Autumn

It’s cold outside.

My friend just finished knitting my scarf for the winter.

Everything looks gloomy and sad, but inside me I feel an unexplainable happiness.

Preparing for my class until ten tonight.

If you expect something intellectual in my post today, you’ll end up disappointed.

I’ve got nothing to say today.

This morning, after lifting some weights in the gym, although I am physically exhausted, but I’ve never felt this healthy before.

I feel peace inside me today.

My problems press hard on me most of the time – negligible concerns compared to that of the world’s.

I want to bathe in the cold rain outside.

I want to be a child again.

I want to go back to the place where I was born and thank my parents for loving each other so much, a love that keeps me inspired to find a love as pure as theirs.

I’m happy.

Collateral Damage

September 8, 2008, Barangay Tee, Datu Piang, Maguindanao, in the Philippines. The sky was cloudy.

Mandi Bangkong, a resident of Barangay Tee, felt unusually cold for the monsoon season has already started. He was sitting on a bench with other men. His four young grandchildren were playing near the lake while the much older members of his household were preparing for the next meal.

AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) planes were hovering overhead. Mandi Bangkong felt an impending danger. He called his family to run to the lake and take the boats to find shelter in the other bunk. The children ran, covering their heads with their arms in the useless attempt to fend off bullets; the youngest boy crying, calling for his mother’s name.

100 meters above, one of the planes released two rockets aimed at the family of Mandi. Four of his grandchildren, one a pregnant teenager, died instantly of shrapnel and direct bullet hits, the other one died in the hospital while being desperately given first aid treatment. Their father, Daya Manunggal Mandi disappeared in the lake and was presumed to be dead.

Peace!
Peace!

Much has been said about military encounters. The properties damaged and individuals killed will remain unaccounted for, unnamed. Such is the character of war. These innocent individuals are pawns to these encounters – collateral damage.

“Unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment, or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces.” (United States Armed Forces Intelligence Targeting Guide)

My closest experience of war was when I was in my sixth grade seeing our town public market in a local television news program surrounded by tanks and military men. The fear that seeped through my senses during that time was beyond my ability to express. For being twelve years old, seeing with one’s eyes the possibility of death and the result of violence were too much for me to bear. And I just couldn’t imagine those whose lives remain lacking of peace because war chose their homeland to be its arena.

War might have gone cliché for some of us who have been constantly exposed to sloppy coverage of war in Mindanao by local news programs. But for those whose lives will be difficult to define outside the context of war – the children recruited to join rebel groups, the family of Mandi Bangkong, faceless and nameless victims of war in Mindanao living a life caught between crossfire, these clichéd portrayals of their lives will forever be unjustifiable.

Collateral damage, a bland and colorless word, will never fully capture the fear, lives lost, family separated all in the name of national security, national unity, national integrity. Behind these nightly television news about the war in Mindanao are lives whose stories are more compelling than the best documentaries ever produced but will remain hidden in numbers because seeing faces behind these numbers will just be too much to comprehend for an ordinary viewer who is comfortably sitting on a couch in a far-away Manila.

Collateral damage will not tell us about the young children who died because the Philippine army mistook them for rebels. Their bodies will not say anything about the atrocities that caused their deaths because they had to be buried, according to Muslin tradition, before sundown, denying them of any chance to be autopsied.

But who will care looking into the death of these victims. They are after all just the usual result of war – collateral damage.

Life is a bus ride

One of the criteria I use to gauge my knowledge of a new city where I live is for me to ride the public transport. In Hanoi, although my bicycle is quite reliable, going to places that are as far as five kilometers is very inconvenient, that means that I have to pedal for a total of 10 kilometers under the sun or wear a raincoat (which I really hate) during the monsoon season.

So two weeks ago, I began using Hanoi’s bus system more out of curiosity than the need to travel longer distances for my part time job. I could just pay for a faster and more convenient xe om. The buses here are not as well maintained as the ones in Singapore neither are they as reliable, for the company here in Hanoi, as far as I know, does not issue a time table for the arrival and departure of any of its buses. The passengers are left to do a more cerebral task of guessing game or making in full use their Algebra lessons: If bus A leaves Bach Mai station traveling at 10 km an hour (based on the passenger’s experience) at a distance of 6 kilometers, what time will bus B arrive considering that it travels half as slow as bus A? What time will bus C arrive if bus B hit the side mirror of Bus A?

But what Hanoi Bus lacks in reliability, speed, and comfort is compensated with its character. An experience of a Southeast Asian rush hour inside a Hanoian bus is a stimulation of all the five senses: The smell of sweat, body odor, and perfume bought from China are enough to reach one’s olfactory potential. After the ride you’ll realize that your sense of smell has approached that of a dog’s in terms of sniffing and identifying odor.

The sense of touch, owing to the incredibly packed passenger density of around 20 persons a square meter, is also equally stimulated, and it’s not just something sensual in case you happen to sit (or more usually) stand beside a perfect human specimen, one can have a feel of all possible skin textures, skin temperature, and amount of skin moisture. Moreover, the buses’ air conditioning units might as well not exist since during rush hour because they become overwhelmed by the number of passengers gasping for breath and available space. Being inside the bus is a first hand experience of how it is inside a pressure cooker. It softens the skin, though.

The sense of taste, although the least used of the five senses once inside the bus, is never left behind, for unlike other public transport like the LRT/MRT in Manila or the MRT in Singapore, or that one in KL, it is perfectly okay to eat while riding a bus in Hanoi, that is, if you are a foreigner. The conductor of the bus will reprimand you, of course, but a foreigner passenger can simply act dumb, as if not hearing what the angry gray-uniformed man say, and the angrier stares of the other passengers whose white shirt he has splattered with ketchup from a hamburger bought from Lotteria while waiting for the bus in Kim Lien.

Anyone who grew up listening to FM stations broadcast in English will have a shock of his life when he hears a Vietnamese DJ delivers his spiel in a combination of English and Tieng Viet. Not only is the male DJ cursed with an abnormally shrill voice but also an above average speaking speed. In addition, some words are awkwardly pronounced: hero is /he-ro/ instead of the more usual /hi-ro/. However, the songs, most of them ballad are surprisingly melodious. Ballads are played during rush hour possibly because they cool down the head of any angry commuters whose anger is only overpowered by the domineering gray-uniformed bus conductor.

Let’s briefly talk about that gray-uniformed man. He is a short guy, around half my height (I’m exaggerating, of course), who shouts “Di lai gan!” all the time. It means that the passengers must compress themselves in the center of the bus to give way to new passengers. He is very skilled at remembering faces for despite the number of persons who goes in and out, he still manages to exact payment from each of them, faultlessly. Furthermore, even though the bus is totally packed beyond capacity, he can maneuver himself from the back to the front of the bus easily to collect the 3000 dongs fare. He seems to be the only person in the bus who defies the physical law of impenetrability: no two objects can occupy the same space all at the same time. He is entirely capable of that.

The window shields of the buses do not discriminate based on the passengers Snellen’s Chart scores. Those with 20/20 vision will have an equally hard time seeing their destination as the ones with 200/20 or 2000/20 vision since the windows are endowed with incredibly dusty glasses made even worse by rain last summer or several summers ago creating a stained glass effect minus the sparkling rainbow colors, for here, gray is the only shade that is available.

Inside the bus, lovers are having a time of their lives. They cuddle, embrace, kiss, run their hands on parts of each other’s body that are not usually touched except during very intimate moments, in private venues, definitely not inside a crowded bus; but yes these acts occur inside the bus. So one’s sense of sight can feast at these romantic views making those who chose to be solitary regret the day they chose to be alone. And that includes me.

Each day, as I get more experienced and more knowledgeable in finding my way around this beautiful city by bus I also begin to understand the psyche of the people living in this foreign place. Being inside the bus is also like seeing another face of Vietnam. It may not be so beautiful, not so grand, not so clean, but one thing is for sure: It is real. Riding bus is a life in itself.

Pursuing the future in a floating school

When we see nothing around us but the worst in humanity, we succumb to a stupor and begin to lose our hope that somehow something will get better.

One time, I happened to read an article in Vietnam News, the only nationally circulated English news paper in Vietnam. The feature story was entitled Floating on the dream of a better education. It’s about a floating classroom in Quang Ninh Province, a coastal area near the world famous Ha Long Bay. The six-classroom school which is located in Cua Van Village looks like any other classroom of its kind found usually on land, but this time, built with wood and metal roof, the classrooms are moving relative to the tide. And because there is no electricity inside, the rooms have extra windows to allow light and air to enter.

Floating classroom in Quang Ninh Province (Photo courtesy of Vietnam News)
Floating classrooms in Quang Ninh Province (Photo courtesy of Vietnam News)

People living in the coastal areas of Quang Ninh are mostly illiterate and poor. Illiteracy and poverty are two things that are eternally connected, the people in this fishing community are not exempted. According to one parent who was born in a poor family, he never learned to read and that four of his children are already unable to read and write but he does not want his two youngest children to be like their older sibling. This parent sent his two children to the floating school.

Hackneyed as it may seem, but the cycle of poverty is prevalent in countries of Southeast Asia because education is not the priority of most national governments.

“I dream about going to school to gain knowledge so that I can have a job on land to escape from this life at sea,” quoted by the newspaper from a 12-year-old girl named Nguyen Thi Thu.

This dream is starting to happen because of the floating school that seeks to bring education closer to poor Vietnamese students but whose dreams go beyond the horizon where the beautiful Ha Long Bay sunset ebraces the crystalline blue sea.

In most agricultural countries, Vietnam including, having many children is considered economically advantageous since many children means having enough hands to plow the field or to cast the net. But parents are starting to understand that they will never escape poverty in the absence of education.

“Every morning, instead of following my parents to catch fish to sell, I row bamboo boats to school with my friends,” said Thu. Although Thu is already 12 years old, she is still in the 2nd grade, in Vietnam students enter 1st grade when they are seven, but Thu during her time didn’t have a school yet.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

One teacher related her story that one time when she went back to her hometown for the weekend break, her students cried because they thought she will not anymore come back.

Appalling as the state may be, but these teachers brave the difficulty of life in the sea, low salary, and being away from their families.

The teachers saw that their students understand the situation that is why these poor students try hard to grasp the lessons and make themselves better. Some students even ask for extra hours of tutorials just so they can cope with the rigor of education.

After they are finished with their primary school at the sea, the students will then continue their secondary education in regulars schools.

What touched me most was a statement quoted by the newspaper from a sixth grader named Duong Van Kiem:

“My floating classes look like miracle blue stars not in the sky but at sea. They are not far from us. We can touch them. They realize my dream.”

If only the drive for education of privileged students, who have comfortable classrooms and all the basic needs, is the same as the students in Quang Ninh who have to row a boat just to go to school everyday, then education will not be taken complacently as most students take education that are just within their grasp.

Changing WordPress theme

Ever since I starting blogging around four months ago, after I decided to write what are inside my mind rather than let them totally consume me, I’ve changed theme for so many times. Although I thought of sticking with my current them – Black Letter Head, which I liked the most because of its minimalistic layout, still I seem not satisfied. I experimented in utilizing The Journalist theme because of its even simpler, uncluttered layout but it’ll never work for me, I think.

In newspaper design, that is the mainstream medium for news reporting where in you have to read printed words on a sheet of news print, in case you are not anymore familiar with this medium, a black background strains the eyes, but I surmise that as far as computer screens are concerned black is better than white since it eliminates excess glare and it does not hurt the eyes after a long time of reading. However, when we look at it, blog readers jump from one site to another because of the nature of web surfing: too fast, too furious. Black themes just look good to me, that is.

Another concern that I have is the header. I also constantly change header that suits to my current emotional, mental state. The more I am emotionally battered and mentally stressed the more my readers will see changes in the header – sometimes as often as ten times a day. However, the solitary man in the desert is working for me these times when I am rather at terms with my environment and the people around me. The Journalist theme, regretfully, doesn’t have an option for me to change the header anytime I want. That is already one disadvantage of this clean design. Too clean in fact.

Why there are no words for green, blue, orange; and praying to my God in English

“Nagasulat ako sa Kinaray-a tungud amo dya ang pulong kang akun mga ginikanan. Amo dya ang pulong nga akun namat-an. Sa pulong nga dya mas mapabutyag ko it klaro kag manami ang mga baratyagun, kaaram, kahadluk, kag damgo kang mga tao sa akun palibot-mga mangingisda, mga mangunguma, mga marinero, mga uripon sa iban nga pungsod, kag mga tawo nga balhas kag dugo ang ginapaturo makakaun lamang tatlo ka beses sangka adlaw. Sa Kinaray-a ako nagahigugma. Sa kinaray-a ako nagadamgo. Kag labaw sa tanan, sa Kinaray-a ako nagadayaw kag nagapangayo kang bugay sa akun Ginuo.”

– J. I. E. Teodoro kiniray-a.com

(I write in Kiniray-a [a language in central Philippines concentrated in the island of Panay; it has roughly a million speakers] because it is the language of my parents. It is the language I was born with. In this language I can clearly evoke good feelings, understanding, fears, and the dreams of the people around me –  fishermen, farmers, sailors, and laborers in foreign countries, and people who have to shed sweat and blood just to eat three times in a day. I love in Kiniray-a. I dream in Kiniray-a. And above all else I worship and ask for graces from my God in Kiniray-a)

blog writer’s translation

I was struck by a realization two days ago that the two local languages that I grew up with – Cebuano and Hiligaynon, both spoken by a majority of people in the Visayas and Mindanao do not have words for yellow, green, blue, orange, brown, and all the other colors of the spectrum except red, white and black (although white and black are not considered part of the spectrum because they are a result of  certain combinations of color).

When I was very young, I used to wonder why every time my father asked me to buy sugar for his afternoon coffee in the nearby retail store we call sari-sari he would say: “‘To bakal to kalamay nga pula.” (‘To, you buy red sugar.) If translated literally. But what he actually meant was for me to buy for him brown sugar. It never occurred to me to question why he didn’t call it brown sugar or why there is no word for brown in our language.

Moreover, when we describe colors in my language, at least in my family, we use the English equivalent, say for example, “Diin na ang kabo nga green?” (Were is the green dipper?) or “Tsk, tsk, gamit niya naman orange niya nga bayo ba” (You’re wearing again your orange shirt.).

I thought that it was possibly because I grew up in a multi-lingual community. My father who was born in Janiuay, Iloilo speaks Kiniray-a; my mother who grew up in La Paz, Iloilo speaks Hiligaynon; my playmates as well as most of my neighbors use Cebuano; I watched prime time news in Filipino (a language based in Tagalog used by the majority of people in Northern Philippines); and the story books, encyclopedias, novels my parents bought for us to read are in English.

Probably, there should be words in the local languages that I grew up with for these colors, but I couldn’t remember using them.

I tried to ask my college friend whom I thought is good in Hiligaynon but he couldn’t think of any. This realization caused me to be flabbergasted. How come?

According to Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it.

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

– Benjamin Whorf

This reminded me of a story that in the Arctic region where Eskimos live they have hundred names for specific kinds of snows because they encounter this crystalline, white precipitate every day of their lives while in Philippines, a tropical country, does not have a local word for snow (niyebe and yelo are both borrowed from Spanish). The same is true with a pastoral tribe in Africa where they have more that four hundred names for cattle.

It posits the impossibility of perfectly representing the world with language since language is limited by the experience of the speakers, and the thoughts of the speakers are limited by the language of the community where they belong. Although this might sound fallacious and begging the question when scrutinized, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis gives a simple (and simplistic) explanation as to why some words are non-existent in a certain language.

But it’s not true for Hiligaynon and Cebuano; it’s not as if our eyes cannot detect green, blue, yellow, etc. But it puzzled me why we do not have words for such simple entities. Probably there is, but because English is too convenient, the local equivalent for these colors might have been lost in favor of the English words.

Too sad, I must say.

Before I could not imagine myself falling in love with a foreigner. The fact that I have to use a foreign language to express myself is just difficult since a language other than the ones I grew up with will never be able to capture the sincerity of my emotion. But for the past years, I’ve been seeing myself dreaming in English.

My Literature professor once told the class that one can only claim ownership to a language if that person  prays to his God using that language. In my case, although the idea of a god is very difficult for me to grasp, it’s even sadder because my thought are in English now, and in case one day I understand my God, then I’ll probably be praying in English.

An afternoon with a dentist

I’ve had my two molar teeth filled this afternoon. I opted for a metal filling over porcelain, the latter being more expensive which is my primary consideration, costing around a million dongs. Although the metal filling, for 600,000 dongs, will be unsightly when scrutinized, it will be hidden deep inside my mouth, so nothing to worry, I reasoned.

It seems that my unlucky days are far from over.

It’s been quite a while since the last time I visited a dentist. I fear them, their face mask, and their dreaded drill. This dentist is not different from the ones I met before. She owns a private clinic inside her house not far from where I stay, but I will probably forget the way in case I do a second visit because of the labyrinthine nhieu ngo /ni-yo ngo-o/ (many small streets) going to her house.

I used to be so proud of my even, pearly-white teeth. I remember my teachers commenting when I was still in my elementary years that my teeth are well taken care of. As far as I can recall, I was the only one in my grade five class who had no teeth cavity. That in itself was already a great feat especially that in the Philippines almost 95 per cent of the population have teeth cavity. Think of 89.3 million people needing dental health treatment. Big business if we look at it that way. But Filipinos are not so much concerned with the status of their teeth and filling the cavities in their molar as filling an empty stomach is a more urgent need.

Not until I reached college that I started to take my teeth for granted. I did brush them three times a day, of course, but the quality of the way I brushed faltered. I was always in a hurry that a three-minute brushing session was deemed excessive and impractical. I was so sad that day when after several sleepless nights caused by an aching molar, the dentist in the infirmary recommended to fill it to save the tooth. I agreed.

Seeing the pulverized remain of my tooth floating in the air while the drill mercilessly went on creating a hole to give way to that white substance dentists enjoy rolling on their thumb and index finger was traumatic.

The pain was unbearable, but what was more excruciating was the site of one of my teeth being raped, deflowered, in front me. I did nothing to stop the sacking.

This afternoon was less painful. I had to do the operation to save the rest.

Possibly tomorrow, I’ll be ready to flash a smile once again.