Home is where our people are

Los Angeles.  For the first time ever, I am taking part in a uniquely American celebration — Thanksgiving Day, that special day in November when Americans go home to feast on turkey and cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie and corn.   I had absolutely no idea what this day meant to this country until I decided to fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the eve of Thanksgiving.

As early as 5 a.m., bumper-to-bumper traffic had started to fill the freeways.  Parking spaces at the airport had been reduced to a gruesome gridlock.  Throughout the day, airline staff at the check-in counters ran a breathless operation that made them look like triage officers issuing life-and-death decisions.  Television stations gave minute-by-minute reports on the worsening traffic situation at the freeways and the airports, and showed live footage of the chaos being played out inside airport terminals.

At the San Francisco airport, where flights were taking off at the rate of one per minute, my destination was called so many times in a span of thirty minutes that I kept checking my boarding pass to make sure it was not my flight.  Thousands of chance passengers militantly hovered around boarding gates, waiting for the last confirmed passenger not to show up.

All of America comes home on Thanksgiving Day.  Christmas and anniversaries may be ignored, but no one makes excuses for not making it on Thanksgiving.  My sisters and brother in LA, who have lived here long enough to know what this day should mean to every family in America, insisted that I and my son CP must come home and join them on this day.  Unfortunately, like all graduate students under constant pressure, CP could not fly to LA with me.  His final exams come after Thanksgiving, and he was going to pass this day alone in his small cubicle at the university.  I felt sorry for him and thought of postponing my trip to LA just to keep him company.

That was before I met the other Pinoys at Stanford – compatriots from an older generation who, over the years, have seen graduate students like CP come and go.  Some have settled in Palo Alto as successful professionals.  But many work in the different offices of the university as administrative personnel.  They know what it takes to come to Stanford, and they feel a natural pride when fellow Filipinos are admitted into this premier school.  Even so, they are not always sure if the students are interested to meet them.

But this year’s batch of Pinoy graduate students at Stanford, numbering about 10 and spread out in cutting-edge science, engineering, and management courses, have been particularly keen to reach out to the Pinoy community.  When I got there last week, they asked me to speak on the financial crisis in Asia and how the Philippines was weathering it.  I expected a small group of 10 to 15 people.  But Mike Gonzalez, a dear old friend who teaches Tagalog at Stanford, surprised me and came with his Pinoy-American undergrad students.  The lecture had to be moved to a bigger room because the audience had swollen to about 45.  Half of those who came were Palo Alto old-timers who had read the announcement in the Internet.  The students had posted it believing this was the best way to bring all the Pinoys from the area together.  They were not mistaken.

After the lecture, we all went to a Thai restaurant where we could have rice cooked the Filipino way.  There is something about boiled rice being passed around the table during a meal that recreates the Pinoy sense of community even in the strangest of settings.  The conversation was warm and spontaneous.  These young people, possibly among the country’s top brains, were fun to be with.  They were brimming with ideas and hopes for the country.

Eric Franco, a summa cum laude graduate from Ateneo, is finishing his MBA.  Alex Ledesma is doing a masters in civil engineering and is specializing in low-cost housing.  His sister Cheese is also enrolled in the MBA program.  Two young men in their mid-twenties, Glenn Mahiya and Jun Belen, are studying petroleum engineering on Stanford fellowships.  A husband-and-wife team, Jay and Portia Sabido, have just completed their doctorates in engineering and chemistry, respectively, and are going back to UP.  “Papa, this is Archie Panganiban; he is my idol,” CP jokingly said as he led me to a quiet young man.  Archie has a degree in piano from UP, summa cum laude, and is now doing a doctorate in management engineering. Paul Lim, another UP graduate, is in computer science.  Earlier at the lecture, I met Ronnie Borja, Stanford associate professor in structural engineering and one of only 3 international engineers consulted to help save the leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Pinoy old-timers proudly look upon them like they were their own children.  They told them stories of students from an earlier generation who spent a good part of their youth on this same campus.  Many went on to become top government officials and captains of industry. But the old-timers still remember them as the bright kids who competed hard against the best in the world while fighting the ghost of homesickness.

Before the night was over, social gaps had been bridged and invitations issued for Thanksgiving dinner in the homes of the FilipinoAmerican Community at Stanford (FACS) by Stanley Jacob, who works at the petroleum engineering department.  “We are your family in America,” he told the students.  “Our homes are your homes.”  I believe him.  For that is exactly what I have been made to feel by almost every Pinoy I met on this trip, be he a porter in the San Francisco airport, a bellboy in a Santa Monica hotel, or a Washington DC lawyer.


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