Monday, July 2, 2007

Farewell to ConGen Weng

While attending a high school reunion in Manila last December, I was asked by puzzled classmates why Filipinos in the US generally hold a favorable impression of the Philippine government. They noticed the marked difference, they said, in the Internet postings of Filipinos in the US who exhibited a generally positive attitude towards the government instead of the usual denigration that people in Manila are more familiar with.

They wanted to know if it was plain ignorance or just general lack of information. They wondered if perhaps we are just too busy with our lives in the US that we don’t have the time to be aware of what is really happening in the Philippines. Wrong, I said. When Manila’s newspapers are laid out at midnight and sent to the printing press for the early morning run, they are posted online instantaneously. It is about 9AM in San Francisco and the west coast, 12 noon in New York and the east coast, when the Manila papers are posted on line. While you folks in Manila are still snoring away, I said, we have already digested the latest skirmishes between President Gloria Arroyo and the political opposition.

Distance provides perspective, I explained. From here in the US, we can readily discern the Philippine forest from the trees and we can even distinguish the trees from their individual parts. While folks in Manila are bugged by their daily “in your face” encounters with crooked branches and twigs and are always obsessed with what lurks beneath the bark, from afar we can just sit back and appreciate the splendor of the trees and the majesty of the forest.

But there is another reason for the positive attitude, I said. Folks in the Philippines form their negative impressions of the government from their daily encounters and interactions with its national, provincial and local representatives. If the tax collector extracts a bribe to lower the person's tax bill, if a police officer asks for coffee money to tear up a traffic citation, if the mayor gets a cut from the private garbage contractor, then one cannot fault poor Juan De la Cruz for concluding that the Philippine political system is corrupt.

The primary, if not sole, contact of Filipinos in America with the Philippine government is the Philippine Embassy and its consulates all over the US. If Filipinos in the US who seek consular assistance are asked to pay a little under-the-table fee just to obtain their Philippine passports or to have a document notarized by the consulate, then similar negative impressions of the Philippine government will develop in the US.

But mercifully, at least in San Francisco under Philippine Consul-General Rowena Mendoza Sanchez, whose three year term began on July 1, 2004, that has not been the perception nor the reality of people’s experience with the institutional representatives of the Philippine government.

Talk to anyone of the 500,000 Filipinos in the San Francisco Bay Area and you will be hard-pressed to find one critic of the Consul General known affectionately as “ConGen Weng.” People who regularly deal with the Philippine Consulate have expressed admiration for the consummate professionalism of consular officials and staff and this starts at the top.

What impresses local people is not just what ConGen Weng does as part of her job, but what she does in her spare time. Folks remember the time when she brought consulate volunteers with her to the Walnut Creek warehouse of Dan and Nancy Harrington’s Books for the Barrios project to pack thousands of books to ship to Philippine elementary schools throughout the country.

But no project has consumed ConGen Weng more than lobbying for passage of the Filipino Veterans Equity Act. She has personally spoken with members of the US Congress to lobby them to support the Filipino WW II veterans. In the annual June 12 Independence Day celebrations sponsored by the Consulate, she has reserved a special place by the stage for the veterans. In the most recent one, she noted how their numbers have diminished over the three years that she has been consul. We have to do something now before they all are dead, she
Passionately implored the audience.

Although the popular “Consulate on Wheels” program was initiated by previous San Francisco consuls, it has been personally enhanced by ConGen Weng who has traveled from Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and the outlying areas of Northern California to provide consular assistance to Filipinos who may not have the time or resources to go to 447 Sutter Street in San Francisco.

When Consular officials announced that their Wheels program would assist Filipinos to obtain dual citizenship, not a few Filipinos lined up to apply for American citizenship to go with their Philippine citizenship. The Consulate had to explain that they meant Philippine citizenship only. Those folks would need to find a “path to US citizenship” in the Senate Immigration Reform Bill.

After it was announced that ConGen Weng would be leaving San Francisco in July to move to her new posting in Shanghai, many Filipinos sought to convince her to lobby to extend her stay in San Francisco. But she quickly discouraged any such move. “I cannot harbor personal attachments to a post, let alone request an extension because that would be unethical in the Foreign Service," she said. “I just have to take up the China post with the highest level of anticipation and eagerness … I have to move on."

Filipinos in the San Francisco Bay Area can harbor a personal attachment to her, however, witnessed by the large number of tributes that have been held for her in the last few weeks. As SF Public Utilities Commissioner Dennis Normandy noted, the number of despedidas (farewells) to ConGen Weng in the last month exceeds the combined total of all the despedidas accorded the 20 San Francisco Consul Generals who preceded her. It's just as well that she's moving on to Shanghai because only the Great Wall of China is large enough to hang all the plaques, certificates, proclamations and framed resolutions that have been affectionately bestowed on her in the last few weeks.

When told at these events that her professional dedication and patriotism have inspired Filipinos in the Bay Area to love the Philippines and help the Motherland in any way they can, she humbly declares that it goes both ways. She says the enthusiastic love of Filipinos in the US for their ancestral home has similarly inspired her and the Consulate staff to do much more to help the country.

Long after Weng has left for her new post, people here will still recount fond stories of her time as ConGen. Some will recall the time she attended the dedication of a monument to our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal where the Knight Commander exhorted the audience to support the “monumental erection of
Dr. Jose Rizal”. While everyone giggled and guffawed, ConGen Weng maintained her professional composure.

That unflappable quality was nurtured in her youth when young Rowena traveled the world as the child of a Philippine diplomat, the late Consul General Ruben Mendoza, performing Philippine dances in Australia and other countries. It was honed in her 30 years of service as a professional diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in posts in Washington DC, London, Ottawa and Chicago as well as in executive positions in the DFA home office.

Not a few have openly expressed the hope that ConGen Weng will return to San Francisco one day as Philippine Ambassador to the US Rowena Mendoza Sanchez.

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