Defining Nationalism

By Antonio G Pineda Jr

AS the country celebrated Independence Day on June 12, I could not help remembering that, until 1982, I did not know what the word nationalism meant. Nor did I care. It was a long, official-sounding word that, for a long time, held no relevance in my life.

Up to now, I have never bothered to consult the dictionary as to the definition of nationalism. It is through learning to come to terms with my identity as a Filipino living in an alien country that I grew to appreciate its meaning.

I came up with my first definition of nationalism when I joined my parents in London in 1981 at the age of 11. For me, nationalism then meant acceptance. I had to accept that I was different from the rest of my school. An important part of my British education was learning that not everyone was brown-skinned who ate rice as part of every meal.

Likewise, I had to accept that being a Filipino meant I was considered an object of ridicule. In the same way as we Filipinos refer to all white people as ‘Americans’ regardless of their nationality, my British classmates could not seem to distinguish between the Orientals. To them, the Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and other Southeast Asians were all Chinese. The big difference was, the British did not place the Chinese on the same high pedestal that the Filipinos place the Americans. Like other ‘Chinese’ people, I was considered a strange, inferior creature. I had funny eyes. I talked in an odd language. I ate foul-smelling food. I realized that most of these racist taunts were borne out of ignorance but it still took me a while to get used to them.

Then, nationalism became synonymous with shame. To fit in, I misguidedly tried to become more like my British counterparts. But the media never let me or my classmates forget my roots. The Philippines held a lot of interest for reporters. It was a good source for many a scandal and headline. The Philippines became famous not for its world-class beaches, its people’s hospitality, or its exotic fruits. Journalists were hell bent on portraying it as a country of prostitutes, corrupt politicians and of dog-eaters.

More than ten years later, I remember vividly the time the news erupted on the Ten O’clock News on Independent Television: DOGS BATTERED AND COOKED ALIVE. There was outrage all over the United Kingdom, a country of animal lovers. The next day, I was confronted by belligerent classmates. “How could you eat dogs? How could you be so cruel to man’s best friend?” they demanded in disgust. To them, eating dogs was as repulsive as eating a member of one’s family. That I personally had never tasted dog meat in my life did not matter. My country had been found guilty of a terrible crime. It followed that I was guilty too. I bowed my head low in shame.

But it was this shame that eventually helped me equate the word nationalism with pride. One Filipino against one nation. I set out to prove that there was more to the Philippines than graft and corruption, poverty, and animal cruelty. I stopped trying to be British, and with pride for my mother country as my motivating force, I set out to excel in my studies. My efforts were rewarded with a succession of academic distinctions. My heart burst with national pride every time I came top in exams. My love for my country magnified when I received an international award for English Communications at the Houses of Parliament. I felt the same when I won first prize in tan international newsletter-production competition.

I did not look on these as personal triumphs. I did not achieve the highest grades in college because I possessed a high degree of intelligence. I attribute my achievements to one thing only: like Ninoy Aquino, I believed that the Filipino is worth dying for.

There are of course others who have proved that we Filipinos could and should hold our heads up high. Who could forget Lea Salonga’s meteoric rise to international fame and acclaim in the mid-Eighties as Miss Saigon? And was there a true Filipino who did not cheer for Cory Aquino during the EDSA Revolution? These are victories that the rest of the world have come to look up to. They are victories demanding that Filipinos should no longer be seen as a race to look down on.

It was my sense of nationalism that eventually led me to decide to leave England and return to the Philippines for good. And you know what? The word nationalism has acquired the meaning: there’s no place like home.