The most difficult part of checking students’ written works is knowing where to begin followed by when to begin. Yes, the task calls for me to be unemotional and maintain that unaffected stance, but there are a few instances when I get swayed by a swell of powerful emotions, often good ones. And in some rare cases, bewilderment and it close relatives. Choosing the best words, strong but non-abrasive, used to be a challenge. However, after having done this for quite a time now, I learned to stop thinking about how the language of my comments will affect my students. Like white wine, critiques are best served chilled.
I cannot say I will finish checking all these before the next meeting, but I can try.
While browsing an online travel magazine that left me torpid afterward because of the writer’s endless narration of his itinerary donned in a language too sweet and delicious I’m sure it will leave a diabetic’s sugar level shooting to the ceiling, I thought, unless he was high on drugs which made his senses super keen, he must be lying.
Travel writers are a special group of writers. They thrive in the extraordinary and the bizarre. Most of them have a special truckload of word ammunition that often leaves my mouth agape because of its sophistication and elegance. I often see a mountain, a room with a view, and a meal as they often are–a mountain, a room with a view, and a meal, respectively. For travel writers, however, a mountain is a cascade of boulders and debris swept by the gentle blow of the easterlies, a room with a view is a room flooded in a carefully orchestrated foxtrot of sunlight and cool wind on a tranquil Saturday morning, a meal is a plateful of freshly harvested farm produce perfectly showered with a local concoction of cane vinegar and a hint of muscovado. To a travel writer, everything is a novelty, and so it has to be written in a hyperbolically romanticized way to an extent that a reader who is a local of the place he’s writing about will not recognize, take offense at, and find patronizing.
I seldom trust, if not completely distrust, travel writers. They do not understand the dreariness and the dryness of the everyday and the commonplace. They are passersby who cannot wait to leave the place and catch the next bus, train, or plane because the thought of what is out there, the other side of the mountain, the horizon, the antipode beckons with tempting invitation that the now is expressed in such succulent platitudes. I gravitate toward the everyday because the everyday does not imagine itself other than what it is. The everyday defies any attempt at making it look rosier than what it truly is. It is only in the everyday that reflection is possible and truthful.
I began blogging exactly five years ago. That night of 8 June 2008 when this blog debuted was like tonight; it was raining hard. Traffic of motorbikes scurrying to reach their destinations halted outside because the downpour was just too much to bear for the antiquated drainage system of that old district of Hanoi. The woman selling pho outside our compound was still there, seated in her red kiddie plastic chair serving bowls of steaming rice noodles submerged in that divine broth to stranded motorists who did not bother taking off their colorful raincoats and equally multi-colored helmets.
That night I was suffering from a level of boredom too extreme and painful it was one of those rare times I can recall I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home so badly. I felt invisible because I was indeed living invisibly. For the woman selling pho outside I was just “that” strange ngoui nuoc ngoai, for the rest I was a nonentity.
Writing down about those gamut of feelings I knew I would never fully capture in writing, I thought, would be the best way for me to at least have some semblance of order during those months when nothing seemed to make sense. (It’s not as if things make more sense now. (Often they still don’t make sense, though I never stopped attempting to understand them.) I was twenty-two then. I could feel I was poised to realize whatever it was I was dreaming of. I have completely convinced myself then that whatever inconvenience it was that I was going through in that foreign country was a way of gaining a foothold to something bigger. I didn’t know what that something was then, and I can never be less sure now.
I didn’t care that “Going Against the Current” was too corny a title. But it was the first thing that occurred to me. I subtitled it ‘thoughts of a twenty-something.’ I wasn’t aware then that I was having my share of quarter life crises. I didn’t know the term existed. But I knew there was something odd about that whole set-up. Living and studying in Vietnam was not part of my plan then. I only wanted to escape from the banality of my existence right after graduating from college that I was willing to be hurled anywhere, only to find myself hurled nastily in that blah. I was living by myself in that shoebox of a rented place on Tran Hung Dao Street in the old district of Hanoi, which only exacerbated what then was a terminal case of ennui. At that time, it was the aptest title I could think of for a personal blog.
I wrote this to console myself:
“On Being an Exile”
I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).
Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.
Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.
The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.
In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.
No amount of feigned cockiness could hide the insecurity of my twenty-two-year-old self, of my inability to know where exactly I was heading. Still I treaded on because doing the most difficult was the easiest thing to do. And I never regretted having gone on with the journey. The ride has been exciting and I look forward to more years of blogging. I just hope that when another five years is done, I’d be a lot better.
I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for two hours now waiting for something to happen. Occasionally I would check mails, read some Facebook statuses of friends and other ‘friends’ I got no idea how we became friends, and browse random sites that eat up much of my time. I originally planned to spend this morning recording papers of my students, computing grades, and fixing drafts of grad school requirements due next week. But the web beckons with so much promise and invitation the little control I thought I have is of no match to this beautiful hole that sucks everything in, as it feeds on my time like a flesh-eating bacteria lurking on this part of my living room.
It’s a battle that’s waged in many fronts; in fact, I am currently thinking of the best strategy on how to escape this vacuum whose suction is too powerful I predict that I shall waste another precious hour staring at a broken pixel of my screen. Behind me is a stack of dirty dishes waiting to be washed and a bagful of a three-week worth of laundry waiting to be taken downstairs. And how stupid can I be for having allowed it to slip me that the laundry service will be closed until Monday next week? And, I need to mop the floor, dust the furniture, arrange my books, and drop by the library this afternoon to return 10 overdue books.
I have not done this for a long time–staring in front of my computer aware of the the fact that if I stayed here longer than necessary, I shall need to readjust all the other things, miss other appointments, and sacrifice the already little sleeping time I have doing those things I could have already finished had I been not too weak to resist this idleness.
But isn’t time only an abstraction? It’s not something that can be ‘wasted,’ is it? If I sit idly here for the whole day, it’s immaterial because I shall be given another set of inexhaustible time tomorrow (but isn’t the word tomorrow an admission that time is culturally material?). Can time be given away? Funny how we view time this way as if it’s something that can be saved like money or a broken relationship. Funny how we view our time as a precious entity (so long as it’s our time), as if it’s a currency that can be exchanged. We all feel terrible when we “waste” time. But when we simplify all these abstractions, time will then be all about, in its most fundamental, being here and being dead the next moment.
Should we decide to use it on inconsequential matters–say doing what I mentioned a while ago, writing this post, or reading this post–have we really wasted time? I looked around and saw the rest of the day.
I cannot stay here.
The much, too much a cacophony of noise on my Facebook page brought me back here on my blog to write again. To do the quieter act of writing that I miss a lot. A writing that’s less angry and bitter. I have gone sick of what seems to be a pressing need for everyone on my Facebook news feeds in expressing his thoughts on almost everything.
Nowadays, one’s silence is considered scandalous, the highest and the worst form of apathy. No one has the right to be quiet anymore lest this silence be interpreted as complicity. Of not doing anything to correct the wrong. I suggest we stop or slow down a little, and ask ourselves where this loquacity has led us. It has made us too busy to listen, too self-conscious, too full of ourselves; oh how we enjoy staring at ourselves being reflected in our witty Facebook status. Our Facebook status has become the quickest way for us to be heard, perhaps the only one thing that empowers us in this space that functions best at deadening our senses. Our only pathetic agency. And the likes are concrete indicators that somehow, somebody’s listening, reducing us all to likes, reducing all existentialist questions to questions of likes.
This ephemerality of our chosen medium, of posts being covered, superseded by other posts supposedly more important than the ones before, not necessarily contending against each other but definitely competing for our fleeting attention, has been a bane to us. This ephemerality has brought us nowhere. Although we have this comforting feeling that as a species we’ve made giant progress, in truth we’re deeper into the void we’re made to feel we have escaped.
We’re still lost, maybe even more lost this time. We’ve lost touch of what we truly value. Reflectiveness is a forgotten value of our time. We’ve all fallen victims to the medium. We fret about concerns of deciduous significance. The present is the only thing that really matters to us. We’ve lost hold of our past. And how we dread the uncertain future. The only thing that’s real is this invented present.
All this because of our grinding desire to be heard now, of a want to express what’s currently in our mind lest it obsolesces the next minute, where we are currently at lest time steals it away from us, who we are currently with lest this person abandons us, what we currently eat. Now this is truly sad. Everything is too important, too important we cannot entrust them to our memories.
Perhaps, this is why I am back here now. I want to relish this page and its beautiful silence that I missed so badly.
My professor extended her lecture until it felt to me staying in that room was beyond my ability to endure. She stretched her talk for 7 minutes. It was 8:07 in the evening. Every extra minute was an affront to decency. At that point, I wanted nothing but to go home, eat dinner, and sleep.