Amba Gary: A Personal Glimpse

By Noel Bautista, Cover photo: Aisha Ronquillo

TIMARU – If there was any schedule-squeezing to be done in order to meet a new heavyweight of the New Zealand Pinoy community, it was on that day in January 2016 to be sure.

I was lucky to be given an audience by newly confirmed Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand Jesus Gary Domingo, but I had to juggle my own time and availability.

By coincidence, at the time I was vacationing in the Philippines to visit family and friends and had a chance for this breakfast meeting with our new Ambassador, who traditionally not only represents our country in New Zealand, but is also the symbolic head of the 90,000 strong Pinoy community in New Zealand, one of the largest ethnic groups in this tiny but overachieving 1st World nation.

My advantage was that I knew what the ambassador looked like, from his pictures at the Commission on Appointments, but unless he stalked my Facebook page, he wasn’t in a similar position.

First Impressions
I saw him as a bit of everything: a semi-Spanish mestizo, but unmistakeably Southeast Asian in aura; cutting a scholarly pose the minute he walked into Pancake House.

He didn’t have the most athletic, chiselled body (nor did I expect him to), but neither was he a wimp. Ironically, though he’d never stepped on NZ shores, he had the prototypical rugby body. I’d later learn he’d done a season or two playing high school American football.

He had clear ideas on the future of Filipino diplomacy, if he had anything to do with it: use indigenous elements of Pinoy culture, mix them up with what works (and what nearly works) in the history of our dealings with state actors and the family of nations and never stop evolving.

He believed and continues to believe that every Filipino is a potential ambassador, so that overseas and in the global setting we do better and in fact excel.

Paraphrasing his thoughts, the Ambassador articulates his Pinoys as suns catchphrase whenever and wherever: A thousand suns shining in unison would not have the same dramatic effect as individual suns shining on their own, comparing the suns to the cleverness and ability of Filipinos alongside their overseas counterparts, with the bottom line being we shine best not with our own, but when we’re with others.

For this reason, Amba Gary, as he likes to be called by kabayan, would like our embassies throughout the world to make good use of the OFW and migrant communities to literally sell and promote Filipino interests. Governments and the diplomatic staff, no matter how inspired, won’t be enough to tell others how to best uncover and reveal the best the Philippines can offer.

Amba Gary with Noel Bautista in Manila

Half a lifetime over one coffee
Why can’t we find new ways of bonding and uniting the Pinoy community? Amba Gary is fond of saying.

For sure, basketball, sportsfestsand socio-religious and fiesta-like events will always be crowd favourites, but what’s wrong with cultural activities, short-story writing contests and even Filipiniana inspired fashion shows? It doesn’t need to be any particular activity, as long as it promotes the best in all of us.

And all this Amba Gary told me over one coffee. It might as well have been barako.

It was that one coffee (and Pancake House brunch) over which I had my first conversation with AmbaGary, but it might as well have been half a lifetime. His early life as a diplomat’s kid, earning his first battle scars in the Middle East and negotiating over treaties and statements at the UN in New York.

He had enough experiences to fill half his memoirs and he had so much more to do with the rest of his career.

Yes, serving as the Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand, Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is just the first of many milestones for Amba Gary. But he leaves unfinished many ambitions for the Pinoy community in New Zealand.

First of which is the manifestation of his belief that our community can be that which shines brightest in every sense of the word. We have the tradesmen, entrepreneurs, academics and especially those who pursue their vocations with passion. We have all the tools to make the most significant migrant contribution to Aotearoa and though he doesn’t think it can be done this generation, who knows what the next can do?

Second of which is his belief that our community, for all its events, traditions and organizations, is not networked enough. A comprehensive and of course online effort to interconnect each and every Filipino is not only a noble cause, but an essential one, if we are to stand out, as we are meant to stand out, as a community.

The third of all is personal to him, but to have ethnic Filipinos in the highest offices of the land would be something he would, as a public servant, be truly proud of. We are gifted in the sense of being great writers, orators and communicators and to translate this into having not just a bit part but a major role for Filipinos in achieving the dream of a better life for all Kiwis would be very worthwhile for one of the most memorable Ambassadors we’ve had, Amba Gary.

Now, if we could only have him for a second time around the block?

Editor: Noel Bautista was the Filipino-Kiwi Blogger of the Year 2021.