Emory Report
March 19, 2007
Volume 59, Number 23

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March 19, 2007
There is no gene for fate

José Nilo G. Binongo is a lecturer in biostatistics.

Life can be tough when one is born with physical traits that have not been in vogue in the history of humankind. It becomes even tougher when, for the rest of one’s life, one is stuck with a set of undesired congenital marks. But should one lose hope? Should one allow one’s genetic makeup determine the future?

Growing up, I realized that to be socially ‘in,’ I should stop sitting in my favorite corner of the library all day long. I thought participating in sports might earn me more popularity points than being adroit at fiddling with the card catalogue. But alas, in my attempt to fit in as an athlete, I came to realize I had the stature of a pygmy and the grace of a dodo.

Well then, if I wasn’t built for sports, perhaps a leadership role might suit me better. So I considered running for student council president in my final year in high school. But my closest of friends confided that my chance of winning was as good as my height. So I ended up as class beadle where height was not a job requirement for monitoring classroom misdemeanors from my seat. But if there was something positive that came out of this predicament, I learned early on the importance of focusing on academics — because in this arena I could compensate for my physical shortcomings.

As it turned out, I wasn’t wrong in my self-assessment. After graduating from Xavier High School in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, I went to Ateneo de Manila University as an academic scholar. This was my first time living away from home and in a place where the day-to-day language was different from my own.

In my first few weeks in the Philippine capital, it was impressed upon me that Cebuano, as a language, doesn’t have the same level of sophistication as that of Tagalog. My friends in the dormitory were amused with my corruption of the Tagalog vowels. Whenever I said “aku” instead of “ako,” my friends from Southern Philippines were quick to point out, “You’re so hopelessly Bisaya!”

To this very day, I’ve never fully understood why it is such a bad thing to be Bisaya, as we deprecatingly call ourselves. Did my Cebuano-speaking friends realize that they were really discriminating against their own kind?

After graduating, I went to Tokyo to take up graduate studies in mathematics at Sophia University as a research scholar of the Japanese government. The Japanese didn’t care whether I was uprooted from the deepest recesses of my country or what regional language I spoke. It was good enough that they knew I was from the Philippines and that I could speak respectable Nihongo.

Unfortunately, they did discriminate in other ways. Women from the Philippines were stereotyped as entertainers (a euphemism for women in the sex trade) and Filipino men as undocumented construction workers. I was discriminated against not because I spoke Cebuano but because I come from a country that sends illegal workers to Japan. Quite understandably, some Filipinos in Japan were not forthright about their country of origin, fearing unwanted social repercussions. I, on the other hand, had to launch a personal campaign, asking Filipinos with legal status to make their nationality known to their Japanese acquaintances. This, to me, was an important step towards tackling the discrimination problem.

Of course, in Japan I didn’t grow taller than a young cherry blossom tree. One day, I was frantically searching for the blackboard eraser in the precalculus class I taught at a high school in Fukuoka. After finding it, I learned that a student had deliberately kept it hidden on top of the board.

I had made it clear to all my students that, as teacher, I was very open to constructive criticism (which I defined as “things that I can change”) and that I was intolerant of destructive feedback (defined as “things I cannot possibly change”). By hiding the eraser six and a half feet above the floor, the students were making a statement about my height! Just before I could unleash my impending anger, one of the students explained that the class was having a tough time catching up with my board work. In an instant, what I had perceived as destructive feedback wilted into something constructive.

I now teach in the United States. In this country, somebody has yet to deride me for being a Bisaya, or discriminate against me because I come from the Philippines, or because I was raised in the battlefield of Mindanao. Still, some people can’t help but pick on my unique height, let alone the physical features that go with it.

There are things in life that I cannot be held accountable for. Though I have yet to fully understand, all I know now is that these God-given gifts define who I am and shape my uniqueness as an individual with a mission in this transient world. I am, however, responsible for many things in my life. I have made many decisions, some of which, in retrospect, I am very happy with.

Becoming a teacher is one such happy decision. The teaching profession has allowed me to touch many people’s lives at any given time.

Before a crowd of prospective students and parents at my old school in Richmond, Virginia, Ashley, a former student in my advanced placement calculus class, candidly admitted: “In Dr. Binongo’s class, I experienced two firsts: my first F, and the first time I have ever found myself looking forward to a math class.” Even as Ashley portrayed me as being a very difficult teacher, I smiled at those words. It’s a great comfort to know that I’ve been treading the right track all these years.

My son Rai once told me that he thought I made a good decision to become a teacher. “I sure benefited from his passion and I know others will, too,” he admitted in a speech he gave before his entire school. During the May 2006 commencement exercises at Emory, Rai drove more than eight hours to congratulate me on receiving the Rollins School of Public Health Teacher of the Year Award.

Though there are things in life that I can’t change, I do have total control over how I respond to them. I could have chosen to get angry with my parents. I could have wished I had Michael Jordan’s height and athletic prowess. I could have wished I had Bill Gates’ wealth.

While it is true that my genes and my demographic characteristics define who I am, they do not completely determine my fate. It’s mostly the personal choices and decisions I’ve made — along with never-ending prayers for discernment — that have led me to where I am now and where I will be.

My DNA, or the environment I grew up in, cannot limit my humanity and my human spirit. Although I’m painfully aware of the inconveniences, I don’t feel deprived just because I’m pint-sized. I am not sorry for choosing a profession that doesn’t pay well. Hearing from former students that I’ve made a difference in their lives is, to me, priceless.

And yes, I take pride in the fact that I have my roots in Cagayan de Oro. I am proud of being a Bisaya, with Cebuano as my mother tongue. I feel truly blessed that I have a Filipino heritage.
I’m happy to be me.

This First Person was excerpted from an essay Binongo originally wrote for the alumni newsletter of Xavier University in the Philippines as 2005 Most Outstanding Alumnus. The longer version has appeared in Filipino newspapers.