Becoming an Expat

Philippines 1983

As an adolescent, Ward wondered about some of the things he was told. He noticed most people didn’t decide what to believe, but rather the only decisions they made about their beliefs involved how to live with conflicting beliefs. Since as a young man he saw no one else wondering about this, he began to feel like a stranger in his family and community. That was the beginning of his observation of the human mind at work. These observations determined the course of his life. Ward began coming to the Philippines in 1983 to work on engineering projects.  He has lived here continuously since 1997.   

Ward’s story

Ward’s high school graduation photo

My three younger brothers and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. We lived there when school was in session.  When it wasn’t we were with my mother’s large family in rural Virginia. The Philippines feels comfortable to me because my life includes living both in the city and in rural areas as it did in the States.  Also, like many Filipinos, I grew up in a large extended family. I particularly like the fact that nobody here is disappointed that I have distanced myself from the beliefs of the people who were around me in my childhood.

My family was fundamentalist Presbyterian and Baptist. When I was thirteen I was asked to deliver sermons. Some who listened to me said the hand of God was on me, and they began to ask for my opinions and advice. Soon I realized pastors sustain themselves by quelling the emotional needs of others. No matter what happened—whether people were healed, remained sick or died, whether they received what they asked for or didn’t—it was God’s will and therefore proof of God’s existence. After a few disastrous efforts to get answers to my questions, I realized many people are dependent on irrational beliefs, and I kept my questions to myself.

I had an uncle, a farmer, whose conduct showed me how to live in the midst of dysfunctional attitudes and invalid beliefs. One day when I was thirteen we were in his watermelon field when a black man appeared and asked for money because his child was sick. My uncle went to his truck and came back with money and said, “Don’t tell anybody I gave you this.” Later he told me if certain people knew he’d given money to a black person he’d hear about it until the day he died. Later his mother-law-law drove to the edge of the field. We knew she wanted watermelons. We put in six in her car while she praised God for His gifts. My uncle mumbled, “Grandma always thanks God, not sinners like me who work to give her what she wants. What she wants is to believe in God.  But I love her, so don’t repeat that.” The lesson was “love emotionally needy people even though they don’t respect your beliefs.”

My mother nurtured my interest in math and science. She graduated from high school in 1940 when she was fifteen. In those days Virginia public education consisted of grades one to ten. She taught me the meaning of pi, the distance to the moon and sun, the speed of light, why we see lightning before we hear thunder. My dad graduated from high school in Buffalo in 1936. The week after he graduated he began working with the company which employed him until he retired in 1994. I learned a lot from my dad. His interests were in history and architecture.

I attended the University at Buffalo, starting out in engineering. I was bored with the predictability. Engineering relies on equations derived by repeated observation of the behavior of materials of known strength in response to quantified forces.  But with civil engineering, in order to determine how the earth will respond to what we want to do to it, we must develop an understanding of geologic conditions which are often not uniform and often difficult to describe. Exploring the subsurface and predicting its response to what we want to build became my vocation.

I was in college during the Vietnam War. Many of my friends were in Vietnam, and some died there. The death of one friend is still part of me. Peter didn’t want to go to Vietnam or to kill anyone, but he loved his parents, and he didn’t want to embarrass them by refusing the draft. He became a Navy Corps man, a medic. He died in battle helping the wounded.  I considered the war an abuse of American soldiers who were dying for nothing and an abuse of Vietnamese people, particularly farmers who just wanted to feed their families.

Graduate schools wouldn’t accept me because I was eligible for the draft, so I taught high school—which offered a draft deferment—for two years before I went to graduate school. I got married during my final year of graduate school. I met my wife when I was a senior and she was sophomore psychology student. After finishing school I wanted to work so we could start a family and buy a house—that was our plan from the start. Since there were no jobs available, I started a Ph.D. program to keep my instructor’s stipend. Six months later I went to work for an engineering firm located far enough from Buffalo so that fundamentalist religious beliefs couldn’t plague me and yet close enough to visit our families a few times a year. I’d gotten close to my wife’s grandfather, partly because of our common beliefs, which we didn’t discuss with anyone else, mostly because we did not want to trouble others. I didn’t want to be too far from him.

By 1982, I’d been employed for eight years in the engineering firm. During that time I’d worked for twenty-three weeks in Iran, twenty weeks in Columbia, and about twenty weeks with Israelis, including two two-week stays in Israel. These experiences affirmed beliefs I held for years about religion and government and convinced me of the emotional necessity of living according to my beliefs.

Ward in Iran in 1976

Between March and November 1982 several events, any one of which would be have been a catastrophe in itself, combined to make a perfect storm. My wife’s grandfather died suddenly, and I was grief-stricken. I became a partner in my firm, which required a personal investment, so I borrowed from a bank and from my retirement plan. Within the year the firm’s revenues plummeted, its debt ballooned, interest rates on borrowed operating funds doubled and the company became worthless. Three people who owned the majority of the company stock withdrew their savings from the company retirement plan and swapped worthless paper for the liquid assets which constituted the savings of nearly 400 employees. The employees were told this was done for their sake. About 30% of the employees were terminated and given no access to their savings. The advent of desktop computing and word processing eliminated the jobs of many engineers, draftspersons, typing and clerical personnel. Suddenly inexperienced employees could produce documents that could pass for designs and reports. Other economic sectors were impacted for interconnected reasons.

My wife, who’d wanted motherhood and tradition when we got married, had new feelings after the birth of our second child; she felt she was doomed to confinement and was wasting her life. At the end of every workday I was greeted with her tears and anger. I truly felt sad for her. When our children were one and three years old, she enrolled in law school without a word of dissent from me. In 1982 she graduated number two in her class, passed the bar exam on her first try and was hired by a large bank. Our children were seven and five years old at that time. Nothing changed. Gloria Steinem quips that hung on the kitchen wall were replaced—with other ones. She oinked if she thought what I said contained a whiff of male chauvinism. She said an acquaintance who married a man who was married before got damaged goods, meaning “if you divorce me you won’t fare well on the market.” When the children worried about divorce she told them “don’t worry, daddy can’t afford to divorce me.”

I hoped counseling would help. It didn’t. As the counselors helped us express our thoughts, I indicated I believed religion was the scourge of humanity and nothing more than superstitious beliefs. My wife called me an infidel and asked my parents to pray for my soul. I asked her why she still believed in her religion if Gloria said you’ve been conned if you behave in certain ways in order to get something when you’re dead.

My wife was employed by the law firm representing me in our divorce. The firm told me that was conflict of interest I should find representation elsewhere. The partners of the firm were indignant when I explained that they had caused the conflict of interest. Distance grew between me and those who believed in man-made religion—is there any other kind?—or believed that law and monetary systems could be fairly governed by those who seek their sinecure within them.

Ward with an African engineer

While these calamities we going on, business opportunities were opening in Southeast Asia, China and Papua New Guinea. I confess that I went to Asia feeling I was working so others could follow their whims and live self-serving delusions.

Two other employees of the firm and I became partners, purchased the remnants of the engineering firm and established a new firm in 1988. Along with the remaining employees, we worked to create a firm in which employees were secure and clients were confident. By 1996 all was well, there was no debt. New opportunities opened in Southeast Asia. I returned to the Philippines and was unexpectedly happy to be in the region again. Part of this time I was fortunate to work with a well-funded group of treasure hunters. I interviewed scores of eye witnesses and collected and examined hundreds of documents that filled four four-drawer filing cabinets. I was amazed by how treasure hunters and religious people rely on identical psychological templates. I reviewed sixty-eight treasure stories and visited the related sites. Of those only six did not contain fatal flaws within the stories themselves.

Disaster arrived in 2006. In the late 1980s I married a Filipina who within months made it clear that her only goal was to increase her indolence. She claimed having a child would make her well, happy and industrious. Our child was born in the U.S. in 1996. One year later we returned to the Philippines, and my wife was arrested and jailed twice. In the course of the investigations arranging for her legal defense, it was discovered that she had been married at the time she married me and, in fact, she was still married to the other man. [This is not an uncommon discovery among Western men married to Filipinas.]

Our child lived with me for the most part while “my wife” was institutionalized. When she was released she demanded our child live with her, and received assistance from NGOs, whose representatives she—to use a euphemism—misinformed. Promises my daughter could spend vacations and weekends with me were continuously broken.  I petitioned the court for custody.

My daughter’s mother immediately filed two false criminal cases against me, so for nearly six years there has been Hold Departure Order on me because of the pending cases. I can’t be employed. I can’t leave. I was unable to be with my parents in the final days of their lives. I could not attend their funerals. I have lost my professional engineering licenses because I can’t attend refresher seminars. During part of this time my daughter was hidden from me in a DSWD facility. Fortunately, a kind social worker surreptitiously mailed letters to me written by my daughter telling me where she was. I have yet to testify. More than 75% of the scheduled hearings have been cancelled—after I appeared in court. If you live in the Philippines you know what this means. My daughter was allowed to go home to live with her extended family.

People who don’t know about the Hold Departure Order ask me why I stay in the Philippines. Sometimes I reply, “Because here is not there.” If you’ve lived outside the states you know what this means because so many people in the states are totally absorbed by silly and irrelevant concerns. They behave like addicts. Here I’m more connected with my fellow man, both Filipino and expat. This may lead Westerners to ask, “How anyone can be happy in the midst of the corruption and noxious media of created by corrupt politicians and Philippine Roman Catholics?” The question betrays an irrational sense of national purity which is seen as arrogance from the perspective of Filipinos.  It’s not arrogance; it’s ignorance. Corruption is the same everywhere, regardless of the form of government hosting it. It defrauds the meek of rights explicitly or tacitly granted by their government. It always involves deceit and hypocrisy.

Westerners think of corruption as conspiracy to violate the law. Many Westerners are ignorant of institutionalized corruption, meaning laws constructed to facilitate fraud. Institutionalized corruption has as many hiding places in democracy as any form of government. Institutionalized corruption occurs in democracy because the only candidates who can successfully appeal to the “average” voter lack the wisdom needed to govern. When such candidates are elected, they are gulled by lobbyists into making laws that allow the intent of the law to be circumvented.

Countries, religions and people act or don’t act according to what’s “within their interest.” These “interests” are a derivative of their perception of their personal rights and often called policy. “Policy” is a euphemism for a unilaterally determined self-serving position. To understand one’s culture one must get outside of it; voluntarily or involuntarily. To understand others we must contend with what they contend with. We must see ourselves as citizens of the world, not incongruent fragments of it.

I am an involuntary expat. But as Cat Stevens sang, “Look at me. I am old now, but I am happy.”