More Filipino than Filipinos

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

TORONTO, Canada — When we joined the inaugural direct flight of Philippine Airlines to Toronto 5 days ago, I had no idea what was in store for me especially as a journalist. Realizing there were about 50 media practitioners on board, I knew that I had my work cut out for me and that the last thing I wanted was to sing to the chorus or dish out the same story and details. In order to do that I had to tune out the journalist in me and tune in on my interest in people, their sentiments, emotions and motives.

Before leaving Manila, PAL hosted a send off ceremony at NAIA 2 to formally launch the Toronto non-stop flight. Although toned down, the event was quiet formal and all business. The key speakers of course were PAL President Ramon Ang who once again displayed his bold positivism by projecting that the non-stop flight to Toronto will eventually be a daily flight. Considering PAL has ordered 100 planes, I believe they can very well park and fly two planes for Toronto full time.

Following Mr. Ang’s speech, the Canadian Ambassador Christopher Thorney reiterated that there is a fast growing Filipino community in Canada, especially Toronto. Thorney also pointed out that “Pilipino” presumably Tagalog, is the now the most spoken foreign language in Canada. The highlight of the send off I would suppose was the unexpected “raffle” where the first paying passenger of the flight was upgraded to “business class.”

After that we all boarded the Boeing 777-300ER (or extended range) which was designed specifically for long-range non-stop flights to any point of the world. The plane that was only 3 weeks old has 42 business class seats and 328 economy seats all made by the famous Recaro seat makers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, the first treat I got along with senior members of media was being seated in business class. I guess this was possible simply because the plane was huge and had a sizeable business class section. As I took my seat, I could not help noticing the young lady sitting next to me. She wore all the right signature stuff, had the aviator sunglasses on, a very stylish handbag and she was clearly dressed to travel in style. I quickly assumed that she was the daughter of a very rich Chinese businessman based in Toronto or possibly a Japanese or K-pop star. As I consciously did my best not to disturb her personal space, she suddenly faced me, put out her hand with a smile and said: “ Hi Tito Cito, si Rachel Ann Go po.” Ay mali!

That’s when I realized that we also had several performers on board flying to Toronto for the first ever “PASKUHAN” festival. I almost felt like an entertainment scribe after actress/singer Toni Gonzaga later passed by to say “Hi Tito.” 

Being in business class was very nice and definitely comfortable, but all that paled in comparison to Philippine hospitality and personal service of PAL flight attendants, which are the backbone of PAL’s long history in commercial aviation. Simply put no airline has FAs that have the cultural connect with Pinoy passengers and that connect comes across to foreign travellers as genuine hospitality. For the inaugural flight, PAL sent the “presidential team” of pilots and FAs, which was the first time I learned that there was a select team for “presidential trips.”

Fourteen and a half hours later we landed in Toronto which is quick compared to flying Manila-Taipei 2 hours, do an 8-hour wait, fly 11.5 hours to Vancouver then 4.5 hours to Toronto. Entering the terminal, we once again observed the ceremonial welcome complete with two Canadian Mounties posing with Filipino guests. I learned that in an inaugural flight, the plane gets the ceremonial two-water canon salute from fire trucks, but because we arrived at -6 degree weather there was a possibility of freezing the plane onto the tarmac.

During the program, some of us silently wondered why a “Pinoy” contingent from Manila was being welcomed by a Fil-Canadian dance troupe doing traditional Filipino dances? It seemed odd initially until I realized that this was their way of showing that they have kept their heritage and passed it on to their children most of whom have never been on Philippine soil. This was not just another over used cultural performance. This was proof that even if the young dancers were mostly half-Filipino, half-Canadian, they celebrated our culture probably more than those back home. I guess you really have to leave home to appreciate what you take for granted. As we worked our way out of the airport, people were asking if they could have the paper flags we were waving as we came in. It made me realize that out here “flags” have special meaning and great value, paper or otherwise, it is what they represent.

A few nights later, I forced myself out of jet lag to attend the Paskuhan festival and it was worth the loss of sleep. Inside the cavernous convention center I saw several thousand Filipinos enjoying what was a combination free concert and tiangge featuring several dozen stalls. PAL joined in the festivities by having a sign up booth for Mabuhay miles and email info on the Toronto flights. The PAL team certainly made the day for 6 lucky kababayans who won round trip tickets to Manila. What struck me was that on this trip there were no PAL VIPs or big shots, regardless of rank they all had something to do, a meeting to attend or make their presence felt, everyone was hands on and on board.

Some parts of the Paskuhan resembled a food court where they had pork barbecue, gulaman at sago, Goldilocks products, rellenong manok, okoy, turon. They even had traditional Pinoy gulay except that the vegetables were 3 times larger. In the center of it all was the large crowd half sighing over the Pinoy songs while recording performances by Rachel Ann Go, Toni Gonzaga and a couple others who I missed. Someone from our group was amused that the fathers in the crowd were standing on chairs like groupies recording the event. I told him, these are not fans worshipping stars, these are Filipinos recording for remembrance a time when they felt like they were almost back home.

As I worked my way out of the hall, I took notice of a boy who must have been six years old, gingerly hoisting his parol at the end of a stick. He was doing more than that; he was cradling his culture and his heritage. This, far from home, the Filipinos here in Toronto are clearly more Filipino than Filipinos.

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