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.

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

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