Nanay Says: Mr. John

By: Cris Evert B. Lato-Ruffolo - CDN Digital | November 16,2019 - 07:28 AM

We were eagerly waiting for them to arrive inside one of the classrooms of Fudan University in Shanghai, China. 

It was not the first time for us, scholars of the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF) China Scholarship Program, to meet Mr. John Gokongwei Jr. and his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Gokongwei. We were introduced to them in Manila when we made the cut to the program that sends young professionals to a one-year study trip to learn Chinese language, culture, politics and economics. 

The main focus was to learn Hanyu or putonghua, the main language of the People’s Republic of China so we understand the economic miracle that is China. It was a bold program and I was part of the second and last batch of scholars, who were privileged to be given a yearlong opportunity to attend classes through the Confucius Institute at the Ateneo De Manila University and Fudan University in Shanghai. 

Initially, there were 40 of us divided into three classes: Beijing, Xiamen and Shanghai. I was in the Beijing class, with no Chinese language background. 

For the most part of the first month of the classes held inside the GBF compound located on Amang Rodriguez Avenue in Pasig City, I was just a happy bee, grateful to be away from my hometown of Cebu in and absorb whatever I can learn at the capital. 

It was an experience of a lifetime. I have always wanted to learn another language and Mandarin Chinese was right up there next to French. I grew up watching Chinese kung-fu movies at home and Jackie Chan was my mother’s Superman.

It was 2009. I was a 22-year-old cub reporter for Cebu Daily News covering the business beat and had my fair share of writing stories about Filipino-Chinese business leaders and their businesses. I wanted to understand why the big names in Philippine business trace their roots to China. University of Cebu president Augusto Go once explained to me that the Gotianuy (his side), Gokongwei (of JG Summit) and Gotianun (of Filinvest) are all related. I sat in his office wide-eyed and mesmerized about this newfound knowledge and Atty. Go was my source. That got me more interested in studying China. When I got in the program, after a rigorous screening process, Atty. Go was one of the first five people I shared the good news to.

We studied one semester with Chinese and Filipino-Chinese teachers of Confucius Institute. I was a diligent student. I lived and breathed Chinese during that time. Our Chinese language classes were divided into listening, spoken, writing and comprehension Mondays to Fridays. Afternoons of Tuesdays and Thursdays were devoted for lectures in culture, politics and economics. 

I was one of the scholars from outside Metro Manila who were housed at the dormitory within the GBF compound, the very same compound where Quake Cake and C2 are made. I remember being so happy when we were toured around the factory of my favorite merienda combination. There were seven scholars who lived in the dormitory. We were from Cebu, Dumaguete, Davao and Camiguin. We developed quite a bond; Fred was an entrepreneur from Dumaguete, Ritchie is a lawyer from Cebu, Desi is a teacher, Ate Argee is originally from Camiguin but lived in Manila when she was accepted to the program as she was working for a political party, my roommate Lis was a journalist from other paper in Cebu, and Mike from Cebu is a socio-political communicator. 

I have never learned to navigate Metro Manila’s busy streets in the five to six months that I lived there. But I definitely learned how to speak basic Mandarin Chinese at the end of the first semester after countless nights of obsessing over conversations and waking up in the middle of too-many intriguing dreams and then writing Chinese characters on my Hanzi wall, which I believed brought undue stress to my roommate. 

We took the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) or the Chinese language proficiency test at the tailend of the semester. The results were submitted to Fudan University to determine which classes we will be enrolled in Shanghai. 

In Shanghai, we were house at the international students’ dormitory. All the school fees, books, board and lodging, airfare and monthly allowance were provided by GBF. I felt so privileged to be part of that group. I always said that I was given this opportunity so I am going to make the most of it. 

While studying, I also joined dance classes and met Chinese friends. I volunteered for a community center where I taught English to five-year-old children. I contributed for Shanghai Daily, an English language newspaper and wrote the piece “Mandarin for Manila” which detailed the program I was in and what Fudan University thinks about it. I traveled to other Chinese cities that further developed my love to explore the world. 

More importantly, I learned to speak and read the language that I was so eager to learn. When I came home to Cebu in 2010, I developed a stronger relationship with my Filipino-Chinese sources. Mandaue Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Philip Tan called it the “Chinese advantage” while Atty. Go congratulated me for hurdling the challenge. 

Couple Wilson and Melanie of Ng Khai Development Corporation were my cheerleaders. She may not remember this but Mrs. Gregoria Cokaliong gifted me with textiles that she said I should make into dresses to wear in my classes for good luck. 

I was holding a copy of my Shanghai Daily article while waiting for Mr. John and Mrs. Elizabeth to enter the room. It was quite a while. Later, one of our batch leaders, Ate Christine Ajoc said the university’s security guards did not allow the car to enter the premises so they had to walk. Mr. John was probably 82 years old that time. But Ate Christine said there were no complaints from him or Mrs. Elizabeth. They simply got out of the car and walked to Guang Hua Lou where the rest of the scholars waited. 

When it was my turn to approach him, I asked him if he could sign the article. An associate explained to him that I am the author of the article. He said I should sign the story for him. “Taga Cebu ko Sir,” I said. He nodded and signed the article and then tapped me on the shoulder. 

The next interaction was when we had our closing ceremony back in Manila. The Cebuano group had a photo with him. I thanked him profusely for the opportunity. He nodded again and told me to work hard. 

I have never seen Mr. John as my hero before that opportunity. I have never written quite extensively about the experience. But a press conference in 2018 had me seated beside Mr. Lance Gokongwei. I told him that I was a GBF scholar. 

“How’s your Chinese?” 

“Bu tai hao.” Not too good, I said. 

“Yours is better than mine,” was his answer. 

Today, I look back nine/ten years after that program and marveled at how a single opportunity like that changed my life for the better. I taught Chinese language and culture, lived in another Chinese city, traveled to 10 more Chinese cities and towns, and married a man who works for a Chinese company. 

I understood a little bit of the China miracle; that it was the inherent humble nature of people displaced from their hometown and trying to make ends meet in another country that made them frugal, determined and hard working. 

I am forever grateful to Mr. John and the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation for the opportunity you opened for this probinsyana to learn more and be more. Your memory lives on with me and the countless lives you have touched Sir. 

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TAGS: CDN Digital opinion, Cebu columns, Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF) China Scholarship Program, John Gokongwei Jr., Nanay Says

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