Pia came home early from work and brooded in the garden. She gazed at the orchids, her mind elsewhere. The housekeeper brought a cup of tea. “By the way, até Pia,” she said, “your cousin, Engie, will be coming for dinner. She called this afternoon.”
Pia thanked her and sipped her tea. Pia was thinking about ethics and character. According to Aristotle, man is a political animal. His behaviour is associated with the social setting in which it occurs. How does a good man act? Moral virtues, he said, are acquired by practice and habit. And what is the measure of goodness? Morals cannot be reduced to a set of principles, but we can make generalisations on what it is to be good men.
Whose task is it to make generalisations? There are those who say that religion is necessary to good conduct. But Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and other religions are mere conduits, religious moral systems for a code of behaviour. There are other moral systems, and theology alone does not shape man’s behaviour.
Jaime Velayo Ongpin once said that if the individual does not have idealism, the society won’t have it, and thus the nation won’t have it. It has to start with the individual, at home, and spread out from there. The child is modified in mind and character by his relationships with those in his family life, and broadens from there with his contacts outside the home. But the human character of the individual, Pia considered, also depends on his economic circumstances.
But to be a good parent is taught and learnt; it is not innate. Then the teaching of ethics and conduct becomes the responsibility of the State through its educational institutions. The State must teach ethics, not religion, from early childhood. Aristotle also said that a bad moral state, once formed, is not easily amended. The future of the nation depends on how children have been brought up to become leaders and to have principles in life. The good of the individual becomes the good of the community.
Pia considered that there are also norms of society that shape man’s behaviour. Ongpin calls them, infuriating Filipino values: our capacity to forgive and forget, our blind respect for authority, our come-what-may attitude, our naiveté and kindness. We forgive criminals in public office, and forget their crimes. We have a monster as head of state and cannot see him for what he is, but respect him for his authority. We leave everything to God, and make no effort to right the wrong. We, Pia thought, are a nation of credulous simpletons.
Our culture exists because the individuals that compose our society maintain its existence. To create new practices, another way of thought, a different way of life, will be up to the individual to make changes and provide direction.
Pia’s thoughts were interrupted when she heard the front door being opened. She called out to her mother who had just come home. She joined Pia in the garden. “Hello, Mother. Did you have a nice day?”
“Yes, I did, thank you, Pia. I operated on Mrs Hidalgo’s hernia today and put it in its place. I had Mr Cano’s dislocated hip back where it belonged.”
Conchita had brought another cup of tea and set it on the garden table.
“By the way,” Pia said, “I’d like to invite you and Papa out for dinner next week.”
“Oh, that’s kind of you. What’s the occasion?”
“There’s just a problem I want to discuss with you both.”
“Is it serious? Don’t you want to talk about it now?”
Pia did not want to disturb the serene atmosphere of home with unpleasant talk. “No, Mama. I want to talk to you and Papa in a restaurant, not at home.” Pia decided to change the subject. “So what else did you do today, Mama?”
Pia knew that her mother had just come back from a tournament game of bridge, one of many hobbies with which she filled her free time. Pia lived with her parents, like most unmarried working girls of her age. They had a housekeeper to do the cleaning and the cooking, and a chauffeur. The chauffeur was really unnecessary, but Pia’s mother could never manage driving in the congested streets of Manila. A sleepy cabdriver had bumped the rear wing of her car, and she had grown fond of the dent. Mrs Delgado said it let the air out of all the pomp of being chauffeur-driven.
Pia’s mother collected orchids. The garden was full of them. Those that had beautiful blooms she placed on the breakfast table so that everybody in the house would begin their day in good humour, ready to face the world and all its vicissitudes.
And Pia’s mother loved reading and discussing her books over dinner. The experiences of the characters and the philosophy behind the themes, she said, provided a learning ground for those who read them. Literature, she said, enriches and puts order in our lives. Like a mirror, it reflects observations that enable us to acquire knowledge.
“I played a tricky seven diamonds today,” Mrs Delgado said, and started to explain her hand, what the dummy had, and where the significant cards were between the opponents. But Pia wasn’t really listening. Her mind was elsewhere.
What are the ethical values that the State must impart? Integrity, responsibility, moral commitment, honesty, loyalty, social graces, citizenship, intellectual virtues, a sense of justice…. But above all, the State must impart a strong sense of personal responsibility to society. We are shaped by both our upbringing and our education. We are also guided by our conscience. No one is infallible, Pia sighed, but we have to strive to do what is right.
The engine of a car could be heard as it entered the garage. Pia’s father, likewise in the medical profession, was a surgeon with a private practice in Quezon City and, on certain days, saw patients at the Makati Medical Centre. At weekends, he would play tennis early in the morning, and during the week he would take brisk walks within the housing complex where they lived, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbours along the way.
“I’m home!” he announced. “Where’s everybody?”
“We’re in the garden, Papa!”
Pia took her father’s hand and respectfully brought it to her forehead, as she had done with her mother. Conchita came to ask if he wanted some tea. “No, thank you,” he said, “I’m going to change and take my walk.” He made his way back into the house.
“Your daughter has invited us out for dinner next week,” Pia’s mother announced.
“Yes, Papa. Where would you like to go?”
“Are we celebrating something?” he called out.
“No, not really.” Pia sighed again. She turned red with shame as she remembered seeing Max’s jaw drop to the table in surprise when she recommended that the company handle the American wine account at the meeting that afternoon. Danny, without Pia providing supporting arguments, quickly approved it. She didn’t have any. Pia wanted to talk to her parents about her options, possibly go back to school and take her Master’s degree. Pia sighed again.
“I hear Merengie is coming to dinner.”
“Pia,” her mother said, “be polite when your cousin arrives.”
“She’s not related to us by blood, you know.” Pia sniffed.
“Her mother is your godmother, so be nice with your relations.”
“A godmother at my christening does not make her entire family our relations.”
“It’s the custom, Pia.”
“Well then, some customs have to be abolished and new ones adopted. They’re very constraining, these old ways of thinking.”
“You’re right,” Pia’s mother said. “Engie’s mother asked to be your godmother because she was grateful to your father for medical treatment; but a small token of appreciation would have been sufficient. As it is, gratitude has gone beyond gift giving. Now society expects you to express gratitude not with a material present, but in the form of returning a favour. The practice has really got out of hand.”
Pia turned her thoughts elsewhere and gazed absentmindedly at the orchids.
“You look tired, Pia.”
“I’ve had an annoying time at the office today, Mama. You know, like when you feel you are alone in the wilderness, barking at the moon.”
Pia snapped out of her dismal disposition. She pulled her shoulders back and stretched her neck to one side to get the kink out of it. “Will you excuse me, Mama, I think I’ll go and take a bath now.”
Pia took her bag and leather case from the table near the front door and went upstairs to her bedroom. She dropped what she was carrying on her study table and went to the bathroom to prepare her bath. She tossed in her usual bath salts and jumped into the tub. She lay there for some time with her eyes closed, and thought after a while about one of her mother’s storybook characters, Ibsen’s doctor. If she were to stand up to Filipino society’s prevailing orientation, she would make herself unpopular with wolves and vultures. But in the final analysis of this one-sided prosperity that is maintained by those who gain from it, the strongest person is the one who holds the ladle that brings change to the cauldron of social apathy.
There was a light tapping at the door. “What is it?” Pia asked.
“Até Pia, your mother wanted me to tell you that Engie has arrived,” Conchita replied.
“Isn’t she early? I’ll be down in a few minutes. Thank you, Conchie.” Pia hastily finished her bath and got dressed. She went down the stairs, arranging her hair at the same time.
They were in the sitting room, and Merengie was doing a dance step in front of her mother. She stopped and walked towards Pia to greet her. Pia noted how Merengie walked with that slow, ungraceful, flatfooted strut. It was an arrogant walk common to that social class–the calf, not the hip, swaying outwards with every dragging step. The condescending swagger taunted–I can financially afford to take it easy, can you?
Merengie, Pia deduced, was a product of pampering parents. She was irresponsible because she did not know what it was to struggle. She did not have to think to survive. The future of the country was in the hands of its youth, a society like hers whose world was materialistic, superficial, and unreasonable. Their pathetic sense of values was learnt through Western television, which depicted an unrealistic way of life. They had no sense of purpose and they lacked discipline. Leaders were made of rare personal qualities. Surely, they could not come from this miserable lot.
“Hello, cousin!” Merengie greeted. “Como está? Think of me, think of you! I was just showing Auntie the latest disco shuffle.”
Pia could never understand what Merengie was talking about. “Hello, Engie,” she greeted back.
“Did you see that latest movie with Mel Gibson? Chig-a-dig my heart! That Americano is so-o-o gwapo!” Engie spluttered. She sat down and started to fumble through her bag. “Where are my blue seal cigarettes?”
Five more minutes of this, Pia thought as she sat down, and she would return to her bath. She need not have hurried. Small talk was really not one of her strong points. Pia noticed that her mother was just as annoyed.
“Pia,” her mother asked, “will you have Conchita place dinner on the table? I’m sure Engie doesn’t want to be home too late.”
Pia got up with much relief, and arrived at the same time as her father who came in through the kitchen back door. “Papa, we’ll be having dinner very soon.”
“She’s early,” he remarked.
Pia rolled her eyes upward. Conchita giggled and gave Dr Delgado his usual mug of iced water.
“Conchie,” Pia said, “bring all the food to the table. There’s a fire at the lake.”
“Where’s the fire?” Conchita asked in alarm.
“Never mind. We’ll be having dinner now. Just put everything on the table quickly. We shall be in a hurry to finish dinner.”
“I’m going to take a shower,” Pia’s father said, “but go ahead and begin without me. The less time I have to listen to her chatter, the better.”
Pia returned to the living room. “We can come to the table now, Mama,” she announced. “Papa will join us as soon as he can.”
“Where’s Uncle? I gotta talk to him,” Engie said.
“Have to,” Pia corrected.
“Think of me, think of you,” she replied, frivolously. “I am spokening American!”
“Speak English, please!”
“Why don’t you sit here?” Pia’s mother directed Engie to a chair.
Conchita arrived with a platter of prawns and crabs. She went back to the kitchen and returned with small saucers of fish sauce and mayonnaise. “So, Engie, how is my ninang?” Pia asked, passing the plate of seafood to her mother first.
“Mommy just came back from shopping at Landmark in Hong Kong. She’s going to Hawaii next month, you know. Believe you me, she’s a real jetsetter.”
“That’s nice,” Pia replied.
“What will she be doing in Hawaii?” Pia’s mother asked.
“I have an uncle and auntie there, so she’ll just be visiting and shopping with my dad,” she said.
“That’s nice,” Pia’s mother replied.
Merengie unshelled her shrimp with her fingers, drowned it in mayonnaise, popped it in her mouth, and then licked her fingers. Pia watched her out of the corner of her eye, as she used a knife and fork. With the conversation being what it was, they dined in silence.
“So, Engie!” Dr Delgado said as he entered the dining room. “How’s your father?”
“Hello, Uncle! He’s fine. He plays golf with the congressman so he keeps himself fit.”
“Which congressman?” Pia asked under her breath, expecting no reply.
“It’s not what you know from edumacation,” Merengie snarled, “it’s whom you know that gets you somewhere.”
Conchita brought some stuffed bellpeppers, a green salad, and white rice. “Conchita, the ketchup,” Engie ordered. Conchita returned from the kitchen and placed the bottle beside Merengie’s plate.
“So that brings me to why I’m here,” Merengie said, turning to Pia’s father, who was just starting to help himself to a coconut crab. “Uncle, I want to ask you a favour. I have a friend who wants to be a doctor at Makati Med. I promised him I’d pull strings to get him in.”
Dr Delgado’s eyes began to squint. Pia and her mother looked at each other knowingly. “He gets in only if he’s qualified to practise, and nothing else.”
“But please, Uncle. I told him I had a bigwig Uncle at the hospital. You wouldn’t want to embarrass me, would you, Uncle? Besides, Dad would do anything for you if you asked him.”
Dr Delgado’s nostrils widened in another sign of annoyance. “And what do you think will happen to the qualified doctor who has no strings to pull or doesn’t want to pull any? You will find him abroad, where his expertise and talents are appreciated. Your influence-pulling practices cause a haemorrhage of the intelligent and the talented from this country. So what do we have left? Those unfit for the jobs they’re in. Instead of advancing, we are being run by ignoramuses who keep us backward with their mediocre ideas and feebleminded ways of thinking. They are common men who do not want to rock the boat because they are content with wallowing in the mud, which is their existence. Progress and development will forever remain retarded, with severe consequences for this country. The government should seriously worry about the brain-drain problem; otherwise, there will be no one left to lead this country to prosperity. Do not ask me to pull strings for you.”
“But please, Uncle…”
Dr Delgado’s anger went into its final stage. His forehead wrinkled, his eyes popped out, and his teeth showed under his taut lips. “Engie, let’s say your friend practises medicine. How many patients would he misdiagnose, mistreat, or even cause to expire before he is stopped? What you are asking me is impossible. Consider the consequences. My answer is an emphatic no.”
Conchita brought a custard pie to the table. Dr Delgado was just finishing his crab. “Would you like coffee with your dessert?” Pia asked Merengie, who was pouting over her ketchup-smothered bellpepper.
The rest of the week was busy for Pia. Goro was unfamiliar with the organisation concerning foreign business associates, so Pia had to take care of Lortan’s arrival and agenda in Manila. Danny had given her permission to attend to him.
She was at the airport to meet the Frenchman and bring him in the company car to his hotel and first appointment in Makati. Pia had informed him beforehand that another decision had been made, and that she would introduce him to another trading house that would better serve him.
“By the way, Mr Lortan,” she informed him after lunch, “I have decided to leave the company next month.”
“I suppose a better job opportunity came your way?” he asked.
“No, it isn’t that. I do not agree with the company on certain principles and it has become a matter of integrity. Danny and I are both on a different plane of intellect. You see, the donkey means one thing and the driver another.” Pia wondered if she would make the same decision if she were the breadwinner of a family with several mouths to feed.
Mr Lortan sat there for a while, deep in thought. He dropped a cube sugar in his coffee and stirred it slowly. “Miss Delgado,” he finally said, “I find you very competent. I would be quite fortunate to have someone of your calibre in my company in Tokyo.”
Pia looked up. “Thank you for your offer, Mr Lortan. Will you give me time to consider it?”
It was a hectic week for Pia. She had business meetings and company conferences one after the other. She had to explain the accounts to the staff who would be handling them, and introduce them to her business contacts. She had lunch meetings and appointments outside the office, and with the oppressive heat and humidity of this tropical city, this was tiring. She would arrive home late, have a quick dinner, go to bed, get up the next morning, and start again.
It was at the end of such a day towards the end of that week that Pia went to meet her parents in a restaurant in Greenhills. Pia was tired and the dinner conversation was laconic. But she did have something to talk about.
“Mama and Papa,” she said, when the desserts arrived, “I am thinking of going to Tokyo. I’ve been offered a position in a French company there.”
“Tokyo…” Dr Delgado pondered. “Isn’t that where they have all those electronic gadgets and women carrying parachutes on their backs?”
“But,” Mrs Delgado asked, “didn’t you just pass the qualifying exams to take your MBA at the University? Wouldn’t it be better for your career to take your MBA first?”
“Yes, I know, Mama. But I think this is also a great opportunity to test my wings outside the nest. I can take my Master’s degree at a later date.”
Mrs Delgado looked at her husband to see what his reaction was to the news. “Who’s going to play tennis with me on weekends?” he asked.
“Will you be serious!” Mrs Delgado uttered. “Your daughter is going abroad–alone!”
“I’ve done a little research on Tokyo,” Pia said as they got up to leave. “It’s one of the safest cities in the world. I don’t think there can be anything to worry about.”
They walked together towards the front door, Dr Delgado’s arm on the shoulder of his wife, with their daughter leading the way to the car. “Pia is young. Let her see the world,” Dr Delgado said. “Let her learn what life is about. We must also teach her to be independent. Pia is a responsible girl. She can take care of herself.”