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To the American who wrote Filipinos a love letter

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01:40 PM February 19th, 2013

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By: Benjamin Pimentel, February 19th, 2013 01:40 PM

(American expatriate David H. Harwell’s moving piece “Love letter to Filipinos” was published in the Inquirer on Feb. 17. This is a response.)

Dear Mr. Harwell,

Thank you for your letter, for insights that remind us why, despite all its problems, the Philippines has many things to offer the world.

You’re also critical of your homeland, the United States. In a way, I understand. I’ve lived in the US for nearly a quarter of a century. I’ve caught glimpses of the cold, heartless America you talked about.

But you also said, “In America, our hands are full, but our hearts are empty.”

That’s a stunning image. I must say, though, that I myself encountered a different America.

You spoke of people who fell into what you called the American Trap, who chose to “live only to work, and work only to buy more things that we don’t need.”

But not all Americans live that way.

To be sure, many are struggling now. Like Filipinos in the Philippines, they do so for their children. For there’s talk now of “Generation Screwed,” of young Americans in their 20s and 30s for whom the future is bleak, who may end up being the first generation to have less prosperous lives than the ones their parents enjoyed.

As the father of two young boys, I worry about that. But many things about the United States give me hope.

Maybe it’s because I live in the Bay Area, where people tend to be hopeful and open-minded. I wouldn’t even use the word “tolerant.” To “tolerate” suggests being told, “Okay, you’re a strange, even offensive, bunch, but I guess we’ll just have to live with you.”

In the Bay Area, the approach is more of to “engage,” to say, “Oh, you’re from the Philippines. So what’s life like where you’re from, and what of your country might we be able to use and learn from?” People here seem always eager to know what they learn from people from other lands.

Some dismiss that as “political correctness,” but that culture of engaged openness is a key reason my wife and I have enjoyed living here.

Actually, that culture even speaks to the good news that your letter underscored. Many Americans are not arrogant, clueless and narrow-minded as many believe. Many of them are like you: eager to learn from other peoples of the world. And as you explained in your letter, there is much to learn from the Philippines. On the other hand, there clearly are so many lessons the Philippines can learn from the American story.

I’m sharing this with you because I worry about sweeping portrayals of either the Philippines or the United States, of Filipinos and of Americans, or of any other group or country.

Many Filipinos now live outside the Philippines. Most of them, roughly four million, are in the United States. Most of them still love the Philippines, and hope to see the country succeed and prosper. But they also consider the United States home.

You painted a glowing, life-affirming portrait of our homeland. But I worry that, particularly for the young Filipino-Americans, who may not know much of the Philippines, but also want to be connected to the country of their parents, the picture you presented is incomplete.

This week, the Philippines will again celebrate the People Power Revolt that ended a dictatorship in 1986. Many of us took part in that historic uprising. And it was heartening for me to know, after I moved to the US, that many Americans helped wage that fight.

Eventually, I realized why that was so. For fighting for justice has been part of the American story. I must tell you how moved and inspired I’ve been by the Civil Rights struggles in this country in the 1960s.

Young Filipinos, in the Philippines and in the United States, can learn so much from those struggles. And I know many young Filipino-Americans want to know more about the Philippines.

Right now, many of them on college campuses across California and the entire US are preparing for an annual Filipino Spring ritual unique to the US. They call it PCN, Pilipino Cultural Night, when thousands of young FilAms hold a night of music and poetry and plays celebrating their Filipino-ness.

Some of them even take their commitment beyond those shows, travelling to the Philippines to work on social and political campaigns.

They can learn so much from the Philippines. But they also can also learn so much from the story of America, with its complex, painful, but sometimes also inspiring story.

Please don’t view this response as a rejection of your heartwarming insights into my homeland.

Instead, I hope you see this as an affirmation of the strengths and even beauty of yours.

This is, in many ways, my attempt to build on what you said.

For I really believe, Mr. Harwell, that there are many lessons and stories, powerful and uplifting, that we can find and celebrate both in the Philippines and in the United States.

Maraming salamat po.

On Twitter @boyingpimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/boyingpimentel

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