A Life Between

by Belinda A. Aquino, Ph.D.

If this narrative sounds like a memoir, it is not meant to be. I used the above title, which needs a bit of explaining especially the phrase “life between,” because that can mean a lot of numerous spaces and stages of events in my life.

The space I am writing in is more than, and not necessarily, geographical as in the Philippines and America. This “life between” is a situational and dynamic one, subject to constant changes and extreme contrasts during entire lifetimes and generations.

As psychologist Erik Ericson notes in his various writings on the American identity, “Most inhabitants are faced, in their own lives or within the orbit of their close relatives, with alternatives presented by such polarities as open roads of immigrations and jealous islands of traditions; outgoing internationalism and defiant isolationism; boisterous competition and self-effacing cooperation…”

In a major and substantial way, this is how I would characterize my “life between.”

I am essentially a product of public schools in my hometown, a situation I consider the basis of my secular and socialized identity. In comparison, many of my peers and cohorts entered private schools with a religious or sectarian orientation.

In Philippine society and culture, especially when I was growing up in the 1950s, the concept of choice was essentially non-existent. Decisions were made for you by your parents, relatives, teachers, and others whose role was to tell you what to do.

That was why from elementary and high school, life was fairly uniform and agreeable. We even wore uniforms to underscore this basic culture of obedience and propriety. There was no escape because you did not exist by yourself. You belonged to a large family, a clan, and a village, and you were never alone for most of your young life.

Breaking away
It was an unusual and individual act of rebellion on my part to break away from this debilitating pattern of young adulthood. As far as identity is concerned, I consider rebellion as a personal trait; a combined curiosity about the world outside, a rejection of some but not all traditional norms and values; a sense of “come what may.”

I made certain, however, that this attitude should not be equated to the common “bahala na” (the English equivalent of “come what may”) escape route.

Not that I was running away from an oppressive existence or something that some Western analysts might attribute to a domineering mother, authoritarian father, or some pathological or dysfunctional aspect of family socialization.

I just thought that there was another set of basic truths and values out there beyond the confines of a small town or village.

So leaving my hometown for Manila, the big city 200 miles away, was the first significant change in my young life. For the first time, I became conscious of an emerging “life between” my regional identity as an Ilocano and another world within university walls.

I was exposed to a multiplicity of ethnicities at the University of the Philippines campus. I ended up in a boarding house or cottage with five other students from Surigao del Sur in the Mindanao region.

They occupied the main room in the cottage, and I and another Ilocana, who was a distant relative, were in the smaller room.

The loud chatter of the five girls speaking in Cebuano, a Visayan language, amused me. At times, I was picking up some of their conversations and eventually understood what they were talking about.

But we ended up communicating more effectively in English and we also conversed in Tagalog or Pilipino, the Philippines national language taught in my high school.

Eventually, I met students from all over the Philippine regions—Tagalog, Kapampangan, Ilonggo, Bicolano, Waray, and so on. It was at times more effective to combine Tagalog with words from different areas of the Philippines.

It was also more fun mixing up all our various languages. There are about eight different Philippine languages and dozens of dialects.

I became a member of the University of the Philippines Student Catholic Action Club and attended Catholic mass regularly, always remembering my mother’s advice to pray especially because I was now far away from home.

Occasionally, she would visit me from the province, bringing a lot of food and supplies. I was experiencing a “brave new world” so different and a bit intimidating from my old hometown.

I also felt a growing consciousness from participating in campus politics. Student activism was developing with and among various campus constituencies and the fraternities and sororities on campus.

I made sure I gave priority to my studies because there were a lot of requirements needed for graduation, including foreign languages such as French, German, Latin and, for English majors like me, natural and social sciences.

We also had to take a lot of classes on American History, which were interesting because they were not like those we took in high school.

These courses were mostly American colonial history, extolling American heroes like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I struggled to complete a college degree that would land me a good job later and prepare me for another chapter: life in the real world.

Coming to America
When I finished college in the late 1950s, the first thought that came to my mind was a job. However, I was not sure what kind of work I could get with a Bachelor of Arts in the Humanities with a major in English.

I did not even have enough Education courses to qualify me to teach at the high school level. I was at another “life between” crossroads and I finally decided to go back to college to specialize in some field that could qualify me for a decent-paying job.

I chose the field of Public Administration at the University of the Philippines Institute Administration, which offered several graduate fellowships. I received a grant that allowed me to take courses on Government, Personnel and Fiscal Administration, National-Local Relations, and related fields.

I began to learn more about another area of human knowledge: social science, quite different from my undergraduate major in the Humanities and its focus on Shakespeare, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and the whole New England gang of notable writers and authors. It was completely disorienting for me at first but I had gotten used to a “life between” at this stage.

I started to understand more about the intricate and bureaucratic processes and nuances involved in the various levels of government from the presidency down to the lowest unit of governance, the village, or the barrio as it is called in the Philippines.

Then another opening for a scholarship opened up, this time from the Fulbright and East-West Center in the early 1960s. I applied for a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Department of Political Science was especially interested in attracting applicants from the Asia-Pacific region.

I went on to complete a doctoral degree from Cornell University after which I looked forward to returning to the Philippines to resume my faculty duties at the University of the Philippines. I thought that living permanently in my own country would be the end of my continuously “swinging” life.

This would have been a logical conclusion to what had been a hectic back-and-forth experience and it would have been a relief to settle in my native land that I had only visited occasionally while studying in Hawaii.

Martial Law Intervenes
But it was not to be. A major event made me change my plans midstream. In September 1973, then President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, using the continuing aggression of the leftwing underground forces and the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao as his reasons for emergency rule.

Marcos had instructed the Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C. to infiltrate a conference in Cornell attended by some 150 Filipino students, myself included, studying in various U.S. institutions. These students organized a conference to discuss alternatives to Martial Law.

The order from Malacanang was to cancel their Philippines passports. To my surprise, I landed on the “blacklist” of Filipino students “whose activities in the U.S. were considered inimical to the national security of the Philippines.”

The Philippine Consulate had been spying on students who were active in the regime like the Movement for a Free Philippines, Union of Democratic Filipinos, the Friends of the Filipino People and Ninoy Aquino Movement.

Without a passport, I could not go back to the Philippines. My only recourse was to stay in the U.S., another “life between.” The problem was I was summarily served with a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) explaining why I should not be deported since my student visa had expired after I finished my degree at Cornell. The INS called me to a trial-like hearing.

This was a real “in-between” dilemma—deportable from the U.S. and undesirable on the Philippine end. I hired a pro-bono defense lawyer who studied my case. She found a provision in the immigration law that might be acceptable to “stay my execution.”

I could apply for a “suspension of deportation” if I had lived seven years in America. What this meant was the longer I stayed in the U.S. with this case hanging over my head, the better since it would buy me some time to fulfill the seven-year proviso.

At this point, my lawyer and I decided to contact Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink to seek her advice. I have worked on her various political campaigns in Hawaii. She suggested that we also seek U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye’s help as only senators can introduce a private bill for individuals who deserve to remain in the United States. I was getting an education on the nuances of American bureaucratic processes of seeking redress for cases similar to mine.

To cut a long story short, on March 18, 1976 at the 74th Congress, Senator Inouye introduced Bill 3175, my private bill.

It stated that “for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Dr. Belinda A. Aquino shall be held and considered to have been admitted to the United States for permanent residence as of the date of enactment of this Act, upon payment of the required visa fee.”

A few years after having acquired permanent resident status, I filed for U.S. citizenship. At least, that would stop my back-and-forth “life between” the Philippines and the United States.

I had to prove that I was of good moral character, had a steady job with the faculty of the University of Hawaii, paid my taxes, and that there was no possibility that I would be a public charge. I had to get all kinds of letters from prominent individuals who would attest to the viability and merit of my application.

A few weeks after fulfilling all the citizenship requirements, my approval letter arrived via special delivery from the White House. It read:

Dear Fellow American:

I am pleased to congratulate you on becoming a United States citizen. You are now part of a great and blessed nation. I know your family and friends are proud of you on this special day.

Welcome to the joy, responsibility, and freedom of American citizenship, God bless you, and God bless America.


Happy ending
This in a nutshell is the saga of my journey through a “life in between.” I take one hard look at my life events in terms of the Filipino global diaspora. What Filipino values have played in living at the crossroads?

My desire for higher education led to a breaking away from my familiar home ground to a more complex society. In the process, a different consciousness took root with its own set of complex values.

You encounter and accept new norms without necessarily rejecting old ones. This is all part of the dynamic process called socialization. As you develop an adult identity, you discover new ways of thinking to further alter your earlier beliefs and behavior.

Life is full of surprises along the way. The declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines in the early 1970s and my being on the blacklist of the Marcos regime, along with my expired student visa, put me between a rock and a hard place.

With the help of a remain on American soil. Sometimes, I laugh at my “life between” and the twists and turns that enabled me to come to America. But “all’s well that ends well.”

DR. BELINDA (LINDY) AQUINO is a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she served as professor of Political Science and Asian Studies for nearly 40 years before retiring. Lindy received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Cornell University as a Ford Foundation Fellow. She was the founding director of the University of Hawaii Center for Philippine Studies. She was also a visiting professor, scholar and research fellow at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies; Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand; and in four universities in Indonesia.

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