One Night in Kowloon


Well that was a bad title for a child’s story. But then again, this is not a story for children. This is a child’s story. A story about a child, more accurately.

I recently shared with my husband about how I found out I was different from other kids. I’ve always been keenly aware how odd and off I am. Yes, I am keenly aware that my presence repels people and I find it hard to build real relationships. This realization happened at a small outlet of Kowloon House, twenty-something years ago. It’s still stands to this day, prompting me to give my husband a piece of nostalgia.

I was about eight or nine when one of our tenants celebrated her eighteenth birthday. She had Down’s Syndrome. It was both a debutante ball and a children’s party. Her parents rented a small commercial space on the ground floor of our building so me and my brothers were invited, along with other neighborhood kids.

They asked my two darling brothers to dance in the cotillion. I didn’t realise or even wonder why I wasn’t asked. I was too busy playing. Perhaps I was too tall and awkward for any boy to be my partner. I was only happy to attend, I even accompanied my brothers to watch the rehearsals. I remember the other kids also didn’t care so much for the celebrant. We all just wanted to party.

This was an entirely new experience for my eight-year-old self. I felt miles away from home. The Kowloon House outlet was a good hour away from home and looked small in front. The dance rehearsal was on the top floor. The actual party was going to be in a bigger, fancier branch specifically for events. A lady tried to choreograph a dozen pair of kids to the tune of Blue Danube. It took the entire day.

It took a while for the boys to give in to the fact that this kind of dancing involved holding their female playmates. It didn’t help that the other kids, including me, poked fun at them and made pretend camera-flashing gestures.

The other girls shrank in horror at their antics, my antics. When the day started, I was too busy playing to care about how girls treated me. This was the moment that I realised that they never played with me before, and I realised that they never would.

I looked out at the awesome view from the rooftop and saw the neon lights beyond. I spotted the neon lights of a very familiar mall. That mall assured me that I’m in my lolo’s town. I wanted to get out of Kowloon. I wanted my lolo.

So I started walking. They caught me just as I was about to cross the highway. I spent the rest of the evening looking out towards the mall.

I’ve never been able to put a finger on what exactly what was wrong with me. I wasn’t exactly a happy kid. I was a cry-baby, a fact that my cousins took delight in. Perhaps I was too serious and irritable for a kid. I wasn’t exactly smart, pretty or charming. That combination just made a boring and annoying child.

A few years after, my parents hired a child psychologist to figure me out. They never talked to me about my diagnosis. I tried to self-diagnose as I was growing up. I read books about personality disorders. The closest that I got was that I have a highly-functioning sociopathy, a frightful case of self-centeredness, an inert personality or simply that I am a misplaced introvert. Mental health is so taboo and expensive here, it’s not even worth mentioning.

I’m still struggling with building relationships. I’m far from accepting myself. I find that for me to accept something fully, I have to understand myself. I’m quite comfortable with the few strong friendships that I have but I still find it hard to connect with the people I love. I try my best but I am annoyed with the fact that I have to try. I am frequently amazed by people who find it natural to be friends with others. I am amazed by people who put up with me.

I’m still that kid on the rooftop, looking towards the neon light. Often alone.

 

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Mira


Mira was born on New Year’s Day. My brothers had such a hard time breaking the news to me amid firecrackers and mechado. They all fled to the hospital, a mere five minutes from the house. I decided to stay because I didn’t want my mom to be alone on New Year’s Day. I don’t remember everything exactly.

They said it was a beautiful and funny moment. Much to my step-mother’s chagrin (i.e. extended labor pains), the doctor wanted to wait until midnight so the baby would be a New Year baby. And so she was.

New year, new baby, new life. Mira being born meant everything has changed. I can’t remember feeling anything when she was born. I just knew that my father was no longer solely ours. I remember when my step-mom broke the news that she was pregnant. Poor thing had such a hard time finding the words. I knew I was supposed to feel something then. But I didn’t. I was fifteen or sixteen then. I can’t even remember.

I haven’t felt anything since then.

But then I would be lying about not knowing things. I knew my parents were separating. I knew that my step-mom was pregnant. I knew that my brothers were bouncing off the walls. But I pretended not to know, pretended not to care. I had boys and school and books, and that was all that mattered.

Mira is now in her tweens and I watch with both joy and horror at how similar we are. Her obsessive love of books, her quirky unfeminine tastes, her frighteningly quick development, her awkward reserved nature around people.

She truly has the face of an angel. She is not hard to love. Heck, even my husband, who dislikes kids, said she is his favorite. He calls her Little Manang, while I am called Big Manang. He has odd tastes. No wonder he married me.

I take weird comfort that she inherited my father’s long and lanky genes. I am big and round from my mother’s side. She has a beautiful and kind face, without the awful sharpness of my eyes or my tongue.

I’ve heard my relatives say that she is no longer cute now that she is no longer the family pet. She has grown up too fast, too smart, too serious and has become boring. She now prefers biking, reading and writing than playing with the other kids. I hope she knows that being an introvert in a house full of people is okay. Damn them all with what they say.

She has better study habits than I did growing up. I think that she has more friends than I do.  I think she will be adjusted to society than I am. I think she’s funnier than I am. I think she has better fashion sense than I have. I am glad she did not inherit the stick I have up my butt that naturally repels people. I am glad she is kinder and better looking than I’ll ever be.

But if she grows up feeling odd and different from the other kids, I hope she will read this and not feel alone. Growing up too fast sets you apart from the other kids. Believe me, I know. At age twenty-nine, I’m still coming to terms with that being okay.

I hope she knows that I love her, as similar or as different as she may be from myself. I love her with the fierce kind of love that only sisters have. I love her with the gnawing fear that she become like myself. I love her with the growing hope that she will live a better life than I did.

I am still getting used to feeling things again. But I feel a lot for Mira.

Two Year Deadline


I have lots of news and then some old things.

I just turned 28. And that means I’ll be in full panic mode for the next two years. I am no longer bata! But as it turns out, I’ve been having the same dilemma since age 16: passion or money (dollars, to be specific)
I want to be an expert of my craft. I feel I’m not good enough to be LC (What were you thinking, Dave? All she has is a fancy accent) So I’ve been eyeing the UP Open University’s Language Education course. I got excited because I can continue working while studying online. My mom’s helping with the cost, too.
My mind sorta changed when my husband’s bestfriend visited home from New Zealand. He advised that I should act fast if we want to go abroad. I’m turning 30! It’s not like i can just skip mortgage and go (my condo only costs less than P6000 a month, which really wont get us anywhere)
And I had to step back and think. I’m happy as a teacher, but what kind? I’m not so good with kids. It seems the only kind of teachers in demand abroad are K-12 teachers. So it seems I’m good with communication. But where will that take me? It’s not like Canada or Australia doesn’t have enough English speakers to go around.
I could go abroad with my midwifery degree. I’m not particularly happy or good as a midwife. I could be. Who knows?
So if i stick with what I’m good at, I’m gonna be stuck in the call center life. It’s fine for the present, but not really enough to raise a family. The industry is also fragile.
This is the same dilemma I had at age 16 when my mom forced me to take up midwifery. I guess I haven’t really grown up.

Jeepney Thoughts : The Church and the State


I get to talk to my self (i hope not aloud) when I ride jeepneys.

Thought: Is the Catholic Church in the Philippines so weak that it needs the State to enforce its anti-women beliefs? Anti-divorce, anti-RHB, etc? I mean if their believers have a true strong belief, wouldn’t they follow what the Church says, despite what the State says?

Are they keenly aware of their poor hold on their believers? Or are they trying to impose preach their beliefs on the rest of us? Shouldn’t we be free to choose, instead of mandated by law how we practice or not practice religion?

A Touchable God


I’ve always looked at the Feast of the Black Nazarene with both fear and awe. The frentic, fanatic storm surge of human bodies, charged with testosterone, drive a statue to and fro, inching forward in its traditional procession route. It looks like a tiny boat, manned by brave men in yellow, carried along by a rip current of Filipino bodies.

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photo credit: inquirer.net

Every year, the image of the Black Nazarene is dressed up for the traditional Pahalik, or Kissing of the Feet. Devotees of this practice believe that kissing the foot or cross of Jesus is miraculous. The line stretches for about a mile, with much assistance for the disabled and the sick.

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photo credit: GMA News

The following day, January 9th, Poong Nazareno, comes down from its gilded glass box in Quiapo Church to join the masses in a procession around Manila. In 2012, the circuit went on for more than 24 hours. Along the dirty and pockmarked streets of Manila, the god of the masses is mobbed and carried along.

This is not the hopeful thanksgiving to the smiling baby Jesus Sto. Nino. This is not your happy fiesta, like the Sinulog Festival in Cebu where people offer dances, colorful costumes and harvested local goods. The sight of a wretched 9 million marching and chanting “Viva! Viva! Viva Señor Nazareno!” is frightening.

The devotees not only join the image around the procession. The main goal is to touch the icon for the ultimate blessing: prosperity, wellness, hope. Hey, you can even take home the after effect of this blessing by touching it with a humble Good Morning Towel. The towelette touched by the Nazareno, they say, can cure any disease.

Whether it is a good or bad thing will not be debated here. I also wouldn’t want to put the focus on those who attend for the sake of peer pressure and “trip lang” (“just because”). A lot has already been said about the dangers and plain craziness of the feast. I may not necessarily agree with this show of faith but I respect other people’s beliefs.

My fascination is on the symbolism of the image of the Black Nazarene and its effect to the faithful. My favorite analysis is from GMA7’s  Jessica Soho. She says that the Black Nazarene is the best Jesus for the Filipinos. It is dark skinned, like us. It carries a burden, like us. It is down on one knee, just like us.

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photo credit: inquirer.net

Sure, Filipinos adore the Virgin Mary, pure, gentle, smiling, wrapped in a soft silk veil, her skin often white. We offer her flowers, candles and dances. But we hardly go to such great lengths to touch her, kiss her, wipe her skin with our towelettes.

Such physical devotion is reserved only for the god of the masses. A down and out probinsyano who has left his farm, sold his carabao, only to end up selling cigarettes and gum on the street can see his brown skin and pained expression on the image. An underpaid security guard tied to an unstable job longs to be free as he sees the chain around the neck of Jesus. A young mother with an ailing son wishes for the strength in those shoulders burdened by the cross.

How people cross the sea of bodies is a miracle in itself. The Hijos de Nazareno, bodyguards of the Nazarene, ensure that people get their due blessings, carry the image on their shoulders and keep the procession going. Anyone who needs help getting close to the icon need only shout “Kapatid! Tulong!” (Brother! Help!) and fellow devotees would carry you up on their shoulders. They don’t mind if you step on them. It is part of their panata, their promise of service to their god.

The Hijos de Nazareno are mostly men from Manila. Quiapo itself is notorious for street hawkers, fortune tellers, poverty, crime and urban filth. It needs the right kind of god to keep it alive. Some of the devotees are former barumbados, gangsters and ex-convicts, who found redemption in caring for the image. Some of them extend their devotion to the day-to-day maintenance of a four hundred year old wooden statue.

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There seems to be unwritten honor code within the mayhem of the procession. People attend barefoot. Not only does this symbolize sacrifice, but also to avoid hurting others by stepping on toes. Personal space is unheard of. You are expected to keep a cool head in the heat and bustle of the mega-crowd. If somebody faints from heat and exhaustion, they are carried by the crowd to safety. This year, more than 1,600 fell ill or were injured in the procession. It is as dangerous as a frenzied rock concert but a stampede has not been recorded in the two hundred years of this tradition. There is an strange sense of brotherhood in the hustle and bustle, an orderly sort of chaos.

Another miracle of sorts is the hundreds of towelettes tossed up to the image. The Hijos De Nazareno manning the platform will catch the hankies, wipe the image with them and toss them back into the crowd. One merely has to watch and wait patiently as the towel is carried passed back to you by many many hands. It is bad form to steal somebody else’s towelette. After all, how could a stolen blessing be effective?

This show of great community and great faith is also an unsettling reminder of the desperate state of our nation. The Sinulog says “Let’s have fun. Thanks be to God.” The phenomenon in Quiapo says “God help us!” No wonder that 9 million attended this year. I’m guessing that some of them come straight from typhoon or earthquake stricken provinces like Bohol, Leyte and Samar.

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Indeed, if this is a god who steps down among its people, carries their burden along with them, surely, he can also carry the prayers of the Filipino people. I think the most important lesson of the Black Nazareno is that it is an image of a god, trying to stand up even after falling. More than just praying, wiping towels and joining processions, we Filipinos pick up our cross, be strong, and rise again.

Thanks to rappler.com, inquirer.net and gmanetwork.com/news/ for data and images.

PATOK Part 3: It’s more fun riding a Jeepney…


…and not get shot.

Jeepney drivers pass down the trade to their young apprentices at night – less traffic, less passengers, less MMDA and police. Early in the training, they accompany the youths, acting as conductors/barkers so the Padawan can practice driving. Problem is, these kids have seen all six of Vin Diesel’s car movies and I’m not quite sure if they all have their licenses yet.

The day will come when they are trusted to drive by themselves, often accompanied by a fellow youngster who may be dreaming of drifting a jeep down Antipolo someday.

On my way to work, the jeepney cut in front of a car (I didn’t see the make and model) right in front of one of those “executive villages” along Imelda Avenue. I think the jeep made a scratch or dent on that car. So Mr. ExecutiveVillage yelled at Mr.JeepneyDriver through his window. Both vehicles pulled over.

Mr. ExecutiveVillage got down from his car and confronted Mr.JeepneyDriver, complete with all the expletives drivers reserve for such an occasion. Mr.JeepneyDriver tried to apologize profusely. Threats of police, threats of filing a case, blah blah blah.

And then Jeepney Driver started weeping. This ticked off Mr.ExecutiveVillage even more! “Anong iniiyak-iyak mo diyan?” he thundered.

I stayed put thinking “This gon’ be gooood!”

I changed my mind about this live telenovela unfolding before my eyes when the threats of cops turned to threats of guns. “I’m shaking right now!” That’s ExecutiveVillage-speak for “I’m so angry, I’m losing control.”

That was my cue. Exit, Stage Left. I hopped off and stood in the curb waiting for another Jeepney to take me to work.

Did I mention I had bandages around my right arm? Oh yes, my injuries seem to have a special connection with funny jeepney incidents. I was diagnosed with RSI (repetitive strain injury) to my right thumb and wrist. Look it up in Google if you have time. The doctor put my hand in a splint, immobilizing it to a constant thumbs-up sign.

So picture a prim-looking lady in glasses, heels and a pencil skirt, with bandages around her arm, laughing her ass off on the curb, hailing another jeep to work at 8PM. Thumbs up!

I’m not sure if they can tell but I gave the two drivers a big smile and a thumbs-up as I rode away on the next jeepney.

I got to work unscathed and highly entertained. Two Thumbs up!

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