Dark Thoughts and Small Conversations on an Island in the Philippines
She sees and speaks of the world about her through the prism of her present predicament. Those around her and those who speak to her cannot know how she feels or is suffering because they are not her age, she often says. They are younger, and because they do not find themselves in exactly her predicament, they cannot know how bad it is to be where she is. Most of all they cannot know, ever know, because she is older, and being older is a unique condition. This is what she is quick to say to family and friends. She offers these thoughts without prompting, as if they are vitally important for others to know. You come to think that this is how she sees herself, her very essence.
How can it be otherwise at her age?
But then, I recall, she said these very same things when she was much younger. I am now as old as she was when she first said these kinds of things, and I do not feel as she said I would.
Is this how most of us feel most of the time?
Put yourself in my situation and you will know my suffering, my losses, and my needs. Yes. How often do we say this to others, in words, in gestures, in ways that ask for and demand sympathy? Maybe we do so more often than we realize? But we do so obliquely, do we not? By other means.
I was led to believe that she could no longer be with him because of how he physically beat her. I wanted to know how he beat her, and why. I did not get the opportunity to ask her these questions. Actually, I was more interested in getting her to tell me why, or why in more detail, she had seven nearly identical and perfectly parallel scars on the inside of her right arm. She had murmured something about trying to tell her boyfriend how she felt. The doctor, she told me, told her this was not a good way to tell your boyfriend how you felt about anything.
I sensed all these neat scars on her right arm just might be a Filipina way of dealing with love gone awry. But then what do I know? It is easy, it is tempting, to confuse one example with the general case.
He’s a middle-aged Australian who lives in Melbourne. He comes to the Philippines two or three times a year. Seven years ago he met a Filipina in Manila who had a job promoting tourism. (I had doubts that this is where he met the woman, especially when he told me that she was from Samar, one of the poorer regions in the Philippines.) He was not forthcoming about how romantically involved he became with the woman, or is involved now. But from about the time he met her, he began sending her money, because she was poor. He has continued to send money to the woman, who is now thirty-eight. She has gotten enough from him to now own two houses in very poor Samar. Why he would continue to send her money, admitting that he had no interest in marrying her, and how much she had done with the money he gave her, and only seeing her at most two weeks a year, is a little hard to understand. Or at least until he lets you know, and not once but twice, that helping someone who is poor makes him feel good. But how can he be an altruist when he is so intent on telling a perfect stranger why he is doing what he is doing?
But then there is probably more than what I heard that would make a story like this make more sense.
Why are all these stories fragments, incomplete; or is this the nature of all stories no matter how long in the telling?
In his laughter I read discomfort, perhaps disapproval and incomprehension. When he hears my words and laughs I know it is not a place that his mind ventures, and when it does there is rejection, a sense of having met a limit of a space that is comfortable, known, often walked and thought through. Laughter, I can only conclude, tells of his boundaries.
From time to time I provoke him by telling him what I have done. He laughs because he believes me, as he should.
We are brothers, but he thinks I am crazy. I do not fit into his space. He is right in thinking I am crazy.
A story I heard. She worked in Pasay, in Metro Manila, in a café that catered to Filipinos. She washed dishes, served customers, and sometimes did a little cooking. She began work at five in the morning and did not get off until nine at night. For this kind of work she got 100 pesos a day, or $2.50. She had coffee or water and perhaps some bread in her tiny shared apartment before going to work in the morning. She was allowed to eat some of the prepared food for lunch and dinner in the restaurant, additional forms of compensation. She never got tips from customers, because Filipinos don’t tip. With this kind of money she was trying to support a child.
Now she has moved on.
I have often heard the words nipa hut, and I have seen many of them in my aimless wandering in the Philippines. They are tiny dwellings made of bamboo with a palm frond roof and they often have a dirt floor. I recently heard one person living in Manila talk about living in a nipa hut in Manila. She called it a bamboo house.
I wasn’t sure that I was completely sober when I heard what she said, so the following day I again asked her where she lived. In a bamboo house, she said. Didn’t I already tell you?
What kind of imagine would a friend who has never been to the Philippines bring to mind when he heard the words: bamboo house?
Would he think of Miami Vice and tropical sunsets and Cindy Crawford with her Filipina mole, walking naked on the beach…?
November 25, 2012