Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Migratory vs the Maternal

Somewhere in his book Songlines, Bruce Chatwin writes :

"In The Descent of Man Darwin notes that in certain birds, the migratory impulse is stronger than the maternal. A mother will abandon her fledglings in the nest rather than miss her appointment for the long journey south."


"Darwin quotes the example of Audubon's goose, which, deprived of its pinion feathers, started out to walk the journey on foot. He then goes on to describe the sufferings of a bird, penned up at the season of its migration, which would flail its wings and bloody its breast against the bars of its cage."

But I am not an audubun goose and although I left Karl and Sean in Butuan, the contemplation of this trip is already tearing me apart. Maybe, I am more of a mother than a traveler.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The First Salvo of the Diaspora

It's that line snaking up Bangoy street's Mintrade Building---there's something evil about that line!

On the second week of April, the line at the National Statistics Office serbilis center in Bangoy corner Monteverde streets reached Uyanguren street, three blocks away. I arrived at the scene at 8:30 in the morning aboard a jeepney from Matina and fell in line in between a 23-year-old new graduate from Notre Dame of Kidapawan applying for a job as factory worker in Taiwan and a 37-year-old short, plump and domineering woman applying for a domestic job in Lebanon. We were there to get our birth certificates authenticated by the NSO on the third floor of Mintrade, the first step one has to make before getting one's passport. I took a passport for the first time for this journalism fellowship.
The woman at my back was full of praises about her Lebanon would-be employer. "No cellphone, no Church, no letter, no radio, no communication with family nor with other workers" she said was the standing policy in that country. "And do you know where to go in times of trouble?" I asked. "Of course, the company gave us cellphone numbers and contact numbers of government offices in Malita. "How about the location of the Philippine Embassy in Lebanon, did you look it up?" She stared at me as if I came from another planet and insisted that her employers were really good to take her in. She was forced to wean her one and a half year old child because of this trip. She had five children. Her sari-sari store in Malita was not earning that much and her husband was not earning at all. On the major newspapers that day were headlines about the Arroyo government pushing for Charter change.
The girl from Kidapawan had quite a different story. She never thought of going abroad until her sister from Taiwan insisted to take her there. Her sister has been working there in the last five years. Her income was quite good. It helped her pay off all her debts which was the reason she was forced to leave the country and worked in Taiwan in the first place. The girl from Kidapawan had to be on board the plane to Taipei in May. She loved going to the farm in Kidapawan. She went to the farm even before she took the van to Davao to get her authenticated birth certificate from the NSO serbilis center for her to take advantage of the one-stop-passport processing scheduled in her city the following weekend. She was fair. She had the eyes and features of a Chinese mestiza. She graduated from an accounting course although she kept postponing taking the CPA Board Exams. She worked instead as a sales clerk or a cashier at a certain warehouse in Kidapawan. Most of her neighbors are already going out of the country, leaving behind small children in their wake. Most of her neighbors work as domestic helpers abroad. Her mother and father were having a hard time sending her siblings to school. She still had four other siblings she had to help out. The woman bound for Lebanon said she had to borrow money---from the usurer, perhaps---to pay for the expenses of her trip.
The line going up to the third floor of Mintrade building was long and full of stories. It was here that Filipinos wanting to get out of the country started their first steps to a strange country.
We waited for the line to move, staring at a gray poodle on the dirty floor of a Chinese store advertising hot coffee or tea. A man carrying huge bundles of merchandise and sometimes, pushing a cart full of cartoon boxes would bump on us from behind and the line would bend or break to give way and then reconnect again as soon as the intruder was gone.
The girl talked about never having to fall in line before. Back in college, her mother did all the queueing for her when she had to take the exams. But she was taking a different step this time, the first steps to the diaspora.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Orange Days

My days have turned orange since Sean and Karl left for Butuan. Orange is the color of the sun just before the sky gets dark. When orange dominates ones life, it becomes impossible to get any work done.
So, I begin spending hours contemplating the taste of coffee. I begin to think about the smell of smoke, hoping they could awaken me from this lethargy but they dissipate into the air even before they could fulfill a promise of warmth and satisfaction.
The computer monitor goes blank. My wallet is empty. There is a nagging fear that hovers over my eyelids as I sleep. My orange days are fast turning into sepia. Soon, I will leave the place and there will be nothing left here but shadows.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Reading “Not Home but Here”

Editor : Luisa Igloria

Skimming through the titles on bookstore shelves, oftentimes give me the feeling of reading a newspaper: You just flip open the pages half-heartedly, over and over, to stop at some item that momentarily grabs your interest, and then, setting it aside for something else.
But this particularly hot morning of a Thursday inside Davao’s Gmall’s National Bookstore, something caught my eye.
It was this orange-covered book, “Not Home But Here,” a collection of writings from the Filipino Diaspora, edited by Fil-Am writer Luisa Igloria.
Let me describe how I found it. It was in the Filipiniana section, switched in between Eric Gamalinda’s Empire of Memory and Carlos Cortes’ Lassitude. I was walking aimlessly in between the bookstore aisle, still smarting with shock at having been frisked by the guard as I entered the mall, trying to understand the meaning of such experience, when something about the cover made me grab the slim volume from the shelf.
Ignoring the sharp look of the security guard, I posed briefly just to look at the cover art by Brenda Fajardo, and opened right into the page where Luisa Igloria wrote about the poet Reetika Vazirani whose poem “It’s Me, I’m Not Home,” inspired the book title.
I discovered in an instant that I could not just put that book down.
Vazirani, as Igloria puts it, was often described as “the writer to have lived in more places than the number of years she had lived on earth because of her obsessive theme about the trauma of living between worlds.”
Her poem, “It’s Me, I’m Not Home,” describes a persona reflecting on the disembodied nature of her own voice that sounds both here and not here at the same time, as it comes out of the answering machine.
The same disembodied feeling reflects the experience of Filipinos in diaspora.
I turned over the book--so slim, it covered only 143-pages--yet, it resonates with something deep inside. I skimmed swiftly over the blurbs and flipped open its Table of Contents page, where names like Nick Carbo, Eileen Tabios, Bino Realuyo, Loreta Medina and eleven others met my hungry eyes.
Now, I began to wonder how is it then, for someone who is desperately stuck here at home and had no intention of leaving, to identify closely with the writings from the diaspora?
Is the disembodied nature of the writers voices---diaspora conjures images of the scattering of seeds, of spores, the detachment from the original body, as Igloria pointed out---echoes the same disembodied voices of those who are left behind?
I thumbed through the pages and savored the beginning of Nick Carbo’s essay “Un Beau Livre,” feeling transported for a while to the seaside village of Mojacar in Andalusia, Spain, where Carbo spent his residency in Fundacion Valparaiso while reflecting on his experiences in the brown diaspora.
For some moments, I was with him as he walked out into the terraced garden to stand in the shade of a thousand-year-old olive tree, “to listen to the ancient secrets, whispered there by the wind.”
The tree was already there when Magellan sailed off for Moluccas only to end up in the group of islands he later called the Philippines.
After a while, I was tempted to pause to listen to the sounds around me.
All I hear were the rustles of paper inside the bookstore as other browsers scanned the pages of other books on the shelves, above the din of air conditioning and the muffled sounds of traffic outside.
Hundreds of years after Ruy Lopez de Villalobos had sailed around Mindanao, the cogon grasses and later, the acacias had given way to the mall and the bookstore, where I stood.
Yet, how likely it still is, that someone—a woman with child, perhaps—must have stood in this aisle to choose between buying this book or buying six kilos of rice? I thought as I come across Loreta Medina’s “Choosing the Sun: Notes from a Journal,” at the part where she was leisurely strolling the beach of Dhaka, finding hardly a Bangladeshi woman strolling there like her.
For, poverty at home represents the other face of the diaspora. In her essay, “What My Lola Taught Me,” Leny Mendoza-Strobel wrote how the notion of a hybrid, fluid identity, that Pico Iyer eloquently wrote about in “The Global Soul,” has little to do with the Filipino Diaspora.
Even as Iyer spoke of the global phenomenon where people live in various parts of the world without feeling of rootedness in a particular place, Mendoza-Strobel showed how the journeys of the Filipino overseas contract workers, mail-order brides could never fit into that category, driven as they are by ‘involuntary displacement.’
Thus, guiltily I devoured the rest of the essays, moving on to Bino Realuyo’s “Life at McDonalds (Life is not English),” on to Merlinda Bobis’ “Border Lover,” on to Eileen Tabios’ “Toasting Poetry as a Way of Life in the Diaspora,” and so forth.
The writing from the diaspora allows me to get a glimpse at the other side of my experience, to connect with that disembodied part of myself I almost wasn’t aware of until now.
It reminds me of a cousin who had left our remote little village to migrate to Switzerland, marrying a Swiss, and straddling all the barriers of race, class, sex and culture just to send money to her family.
Of how schools and universities sprout all over the place teeming with nurses and graduates that will soon fuel the diaspora. How the old colonizers are still very much around, changing the rules of the game.
After reading the book, I was still left with questions. What and where is home in the diaspora? Is the imagined homeland exists only in the mind?
I craned my neck to listen. I had this uneasy feeling that like Nick Carbo, I had to dig up more than 400 years of the country’s colonial past for answers.

Family Album (excerpt of a life)

(My life as Germelina Lacorte is still a work-in-progress. This is an excerpt.)

THIS IS a snapshot of our house, before the old porch was torn down. It was probably taken in the 1980s, in one of the hottest, driest summers of the El Nino, so, all you see here is the stark wooden structure standing against the bleak dried up landscape of B’la, one of those little known villages in the surrounding towns of Mt. Apo.
All the leaves of the trees are gone. Even the bermuda grass in the front yard had browned and wilted.
Ma must have taken this with the Kodak 110 Instamatic camera that Eve was prodding her to buy at that time. A camera is supposed to capture beauty. Here, it captured the color of dust (gray and hazy) and the dried up stems of the gumamelas (brown). Even before time has turned them into sepia. Ma had tucked it for years among her files of old letters.
If we had known, then, that Ma was taking this picture, we would have stopped her at that time. Imagine, the house taken in the midst of a drought! Without even a single leaf to hide the truth. It was unthinkable. We barely reached our teens then. The truth, for us, was just too ugly to bear : a blurry image of a wooden house tilting in the uneven landscape. It was a one-bedroom house, perched high up on wooden pillars, with a porch and staircase facing east, and turns inward to a very small living room that leads to an even smaller dining room and a much smaller dirty kitchen and a bangkera to the south. The porch windows—which had long rectangular boxes holding potted plants—had wooden grills of geometric designs.
The living room—had a couple of wooden jalousie windows facing east---opens to the small bedroom to the west, where we used to peer out at the setting sun with fear in our hearts. Small kerosene lamps light our nights. We slept on wooden lauaan floor and wake up to the harsh sun, dappling the floor near the porch with geometric shapes, and the living room and the bangkera, with stripes.
The dining room opens to a pantawan facing west, where a huge rotting wooden table stood nearby a rickety wooden ladder that led to our muddy backyard. On top of this rickety structure, precariously stood a huge water tank, where once upon a time, a cat had drowned. I used to be afraid that this water tank might fall and spill its contents down the termite-ridden ladder, in a deluge. Nothing of the sort happened and yet, the fear and apprehension I used to suffer in the good old days in that house, stayed with me until now...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Make Tea Not War

At four o'clock in the afternoon, you can hear a pin drops at It's the time of the day when you're supposed to get out of the huge dormitory building to follow the scent of sugar and bananas deep fried in oil wafting down the streets and finally come upon the mysterious place where noisy children gather.
But it's about the beginning of summer--the time when schools close to give time for leaves to sprout---and the maruya makers are gone, trying to find someplace else where to cast their mysteries.
Now, as I contemplate the absence of that sweet aroma that had become part of my day, I become aware of the light coming from the window to the right. The sky beyond the roofs of houses, I can see from here, is gray and white. There's the ceaseless buzzing of the electric fan on the wall to my right, and the rustles of papers on the bulletin board on the wall opposite me.
"Make Tea Not War," says a huge poster on the wall, showing a man wearing a white teacup for a hat. He is tight-lipped and he wears a hard look all over his face. He is wearing black and his right forefinger is about to pull the trigger of the gun he perpetually holds. The iron gate on the groundfloor squeaks. The total absence of human voices allows me to hear voices inside.