Monday, February 26, 2007

"After all, there is no gene for fate"

By Dr. Jose Nilo G. Binongo

Life can be tough when one is born with physical traits that have not been in vogue in the history of humankind. It becomes even tougher when, for the rest of one's life, one is stuck with a set of undesired congenital marks. But should one lose hope? Should one allow one's genetic makeup determine the future?

Growing up, I realized that, to be socially `in', I should stop sitting in my favorite corner of the library all day long. I thought participating in sports might earn me more popularity points than being adroit at fiddling with the card catalogue. But alas, in my attempt to fit in as an athlete, I came to realize I had the stature of a pygmy and the grace of a dodo – my posture and body movement were devoid of dexterity, assurance, and style.

Well then, if I wasn't built for sports, perhaps a leadership role might suit me better. So I considered running for student council president in my final year in high school. But my closest of friends dissuaded me. They confided that my chance of winning was as good as my height. I agreed; in many people's minds, one's ability to lead is a function of one's stature. So I ended up as class beadle – a position I held since my elementary years in Macasandig –where height was not a job requirement for monitoring classroom misdemeanors from my seat.

But if there was something positive that came out of this predicament, I learned early on the importance of focusing on academics. In this arena, I could compensate for my physical shortcomings. As it turned out, I wasn't wrong in my self-assessment.

After graduating from Xavier High School, I went to Ateneo de Manila as an academic scholar. This was my first time away from home, living in a place where the day-to-day language was different from my own. In my first few weeks in the Philippine capital, it was impressed upon me that Cebuano, as a language, doesn't have the same level of sophistication as that of Tagalog. My friends in the dormitory were amused with my corruption of the Tagalog vowels.

I would effortlessly change the `e's to `i's, and the `o's to `u's. Whenever I said `aku' instead of `ako' or `lalaki' instead of `lalake', my friends from southern Philippines were quick to point out, "Ka-Bisaya ba gyod nimo!" (You're so hopelessly Bisaya!)

To this very day, I've never fully understood why it is such a bad thing to be Bisaya, as we deprecatingly call ourselves. Just like my short standing, I didn't choose to be born, to be raised, or to be thrown into a community of heavily-accented Cebuano speakers. But did my Visayan-speaking friends realize that they were really discriminating against their own kind? Were they aware that they implicitly accepted our inferiority as people speaking a less refined language? Cebuano is not a dialect. Linguists have repeatedly told us that Cebuano is a bona fide language on its own. As languages, both Cebuano and Tagalog have a written form, and, to my knowledge, many literary works of quality have been written in both languages.

Moreover, if we accept that Philippine languages belong to the Malayo-Polynesian family, then, surely, `aku' or `lalaki' is more faithful to the original pronunciation. Malaysians and Indonesians alike say `aku', not `ako', when referring to the first person singular; similarly, Malaysians say `lelaki' (or `laki laki' in Indonesian) when they refer to the male sex. As I went on and on, I realized my explanation was falling on deaf ears. Steve, a good friend from Davao, gently patted my back and suggested that I shouldn't worry about matters of no importance.

After graduating from Ateneo, I went to Tokyo to take up graduate studies at Sophia University (another Jesuit institution) as a research scholar of the Japanese Ministry of Education. The Japanese didn't care whether I was uprooted from the deepest recesses of my country or what regional language I spoke. It was good enough that they knew I was from the Philippines, and that I could speak respectable Nihongo.

Unfortunately, they did discriminate in other ways. Women from the Philippines were stereotyped as entertainers (a euphemism for women in the sex trade) and Filipino men as undocumented construction workers whose jobs could be succinctly described by the three k's: `kiken', `kitsui', `kitanai' (which I translate as the three d's: dangerous, difficult and dirty). I was discriminated against not because I spoke Cebuano, but because I come from a country that sends illegal workers to Japan. Quite understandably, some Filipinos in Japan were not forthright about their country of origin, fearing unwanted social repercussions. I, on the other hand, had to launch a personal campaign, asking Filipinos with legal status to make their nationality known to their Japanese acquaintances. This, to me, was an important step towards tackling the discrimination problem.

Of course, in Japan I didn't grow taller than a young cherry blossom tree, and my height remained an item for picking. One day, I was frantically searching for the blackboard eraser in my pre-calculus class at a high school in Fukuoka (a metropolitan area in southwestern Japan).

After finding it, I learned that a student had deliberately kept it hidden on top of the board. I had made it clear to all my students that, as teacher, I was very open to constructive criticism (which I defined as "things that I can change"), and that I was intolerant of destructive feedback (defined as "things I cannot possibly change"). By hiding the eraser 6.5 feet above the floor, the students were making a statement about my height! Just before I could unleash my impending anger, one of the students, Seung Woon, explained that the class was having a tough time catching up with my board work. In an instant, what I had perceived as destructive feedback wilted into something constructive. I calmed down, smiled gingerly, and patiently waited for my students to finish copying what I had scribbled on the board.

I now teach in the United States, having left Japan several years ago. In this country, somebody has yet to deride me for being a Bisaya, or discriminate against me because I come from the Philippines, or because I was raised in the battlefield of Mindanao. (Some Americans don't even have an idea of where the Philippines is on the map!) But still, some people can't help but pick on my unique height, let alone the physical features that go with it. In his high school senior speech, a former student, Zach, talked to his audience of five hundred people about his "hobbit-like math teacher, Dr. José Nilo G. Binongo, who stood at about three inches above five feet."

I gave Zach credit for remembering my complete name (including the middle initial!) and for choosing an appropriate analogy. Undeniably, my physical appearance fits that of a hobbit – short height, long, dark, wavy hair, and big feet (allow me to add, though, that my feet are not hairy). My unimpressive appearance is in stark contrast to Zach's model-like features. Maintaining the flawless physique of a lacrosse player, Zach was recently featured in MTV's reality show, "Made."

There are things in life that I cannot be held accountable for. It wasn't my choice that I have a significantly below-average height. It wasn't my choice to grow up embracing Cebuano as my mother tongue. It wasn't my choice that I have a Philippine passport or that I have typical Southeast Asian looks. Even with modern day medical technology, it would be difficult to undo these congenital marks of my personhood. Yes, I have many qualities that many people do not deem `cool', but I do believe there's a reason why I possess them. Though I have yet to fully understand, all I know now is that these God-given gifts define who I am and shape my uniqueness as an individual with a mission in this transient world.

Perhaps, Zach's speech is more telling: "Dr. Binongo did find passion in his work, in a way that inspired even the most unenthusiastic students.… He even took jokes about his size, voice, and hair with a confident smile. It was those qualities that made me respect him, but I was unsure about what made him a great example of manhood. He did not embody any of the qualities I set out to acquire, yet I believed him to be one of the greatest men I had ever met."

So as not to be misconstrued, I am responsible for many things in my life. I have made many decisions, some of which, in retrospect, I wish I did not have anything to do with. Some I am very happy with.

Becoming a teacher is one such happy decision. The teaching profession has allowed me to touch many people's lives at any given time.

Before a crowd of prospective students and parents, Ashley (a former student in my advanced placement calculus class) candidly admitted: "In Dr. Binongo's class, I experienced two firsts: my first F (a 63 to be exact) and the first time I have ever found myself looking forward to a math class." Even as Ashley portrayed me as being a very difficult teacher, I smiled at those words. As she continued on her speech, I became more confident that I understand correctly what God wanted me to be. It's a great comfort to know that I've been treading on the right track all these years. I'm not a rich man probably because I chose to be a teacher, but this is a decision I take responsibility for and a decision I don't regret making.

Years before Zach made me the subject of his high school speech, my own son, Rai, had decided to do the same, entitling his speech, "Life with José." While it is true that I felt uncomfortable when Rai revealed privileged information about myself to the entire school (for example, my abortive attempts at karaoke every Sunday morning), I was all smiles when he summed up his speech with these words: "Despite all these negatives, I think my Dad made a good decision to become a teacher. I sure benefited from his passion and I know others will, too."

It's been a long time since he gave that unforgettably embarrassing speech, but it was only recently that I came to believe that my son truly meant what he said in his concluding lines. Last week, he drove more than eight hours (crossing three state borders) to participate in a ceremony at Emory University recognizing my efforts in teaching. I felt pride in his heart when Molly (a graduate student in public health) read these words during the commencement ceremony: I am presenting this award to a professor who received a standing ovation on the first and last day of class this past semester. I was definitely surprised at the enthusiasm of the students for this professor until I actually experienced his teaching. Somehow, this professor made the very difficult subject of biostatistics fun and comprehensible. … He spends the few extra moments he has during the day to ensure that every student completely understands the material that he teaches. Then he makes you promise to get enough sleep the night before a test so that there are no confounding variables. Although this professor once said, "I'm not a magician, I'm just a
statistician, " I believe he underestimates his teaching abilities. This professor is more than a magician — he is a teacher. Dr. José Binongo, are you out there?

My son was one of the first to congratulate me on receiving the Rollins Professor of the Year Award. Though there are things in life that I can't change, I do have total control over how I respond to them. I could have chosen to get angry with my parents, blaming them for bringing me into this world and raising me as a native of Mindanao. I could have wished I had Brad Pitt's looks. I could have wished I had Michael Jordan's height and athletic prowess. I could have wished I spoke with a legitimate American accent. I could have wished I were as smart as Albert Einstein.

I could have wished I had Bill Gates' wealth. While it is true that my genes and my demographic characteristics define who I am, they do not completely determine my fate. It's the personal choices and decisions I've made – along with never-ending prayers for discernment – that have led me to where I am now, and where I will be.

My DNA, or the environment I grew up in, cannot limit my humanity and my human spirit. Although I'm painfully aware of the inconveniences, I don't feel deprived just because I'm not the standard height.

I am not sorry for choosing a profession that doesn't pay well. Hearing from students that I've made a difference in their lives is, to me, priceless. And yes, I take pride in the fact that I have my roots in Cagayan de Oro. I am proud of being a Bisaya, with Cebuano as my native language. I feel truly blessed that I have a Filipino heritage. I'm happy to be me.

(Dr. Jose Nilo G. Binongo, a Filipino academician at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, who studied in Japan and was recognized as Rollins School of Public Health Professor of the Year in 2006.)


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