Books

Accident of history

Image source: Goodreads.com

Image source: Goodreads.com

Only a few works about the Filipino-Chinese experience have been so far produced in Philippine literature today. This is probably why much about the Tsinoy remains a mystery to most, and the few instances the people has been depicted are often stereotypical, frequently as shrewd business people who would take to even illegal means to further their enterprises.

While this portrayal is inaccurate, it is not far-fetched to say that even as late as today, such high regard for careers in commerce over those in the arts or literature persists among the Filipino-Chinese. This could also explain why there are only a few Filipino-Chinese writers who write about their culture in print today, among them the novelist Charlson Ong, who, in 2005, published Banyaga: A Song of War.

The business-versus-art bind Ong touches on in the novel, such as with the case of a shopping-mall owner, a second-generation Filipino-Chinese, who disapproves of his son’s interest in classical music. The son eventually gets his way, what with the support from none other than his grandfather, the family’s patriarch and one of the four protagonists in the sixty-year Filipino-Chinese saga. The grandfather, Antonio Limpoco, a grizzled tycoon who has bribed his way to business success, sending his grandson to Juilliard? What gives?

Art is again cast in an unflattering light when the only artist among the four main characters turns out to be the darkest. Having been adopted by a rich family, Fernando de Lolariaga leads the most comfortable life among the sworn brothers, training to be an artist and eventually becoming a prized painter and politician. Despite the privilege, Fernando is a troubled character, hunted through his lifetime with feelings of guilt from his youth during the pre-war years and the Japanese occupation.

Besides eschewing unprofitable pursuits such as the arts, the novel offers another reason to the Filipino-Chinese commercial acumen: a headstart. Like Antonio, Hilario and Samuel, many of the big Filipino-Chinese began their businesses when manufacturing and retail industries in the Philippines were still in their nascent stage in the 1950s. So by the time these industries replaced agriculture, these Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs had already secured their positions, which they would go on to maintain through decades of wars and regime changes.

The profound impact of history on personal lives is a theme which Banyaga shares with another Chinese saga, the Chen Kaige film Farewell, My Concubine. In both works, history serves not only as backdrop but turning points, an element that influences the characters’ decisions and changes the course of their lives. Take the Japanese occupation, for instance. The most compelling section of the novel, the war separated the protagonists from their newfound families and forced them to kill. The damage it would wreak on them they would never recover from and affect their relationships in their post-war lives. History is both friend and foe, bestowing privilege now to take away so much in the next. Other common themes present in both Farewell, My Concubine and Banyaga are father-son estrangement and brotherly love.

As it is, writing a period novel is more demanding than one set in the contemporary times, what with having to render the past as convincingly as possible. With Banyaga, the challenge becomes tougher with Ong’s choice to tell the story from the points of view of the four main characters. This is also the novel’s Achilles heel: having to reorient himself with the change of point of view in every chapter, the reader is often left confused. The shifts in points of view makes the narrative feel fragmented, with no palpable element connecting the next chapter from the last.

Like Farewell, My Concubine, Banyaga has its share of melodrama. Some scenes are too fabulous to be convincing, such as Nenita becoming a spirit medium and Antonio in old age falling off the yacht after hearing the music of his dead brother’s flute. The narration sometimes tries too hard to convey the character’s inner turmoil and tends to be overly sentimental.

By the end of the novel, the reader feels that Ong never set out to defend the often misconstrued Tsinoy. At the very least, what he has done is provide a more complex picture of the Filipino-Chinese. Come to think of it, the travails of his characters aren’t so different from those of other ethnicities.  Being Filipino-Chinese – actually, being anything – is simply an accident of history. The past brings with it two options: either you become its victim, or you become its master.

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Uncategorized

From Sputnik Sweetheart (2001) by Haruki Murakami

Image source: Youthincmag.com

Image source: Youthincmag.com

And it came to then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that wasonly for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

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Fiction

Ang Tagak at ang Kalabaw

t1i 034

Image source: Sir Mevs at Flickr

Kung tawagin kami noo’y  sina Tagak at Kalabaw. Ako ang tagak at si Kuya naman ang kalabaw. Sabi ni Kuya, bata pa kami ng sinimulan kaming tawagin ng mga kapitbahay nang ganito. Minsan daw kasi’y nagkasugat ako sa paa’t matagal gumaling, kaya’t kinailangan ni Kuyang pasanin ako sa kanyang likod saan man kami pumunta.

Mga apat na taon ako at anim na taon naman si Kuya nang sumama sa mga rebelde sina Inay at Itay. Mula noo’y kinupkop na kami ng aming Tiyo Jaime. Magsasaka si Tiyo kaya lumaki kami ni Kuya sa putikan.

“Ano kayang nasa kabila ng Bulawan?” madalas kong matanong kay Kuya tuwing nasa bukid kami at nagpupunla.

“Malamang ay putik din. Pag uwi natin sa bahay, maligo ka agad at napakabaho mo na,” sagot niya.

Kung tatanungin ako, ayoko sa putikan. Mas gusto ko sa paaralan. Doon, malinis at maghapon ka lang na nakaupo.

Mas naibigan ko pang pumasok sa paaralan nang tumuntong ako nang Grade Six at naging guro namin si Ma’am Salvador.

“Class, ito ang tatandaan ninyo,” ang minsang sinabi ni Ma’am Salvador. “Ang pinakamahahalagang bagay ay hindi nakikita ng mata. Tanging ang puso ang nakakakita nang tama.”

Wala pa akong narinig na tulad niyon. Nang sandaling iyon, iyon na yata ang pinakamaganda at pinakatotoong bagay na narinig ko. Galing iyon sa nobelang The Little Prince. Syempre, ilang taon pa bago ko mabasa nang buo ang nobelang ito.

Si Kuya? Hindi mo maipipirmi si Kuya sa loob ng classroom. Hindi lalagpas ang isang oras at tingnan mo’t wala nang laman ang upuan. Naroon na uli siya sa kabukiran.

Panatag si Kuya sa bukid. Pati ang pasikot-sikot sa kagubata’y kabisado niya. Minsan, dinala niya ako gubat. Narating namin ang isang maliit na lawa. Sa ibabaw ng lawa, nagliliparan ang sanlaksang tutubi. Sa liwanag na araw, kumikislap ang kanilang mga pakpak.

Umupo si kuya sa isang malaking bato. May hawak siyang dahon ng balete. Inilapit niya iyon sa kanyang bibig at nagsimulang tugtugin iyon na parang plawta.

Noong bata pa kami, pareho kami ni Kuyang marunong tumugtog ng dahon. Siya ang nagturo sa akin. Ngunit ngayo’y nakalimutan ko na kung paano.

Nang matapos siyang tumugtog, nagsalita siya: “Balak kong sumama kay Nestor sa Bulawan.”

Si Nestor ang anak ng kapitbahay naming si Aling Guada. Isa siyang minero sa Bulawan.

Tanong ko:“Bakit?”

Sagot ni Kuya: “Kailangan daw ng dagdag na tao sa minahan. Saka, malay mo, makahukay din ako ng ginto doon, tulad ni Nestor.”

“Pero delikado. Palaging may sumasabog doon. At pag may sumasabog, lumilindol. At saka, ang dinig ko, may mga sundalo din daw doon. May mga baril sila.”

“Hay, naku naman, Emil. Kalalaki mong tao’y napakamatatakutin mo.Walang mangyayari sa akin doon.”

“Bakit kailangan mo pang magtrabaho doon? Pwede naman tayong magsaka dito.”

“Mas malaki ang kikitain ko doon. Saka, tigang na ang lupa. Sabi ni Tiyo, ilang taon na lang daw at hindi na matatamnan pa ng kahit ano ang bukid.”

“Sasama ako sa iyo.”

“Ano? Sasama ka sa ‘kin, sa payat mong ‘yan? Hindi mo kakayanin doon.”

“Kuya…”

“Sa isang linggo daw ang uwi ni Nestor. Pag balik niya sa Bulawan, sasama na ako sa kanya.

At ganoon nga ang nangyari. Naging minero si Kuya. Labing-apat na taon siya noon.

Naging totoo ang lahat ng sinabi ni Kuya. Malaki ang kanyang naging kita. Dahil dito’y napag-aral niya ako hanggang high school. Umalis din ako sa amin upang makapag-aral sa  kolehiyo sa lungsod. Naging working student ako.

Hanggang ngayo’y minero pa rin si Kuya Ruben, at sa trabahong ito binubuhay niya ang kanyang asawa at dalawang anak. Sa tuwing uuwi ako sa amin, madalas ay hindi ko naabutan si Kuya sa bahay dahil nasa minahan pa. Kung Tagak at Kalabaw ang tawag sa amin dati, kami na ngayon sina Kamusta at Mabuti Naman. Dahil iyon lang, at ang dalawang salitang iyon lang, ang nasasabi namin sa isa’t isa tuwing magkikita kami.  Anong sasabihin ko sa kanya? Na, sa wakas, marunong nang magsulat ng coherent na argumentative essay ang mga estudyante ko?

Tulad ng sinabi niya, unti-unting naging tigang ang bukid. Minsang nakaupo ako sa harap ng bahay namin sa Bulawan, napansin ko na wala na akong ibang matanaw kundi ang bitak-bitak na kulay abong lupa. Wala nang luntiang bukirin. Wala na ring mga tagak at mga kalabaw. rcc

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Fiction

Carousel

Carousel

Image Source: Marshall Humble at Flickr

Kumahog na pumasok sa gate ang mga paslit at mga magulang. Kanyang-kanyang sampa ng kanya-kanyang anak sa kabayong naibigan. Hindi lalagpas sa limang taon ang mga munting hinete. Sabik na niyugyog ng isang batang lalaki ang sariling nasa ibabaw ng itim na kabayong may disensyong rosas sa katawan, kaya’t maagap namang hinigpitan ng kanyang ina ang hawak sa kanya. Naku, wag kang masyadong malikot; baka mahulog ka. Walang sinabi ang mga bombilyang palamuti ng carousel sa maningning na labas-ngiping ngiti ng mga paslit.

“Kayo, Miss, sasakay ba kayo?”

Si Danjun iyon, nakangisi. Tingnan mo ito, sa halip na magtrabaho na lang, nagawa pa akong biruin. Nagtinginan tuloy ang mga magulang sa carousel. Ismid ang isinagot ko; halakhak ang iginanti ng loko.

Pumunta si Danjun sa console upang paandarin ang carousel. Dahan-dahang gumalaw ang higanteng laruan sa loob ng mall na kahon.  It’s a small world, after all, awit ng boses ng isang dalagitang di nakikita, habang ang mga paa ng mga kabayo’y taas-baba ngunit di masaling ang lupa. Sapat na ang pagmasdan ang umiikot na carousel upang ipaghele ka.

Lumapit sa aking kinatatayuan si Danjun. Ipinatong ang mga siko sa bakal na bakod sa pagitan namin, habang nakahawak naman ang isang kamay sa pisngi. Ano bang nakain nito at di mabura ang ngiti? Ilang sandali ring ganoon ang hitsura niya, nakangisi sa akin ngunit walang sinasabi.

“Mabuti naman at dinalaw mo ‘ko dito,” sabi niya.

“Hindi ikaw ang dinalaw ko,” sagot ko.

“At sino naman?” ganting tanong niya, plastado pa rin ang ngiti sa mukha.

“Kinuha ko ang last pay ko.”

“E di mayaman ka ngayon?” Inabot ang aking kamay. “Date tayo?”

Sa unang pagkakataon, napahalakhak ako. Sa ibang lalaki, maaring magmukhang katawa-tawa ang unipormeng polong pula na may asul na kwelyo at manggas, parang watawat ng Pilipinas. Pero sa kanya, bagay. Maganda rin ang bagsak ng tela sa kanyang matangkad at payat na katawan.

Una ko siyang nakasama diyan sa McDonald’s. Mga part-time na service crew kami. Pareho kaming nag-aaral pa noon. Ako, kumukuha ng HRM. Siya naman, IT. Mga two-year courses. Noon pa ma’y masayahin na siyang tao.  Sa mga birthday parties, siya si Grimace. “Shiela, may magagalit ba pag nanligaw ako sa iyo?” minsang tinanong niya sa akin. “Nag-aaral pa ‘ko. Ayoko muna ng mga ligaw-ligaw,” sagot ng dean’s lister sa isang tech-voc college.  Nang makatapos ako sa college, lumipat naman ako sa Hypermarket, cashier. Nagulat na lang ako isang araw nang makita ko siya sa tabi ko sa counter, naglalagay ng mga canned goods sa plastic bag.

Nang ma-endo, lumipat naman siya sa Storyland. Operator ng carousel. Sa tapat lang ng entrance ng Hypermarket naroon ang carousel. “Pag may anak na ako, dadalhin ko siya dito. Sasabihin ko sa kanya, ako ang dating operator nito,” minsang nasabi niya sa akin. Ganito rin kami nang sandaling iyon: siya, nasa loob ng bakod; ako naman, sa labas.

“Ikaw, kailan ka mae-endo?” tanong ko.

“Bakit? Ayaw mo na ‘kong makita?”

“Hindi naman. Ano lang kasi —”

“Sa isang buwan na.”

“May inapplyan ka na ba?”

“Wala pa. Pero marami naman d’yan. Sabi ni Nelson, subukan ko raw mag-sekyu.” Si Nelson ang kasama niya sa kwartong inuupahan, security guard din dito sa mall. “Malamang, dito rin ulit ang bagsak ko.” Kinindatan niya ako na para bang sinasabing sumang-ayon ako sa sinasabi niya. “Ikaw, saan ka?’

“Hindi muna ako magtatrabaho.”

“Bakit?”

“Inaasikaso ko kasi ang mga papeles ko.”

Napakunot ang noo niya sa pagtataka. “Anong meron?” tanong niya.

“Papunta akong Dubai. Nag-apply akong food attendant sa isang hotel do’n. Pinautang ako ng tita ko ng placement fee. Si Tita, nurse ‘yon sa Canada. Mga isang buwan lang, baka makaalis na ‘ko.”

“A.”

It’s a small world, after all. It’s a small world, after all. It’s a small world, after all. It’s a small, small world.

“Paalis ka na pala,” sumbat niya. Hindi, hindi sumbat iyon. Sinabi lang niya ang narinig niya mula sa akin.

Dahan-dahang  huminto ang carousel. Noon ko lang napansin na kaunti lang pala ang mga batang nakasakay, mga lima hanggang pito, kaya hindi lahat ng isang dosenang kabayo ay may hinete. May may paslit na nagpumilit pang manatili sa pagkakasampa, ngunit ang mga magulang ang nagbabayad ng tiket kaya’t lukot ang mga mukhang bumaba sila ng kanilang mga kabayo.  Ilang minuto lang ba iyon? Isa? Dalawa? Tatlo? Sa loob ng sandaling iyon, saan kaya sila nakarating?

Tumuwid sa pagkakatayo si Danjun. Muli, naroon sa kanyang mukha ang ngiti. Muli, siya na ang operator ng carousel.

“Di ka talaga sasakay?”

Umiling ako, pilit na ngumiti. “Sige, alis na ‘ko.”

“Sige.”

Nilapitan niya ang mga nagsisibaba, inalalayan ang mga bata. Ilang saglit pa’y nakalabas na ang lahat ng mga tao. Nakayukong naiwan ang mga kabayong may palamuting mga rosas. rcc

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Film, Personal Experiences, Social Issues

Messiahs in our minds

Image source:  Interaksyon.com

Image source: Interaksyon.com

I like observing people and thinking about what their individual actions say about the entire culture. Recently, I’ve been noticing a particular attitude among Filipinos: most of us harbor what I have come to call as messianic mentality. In the face of problems, instead of tackling them ourselves, we tend to turn to a supposedly more powerful entity – the messiahs who would bring us salvation.

As a city hall employee, I get to see this attitude play right before my eyes. The offices of the mayor and the councilors are paid visits everyday by constituents who each have their own requests: a mother wanting to avail her son of Mayor’s scholarship grant, an elderly seeking financial assistance for her medication from Councilor So-and-so.

Every time I show these people the way to those offices, I feel frustration creep in. Can’t they really fend for themselves that they have to rely on dole-outs from politicians? Have they really ran out of opportunities that they are now simply expecting solutions to their problems fall whole on their laps like manna from heaven?

My own family has had our own share of hard times but we never relied on anyone from outside to get us through them. I remember my mother doing odd jobs to provide for us when we were young. When money was tight in college, I took on part-time work, and eventually left school to work full time. No one of us headed to the city hall looking for Councilor This-and-that.

While I sound as if it is the people who are solely to blame, I acknowledge that our leaders have a lot to do with this. Philippine politics has never been about policies but personalities. It has become the norm for our leaders to act as patrons who have to ensure their constituent’s loyalty through favors, practically buying it.  In this arrangement, we the citizens have turned into clients who have to be continually pacified – numbed – into obedience with scholarships and assistances of all kinds, like children fed with candy by their parents.

This, too, is the logic behind political dynasties: Having bought them with favors, politicians regard their positions as private properties, something they could pass on their kin like inheritance. Like repeat buyers, Satisfied Constituent-Customer votes for Mayor’s Son.

No wonder the appearance of politicians in community events like a wake or a flood drill often feels like a visitation from the gods.

Messiahs aren’t found in city halls alone. This messianic mentality also explains why games shows are big right now. Not a few times have I heard an ecstatic winner of these shows babble something like, “Bossing, hulog ka ng langit!” (Bossing, you’re a godsend!). Willie Revillame’s shows have always had a cult-like feel. Willie’s studio audience is often from far-flung provinces and had to borrow money from their neighbors for bus fare, which is not unlike what pilgrims do. All those dancing and chanting of boom-tarat-tarats resemble scenes you would see on an El Shaddai service.

Ishmael Bernal would probably turn in his grave to hear this, but Willie Revillame’s show often brings to mind his film Himala. Both Willie and Elsa have devotees who are mostly poor elderly. The Ultra Stampede incident also bears echoes of the conclusion of the classic film.

I believe this messianic mentality is also  the reason many Filipinos have fallen for countless scams, and many young Filipino men continue joining fraternities.

And the root cause of it all is our deeply religious culture. Religion never encourages critical thinking and demands unquestioning obedience to its dogmas. Believers are made to transfer their agency to a god.  This god says, Cast your burdens upon me. This god says, Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the kingdom of God. We heed his words, inherit his kingdom, and we remain poor. Worse, we remain infants, constantly needing a parent to go about life.

If we are to mature as a people, we need to banish the messiahs in our minds. That includes every Mayor, Son of Mayor, Councilor, Willie and Elsa we have now. If salvation would have to be brought by anyone, it would have to be ourselves. rcc

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