Super typhoon Yolanda made landfall at 6 am on Friday, November 8th, at the Samar province of the Philippines. When a friend texted me later that day to ask if I’d heard, I snuck online to read what I could and made a note to myself to call my parents once I got off work. As it often goes, life’s everyday banalities have a way of drowning out the larger things, like death and devastation half a world away, and it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I ended up talking to my mom and dad. Today they live in Canada, not the Philippines, and save for a seemingly perpetual sulk of grey skies, the weather in Surrey, British Columbia, is reliably mild. I asked my dad if we had any family affected by the typhoon. He assured me everyone was fine; his side of the family were mostly up north in Luzon, and my mother’s in Mindanao, south, and far west of Yolanda’s path.
Conversations I have with my dad about the Philippines often involve a lot of questions. I’ll keep from advertising the full scope of my ignorance, but I can at least say it’s a source of perennial discomfiture that I know more about the history and culture of Texas than I do about my ‘homeland’.
Born in Caloocan City, I was there all of four years before my mom, little brother, and I joined my dad in Bahrain, where he’d worked as a computer engineer saving up to send for his family. We lived four years there before we moved to Qatar, then it was another two years after that when we immigrated to Canada. What relative ease with which I adapted to my changing environments owes to the plasticity of youth, and, most notably in Canada, to my parents’ embrace of western culture. I don’t recall ever having to ‘learn’ English, and have been told I spoke it precociously well, if not accented by wherever I happened to be. Mine were near seamless transitions. Where I’ve confronted any tension or difference regarding my homeland has been mostly on the page. That is, I’ve rejected it as a subject, theme, or point of investigation in anything I’ve endeavored to make. Well-meaning friends have urged me to mine my cultural heritage, to explore my ethnicity: there’s gold in them problems!
I’m not above exploiting personal experiences for creative gain. I appreciate confessionalism as a mode of essaying into a more universal discourse, or, at the very least, as a kind of transformative scavenging; what’s left in the dreck can glitter with meaning. While a poem often begins for me with a weird phrase, a little burr made of words that sticks in my thinking, what compels the cascade—the writing—is an interior argument, a conflict, a bit of trouble I’m working out. But, when it comes to where I’m from, my skill for conflict fails me. I’ve never truly felt caught between two cultures. I’ve felt no allegiance, no true citizenship. If pinned down for a response, I might say my values lean occidental. I was, as far back as I’ve been able to wield a sentence, thoroughly surrendered to western culture. My assimilation has been swift, thorough, and complete. There was never any split, never any longing for home. I have little desire to delve into immigrant psychologies.
No, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I fear any sincere attempt I make to do so.
I fear writing like a tourist, who exoticizes poverty.
I fear writing like an academic, who theorizes on identity.
I fear writing like a poet, who lies, and lies, and lies.
When it comes to writing, talking, or even thinking about the Philippines, I’m overcome by a gaping blankness. Pushing through this, any statements, thoughts, or ideas I manage to express, sound to my ear and heart, wooden. False. The only truth I can manage is articulating the fullness, the weight of that blankness.
And yet, every earthquake, hurricane, and typhoon, I’m drawn back. Over newsfeeds and footage, I cross one distance, only to be confronted by other distances I cannot reckon. Over the years, the lack—of connection, of feeling rooted and shaped by where I’m from—grows quietly urgent.
There’s this excellent essay by poet Jaswinder Bolina, that I urge all y’all to read. For the moment, it renders redundant anything I might have to say about the problems of identity politics in poetry. Tangentially, regarding the notion of identity, I recall a conversation with my dad, where I declared that the Philippines has no distinct national character, there are no common set of traits that made up the ‘Filipino’. He responded by reminding me that there are over a hundred different languages and dialects in the Philippines, and some seven thousand islands. He went on to kindly and subtly show me where I had been conflating character with stereotype, and where I was seeking generalities and not truths. He offered, the essential character of the Filipino is that of the chameleon. And left me to chew on that awhile.
These several days, I have been reading over news stories of the typhoon, its destructive path, and the aftermath. The tremendous loss and sorrow raise ghosts of Katrina, a trauma still fresh in the American collective psyche, and co-incidentally, mine. I am neither American nor have I set foot in Louisiana, but reading of cities flattened by storm surges, 200 mph wind gusts, children ripped from their parents arms, and a population ravaged by the elements, I am moved to grieve as I did then.
I still understand Tagalog, though I can only speak it brokenly and without nuance. I hear and read the seamless code-switching of ‘Taglish’ over various social media outlets, where I follow those who are tracking current aid and recovery efforts. There’s something to be said about listening to loss, and its attendant resiliencies, in another language you’ve known all your life but can’t quite communicate in, though I don’t know what, or even how to begin.