Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Monkey Island ... Tom SYKES

While Asians dream of moving to the west, England-born TOM SYKES finds himself packing his bags and flying east to the Philippines

I’M PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE that this column has taken a new direction—in terms of both theme and geography.

I am writing this not from freezing-cold Britain but from the roof garden of Loyola Heights Condominium—my new home in Manila in the Philippines—watching the burnt-out semicircle of the sun drop behind the skyline of tower blocks and pastel-coloured churches.

Amidst a sprawl of palm trees I spot the walkway from the MRT station to the gigantic shopping mall where, earlier today, I had my backpack searched by security guards packing pump-action shotguns. Security has increased since the controlled explosion of a terrorist bomb in Quezon City earlier in the week.

Running parallel to the walkway, right alongside the yuppies strolling to the office, the students in expensive hip-hop gear heading for the University of Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University and the rich landladies off to buy jewellery and skin-whitening cream, is a slum where immaculate McDonald’s and Shakey’s shirts hang from roofs made from stolen boards advertising San Miguel and Tanduay Rhum. Pensive teenagers smoke out of balconies made from chicken wire. Hens peck at mailbags overflowing with rubbish. Old women playing bingo and selling sweet corn berate kids for setting off firecrackers beneath the liquorice jumbles of live wires.

I swivel in the stray office chair I have commandeered and see an imposing mountain range to the east that in the evening light looks stylised, drawn-on, like an illustration from my four-year-old stepdaughter’s Learn Tagalog book.

The janitor tells me that this region is called Antipolo. I imagine its air is cool and clean and would be a great respite from downtown Manila.

So you’re probably itching to ask many questions all prefaced with “Why.” Why have I moved from the first world to the second, or even third? Why have I traded a safe, clean and secure country for one full of risks such as the Philippines?

There are several answers. I am here for work reasons, to be immersed in a favourite writing subject of mine: Asia. Various stories I’ve written and books I’ve edited over the past five years have tended to focus on this fascinating part of the world, so I’m here partly to load up on inspiration.

I’m also doing graduate studies at the University of Philippines under the great Jose Dalisay, during which I will write a thesis exploring both Eastern and Western devices of the literary fantastic. I’m fairly learned about the Western tradition but need to research the East, so why not do that at one of Asia’s best universities? Furthermore, both living and studying in the Philippines is considerably cheaper than the Occident.

Most importantly, though, I am here for the sake of my family who wanted a fresh new experience far from home.

My partner and I are both ashamed of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ attitude that still obtains in Blighty. Nowadays, children are barred from all kinds of public places, including pubs after a certain time (due to paranoia about underage drinking, would you believe?) and particular restaurants, theatres and meetings.

Here in the Philippines, things could not be more different with my stepdaughter being welcomed, cuddled, stroked and generally told how amazing she is by almost everyone we meet. We must be careful though that all this praise doesn’t go to her head and create a cult of personality around her to rival that of Ferdinand Marcos himself!

Furthermore, such is the level of respect for children in the Philippines that they often enjoy free travel and accommodation, which is definitely not the case in Britain where all too often they are cynically viewed as lucrative commercial opportunities: “Buy this new computer game, all your schoolmates have it! Go on, pester Mum and Dad for it!”

Before I made the big move, a political activist friend voiced concerns about the quality of democracy in the Philippines, suggesting that I shouldn’t come here. True enough, this nation has its fair share of corruption and skulduggery—just like any other—but what my friend’s implicit ethnocentrism couldn’t grasp was that the Philippines is relatively new to democracy after being held back by centuries of colonialism followed by decades of dictatorship. Give them a chance!

Furthermore, my friend should have reinforced his glasshouse before throwing stones at someone else’s. For example, Britain still has the appalling anachronism of The House of Lords which doesn’t look good next to far younger democracies in the world that, at the very least, elect their second chamber. I was actively opposed to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War which many regarded as a war crime.

Should I therefore leave Britain and never return?

Of course not. The government are not the people and the people are not the government. In most elections across the world, only about half the electorate actually bother voting, so the winning party can hardly claim to be properly representative. The political class in the Philippines may be shifty—as they are in any country—but I’m not here to hang out with them, I’m interested in ordinary Filipinos who, on the whole, have been warm, funny and extremely amiable.

So what are my other reasons for coming to the Philippines?

Here they are in brief: the glorious weather, the stunning mountains, the gorgeous beaches, the food (particularly lechon kawali and halo-halo), the drinks (San Miguel, buka juice and sugarcane juice) and the tricycles (which thrill my stepdaughter to bits). I’m sure there are more but that’s enough for now.

Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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