Turning 40 in Beijing

Everything in Beijing is huge and grand. So naturally if I wanted to make a big deal out of my 40th birthday, I should do it here. And I did, thanks to my generous mother, who shared some of her retirement savings to give Neil and me a birthday made in China.

Patmei and Neil and Chairman Mao

Patmei and Neil and Chairman Mao

Neil was born on July 20, 1969, that is why he was named after the first man on the moon. I was born a year later on July 19, 1970 and nothing as remarkable and historic as the “giant leap for mankind” happened at that time. Unless you consider the fact that my mom’s water broke while watching the movie “Patton,” that famous World War II general. Thus, my name, Patmei. A tribute of sorts to General Patton.

Although I look Chinese I do not know of any ancestor from my mother’s or my father’s side that came from China. My mother was born in Davao City of Ilocano parents who came to Davao before World War II from Santa, Ilocos Sur. My father, a Bicolano from Ligao, Albay, has Spanish blood and traces his roots all the way to the friars and colonizers who came from the Basque region of Spain.

Selfie with my granduncle Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines

Selfie with my granduncle Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines

But my maternal granduncle, Communist Party of the Philippines’ founder, Jose Maria Sison, told me when I visited him in exile in Utrecht, The Netherlands in 1995, that the Bellos have Chinese blood.  I don’t know if he was just saying that to convert me to the Maoist ideology but we both have “chinito” eyes, making it a more convincing theory to me. At least, more convincing than the communists taking over the Philippines in my lifetime.

Exploring the Forbidden City as my life begins at 40

Exploring the Forbidden City as my life begins at 40

So when my mother announced that she will treat me to a destination birthday this year and the choices are Ilocos or Beijing, it was a no brainer. Why go only as far back as the Spanish colonization of the Philippines in Vigan’s cobbled streets when you can relive the Ming Dynasty in the Forbidden City and climb the Great Wall and be transported to the war of the kingdoms before Christ? I can see the dead body of President Marcos in Ilocos Norte without needing a visa but Chairman Mao’s mausoleum is not that accessible. Besides, China is rapidly changing these days I might not see any hutongs (old courtyard communities) left soon but Ilocos will probably stay the same for some time.

Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is one of my favorite movies of all time. Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. And I think Kung Fu Panda rocks. So if I must have a birthday theme for my big four-zero, Chinese is it! And it is a treat for Neil, too, because, after all, isn’t there a myth that says you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon?

Wearing red with the Philippine map as we conquered the Great Wall of China

Wearing red with the Philippine map as we conquered the Great Wall of China

If life begins at 40, then I want mine to start from the Great Wall of China.

In preparation for my big birthday, I read Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life.” He wrote that a story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. He believes that the point of life is the same as the point of a story, which is character transformation. So if a story is a condensed version of life, then life itself my be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.

This book really made me think how I can make my life a better story

This book really made me think how I can make my life a better story

Essentially, Miller theorized that humans are alive for the purpose of journey, a kind of three-act structure. Humans are born and spend several years discovering themselves and the world. Then they plod through a long middle in which they are compelled to search for a mate and reproduce and also to create stability out of natural instability. And then find themselves at an ending that seems to be designed for reflection.

In other words, we are designed to search for and find something. The point is not the search but the transformation the search creates. We are meant to live through something rather than to attain something, And the thing we are meant to live through is designed to change us.

Helpful signs for my journey to an epic story

Helpful signs for my journey to an epic story

That kind of Zen-inspired reflection can only happen here in Beijing, where journeys date back several thousand years and where transformations of the physical place and of the heroes’ spiritual character occur as often as seasons change through centuries.

I look forward to a better story of my life in the next 40 years as I take more transformative journeys, hopefully, with Neil and Mom as my fellow travellers.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, July 20, 2010