove at the center and around it, a canvas cover. The pillow was small and hard, like the old leather Chinese pillow, but it was filled with what I thought were small seeds. When all the wooden latches were in place, the house was like a small fort, too. It was mid-winter – I lasted only three days. I admire the Japanese for their physical endurance. In the old days, there was a man whose sole job was to gather those who froze to death in the night.

Home, what a tender and lovely word, universally understood and coveted. In agrarian societies, like in China, it is a single haven for three, even five, generations. The industrial revolution, however, splintered families and sent people scampering all over the world to build Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Italian enclaves, Irish pockets, ghettos of every culture. For us, these people are our overseas workers, our viajeros. Their joys and their pain, I‘ve recorded these in my novel, Viajero.

Many of them built houses in their hometowns. You see them all over the country, often in the style of the countries where they worked, enduring the burden of the family they served and the family they left behind. Their narratives are often tainted with sadness, from broken homes, ingratitude, betrayal, loneliness. In a sense, those of us who never left the country were spared their travail in building our own homes, whatever they are, a barong-barong in the fringes of our cities, a nipa hut in the barrios, a mansion in one of the villages. There are so few houses now roofed with nipa palm, and I can no longer find a house roofed with grass. Our house in Quezon City was originally roofed with asbestos but we replaced it when it was found out that asbestos causes cancer.

We moved to this bungalow shell in Project 8, Quezon City, a government housing development with an ample 420 square meters and a yard. My wife built it with pro bono assistance from my late compadre, Jose Apostol, the husband of Eggie Apostol. We later added a second floor with three bedrooms and library downstairs. When our seven children were still with us, it seemed too cramped. Now with just my eldest, Antonio, who is retired, with us, it seems enormous. It‘s been a year now that I haven‘t been upstairs. In the yard are my wife‘s orchids. Years back, Zac Sarian gave me a macopa sapling; it is now a tree, and it bears a lot of fruit as big as my fist every year. We have really never left this home since.

There were many times I wanted to leave, in those bleak moments when I see the rubble left by our corrupt leaders, when I witness the ignorance and apathy of our people, and I realize my helplessness and incapacity to halt our slide to dystopia. I would tell myself it’s time to leave and start a new life elsewhere.

And I did leave with my family. We were in Hong Kong for two years, and then in Ceylon for another two, in the softest job I‘ve ever had. What a wonderful country and people, but after a year I wanted to nullify my two-year contract and return home. In those two years, I traveled, I luxuriated, but never wrote anything.

Homesickness can be physically manifested. I was in Kyoto, on a six-month grant to write Viajero, when I developed arrhythmia. The doctor at the Kyoto hospital couldn‘t do anything; it became so unbearable that I flew home to consult my doctor. But miraculously, when I stepped off the plane and walked towards my wife, it stopped.

I understand the loneliness, the homesickness of our millions of Filipinos abroad, the warmth with which they regard one another, how they long for the food they loved to eat growing up, the big gatherings, the folk dances. Once I was on a flight from Europe, half the passengers were returning workers. Many of them had not been home for at least three years, and as the plane approached Manila, they looked eagerly out the window at the spread of green below, and when the plane landed, they clapped and screamed with joy.

Perhaps, there’s a masochist in me who misses the traffic jams, the garbage in the streets, perdition in our slums and, on another level, the arrogance of power, the ostentation of the wealthy. I live with so many vivid images, the green fields and quiet streams of my hometown. I remember the frothy beaches of our islands, the majesty of our mountains, the hardiness of our people. I’ve written about all these, our heroic past, and now this moral decay, the revising of history. All these sadden me, but I know I cannot leave. This is where I will die, alas, in my unhappy country, right or wrong.

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