Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Social Beings

Indeed, no man is an island. We are social beings, and at the very core of our humanity is an intense need to belong, to be recognized, to be acknowledged.

Prisoners of war are truly conquered not by decades of incarceration but by just months of solitary confinement. As the ultimate punishment for bad behavior, inmates are dumped into "the hole," a small space not larger than a comfort room, and are kept separated from other prisoners for extended periods of time. Yet even as correctional facilities use isolation supposedly to discipline, and captors use seclusion supposedly for security, in the end, it is ultimately the human spirit that is broken, and with that hopelessness sets in.

Moving alone to another country is like self-imposed solitary confinement. All that is familiar is abruptly taken away like a rug pulled from under you, and whether you land back on your feet or flat on your face will depend on how one is able keep connected to ones social safety net back home or, more importantly, how one is able to establish new social networks.

It was the same for me when I arrived here.

The first week was the hardest. No more eating as a family with my wife and kids. No more delicious home-cooked/wife-cooked meals. Back home, bedtime for me meant first playing robot and karate and transformers with my 3- and 5-year old boys, then having a chit-chat about high school with my 15-year old, who had his own room. Our small ones slept with us, and I miss waking up at the dead of the night to their crying, or to watching my wonderful wife pick them up while asleep, placing them on her shoulders, pulling down their shorts, and making them pee so they wouldn't wet their bed. Here, I have no one to hug at night and no one to wake up with. Back in the Philippines, coming home from work meant that my two small kids would rush out of the front door and run toward my car, and my eldest son would go down from his room, interrupting his studies, to bless my hand, a local Filipino tradition of respect for your parents. Here I come home to an empty room.

In such desolation, one's survival instincts kick in. I searched for the familiar, and reached out to grab it.

First, I joined the church choir and met some wonderful people. Practicing and singing and laughing with them makes me feel like I am with my kids - but 10 or 15 years into the future - as the choir members are mostly in their late teens or early twenties. The Filipino community here is also one dynamic group. Every Friday, those who can hop into one Filipino professor's car as he heads to a local shopping mall for the movies.

Second, I also joined a student writers group, called SPA (Student Press Assistants), which writes articles and stories for the official APU website. Last week, the SPA group had a weekend camp in order to get to know each other better, experience working with each other, and generally to bond better as a team, and, more importantly, as friends. As in any relationship, what one gets will depend on what one puts into it, what one invests in it. If you open up and share a personal side to yourself, you'll find others also willing to do the same. In the process, friends get to trust each other better, as each of you are now bound by an invisible sense of belongingness, of camaraderie.

Indeed, in others, in a community, one finds strength and identity. Not that one, like a Chameleon, blends into the environment perfectly, often replacing its own true colors. Instead in a community red becomes "redder," black becomes "blacker" when amidst whites, when amidst other fellow human beings who, just by being their own respective selves, enhance the best in you.

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