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A Country for Old Men

A few weeks ago, a Gloria Steinem quote made me rush to the closest mirror – to be honest, in a bit of a panic. She said, “Men grow old graciously, but women – just grow old.” The image staring back at me puts that Steinem quote in the Big Lie Category.

I don’t mind the odd liver spots, the forehead wrinkles – portraying a perpetual doubt on the wearer – or even the invasion of white bristles on my still ample crop of hair – but the turkey neck, the wattle as they term it, that annoying frontal neck derma, is what makes me think there is nothing gracious about growing old. Actually, I feel like a cow, an Indian sacred cattle or a Zebu with its fatty hump on its shoulders and the drooping dewlap which resembles a turkey neck after some freak radiation accident. Well, at least like that creature I am revered. So, I say – is there any purpose to aging? Is there still a place for that creature gawking back at me – that actuality in the mirror? I don’t just mean my physical location but the wider, maybe more interior landscape of my identity, both of being and becoming. What then is a country for old men?

We are now in December and soon the Christmas season will infect us with its fever of gifts, shopping, and food; but now, autumn: certainly a country for old men. The fallen leaves, the chilling wind, and the dark foreboding clouds point us to every tatter in our mortal dress. No more “salmon-falls, or mackerel-crowded seas:  Fish, flesh, or fowl, which commend all summer long; nor whatever is begotten, born, and dies, caught in that sensual music,” except the sight of winding stairs towards decay.  Unlike Yeats, I don’t long for Byzantium to sing to the lord and ladies of what is passing, or pressing or to come. These days, I feel the gnawing grip of arthritis, and the slow pain in my tattered bones which heralds one ringing fact: an aged man is but a paltry thing. But in my dream, I still see the familiar shore of my home country and the hospitable crowd in their chorus of smile and love.

For those fortunate among the old Philippine exiles, there is the hope of moving back to the motherland. How wonderful is he who has the foresight to invest in a Makati condo where perhaps a faithful servant is ever-ready with bedpans and pails. A friend of mine who lives in San Francisco has even constructed a customized house in Bataan where he will savour his remaining golden years with a steady diet of tasty tropical fruits and hometown cooking.  These days, the issue of dual citizenship becomes the village buzz. The bee line at the consulate may have beckoned to a few.

Which brings me to the topic of retirement living. It’s amazing what one finds amid the flotsam and jetsam of cyberspace, each offering the paradise of retirement in the Philippines. “There, even at my 70s. I am a young man, treated like a king because I am a person, perceived as wise and kind and helpful. I am there…. as a tao, a person,” so writes a testimonial from someone who has his late ascension to royalty all worked out. Besides, US$1,000 a month goes a long way there, (a king’s ransom?) he adds. To my credit, there are still some local acquaintances that treat me as a wise, kind, and helpful person. Not many, I see the constant Hello Boomer stares when I venture out.  But with enough local support, I may not need to travel far to become a tao.  I wonder though if they’ll feel that way after I get my dentures.

And how safe is it to live there? They say it’s as safe to live there as any other place in the world (in fact, one site disclosed a more favourable crime statistics in comparison to the US.) “As far as street crime is concerned, Cebu City is a lot safer generally than most places I have lived in the United States. You can walk the streets at 2 a.m. and have no problems in almost all parts of the city, whether you are male or female, “writes someone who’s obviously from Cebu.

Then, there are the cons, from the book, Streetwise Philippines:

“It is not unusual to have regular brown-outs, if it is a problem get yourself a generator….
Public transport leaves and arrives when it does, no use trying to understand why that’s just what happens. The highways are not like the motorways back home and fitting two cars into a lane is well… normal.” (I suppose the writer hasn’t been to Richmond, B.C. where drivers of BMWs and Mercedes’s hog the road at 10 km per hour, complete with welder’s visors and white gloves. Plenty of highways here locally but they are in the main treated disrespectfully as back alleys.)

And, here I think is the most practical advice (from the same book), the real kicker:

“One of the hardest areas to manage is your extended family in the Philippines. If you are married to a Filipino, your wife’s family will immediately label you as rich, irrespective of whether you are or not. You will be pressured to assist with all things monetary. Don’t for one instant think that a loan is to be paid back. If you do lend money to a family member be assured from the start that you will not see the money again, it will be gone forever….  The best advice is never live within three hours of your Filipina wife’s family. This is important so I will repeat it, do not live within three hours of your Filipina wife’s family. Right you have been warned….”  It sounds a bit exaggerated, but I am not sure; after all, three hours won’t be too far to travel if you want some moolah. At any rate, I will be spared that because my wife hails from Hong Kong.

As for me, it took at least a decade to adjust to the Canadian climate, four seasons and all, and it might take longer now to revert back to the culture of my youth. Then there is the medical requirement: having been sustained on a regiment of pills for my diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, and other inconveniences; I would think my habitual pilgrimage to a physician would bankrupt me if I were living back in Asia.

After all that is said and done, perhaps I am in the right country – for old men. What remains is still to make new songs. “My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth: But ah! she dreams not now; dream thou! For fair are poppies on the brow: Dream, dream, for this is also sooth…” (from The Song of the Happy Shepherd).

So, what is living in a country for old men like?

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning

  • From t.s. eliot East Coker

Seems to me that the passage selected from East Coker is precisely the sentiment one possesses – especially in this stage of one’s life – more than 40 years in this adopted country and alas more than half of my lifetime, separated from my patria adorada. Old age might suggest looking to the end, but East Coker’s prescription is good medicine. In my end is my beginning. Nevertheless, what is it I am to explore? “Here and there does not matter” tells me that it is not about geography, nor about chronology, nor the age we are in, or even whether we need to be in the present, so long as we are still and still moving “into another intensity.” How ironic that one can be still and still moving. When you are 72, I suppose exploring must begin with a rocking chair, in which our stillness is the means by which we are transported into our beginning.

What is my beginning? In V. of East Coker, we read:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

But a lifetime burning in every moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered…

You can’t get any better than this truth uttered – even our sense of home, that of childhood’s – turns muddled and those milestones of our growing up become like un-deciphered stones. Memories are mere shadow plays: we see shapes and impressions but not wholly. When I think of the home I left, I am torn between nostalgia and gladness that I am here in this country. Like the favorite Chinese dish, it is sweet and sour. In thinking, there is indeed a lifetime burning in every moment. St. Paul’s admonition in Phil. 3:13 to forget what is behind but to strain toward what is ahead to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus – is always timely.

The mirror smiles back. It is not that evil stepmother Queen Grimhilde who is obsessively desiring to be the “fairest in the land”; yet I am not now that strength of olden days which moved my piece of heaven and earth; but not wholly surrendered either to the notion that little remains, with every hour saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things.

Old men take to exploring, to seek adventures, adrift from their Ithaka. They enter harbors seen for the first time; stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind – as many sensual perfumes as one can; and to visit many Egyptian cities to learn and go on learning from their scholars (as Cavafy so deftly described).

Somehow, in this pandemic, the trip is mostly internal – for now.

by Alfie Kwong



Message of the Ambassador 123rd Anniversary of the Proclamation of Philippine Independence and Filipino Heritage Month in Canada