Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Traditions

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I am writing this piece in a nipa hut in the middle of rice fields somewhere in the middle of the island of Leyte in the Visayas.

That there is Internet connection here is a source of amazement to me. The speed of the connection is horribly slow by Metro Manila standards—it’s the metaphorical equivalent of someone furiously pedaling on a bicycle in an expressway. But the point is that there is Internet connection, thank you very much.

My teenage nephews and nieces exchange knowing looks and snicker away, reminding me pointedly that they have been chatting with me and leaving messages for me in Facebook since last year. I’ve always assumed they traveled 60 kilometers to an Internet cafĂ© in Tacloban City to surf the net and update their Facebook accounts. The observation cracked them up even more. I guess that kind of physical effort is incomprehensible to kids today. They couldn’t believe I used to walk three kilometers to school every day when I was in high school.

I know a lot of families that got to interact with each other on Christmas Eve despite the fact that various members were spread across the globe. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Yahoo messenger and Skype. For instance, all four laptops in our house were utilized for video conferencing on Christmas Eve as we did our cyber version of a Christmas reunion. My parents and two siblings were in Leyte, three of us were in Manila, while another one was in China. We were also doing video conferencing with cousins and aunts in the United States. Ten years ago it would have cost an arm and a leg just to hear the voice of a loved one for a few minutes. Today, a friend in Frankfurt keeps his laptop open the whole time he is at home, with the video focused on him even when he is sleeping. He says it’s a running joke between him and his wife who used to suspect that he was cheating on her.

It’s heartening to note that advances in technology have also actually made families to become closer and enabled them to observe certain holiday traditions. There was supposed to be a paradox about technology; it was supposed to be cold and sterile and poised to rob people of their humanity. That’s not what’s happening today. My 80-year-old aunt practically lives in Facebook and even my own mother wants to open her own account so that she could get to “look at all those videos and pictures of all her friends and relatives.” In case you didn’t know yet, most Filipinos have turned Facebook into a giant photo album.

Anyway. There’s three more days left before the New Year descends upon us. You still have time left to scour markets for the all the sundry that need to be completed and put in place in order to bring luck and prosperity in 2011.

These could include, depending on which version of the superstition you happen to subscribe to: A collection of round fruits (some insist there should be at least 14 fruits, others say there should only be 12), a cupboard full of all the basic necessities from anise to Zesto, firecrackers to ward off all the evil spirits, crisp new bills and newly-minted coins as well as polka dotted clothes to invite fortune, bunches of grapes and oranges to hang in the doorway like mistletoe, and a veritable feast to greet the New Year. The supreme irony that is lost on many is that they waste inordinate amounts of money to invite money in.

Most of these are superstitions and traditions copied from the Chinese. I was surprised to note yet another tradition that many Filipinos have seemingly embraced without hesitation: Buying figurine of whichever animal is associated with the New Year. The coming year is the year of the rabbit in the Chinese calendar so I am told there is a mad rush to buy figurine of Bugs Bunny and his friends in various stages of mischief. The fact that the Chinese New Year does not begin on January 1 is irrelevant to the discussion.

This matter of collecting a certain number of fruits to greet the New Year has long stopped being just a tradition —it has become almost like a religion to many. Fortunately, completing 12, or 14, or even 24 round fruits is no longer a problem today provided one is willing to fork over lots of money for exotic fruits. Our markets are awash with fruits imported from all over the world. A habit that I picked up from my late grandmother is this thing about making sure children knew how certain fruits taste; so last Christmas I bought fresh cherries, parsimons, tangerines and plums. I would have wanted to buy fresh peaches but my suki fruit vendor said they were available in Divisoria but she didn’t think there would be buyers. The cherries were very expensive, but the rest cost pretty much just like apples.

It is a sad reflection of the times we live in that certain imported fruits such as apples and oranges are now a lot cheaper, and more readily available, compared to local fruits such as guavas. Come to think of it, it’s been ages since I last saw macopa and balimbing sold in fruit stands. Except for our mangoes, there is supposedly no market for indigenous fruits in this country. Apparently, most Filipinos think the way these fruits taste is unworthy of our more sophisticated palate. This is arrant nonsense, of course. In many five star hotels in Thailand, they serve slices of macopa, guavas, and other fruits along with apples and oranges in their buffet tables.

The selling of firecrackers has been banned in cities like Muntinlupa although the city ordinance did not specify if lighting some also constitute a violation. Given that the stuff is readily available elsewhere in Metro Manila (I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of stalls in Muntinlupa continue to sell the prohibited stuff), regulating firecrackers would be a tall order. Of course, as in most anything else in this country, the key is political will. Davao City has been firecrackers-free for a number of years now because former city mayor Rodrigo Duterte has decreed that firecrackers are anathema and has made sure that everyone in the city complies with the ordinance.

Last I checked, casualties from firecrackers were already being attended to in various hospitals—and it’s not even New Year’s Eve yet. Those horrible footages of children screaming in pain while doctors try to re-attach body parts blown to smithereens by firecrackers are back in the newscast. Is anyone listening? I don’t think so. Certain traditions are really difficult to let go. The campaign against firecrackers has been ongoing for many decades now and yet we continue to count casualties around this time of the year. Clearly, we need to present alternatives. The way to encourage people to give up bad habit is to provide them a suitable option such as watching a more spectacular fireworks display nearby. Shock therapy is a tricky proposition, and almost always ineffective anyway.

But traditions do serve a valuable role in society. They often defy logic but they always make some sense because, truly, the things that bind us together in family and solidarity are often beyond reason. Some things in this world are just best enjoyed.

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