Travelogue 2012, pt. 2

Xijing Men, “Welcome to Xijing: Xijing Immigration Services” (2012)

I finished Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked earlier this week and it was the last book I loved. I loved it so much, I was willing to forgive Hornby’s having misspelled Nathanael West, even if West is one of my favorite authors. I loved it for its optimism and sense of humor in telling what was essentially a terrible predicament. “Is everything an accident of geography?” laments Annie, the protagonist, at some point. It’s no longer a question of timing, but wishing you were in another place.

I talked to Kevin (who’d been in transit for months on end) about the impossibility of it and he said it came down to traveling so much, in his words: “I can’t hold down a relationship when I’m traveling this much.” Was that it? Were we just constantly choosing between two ways of making ourselves strategically unavailable?

Maybe you need some kind of tether before you can commit. Maybe. But people are able to maintain relationships while they’re on separate continents. I can’t even keep it together with someone who’s standing right in front of me. I’d love to say I don’t think about this stuff, and the truth is that usually, I’m not. But bring it up and this is what comes out.

Bandung, 28 June 2012

The moral high ground turns out to be mostly swamp land, wrote James Patterson in a compilation of essays that came out under the Granta title, “What we think of America.” These Americanisms, the remnants or prevalence of empire, manifest themselves in broad and yet insidious swaths in the form of language and branding.

It’s funny how this very American brand of imperialism is enough to influence how I think and feel about an entire continent, meaning the one I’ve lived in my whole life. Traveling has made it easier to see how the “east”, where I live, where I’m from, is perceived by those who return to the west. There is, as a friend called it, Asia and developed Asia–developed Asia bearing the closest resemblance to the west, with its bullet trains and its well-deserved comforts in its advanced stages of capitalism. Developed Asia is where the west goes to do business but there’s Asia where the resources are harvested. Where does Indonesia–with its mansions, its property rights, and its efficiency at shrouding the gap between rich and poor–fit into this picture?

In a van headed back for the city now. The sense of responsibility that comes with having to transport yourself around new terrain is different from that of having to subsist and survive on what it has to offer. You learn something from traveling that cannot be compared to what you learn when you settle down someplace new. I can’t say how much I know about a place like Indonesia, regardless of how much it resembles the Philippines (it doesn’t. Not really). You just learn different things wherever you go.

Plaza Senayan, 1 July 2012

One of the observations about Jakarta, and how similar it is to Manila in that it’s a cityscape you cannot navigate on foot. A place you cannot walk through quickly falls away, buckling under the weight of its anonymity. There are parts of Jakarta that feel like nowhere, and there are ways in which the differences and distinctions are highlighted so well. “Look at that fucking house!” a friend exclaimed after we’d been stuck in traffic for over an hour across someone’s mansion near Kemang, which is one of the wealthier areas in the southern tip of the city. The only thing that made it a house was that someone just happened to live there. My friend Mia had lived in Jakarta for a while and had told me that rich Indonesians made rich Filipinos look poor. This was what she meant, and we saw it. We saw it in the houses, in the walls, in the way people dressed and transported themselves from place to place, enclosed in shiny metal tubes.

To politicize the language of consumerism is a useless exercise, given the power struggles and interclass warfare inherent in the language of consumerism. To say that the rich are not like you and me is an allusion not only to how they look in clothes, but how they acquire them. It’s clear enough that the visual language of power is analogous, if not identical to how we currently envision wealth. Extending this train of thought to include the visuals of race is to acknowledge that the development of the commercial landscape follows the visuals of Western European and American branding. It’s a vocabulary that articulates how little desire we have for wearing anything made “here”, wherever that may be. It speaks volumes about the politics of trade and of the subservience of local economies. In the absence of necessity, it creates a model for supply and demand. This is the contradiction of the fashion system – a supposed language that springs from individual expression, rather than social, political, and cultural control.

This is so boring.

This is so excruciatingly boring and vapid and dull, and that is how the world looks when you have to explain everything in the objective terms of the academe. I’m not here to tickle the ears of the panel, I’m here to talk about what I did, and what I’m doing, and I can’t help but feel I’ve lost that when I try to make it fit into what I do for a living.

Jakarta, 2 July 2012

Writing this on a bus that is slowly crawling away from Gambir Station towards the airport for a flight that will not be leaving for another four hours; but given the kind of jam I’m in–and have been stuck in every day since I got here–I’m convinced I will need those four hours.

The night I got in, I ended up joining a game of Scrabble on the roof with other guests at the hostel. We would end up becoming friends, hanging out, going for a swim at the complex where Ning (the owner) had her old condo. I ended up spending a lot of time with Joe when we decided to hop on a train bound for Bandung together. It was Thursday and we had no idea what to do there, so we just ended up drinking a lot and making fun of the shitty guest house we had (not knowing where else to stay) booked on a whim. Joe was easy to be with, I think “Tell me about the Philippines,” was an easy way to open the floor for everything I feel about this country – my country.

I have a country, a place to touch base: this is a strange way to feel when people look at you and are not sure what place the color of your skin ties you to. But that can’t be all there is to belonging to a place. Once, I was standing on a subway platform in the East Village when a man in a fedora began yelling, “Hey, hey you! What nationality?!” And I was too taken aback by the absurdity of it all to answer him there and then, I mean what was I supposed to do, yell right back?

Joe and I talked about visas. About mobility and ports and the ridiculous ways you gain entry. We talked about sounding a certain way, and how people hear American when listening to Filipino English. This much was clear though: the minute you leave, people are already trying to place just where it is you came from.

Travelogue 2012

Now would probably be a good time to talk about this

I didn’t always feel the need to document my life while I was in transit because I thought the time to reflect (and write) would come about the minute I got back. That rarely ever happened. And so, the pictures piled up in one messy incoherent narrative–and I’m not complaining. This is equal parts luck and initiative, because there really are other things to spend your money on (or lose money to, depending on how you see it) besides travel.

When I say equal parts luck and equal parts initiative, I’m referring to how traveling, seeing how other people in the world live, and hearing their stories is a favor you do for yourself. Of course it’s not all romance, you do meet a few crazies here and there, but there’s more good than bad in that mix. For me, at least.

I feel the need to talk about this now because I had to cancel a trip this year. These past few weeks have mostly been about stepping aside–literally standing outside my own life to accommodate the other people in it–and that has culminated in the events of the past couple of days. I did an interview with an artist once, Christina Dy, as she was mounting a solo show called All the Wonderful Things, and I asked her about her life, and she said something about curve balls. This is that curve ball.

I was supposed to go to Jakarta and Yogyakarta next week, but it looks like that isn’t happening anymore. First, Regi’s wedding got postponed, next, I’m needed here by other people. And that’s okay. There were all those times this year in which I came first; in which what I wanted to do was at the center of my existence. This is, as all the self-help books say, the way it should be; but “this” isn’t always how it is, and of course we all know that.

I’m convinced everything is in the right place and this will all even out.

Lastly, I know I’m not the religious type, but if you over there, reading this, could just send well wishes and good vibrations in my grandmother’s general direction, I would very much appreciate it.

Alone in the house, silently but not unpleasantly

What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver

Few writers are able to acknowledge the ocean of heartache that exists inside all of us as well as Raymond Carver does. This is what comes to mind when re-reading Carver after a decade. I forgot what story it was that first drew me into his work. It might have been “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which has several couples talking about being stricken and attached as well as the petty infidelities that chip away at what could be our most meaningful relationships.

At 17, I had never touched alcohol, never really been broken up with or cared for in a way that carried the gravity of commitment, or loved in a sense that would make betrayal hurt the way it does now. “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” A perfectly turned phrase can add something to us, and whatever it may be at 17 changes upon being read again at 27.

What Carver was so particularly skilled at was capturing that moment in which having another warm body in your bed becomes more of a fact than a favor. It articulated what was stagnating and mundane in a manner which still bore the weight of the history which preceded it, and this is a quality of his work which makes it as personal as it is anonymous. Whether or not Carver was writing autobiographically is beside the point, the point is that the concise descriptions and the simple dialogue tell the story of anyone we might know. The point is Carver tells us stories of ourselves. Take this scene from “Blackbird Pie,”

When we’d finished eating, and after we’d had our coffee and dessert, my wife said something that startled me. “Are you planning to be in your room this evening?” she said…
Are you planning to be in your room this evening? Such a question was altogether out of character for her. I wonder now why on earth I didn’t pursue this at the time. She knows my habits, if anyone does. But I think her mind was made up even then. I think she was concealing something even as she spoke.

Few writers are able to narrate that slow and painful process of climbing out of that oceansized well of hurt and loving someone again unburdened by the possibility of heartbreak. And then there’s John Darnielle, who writes lines like “I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow,” which don’t make sense on their own, but flow seamlessly in and out of lines like “I wonder now why on earth I didn’t pursue this at the time.”

There’s Julian Barnes, who despite the hurt and loneliness that creep up in his subject matter, has never written anything ugly or angry.
And as you keep on keeping on, these other people–writers or otherwise–just come in from out of nowhere with the uncanny ability to speak for you or articulate your thoughts before they were even fully-formed in your own mind. The same can be said for what’s in your heart. What’s utterly terrifying is that the same can be said for what’s in your heart.

I bring this up now because of the week that was. My sister came home from Texas a couple of weeks back, got married, launched a book, and as of now she is on a plane bound for LAX, from where she will transfer to Houston, the to McAllen. I miss her, yes, but above everything I will miss the normalcy her presence brought to the household. She hadn’t been around for a year, but getting out of bed and finding her in the dining room heating up a cup of coffee felt like the most natural thing in the world – like a link snapping back into place.

But aside from that, it was also driving to and from the hospital, the wedding, the family affairs in between and the small victories we had as daughters, sisters, and friends. There were little breaks – my students had their fashion show, time was taken out to see friends, passion projects were attended to. But we’re back in bed now, and it feels like so much to take in the span of a week and now, all I want is to lie down and revisit Raymond Carver’s short stories.

Answering my own questions

Not waxing philosophical, but in the most literal sense. For the past few weeks, I’ve been keeping busy with this little project right here which will hopefully turn into something larger. “Hear it is”, which is a series of oral histories, has been the most time-consuming, and yet one of the most rewarding self-imposed challenges I’ve taken on, because it’s really not that challenging when we break it down. At least not in the blood, sweat, and tears sense. Transcribing can be a pain in the ass, but it is what it is. Like love. Like life. Lolz?

I’ve been facing this folder full of books in .pdf form, waiting for the impending deadlines to light a fire under my ass. And since that’s not happening any time soon…(OH GOD, IT BETTER HAPPEN SOON)…I figured I’d answer these questions I’ve been pestering people with.

The obvious problem is that I’m not a musician, and these questions were tailored specifically for musicians, so I’ll just kind of work my way around how these fit into my own life as a writer, teacher, brain-for-hire.
Continue reading “Answering my own questions”

Cognitive Reconstruction

Or “My Grandmother, The Lawyer”

A little knowledge…
a) Goes a long way, or
b) is a dangerous thing

Let’s start with going a long way, because it’s a long and winding road that leads…

To academic tenure.

Fucking tenure.

And yet, what a great vocation. After all, the pursuit of knowledge is such a wonderful and curious blessing to devote oneself to. I’m essentially being paid to read a lot and learn things and run them through the prism of my own comprehension. But I’ve also been tasked with commodifying my own brain. In the case of consultancy work, I’m paid to do this by the hour. That shouldn’t be a bad thing. We are all paid for whatever capacities we have to offer, but in the midst of all these questions I have to deal with, all with their respective deadlines, there are the little strikes (strokes?) dealt by the burden of our own mortality; things that make you wonder whether it’s even worth it to bother with (and I’m quoting verbatim here) questions like:

In Ashcroft et. al. (1995), using the framework informative of strategies in colonialism/imperialism, explain the significance of (i) Figures of Resistance, and (ii) literary resistance


Borrowing Walter Benjamin’s articulation of capitalism and Boris Groys’ working theory of self-design online, we seemingly subscribe to a new religion where the Internet has become our church. Have we become devout to this new religion? Or, are we trapped in this new church?

And these are great questions to entertain, because I did not see myself talking about this for a living at 27. I thought at this age, I’d be at the same stage of Thought Catalog-flavored misery I was dealing with just the other year, but no. Here we/I are/am now, being asked about post-history and the human condition, with a word count and a format. And that’s great.

But my grandmother just had a stroke.

I know I give away a lot in this space about my own personal crises, and these things sometimes touch on family issues. I’ve written about fathers, exes, my sister, maybe a bit of my mom here and there, but I would never mean to sell a family member out for even a bit of sympathy. My problem is not knowing how else to deal with a problem without writing about it, and this is something I’ve had on the brain all day – its force contending with whatever energy I’m supposed to be devoting to those questions on post-blablabla and mechanical reproduction. I’m thinking of a different kind of post-war reconstruction. I’m thinking of something that hits closer and harder than what my tiny fucking brain can contribute to fixing the world. I mean, what is that, really?

About my grandmother: When I was little (and I truly mean little, I’m talking third grade, sixth grade, and again in 3rd year high school), she would call me up when I would go through extended periods of “I fucking hate school and I’m not going to go, fuck-you-all”. That happened every few years, and I would end up staying home for days, annoyed at all the quote-unquote bullshit I felt I was being fed, and needing to “recuperate” because I was bored and petty and selfish enough to think I actually needed a break. It never got so bad that I had to drop out altogether, but I did find my journals from these periods (I KEPT A JOURNAL IN THIRD GRADE! WTF IS THAT?!) and felt so bad about the self-entitlement that just emanated off the pages.

But it was my grandmother who would take the time to lecture me on how this was important and this would pay off eventually. Of course I resented it then, but she was onto something. (Funny thing is she also hated one of her grade school teachers and stayed home for a whole year because of that, but when she returned, she was accelerated immediately because she managed to keep up anyway.) And now, I work in a school, which is another story altogether because there’s no way she could have predicted that–but I do give credit where credit is due and she was definitely vital to this pursuit of knowledge–dangerous or otherwise.

My grandmother was a Supreme Court Justice despite her contentious credentials as a lawyer. She entered UP Law as a special student (meaning I don’t know if she was actually admitted and properly credited with a law degree…I know there’s something fucked-up [in an awesome way] about her record) and topped the bar exam that year. She was (and is) fucking brilliant, and I can draw a line directly from the example she set into my own venture into academe. She also taught me to use a sewing machine when I was in grade school.

But she was also very conservative, bordering on uptight, and I spent a lot of time (especially from my teens well into my twenties) trying to shake that off. When it comes to knowledge being a dangerous thing, it was from her that I learned (and eventually unlearned) to equate knowledge with fear or confuse it with her own beliefs. She was the type who’d watch the news (or Oprah or whatever), and her take-away would usually be how terrible the world was and how everyone was out to get you and your money and your daughters. It’s terrible to be someone’s daughter in that kind of household, but instead of even attempting to communicate my own experiences which had shaped an entirely different perspective from her beliefs, I would clam up. I did a lot of nodding.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to take back those tacit complicities about how awful the world is, but I wish I could. I don’t even know if it would help her, after all I’m a good 60 years younger than her. She lived through the fucking war. She’s sent people to jail. what the fuck would I know? But that’s the thing, I know what I know, and I had that to bring to the table to get her to believe in a kinder, softer existence, or at least know me as something better than the granddaughter who has no grey area between smiling and scowling, and mysteriously disappears from time to time and collects cats and refuses to eat meat.

I was asked a few weeks ago if I come from a family of lawyers, and for some odd reason I answered, “No, it’s just three out of four grandparents, my dad, my aunt, and my older brother.” To which the question had to be repeated, “So you come from a family of lawyers?” Yes, I do. But for someone who comes from a family of lawyers, I still have trouble gauging just how much of how the world works, and how a person should be, is grounded in the law. I’m not proud of the fact that I know very little of the constitution or my rights (as a Filipino, as a woman, etc. etc.) or all these other things that pertain to what I do. I just talk a lot. She didn’t talk a lot at home because she spoke for a living, but I know this business of talking a lot had to start somewhere and she’s definitely in that mix.

The things you hear talked about in hushed tones over hospital beds will derail you from the work you have to do. I visited her this afternoon, after class, after being told that “She can’t talk,” but “She might be able to recognize you, if she wakes up.” Although she remained asleep throughout the visit, as of now, she’s already woken up. But we’ve already been warned of the possibility that she won’t speak the same way again and the certainty that she now has minor cognitive impairment after the multiple strokes and seizures she’s endured in the past 48 hours.

And of course that–along with so many other things in the world–is just not right.