Monday, March 25, 2013

Fatal Fatalism

On March 15, Kristel Tejada, a 16-year old University of the Philippines freshman, committed suicide because she was despondent that she couldn't pay her tuition on time and as a result was faced with having to sit out the semester. The University, a public institution, has taken a lot of heat for its purported inflexibility in not working with the girl and her family. However, the school was in the midst of changing its policy towards its economically disadvantaged students, and if the Kristel had waited a few more days, under the new guidelines, she would have gotten a break.

But who's really to blame for this tragedy? Was it really the school's fault? Or instead as one newspaper columnist submitted, was Kristel herself personally responsible for making the decision to end her life? I think the latter opinion is too harsh. Kristel was still an adolescent which is a time of life when problems often seem magnified out of proportion and when emotional maturity and rational thinking are not yet fully developed. This is especially the case in the Philippines where according to my wife Lydia, a psychologist, emotional maturity is impeded even further due to overly intense family interdependency. (And BTW the combined number of years of study for pupils in Philippine public and many private elementary and high schools is only 10 years rather than 12 as in many other countries. So sixteen is the typical age for starting college).

In my opinion it was the parents who were at fault, not for pushing Kristel academically (in her case that wasn't necessary anyway as she was a brilliant scholar who loved her studies) but rather for placing the financial future of the family, which included several siblings, on her shoulders, a burden which she evidently took very seriously. In Philippine culture it's common for poor families which usually include several children to try scrape up college tuition for one of the kids, usually the eldest, and charge her or him  with the task of completing school, landing a good job, and then not just "paying forward" the school costs of the other siblings, but also  becoming the main source of the family's income. If the parents lack  the funds to cover the full tuition expenses of even one child, well "bahala na"just leave the matter in God's hands. Somehow things will work out.

But as Kristel's death shows, such arrangements are fraught with risk. Evidently, she believed that she had failed her family and just couldn't handle (what she perceived as) the shame for letting them down. To quote her father."The UP deprived my daughter of her only hope to help us". This says it all. Why did Kristel have feel that way? Was it her fault the family had too many mouths to feed in the first place? Who should be supporting whom? She should never have been made to feel for an instant that her sole purpose in life was improving her family's living standard.

Then yesterday, I read about a young man, also from a large, poor family who was putting himself through college by working at night, but he was killed in a mugging on his way home from his job. As with Kristel, his parents had pinned their hopes for a better life not just for their son but for the whole family on his eventual completion of his studies and a starting a successful career.

In short, for his and Kristel's parents, it seems that these children were considered  a ticket out of poverty, little more than means to an end. But will people see it that way?  More likely they will blame everything but the parents' participation in a  way of life of irresponsibly  bringing more children into the world than they can afford  and then expecting their kids to pick up the slack for their own short-sightedness,  a toxic tradition which in the end needlessly cost these two young people their lives.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Seniors Centered

In the Philippines, citizens who are at least 60 years of age are considered seniors and are legally entitled to certain benefits. To avail of these privileges, they may apply for senior citizen cards which upon presentation in certain establishments such as restaurants, theaters, supermarkets, public transportation, pharmacies, and medical facilities allows them a discountusually 20%off regular prices for goods and services.  In addition, there are often lanes in these venues set aside to accommodate the elderly.  

Unfortunately, the key word in these cards is "citizen".  So these cards are not available to foreigners, even to permanent residents.  But that doesn't mean that older non-citizens are out in the cold as far as being granted age-related perks.For example, when I went to a medical center to have some lab work done, I was 34th in line.  But the clerk manning the number dispenser machine observed that I was obviously over 60 and sent me to the senior citizen window for priority service to which as it turns out older foreigners are also entitled. My number in that line was 14, so I thought I had caught a break. But it didn't turn out that way. Even though there were fewer people in the senior lane, some of them required time consuming geriatric assistance. By the time my turn came, the regular patient service area which had several service windows vs. just one for seniors was already serving number 40!  

Now when it comes to senior discounts, here's where things get really interesting. Non-citizens may sometimes get this adjustment just by asking for it and furnishing acceptable proof of age, such as a postal i.d or an I-card. I have experienced this good fortune a couple times, and in a venue where it was especially useful: hospitals. Just ask for the discount when you present your bill at the payment window.  There's nothing to lose by requesting it.  The worst that can happen is that the cashier will say no.

When I was younger and still living in the U.S., I resented what I perceived as an arrogant sense of entitlement by American seniors as a whole to special treatment from merchants and others in the private sector  just because of their age.  Often their demands were not even the result of a reduced income.  In fact I know that many of these complaining older people were comfortable.  Now that I'm elderly I still don't share that attitude that I'm owed special privileges for having lived a certain number of years, which as I see it is not a personal accomplishment but rather the result of a combination of factors many of which are beyond one's own control.

Now if it's the policy of  certain business establishments or public agencies here in the Philippines to offer a senior discount or other accommodation to foreigners, of course I'll accept it.  As I mentioned above, I might even ask for it. But if no adjustment is available, well, so be it.

I once  read about an older citizen who raised a stink at being denied free senior parking privileges by a certain mall chain in Quezon City as required by law. On one hand, I understand that he was only asserting his legal right. But on the other hand, I don't see why such an ordinance was passed in the first place.  Anyone who has a car in the Philippines can't be that hard up.  Only a small percentage of Filipinos can afford to buy vehicles, and in keeping with the local culture of dependency many of them even have personal drivers!  Furthermore, the aforementioned senior  likely come to the mall to spend money, and I don't see how the  P45  that the mall refused to waive was going to make or break him.

Similarly, when I was living in the States, I read about an older woman in California who said that she had only a small income and was upset that the restaurant chain where she ate breakfast every day didn't offer senior discounts.  Yet how impoverished could she have been and yet still afford to eat out every day?!  This story stuck with me because at the time my wife and I didn't have the means to do that even though we were working.  What less so now on our small retirement incomes? 

In short it behooves us older folks to use common sense and adjust our sites accordingly in managing our finances. But at the same time we need to get over it if we don't happen to get special treatment as seniors if the venues that we happen to be patronizingespecially for non-essentialsare not required to provide it, no matter where we live.