I have had a busy time with friends in the past week or so. One called asking for help with a medical emergency. Another rang about getting hold of some books and CDs. I chatted with a third about the kind of digital camera I was looking for. A fourth reminded me of an article deadline I was supposed to meet. Finally, I had a talk with an old college friend about when we could all get together this year.
It all sounds mind-numbingly prosaic, except for one thing: everyone I talked to was abroad. One was in Brussels, the second in Bergen, Norway, the third in Hong Kong, the fourth in New Jersey, and the last in Washington. We were all Filipinos just having the usual chit-chat between friends.
In a way, it is mundane, because I think this sort of activity happens all the time in my country. With at least 10 per cent of their population dispersed across the planet, Filipinos have seized technology to create a global village where it is still possible to reach anyone, any time. It is not as good, of course, as actually seeing each other, but far better than a mere decade ago, when a lengthy long-distance phone call cost hundreds of dollars.
Now, communications costs are so taken for granted that when you switch on your mobile phone you promptly get a text message joke from a friend in Europe, or a message from a relative in Canada like: 'Momma is right now in the exhibit of Princess Di's dresses.' My wife reminds me that when I have been abroad, I have sent such urgent, breathless messages as: 'Have you eaten?'
The Filipinos abroad - between seven and eight million of them - are the main reason the nation has not yet gone under economically. Last year, expatriates remitted at least US$9 billion. It was inevitable that such a wired economy, built on the separation of families and friends, would find a means of keeping in touch. Using mobile phones and the internet, the dispersed population remains a Filipino community, sharing news, information, gossip and jokes. I have subscribed to a couple of internet newsgroups whose members come from all over the world.
It is a community which has also set up techniques of moving things around the world which could be the envy of al-Qaeda. There is an e-mail joke doing the rounds about a Filipina in the US, who dies of old age, and her relatives ship the body back to Manila. The letter accompanying the coffin has very specific instructions. Written to the family members here, it says: 'The shoes mommy's wearing are for the granddaughter, the jewellery is for her niece. You will find the cans of corned beef under mommy.'
Sometimes, after reading it several times, I begin to think it is not a joke.