When my son Eric first arrived in the Philippines about six weeks ago, he wasn't too excited. You see, my family there didn't have an HDTV, and Eric needed to hook his PS3 up to an HDTV in order to switch its output back to something that a regular television could process. Today, when I asked Eric on the phone if he'd been able to get his PS3 output adjusted, he said, "Um, no. Actually, I forgot I had the PS3."
I didn't let on, but I was pretty much floored by that reply. You see, when Eric was here with me, he was fairly addicted to Modern Warfare 2…and I wasn't much help since I enjoyed it too. But the part of me that cared the most about my son knew that growing up here in western Washington wasn't the best thing for him. There were seven of us in our household – my wife, myself, my 25 year-old son, my 15 year-old son Eric, and my two medically-fragile Foster children who are too disabled to really interact with the rest of the family. There are some other family members in the county, but we're really not that close to them. We see them twice a week at church, but not much more than that. In fact, a few months ago Eric told me that his friends are just as good as family. I corrected him, but I knew that unless he felt it firsthand, he'd never believe me.
My wife grew up in the Philippines in a group of ten brothers and sisters and had dozens of cousins nearby, and she often told me of the memories she had with her family. My grandmother had grown up in the Mississippi Delta in a group of thirteen brothers and sisters. Her experience was not as good as my wife's, but then my wife's not bipolar and/or schizophrenic as my grandmother was (life with my grandmother was never boring). But in any case, I learned from both their experiences that as a result of growing up among so many siblings, they had a better idea of what made other people tick, and how to tell what buttons to push to acquire the desired reaction. More importantly, they both felt closer to their families than I ever did, since (precisely like my son) I grew up in a house where my only sibling was a half-brother whose father hadn't been heard from in many years. I wanted my son to grow up in a place where there was lots and lots of family…and fortunately, I had the opportunity to do just that.
Please don't get me wrong – I love my son dearly. My heart aches not having him around, not having the opportunity to see him off to school each day, feeling my chest swell with pride that he's turning out to be a better young man than I ever did. What's more, I know that my family there in the Philippines is not perfect by any means. There's a couple of drug addicts, one of whom's a thief, and another who used to be on the wrong side of the local law and the local mob (which are not always two different things). But none of them are malicious – in fact, one of the lessons I want Eric to learn is that even though he knows their faults (and I made sure he did), even though he knows he cannot trust them with money or belongings, he can trust them with his safety…because I've seen how they reacted when my oldest son was in danger even when they didn't like him. Such is the importance of family.
The rest of my brothers and sisters there are trustworthy in all respects. Time and time again I marvel when, after we've sent money there, my wife will discuss with them how the money was used…because she is completely confident that they are being truthful with her. That's something else that shocked me – most of her family are truth-tellers, people who honestly value the truth above self-interest. I'd never seen that before. I didn't think such people existed…but they do. Along the way, I also discovered that the more one tells the unvarnished truth, the more one can tell falsehood in others – but that's another story.
It was a struggle getting Eric's school year done here three weeks ahead of time so he could start school there in the Philippines, but we got it done. I asked him over the phone how he likes the school there, and at first, after his first visit to register there before the beginning of their school year in mid-June, he said, "Dad, it looks like a school in a third-world country." But at least he said it quietly enough to where the others around him couldn't understand him. He said that they didn't have any lockers, and I knew from my oldest son that they didn't have whiteboards – they had the old blackboards and chalk that I grew up with. They also didn't have air-conditioning, but only ceiling fans. I haven't had the opportunity yet to tell my son that where I went to school in the Delta, we also used blackboards, but we didn't have ceiling fans, much less air-conditioning.
So I asked him again today how he liked his school, and he said, "Dad, it's so so so so so fun!" He told me that everyone knows his name, even the kids in the higher grades – apparently, it hasn't yet sunk in that as a half-white kid, he sort of stands out among the rest. My oldest son and my nephew here both sardonically pointed that little fact out to him. He also told me about going to the Mall of Asia yesterday – and apparently they've got not only a small carnival with a carousel and a ferris wheel inside, but they've even got a paintball court inside! I have to go there next time I visit. My wife – who flew there a few days ago to make sure that Eric's doing okay – told me about how at the KFC in the mall, when Eric handed her the meal and the drink, he took pains to point out that those were the 'large' size…even though they wouldn't even qualify as the 'small' size here in the States. Sure, I could gripe about that, but I'm a glass-is-half-full kind of guy anyway, so I'd prefer to think that that's a better form of portion control than we have stateside.
Here in my house in Puget Sound, Eric was like any other teenager – he was mortified to be seen with me or my Darling in public. A week or so after he arrived in the Philippines he told my wife, "Mom, it's different here. The kids aren't embarrassed to be seen at the mall with their parents." And, like other teenagers here he didn't like us to go in his room…but now he's sharing his room with four cousins – one boy, one girl, and another girl with her baby. He's even enjoying the weather – he no longer needs the air-conditioning to sleep at night, and he's thoroughly enjoying the rainy season with the almost-daily thunderstorms that one sees maybe once a year in Puget Sound.
Now it's not perfect, of course. He's a lot like the kid in Dick Tracy – eats everything in sight and craves for more (and somehow stays skinny as a rail) – and he hates the fact that he can't get up at oh-dark-thirty to go scrounge for food like he can here. He also misses the kind of meat we have stateside, because the meat in burgers and dogs there are sweetened for the local taste, even at McDonald's. He misses barbecue sauce, too. But after his first week there, those are his only complaints. Not bad, not bat at all!
But to listen to him now, loving the school, loving the fact that he's got so many cousins to hang out with, and to hear him tell me that he even forgot he had the PS3, well, that helps salve the hurt that I have missing him so badly. I'll see him later this year, and we'll move there next year (for sure this time, despite all my previous threats), and I'll watch him grow up in a society that is more cosmopolitan than any in America outside of our largest cities.
It took me most of a career in the Navy to learn to be a citizen, not just of America, but of the world. God willing, I'll watch my youngest son learn the same before he's ready to leave on his own.