Self-respect and national pride

When you apply for a visitor’s visa, you may expect to be given a tough time by consular officials of the country you wish to enter.  You may be asked to produce proof that your visit is legitimate, that you are not going to be a burden or a danger, and that you have no motive to overstay or become an illegal immigrant.  It is the prerogative of every country to deny a visa to anyone it considers unsuitable. The consuls may often be impatient, unfriendly or even hostile. But they have no right to bully or humiliate anyone applying for a visa.

Cynthia Nograles Lumbera is a professor of literature and former Chair of the Department of English at the Ateneo de Manila University.  Last April, she applied for a US visa and went through the usual interview at the American embassy in Manila.  She brought documents showing she has a regular full-time job at the Ateneo, lives with her family and pays taxes in the Philippines, has ties and properties in this country, and has enough funds to allow her to travel abroad.  She expected the consul to assess her eligibility for a visa on the basis of these documents.  Though she was given a 10-year multiple entry visa, the treatment she underwent at the embassy has made her decide not to use it.  To her, it is a matter of self-respect and national pride.

“Shayne”, as she is called by friends, is a highly-respected colleague in academe, a shy and soft-spoken person, and hardly the type that anyone would suspect of harboring a secret wish to live in America. Her account of her encounter with an ill-mannered US consul has been previously written about, but I am re-telling it here as a lesson for Independence Day.

“I had with me all my supporting documents (ITR, Certificate of Employment, other proofs of income, bank books, land titles, etc.). But the perverse man never asked to see a single one, and chose instead to insult me.

“‘You say you’re a teacher of English at the Ateneo de Manila, a very good school.  Can you name me one writer?’  Flabbergasted, I played along anyway, naming 17th century writer John Donne.  ‘Can you name me one of his works?’ he said. ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,’ I said.  ‘Death Be Not Proud?’ he said. I didn’t say anything.  (It’s not the same poem.)

“‘Another writer,’ he asked.  Stating the obvious this time, I said, ‘Shakespeare.’  ‘Name me a play by Shakespeare,’ he said. I said, ‘Romeo and Juliet.’  ‘Another writer,’ he said.

“‘I have some documents,’ I said, offering to show him my papers instead.  ‘Name me another writer,’ he repeated, ignoring my offer.  If he had bothered to look at my documents, he would have seen that I am finishing my 20 years as an English teacher at the Ateneo de Manila.

“‘Give me the name of another writer,’ he insisted. ‘You’re a teacher of English, and you can’t give me the name of another writer?’ he said, laughing sarcastically.  This power tripper could very well ask me to recite a poem for him next.  I didn’t say anything.  Scornfully shoving a stub at me, he said:  ‘Get your visa! But I pity the Ateneo de Manila, a very good school with an excellent reputation — for having an English teacher like you who knows only two writers.'” Like most American embassy consuls, this insolent bureaucrat is trained to see every applicant for a US visa as a potential immigrant to America, and to regard all Philippine documents as possibly fraudulent. Even a US visa issued in Manila is no guarantee of a smooth entry into American territory.  In the early ’80s, I found myself waiting longer than usual before an immigration officer at the Los Angeles airport.  Without saying anything, she tried to peel off the lamination on the page that had my photo.  Worried that she might destroy my passport, I politely asked what she was doing and if there was a problem.  She said she was just making sure that the photograph had not been substituted.  I showed her a letter of invitation to a conference at Columbia University that I was attending. She glanced at it and said that many Filipinos come with spurious documents.  “Why aren’t you going straight to New York?” she asked. “I have a sister here in LA I want to visit,” I replied.  In her eyes, I was just another potential law-breaker from a God-forsaken country.

Are we just being hypersensitive, or are we justified to protest this kind of treatment?  I think Shayne Lumbera is totally justified to feel the way she did and to go public with it.  I understand that as soon as he learned about it, the American Consul General personally called her to apologize.

Some might say, she got her visa; so what’s the big deal? I suppose it is that burning feeling, when self-respect wins over pragmatism, and you know you cannot live with yourself until you have recovered your moral courage. Shayne Lumbera refused to feel she earned a visa by keeping silent while being insulted.

National pride is to countries as self-respect is to individuals, says the American philosopher Richard Rorty.  On the whole, we tend to have too little of the former.  Although excessive pride may often drive a nation to war, its absence makes its citizens indifferent to what happens to it.  When President Estrada visits America this year, he will be asking for more military aid.  By so doing, he risks eroding what little national pride we recovered when we ousted Marcos in 1986, and when we got rid of the US bases in 1991. He also makes it a bit more difficult for decent Filipinos everywhere to get the respectful treatment they deserve when dealing with countries like America.


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