PASAHERO by by Maria Concepcion Pidelo-Ona
Unknown Filipino Greats in Nagoya
Erwin Ona: The Recycling Specialist
How do you write about someone whom you've known for more than a decade and shared a home and a child with but has achieved something big for Filipinos in Japan to be proud of? As I usually do for my personality profiles, I just go ahead and ask my questions but this time, my interviewee is my husband, my other half, the president of our household. So it can be quite difficult to be objective, to put a limit to what I will write and reveal so I will just write what I think will help inspire Filipino students and workers in Japan about how my husband survived his student life here and slowly rise to be recognized for his research efforts in environment protection through energy and material resource recycling.
As a child
Erwin Ona was born and raised in Los Banos, Laguna by parents Silveria and Benjamin Ona who both worked as administrative and research staff of the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB). He is the second child among four siblings. As a child, he wasn't as studious and as academic as his sisters but he was a typical boy who loved to watch television and helped his parents around the house. He loved to watch Macgyver best and TV science programs. He also remembers that he loves to take apart old machines like fans, radios and clocks and see how they work. Diligence and hard work were important values for the Ona family that his household duties were helping his mother carry her heavy basket from the market filled to the brim with their weekly food supply and helping his father plant vegetables at their backyard or at a neighboring vacant plot. He was also his father's willing assistant when his father repairs bits and pieces of small machinery.
His mother had only one rule for her children during weekends: either they study or help in the household tasks. Erwin, not being the studious type would opt to help instead.
As a mother too, I observed that my husband's early childhood training contributed so much to his interests and the values and work ethic he developed later in his life. His parents have been a big influence in his development and career choice as a researcher in the field of recycling technology.
As a young academic
Young Erwin wanted so much to major in computer science which at that time was one of the more popular curricular offerings in UPLB but since his older sister was taking this as her major, his mother advised him to choose another field. He wanted to study electrical engineering but this will mean going all the way to UP Diliman to study which his parents didn't quite agree to. Being obedient to his parents, he took the UPCAT exams, passed and opted to major in chemical engineering instead at UPLB. He was a scholar grantee of the Department Science and Technology which helped fund his education in college. He finished his engineering studies in four and a half years instead of the usual five and showed a strong interest in environment protection research when he studied the recovery of chitin, a material that can recovered from prawn shell waste which has potential use in the medical industry.
Up to this time, Erwin still maintains a strong interest in computers and studying programming languages. He tries to find time during weekends to dabble in his lifelong interest when he is at home. He repairs our PCs using old computer parts and he has been successful almost all the time.
As a Japanese government scholar
Erwin first came to Japan in 1997 to be a part of the Philippines-Japan Friendship Program. At that time, he was also one of the youngest-looking engineering teachers at the university and was working on his masteral degree in the environmental sciences. But, Erwin wanted to more than just study and teach, he would like to experience studying abroad and learning new things in a new learning environment which he got when he joined the Program. Luckily, he got two scholarships: the Australian Development Scholarship at Melbourne University and the Monbusho Scholarship at Nagoya University. He chose Nagoya University because there was a higher chance for him to continue with his doctoral studies.
Those six long years doing research in Japan were periods in his life which he would never forget as it was also the time when he and his wife decided to start a family and had a son. He worked hard to balance his studies and his family life.
My husband had a strong sense of focus on his research and he was dedicated and committed to finish his studies. As his wife, I also gave him the encouragement and support he needed when he got frustrated and when he almost felt like giving up.
As an R and D staff of a Japanese company
Before he graduated with his PhD studies, Erwin was offered by his academic adviser to work at a company specializing in water filtration and treatment, Sanshin Manufacturing Co, Ltd. . He was the first foreigner to be employed at Sanshin. He initially wanted to try working for a year and ended up, working until now, his fifth year.
Compared to university lab work, his hours at the Japanese company are shorter yet the demands of the work place are harder since there are more superiors who need to be satisfied time and again with his work outputs and there are colleagues from all levels whom he is expected to have a cordial relationship with. The company is far from our residence too, about an hour's train ride as compared to his university lab which was just 10-minutes away on foot from our home.
The first year was very difficult with all the major adjustments he had to do but after that, Erwin has been coming and going everyday to work and treats it as not a big deal anymore. He says the keys to surviving the Japanese workplace are: working hard, doing more than what they expect you to do, knowing your place in the team and trying to communicate in Japanese. Of course, he believes that the usual values of patience and perseverance are as equally important too specially when confronted with very challenging work issues and concerns.
The challenges were many but he was able to weather them all slowly and successfully. For the last five years, Erwin's research contributions have been recognized by his company and also by a Japanese group of engineering intellectuals. In his second year at his job, his company gave him the Innovation Award and two years later, in 2009 he was again given the same recognition. In 2009 also, he received the Technology Award from The Japan Society of Separation Process Engineers. Erwin, along with his Japanese R and D teammates designed and developed a closed-loop evaporator which is important in recovering chemicals from solutions used in the plating industry.
The simple boy from Los Banos has indeed travelled far, has achieved a slice of greatness in a foreign country with a culture and a language so very different from his own. With his achievements, he has made his parents, family members and also his countrymen proud. But, no matter how big his accomplishments are, he opts to remain an unknown Filipino giant in Nagoya. For that my son and I are proud and all the more make him more endearing to us -- that he is just our dear hardworking Papa who plays with us, eats with us and disagrees with us at the end of every work day.
But in the end, I believe that his story is an inspiration to many that talent, patience and perseverance still remain to be the secret formula for success of many Filipinos working abroad.