Archive for November, 2013

November 13, 2013

Exile: or, to Yolanda

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. […]. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

– Isaiah 9:1-2

Growing up in a family that was technically not a family – that is to say, a broken one – I thought that it would be easy to “live alone,” so to speak. Father was regularly going around the country for business, so even then, I was nurtured to be a “grown-up:” to be used to your parents not being at home, and to be used to living alone. So when the family broke up, I had that itching stoicism within me that told me that I can take this all in.

And I guess it was quite reinforced when I studied in Manila. No doubt, I came from Manila and I grew up in the “gates of hell,” but I spent my so-called “formative years” in Iloilo, of whom I have every bit of affection to. So I wasn’t that much of a stranger to a change in context; I was able to assimilate quite well with a particular culture (I learned Bisaya in the two and a half months I stayed in Cagayan de Oro). Going back to Manila, then, was like revisiting my grandmother’s house: still there, but not quite. But the atmosphere was more or less the same. You only had yourself to look out for. You could say that the second amendment was built on that, on the idea of “I can handle this with my own hands.” – And “handle this myself” I did: I always got puzzled looks from my friends when i insisted that I eat out alone, or go somewhere alone. It was not that difficult to do it; it was just the way life was for me at that time.

So my transits between my provinces (Iloilo and Cagayan de Oro) and the city were literally transits: my visits were like whiffs of coffee when you scurry past the dining table during breakfast time. You can taste it – being home – but you always feel left out, as if it was you who was not part of that picture. You always gravitate towards the blinding light streaks that undulate across your windshield as you travel down the road – it was like that, just passing by.

2008 was quite a shock not only because it was my first year in college: Frank happened. For the first time, I felt helpless. Some of my friends were no where to be found. The floodwaters rushed up like a spring; nobody was quite prepared for it. Everyone near the river was reduced to sitting ducks on their rooftops. As images of death and destruction filled my newsfeed (Facebook was still not that “advanced” back then), I felt – and I swear it was the first time that I felt it – numb. Not because the “excremental assault” of these images were too much for me; it was that simple but disturbing feeling of being away from where you’re supposed to be: a spectator of my own possibilities for suffering. My feet trembled at the sight of people holding on to branches; it gnawed on me that I might have been that person. It could have been me. But I felt numb: I am supposed to be there, but I am not.

I remember that sinking feeling during the relief operations: only a few of us were there (less than five?). I helped SLB pack some goods in rice sacks, so that they will be shipped off to Iloilo first thing the next day. As I placed the goods in those sacks, the absurdity of it dawned on me: what if I was the one who was at the receiving end of this economy of relief?

Then Ondoy happened. 2009 was quite memorable because everyone just had a hand to help; one time there was actually more volunteers than there were goods. The need was indeed enormous; millions of people were affected, and being the imperial capital of the Philippines, goods were coming in like flies on a corpse. Everything stood still, just so people can help out. The shock was overwhelming; the stench of death permeated the air (especially in Provident – oh how I couldn’t forget that smell!), the images of people smashing against the bridge, leaving nothing but floating bodies being swept away, as if the storm hadn’t paused for its dead. It was clear; it was a tragedy to not respond – the only human thing to do is respond, even in a psycho-social way. Support groups were always around, people consoled each other. It was like family.

Sendong came. I nearly lost an aunt – she was struck by a piece of the roof as the river burst its banks and sent out a horrendous wall of water to the city. I was attending a conference when my mother – now in New Zealand – called me and told me to call my relatives because they have not yet been contacted. I feared for the worst; I knew that they lived in a low-lying area, and it will be a miracle to see them come out of it standing. By the grace of God, they did, with my aunt sustaining a deep cut on her leg, but nothing worse than that. Certainly it was better than those who actually died.

I was days away from leaving for Iloilo when it happened. It situated me within that uneasy space between my hometown (safe and sound from the storm) and a town that I have learned to also call my home (Cagayan de Oro). I told to myself: not this again. Once again, I was in exile: where was home, I hadn’t had an idea. I was at a loss, and once again, that numbness persisted: the feeling of watching those that you love and hold dear to you suffer immeasurably, and resigning to the simple fact that you cannot do anything.

Habagat also happened, and I was in Indonesia. I was always at the wrong place at the wrong time. I was also supposed to be affected by it. I do not understand, honestly, why this happens: to be forced to become a spectator of disasters.

And now Yolanda comes in and slices the Philippines in half. The death toll could exceed Ondoy, Pepeng, Sendong, and Pablo combined. There is no measure for the suffering that it has caused. And now I am stuck here in Manila, thinking: why am I here?

I think one can only go through so much, accumulated in memories for the past four years. Being away from home is never an easy thing, but nobody can prepare you for this: to be away from your home, and to see your home stripped bare, down to its foundations.

And I think those from the province understand quite well: no one can ever understand somebody who has seen before his or her very eyes her “family” being taken away from him or her, like a child being taken away for his first injection: the screams and the tears that fill your senses, because for the first time, you are in the hands of somebody or something alien to you. Looking back, perhaps that was the reason why I felt so numb: I was afraid that I would have no control over what was happening right before my very eyes.

And city-dwellers can never quite understand, I think, because it is not their homes that are torn apart by the silent beauty of our planet. It was heartbreaking to see people generally not care, going about their workaday lives, as if there was no disaster. It was heartbreaking, most especially, to see people who gave their all during times when it directly affected them, but turn a blind eye on their suffering brothers and sisters that were practically no where near the vicinity of their consciousness.

(That is why I always cry whenever people from the city show their concern and actually extend help; it is beyond comprehension for me to see them, without any direct link to those that suffer, extend so much of their selves just to help out. Most, however, are not of the same disposition to help, not even an inkling of concern you can extract from them.)

And I think I reached that breaking point where it was already impossible to become numb. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to the indifference of the priest during Sunday mass; it became difficult to control my feelings against those who claim some kind of ascendancy in their “interpretations” of what happened; it became overbearing to hear superfluous complaints, from the stain on their shirts to the fatigue that comes from studying.

This is not to say that these efforts are worthless, or that everything should stop. I get it that people really have to move on, and that is a fact of life. But there are also people who might be keeping something from everyone a sense of “not exactly being here;” the guilt of not being at home, of being in exile.

I guess that is included in the package, so to speak. The decision to be away from home comes at a price: sometimes a friend, or at times your house. And to continue to watch your own friends turn a blind eye on the suffering people of your home sometimes is too much to bear. The only way to continue from now on is to bear the burden to extend a helping hand, because it is not an easy thing. If one comes to relief operations with the hope of “feeling good,” you are only kidding yourself. To know – approximately – how it feels to be away from home and to lose a home also means to know approximately that it is important to help out those that have lost so much.

A while ago I attended a talk by a Rabbi on the 75th anniversary of the indignation of the Philippines against Kristallnacht. Towards the end a member of the audience – a Jew – stood up and looked at us, students and young professionals, and told us squarely: the only thing that can get you through is family, no matter how far away they are.

Looking back the past four years, I asked myself: but what happens if you don’t have this “family” to get by with, and every time you say “this is home,” it is taken away from you?

To be far away is a burden, but I guess at the end of the day, it also becomes some kind of a responsibility, not only to tell of your home and of your loved ones, but more importantly to begin the long trek home. After all, the tipping point of any exile is also the point where you finally decide: it is time to go home.

Even if it is yet to be found. Or more properly, it is also where other people have lost theirs.

So perhaps I was right when I was taught to look out for myself, but perhaps I was also wrong. Either way, I am left a sojourn. Things have to move on. I guess that is the best lesson we can get from one’s exile: to just move on.