Every December 31st, a few minutes before midnight, I sit down and write about every single thing I’m grateful for. The list is a mix of broad statements and v specific moments.
It’s also revealing how I still, inadvertently or not, would be grateful for little heartbreaks. However, analysing this exercise a few days after the high of the new year subsides, it makes me think if I truly am grateful for these heartbreaks or if I only repackage them as ‘things I’m grateful for’ purely out of self-preservation. If I can’t be grateful for them, for the suffering, for the pain, what use do I have for them?
I am eternally grateful for CNN Life for exhaustively educating me about culture in the Philippines. It was always a joy to commission and edit thoughtful articles about art, architecture, entertainment, fashion, and all other ways that make Filipino creativity distinct, singular.
One of the many pieces that has stayed with me is about the life and work of Filipino artist David Medalla. I have to admit, I barely knew who he was when Don, our editor-in-chief, assigned the piece to our contributor, art critic and writer Katrina Stuart-Santiago. But as is often the case with my stint at CNN, when a Google doc link of an article appears on my e-mail, I get giddy, like a teenager eagerly waiting for a crush's text message then suddenly hearing the cellphone ping (lols).
I'm not even going to attempt to retell the piece Katrina has written (you may read the full article here), but I do want to highlight my favourite Medalla installation: A Stitch In Time, a participatory work that invites the audience to stitch a trace of themselves onto the cloth.
"For Medalla, art is always about a story. A Stitch In Time is no exception. 'It’s a project that’s fixed to time and place,' Nankervis (Medalla's partner) explains. 'In 1968, during the backpacking hippie culture movement, David gave two of his ex-lovers a handkerchief each. He had stitched his name on each, packed a needle and thread with it. And he gave it to these two people going in different directions of the world.'
The setting was the Heathrow Airport in London, and Medalla would soon forget about the handkerchiefs. Until a while after, at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, when he would run into a man who had, attached to his backpack, an interesting trinket of assorted pieces of cloth and small objects.
'David asked the man about it, and he realized that buried in the layers of trinkets was one of the original handkerchiefs he had given one of his lovers,' Nankervis narrates. 'It had transferred from one person to another, and found its way back to him. So can you imagine that piece of serendipity?'"
Rereading this still makes my eyes misty. It tells me that even the most random of occurrences can serve a purpose. That the improbable can be imaginable. That chance can be so kind.
Thank you, David Medalla. May you rest in meaningful peace.
Thank you for my hilarious parents.
Thank you for my incredibly generous, deeply empathetic sister.
Thank you for friends I've had since I was five.
Thank you for my girl friends.
Thank you for Arya.
Thank you for Arya's wit. And strangeness.
Thank you for a job that enables me to help the marginalized.
Thank you for solutions journalism.
Thank you for the gift of language.
Thank you for my capacity to write.
Thank you for every single individual I've ever interviewed. Thank you for your stories. Thank you for the honor of letting me into your grief and joy.
Thank you for the Philippines and its absurdity and its originality.
Thank you for the ability to laugh.
Thank you for connections.
Thank you for missed connections.
Thank you for chances.
Thank you for hope.
(My boobie fat bothers me a bit lol)
I once read about a Cambodian victim of Pol Pot's genocide who went blind because she cried everyday for five years after being separated from her family.
Eighty percent of my mind is always at work. When I'm hanging out with friends, or catching up with family, only 20 percent of me is really with them. Perhaps, even less. I have mastered a trick to make me seem engaged in conversation — I nod, catch the last phrase they say, then make them expound that last phrase. This could go on for a while.
The word compassion comes from the latin word compati, meaning to suffer with.
I’ll tell you what terror looks like.
Four years ago, I stood across a house where five men had been killed. The families crowded outside. There were many people in that narrow alley, mostly women. Please, they pleaded, tell us who the dead men are. The cops refused, yelled at one mother, shoved another daughter. Then it rained, hard and heavy. People ran. The cops laughed. See, said one cop. He pointed at the sky. See, God is listening to me.
Three years ago, I went door to door to speak to families whose sons had been killed. They named a police officer. They called the deaths executions. One father refused to put his name on the record. His wife told me to use hers. She said it was the least she could do for her dead son.
Two years ago, I sat across vigilantes who told me cops gave them orders to kill. I couldn’t interview the cop they named, because the cop refused to comment. I couldn’t find the families of the dead. They had gone into hiding.
Isn’t that strange, one vigilante asked me, that it’s the families of the dead who have to run?
Last year, I spoke to a woman whose son had been shot by the police. Witnesses said he raised his arms. Please, he said, arrest me instead. The woman filed a case. The cops tried to settle. She refused, even as her own frightened family begged her to move on. On the day the courts decided in her favor, she went to her son’s grave with a copy of the resolution. She read him every word.
I don’t live with terror every day. They do. They have for years. One wake was empty of mourners, because every neighbor was afraid to be seen paying respects. One teenager quit school to trail her mother, terrified Mama would be shot next. A woman who had already buried one son stood guard outside a police station until dawn. Another of her sons had been arrested, and she was afraid he wouldn’t live through the night.
This government would like to tell us terror is a function of guilt. Do not be afraid of the new law, they say. Only terrorists have reason to be afraid. Trust the cops. Trust us to know who the enemy is. Trust us to define what public safety requires. The law is on your side.
Terror is a complicated word, but I’ll give you the other word for it, one less bound by politics and privilege. The word is fear. Fear makes you faint in a police office, in front of your sobbing son. Fear comes when you’re kneeling on a linoleum floor mopping up your own boy’s blood, saying sorry you can’t fight back. Sometimes it makes you apologize to coffins and withdraw witness statements and refuse to testify. Sometimes it stops you from asking questions. Or writing Facebook posts. Or sharing the story of a boy who said, please, arrest me instead.Isn’t that strange, a killer once asked me, that it’s the families of the dead who have to run?The old laws didn’t protect these families from terror.
The new law, enforced by the same people under whose watch thousands were killed, will make everyone else who dissents a possible target. The government is correct that this new law is about terror, but it isn’t one that will end it.I write this as protest. I say no too.
It was only when I left the Philippines that I had to confront issues about race.
I still don't have the proper language to articulate the encounters I had — how I felt a pang of guilt every time I was serviced by an older white person, as if I was going against the natural world order; how I went from being offended then flattered when told I "assimilated very well"; how I didn't know how to react when a group of drunk students shouted Chinese gibberish at me; how I was certain I got a high mark for my dissertation only because I exceeded my white supervisor's substandard expectations of a Pacific Islander's academic abilities; how I doubted how I looked like because I couldn't tell if I was told I was beautiful because I was beautiful or because I looked different; how I blamed my being Filipino, the color of my skin, the ambiguity of my name/face/built for not being wanted enough by internships I sought, companies I applied for, men I loved.
I still don't have the words for almost two years of what felt like a perpetual state of unease. Imagine a lifetime of that. And more.
^I posted this last time, then took it out because I felt that I was making the conversations about race happening online centre around me. But, besides realizing that nobody reads this website anyway, I decided to post it again because I do want to make these sentiments more tangible — at least for myself. I also need to remind myself to be okay with talking about myself.
Last year, I got to talk to author Viet Thanh Nguyen for CNN. I was very nervous because I'm a proper fan — have watched all his interviews and lectures online, have read all his books, etc etc. Here's an excerpt from my Q&A with him:
Nguyen's books "The Refugees," "The Displaced," "Race and Resistance," "Nothing Ever Dies," and "The Sympathizer" are all great works that show an almost-complete picture of what it means to contend with difficult, racially-charged histories, and how that affects our contemporary lives. Highly recommend.
I also suggest you read Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," a memoir he wrote even before he was president, which chronicled his boyhood as an African-American in Hawaii up until his foray into community organizing in Chicago. More than being one of the most empathetic world leaders, I've always admired Obama for his prose. Below is a powerful excerpt from the book:
And of course, the 1619 project of the New York Times is a goldmine of resources on the history of slavery in the US. My favorite of the series is Nikole Hannah-Jones' piece titled "Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true."
From Rowie Palacios:
Four years ago, I thought, like many Filipinos do, that issues of race are not very relevant in the Philippines, where theories about class tend to dominate analyses of social and political issues. I now know I was wrong.
A fish doesn't know it's swimming in water. When I read texts and documents written in the late 19th and early 20th century about the US colonization of the Philippines, I learned just how deeply immersed American decision-makers were in the race ideology of the day (the same race pseudo-science that eventually became part of Nazi ideology). I realized how every aspect of the American colonization of the Philippines was shaped by these beliefs about race.
When I read other scholars' work on 19th century Filipino thinkers, I learned how our revolutionary and nationalist thinkers appropriated this race ideology that was the fashionable 'science' in Europe at the time, and how they turned it on its head. They used this new Western concept of 'race' to imagine the Philippine nation, and to this day, we still speak uncritically of 'ang lahing Pilipino'.
Understanding the origins of the Philippine state in this way helped me to see the ways that racist ideology persists in Philippine politics and education, in ways we don't always notice. The Philippine government perpetuates the categorisation of Filipinos into the 3-level racial hierarchy created during the American period: of 'Christian Filipinos', 'Pagans' and 'Mohammedans'. This is still visible in our government structures.
Long-debunked theories about race are STILL (!) taught in some schools, and even where they are not, the adults who learned them thirty or forty years ago do not realize these theories have long been disproven. Many Filipinos still believe the 19th century theory about Negritos, Malays, and Indonesians as the three 'origin races' from which Filipinos descend. Many Filipinos still believe the long-debunked idea that the world is divided biologically into five races. And some Filipinos still even repeat outdated theories about the percentage of 'blood' from different races coursing through each Filipino's veins. All these theories have been definitively disproven by DNA science.
These pseudo-scientific theories were used in the 19th century by Europeans and Americans who were trying to make sense of the plurality of cultures they saw in the Philippine archipelago. They were also used by the American government to justify the colonization of people who so clearly wanted to be free. The American government did this by characterizing the Filipino Christian majority as 'mixed race'. The pro-imperial American press had initially portrayed the Philippine population as 'native savages' in need of civilization. However, the 'high' culture, scholarship, and literacy coming out of Philippine metropoles threatened to disprove this. By portraying Filipino Christians as a 'mixed race', they were able to square this contradiction to themselves and to the American public: Filipinos, according to them, WERE innately savages, but because their blood had been 'improved' with European and East Asian blood, they were now more capable of culture and civilization. Nonetheless, because their blood still had 'savage' blood, it was the duty of white Americans to civilize them further. The White Man's Burden.
A hundred years have passed. However, we Filipinos still find ourselves unconsciously mimicking many of those ideas in our skin-colorism, in the way the majority treat indigenous peoples, and in our colonial mentality.
Are issues of race relevant within Philippine borders? Absolutely.
Of course, we don't need to have a shared history with African-Americans to be moved to speak out about racism in the U.S. But perhaps the fact that we do should make it matter all the more.
FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
Let me tell you a story about a fellowship I didn’t get.
I stumbled upon the call for applications around mid-last year and thought 'WHY NOT ME?' and applied.
I background-checked previous recipients of the fellowship, and they were people who studied law and went to serve in Afghanistan, and had degrees in Middle Eastern studies, and fought rights for migrant workers in obscure places in Eastern Europe. I stopped stalking these hyper-achievers, lest I fall into a deeper pit of inadequacy. I knew I wasn’t going to get it but felt maybe they’d give it to someone from the Philippines this time (I mean, surely they know we have a madman as president, right?).
For some reason, I passed three excruciating screenings and was included in the final round of the process. Before the last panel interview, I read everything that I could about social and political issues in Southeast Asia (by this time quite certain I would be grilled about the region). But no. During the interview, I was made to analyze a case in RWANDA. Mother. fucking. Rwanda. When I was reading the case, I just truly blanked out, and all I thought about was the only thing about Rwanda that I knew: women make up majority of their parliament. This little trivia did not help me at all, so that was a bust. I candidly told the interviewees that I would try to answer, but that I was wary of pontificating about a country that I’m not familiar with.
They asked some other questions about my background, they told me how I should be proud of myself for reaching that stage of the process, how I was part of the 5 finalists out of some 2,000 applicants. It was flattering and all; nonetheless, I didn’t care that it was a feat — if I don't get it, top 5 doesn't matter, obviously. And so after a week of not hearing from them, I followed up just to be sure that I didn’t get it, and as expected, I didn’t.
I bought frozen yogurt, slept, and woke up telling myself that I should turn this failure into a blog entry on my website that nobody visits instead. So it goes.
Below is a picture of my set up during the video panel interview. I had notes open; notes that turned out to be utterly useless. Also put the two books I was reading at that time below my laptop as I felt I could feed off from the authors' brilliant, feminist/existential energy.
PHILIPPINE HEALTHCARE IN A NUTSHELL
In this video, I read bits about an article that sums up the Philippine healthcare system, and how unprepared we are for the pandemic. The entire piece can be read here: https://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/2020/3/20/healthcare-pandemic-opinion.html?fbcid%3Ffbclid%3Ffbclid%3Ffbclid