DAGUPAN CITY?Like a typical balikbayan, Jacqueline Aquino Siapno, with 5-year-old son Hadomi in tow, arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport 10 days ago and was met by her mother.
After exchanging greetings, they took a cab and headed to a bus terminal in Pasay City where they boarded a bus bound for her native Dagupan.
The Friday-night trip took five hours. At the station, they hailed a tricycle and asked to be taken to their house in Barangay Bonuan Gueset.
But Siapno, 41, is no ordinary balikbayan. She is the interim first lady of East Timor and the wife of that country?s national parliament president, Fernando ?Lasama? de Araujo.
?It?s a private family visit,? Siapno told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by way of explaining why her arrival in the country was shorn of the ceremony usually accorded a visiting foreign dignitary.
?But if it were an official state visit, then we would be in a very complicated protocol. But also, I don?t really like protocol. That?s why I?m the worst first lady anyone could have,? she said.
Siapno is East Timor?s interim first lady because its president, Jose Ramos-Horta, is unmarried.
?It?s great [to be back home], and it?s really a spiritual journey for me to come full circle,? Siapno said.
She also visited Dagupan in 2001, 2003 and 2005. This time, her visit to her parents? cottage in Bonuan Gueset, a heavily populated barangay (village) facing the Lingayen Gulf, took only 10 days.
Her parents, lawyers Juan Carvajal Siapno and Corona Balolong Aquino, are longtime residents of Bonuan Gueset.
?I didn?t meet anyone because I only came here to rest,? Siapno said. ?I didn?t go around and meet people because my life is so exhausting in East Timor and also in other places. I come here basically to relax and unwind.?
Siapno had just completed her junior year in high school at Ednas School in Dagupan when she migrated to the United States 27 years ago.
She continued her studies at St. Elizabeth High School in Oakland, California.
After high school, she studied political science on scholarship at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the same institution that produced Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state, and the incumbent, Hillary Clinton.
In 1990, Siapno acquired a master?s degree in political science at the University of London. Seven years later, she completed a doctorate in South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California in Berkeley.
Falling in love
Siapno first met her husband in 1993 when she visited the Cipinang prison in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Araujo, who was then secretary general of the Resistência Nacional dos Estudantes de Timor-Leste (East Timorese Students National Resistance), was detained at that time on subversion charges.
?We fell in love and we waited until he was released in 1998,? Siapno said.
In June 2007, Araújo won a seat for the Democratic Party. The following month, during the first session of the new parliament, he was elected president of the National Parliament, East Timor?s unicameral legislative body.
?Being a first lady, to be honest, is exhausting,? Siapno said. ?You?re like a maid. You have to make sure you show up dressed nicely. You basically have to represent the state. And you have to show a lot of integrity and also support other women and other [causes], such as anticorruption and good governance.?
Adviser, nanny, driver
Siapno said her husband was ?very lucky? to have a political scientist for a wife because she was ?also a silent adviser.?
?I?m kind of an unpaid government adviser. I see my role as fully supporting his work as public servant,? she said, adding:
?And then I also raise my son. I try to protect him from a lot of invasions to our privacy because our house is basically like a public house; our kitchen is like a public kitchen. I have to do household management.?
According to Siapno, most Filipinos in East Timor are shocked to know that she does not have a secretary or a household staff.
?I don?t have these, so I basically have to do everything. I?m the nanny, I?m the household manager, I?m the political adviser, and sometimes the driver,? Siapno said.
?Now that I?m with my mother, I?m her maid. I have to clean her house, do our laundry. I haven?t had a vacation,? she said.
Beautiful East Timor
Having gained independence in May 2002 after 450 years of foreign occupation, East Timor is ?still the most beautiful country in the world,? Siapno said.
She added: ?There are a lot of possibilities in the way the country could develop. We don?t want to become like other Asian countries that have become very corrupt. In East Timor, we still have a lot of people like us who are very visionary and idealistic.
?In other countries, I noticed that if you?re not a celebrity or movie star [and] you don?t have a lot of money, even if you have good programs, you can?t win. East Timor is not like that.?
After going through a war, East Timor is now ?more or less? politically and economically stable,? Siapno said.
She said there was ?more and more stability and peace? there, making it, in her eyes, ?still one of the most attractive, peaceful places.?
Unlike the Philippines, East Timor does not have huge malls. ?We have a very simple supermarket,? Siapno said. ?It?s not consumer-capitalist-oriented; it?s very simple.?
?People just have what they need?the basic things,? she said. ?Most of our agriculture products are organic. We don?t use chemicals. If you?re a capitalistic-consumer-oriented person, you?ll be very depressed living in East Timor. But if you?re a simple person and you like nature, it is one of the most beautiful places to live in in the world.?
Professor and author
But more than being a first lady, Siapno would like to be known here as a successful professor.
?People here are so messed up, in a way,? she observed. ?In other countries, they would value a professor more because you search for truth, you share knowledge, you produce new scholars.?
But here, she said, ?nobody asked [me] about [my academic life]. They are only interested in me being the interim first lady. It?s ridiculous. I don?t understand this kind of culture.?
According to Siapno?s curriculum vitae posted in the University of Melbourne website, she has held professorial positions in universities in London, Australia, East Timor, Indonesia and California.
Starting August, she will teach at the Seoul National University in South Korea.
Siapno has worked in East Timor as a consultant to international organizations, as a political advisor, and as a workshop facilitator on gender and development in government departments and rural women?s groups.
She is likewise a published author.
In 2002, she published her book ?Gender, Islam, Nationalism and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation and Resistance,? a revised version of her dissertation at the University of California in Berkeley.
She is also the associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures and co-editor of ?Between Knowledge and Commitment: Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peace-building in Regional Contexts.?
?That part of my life is so much more fascinating and challenging,? Siapno said. With a report from Inquirer Research