Saturday, December 25, 2010
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
2. Its sponsors are "clowns."
3. It is a "crazy act."
4. "A political tool."
5. "A trick that a few radical people use to entertain themselves."
6. "A desecration of the rule of law."
7. "An American conspiracy to embarrass Beijing."
8. China held a special briefing of 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to coerce them not to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies.
9. 19 countries have opted to skip the prize so as not to offend China.
10. China has suspended trade negotiations with Norway, the host country.
11. The Philippines, admittedly a champion of human rights, has decided to boycott the ceremonies (boooo!!!)
12. China has established a "peace" prize of its own, called the Confucius Peace Prize.
13. Among the early nominees: Bill Gates, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Mahmoud Abbas, and the putative Panchen Lama (not the real one, natch.)
14. And the winner of the first ever Confucius Peace Prize is...Lien Chan, former vice president of Taiwan and honorary member of its opposition Nationalist Party!!!
15. Mr. Chan will receive a cash prize of $15,000. Yay!!!
16. The Confucius Peace Prize will "show the world (China's) comprehension of peace and perception of human rights."
17. We must all "cease using human rights as an excuse to meddle in China's internal affairs."
18. "Can you tell me what we can learn from (Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo about world peace? We can learn NOTHING!" -- Tan Changliu, leader, Confucius Peace Prize committee.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Philosophy, like fashion, is subject to the vicissitudes of trends. Schopenhauer was the victim of such trends. His philosophy was popular in the late 18th century, virtually became obscure in the first half then was revived in the latter half of the 19th, lost currency in the early 20th century, and has now become the focus of interest again. Where did I learn that? On the plane coming into Manila. Probably one of the best things on this Korean Air flight, a good one hour not wasted on Twilight and Avatar, and enough for me to endure the torturous 18-hour voyage back home, my second in two years. And how is this factoid relevant? Well, I will get back to Schopenhauer at the end of this very long blog.
The bedlam that is the balikbayan homecoming. Old people on wheelchairs being pushed up towards the baggage conveyor belt, where they point their dozens of refrigerator-size balikbayan boxes to the over-eager nursing aides, who will push anyone aside to please their stateside amos. The confusion in the airport’s “waiting area,” where specific places on the curb are marked alphabetically. This is supposed to make it easier for solicitous relatives—and the inevitable hold-up gangs— breathlessly awaiting their share of the 62 allowed kilos of manna from America to spot you as soon as you wrangle your way out of customs.
Whenever I travel, people don’t think I’m Filipino, because I bring only what fits in my suitcase and backpack, which is why my brother has been anxiously waiting for me in the scorching inferno that is Manila’s welcome area, to make sure nobody waylays this unsuspecting “foreigner.” The place, he warns me as we crawl through Manila’s molasses-thick traffic, is teeming with dubious car service gangsters and pickpockets. He’d been there an hour, had already seen two arrivals come and go, while I had been dawdling upstairs at the arrivals lobby, where there was absolutely no clue where arrivals were supposed to go, and where I was saved from absolute despair only by an off-duty security guard who had been cooling his heels on one of the benches, no doubt noticed the helpless look on my face, and told me where I may be able (or not) to find my sundo. I should have asked his name; at this airport, anyone who offers to help out of kindness or duty is an angel. At the waiting area, airport personnel haven’t the foggiest idea where you can or may be picked up or what this alphabetized system is all about. There’s a young black guy who’s as lost as I am, and has asked for a taxi. Good luck getting out of this airport alive with that, bro. It’s noon, and the heat is stifling now. The city, as soon as you arrive, already assaults you with its inhospitality, underhandedness, and mayhem. I wish I could say I am happy to be back. But I am no foreigner. I was born and raised in Manila, as cynical as any Manileño can get. Not even Dante would go back twice to hell.
The hotel’s website says the rooms look out on Rizal Park. Mine looks out on a wall, but at least it’s better than what I have in New York: I am face to face with someone’s little porch. No matter. It’s a quiet nook on an otherwise ramshackle street, Mabini, erstwhile hotspot of the red light district, now the ghost of its former pole-dancing, bare-breasting, yen-hungry self, and epicenter of Korean leisure tourists who’ve turned it into a little, if somewhat dingier, Korea. My “apartment” is slightly bigger than my New York studio. Not bad. I have a leather sofa and a little dining table and a kitchen, three things I don’t have in NYC. Thirty minutes after I throw leftover food in the trash, the kitchen is crawling with ants and cockroaches. Nothing’s perfect.
No energy or inclination to explore my neighborhood after 18 hours on a plane listening to a brat caterwaul all through the flight. Trying to calm my nerves with ube ice cream and local TV. There’s an ad for Glixo, some kind of miracle drug that’s supposed to make you grow taller – just look at the before and after photos. On top of that, it has other ingredients that can make your skin whiter and boost your sex drive. It’s urging anyone who’s “short” and “stopped growing after puberty” to run and get the product now, because it’s never too late to not look like some pygmy native…or something.
On a positive note, Manny Pacquiao’s victory over Margarito is still breathlessly discussed all over the channels, and ads celebrate him as “a model to lead the fight on behalf of all Filipinos.”
In everything, whether it’s our height insecurity or boxing, we are the victims rising to be the champions, the bittersweet irony of it all. It’s probably our eternal inner conflict, this mix of envy (of other countries bigger, better, whiter, richer than ours) and wounded pride. Every time one of us gets international fame, it’s one more point on the scoreboard, because, like it or not, it’s always us against the world.
The owner of a handicrafts store gives me a hefty discount for all the pasalubong I am taking back to New York. Because I am her buena mano, the first customer of the day, she flutters my peso bills all over her merchandise, to bring good luck. Well, it turns out I and my sister purchase practically everything she shows us, so I guess I really brought her luck.
Across the market, at SM’s food court, I show my sister my new iPhone. She admires it briefly then tells me to quickly hide it away. This is the way pickpockets scout the area for victims, she says. If anyone ever saw me, he would note where I had stashed my iPhone and somehow find a way to snatch it from me.
The University of the Philippines campus in Diliman. The looming trees, the rolling greenery, the verdant oasis of it coming from the madness of the city. Like Granada when one drives in from the harsh, barren moonscape of Andalusia, green and irrepressibly so. Although they have never recognized me as one of their own, I did spend two years here, in the Arts and Sciences building, and I consider UP my home. Not UST, which punished me for wanting to be myself, for wanting to seek and be creative, and spat me out, but UP, which took me in when I was down.
My cousin, who I haven’t seen in nearly twenty years, tells me the hardest part about being in America is coming home. You have to adjust to totally new concerns, you have to rearrange your perspective. This is true for someone like him, who got his degrees in Minnesotta, where there were barely any Asians, and his focus for his economics doctorate had to be, by necessity, more global. When he came back to Manila, he had to push his newfound knowledge to the background, and refocus on what everyone else was concerned about. I don’t ask him if these concerns are all regional and microcosmic because that’s pretty obvious. He says you do this so as not to alienate yourself from the market. At the same time I think he’s also genuinely interested in Philippine issues, no matter how insular; he has always been actively engaged, even when he was abroad. When he says the hardest part is coming home, I think he must be referring more to people like me than himself. I have doubts if I would ever be able to readjust to the socio-political myopia here, because (a) I have become too cynical, and (b) my leaving 18 years ago was an act of despair. No doubt this trip, as it happened last year, will give me rich material. The grinding poverty (what a cliché that is, but it’s everywhere, as most clichés go). The heat (another cliché), the cockroaches, the insufferable traffic, the mix of desperation and resilience I see in almost every face (an emotional cocktail that is necessary for survival). As always, when I write about Manila, my writing is an act of exorcism and gratitude – for my distance and the opportunities I have to be able to maintain that distance. My relationship with my country is purely mercenary: I cannibalize its suffering and turn it into art. And the only thing I can offer it in return is this declaration of guilt.
When we were kids, this was the worst part of the annual summer trip to Baguio—plodding through the decrepit highway that snaked interminably through a hundred towns and took forever to get there. All the kids took turns getting carsick and throwing up in paper bags my Mom had prepared beforehand. Such was the tedium and arduousness of the trip.
No longer. The NLEX is smooth as the best Haitian rum, and almost as intoxicating: one can thankfully still view stretches of verdant farm land, symmetrically perfect rice fields, corn fields, sugar plantations. And despite the niggling social critic in me, always aware of the plight of the people who have to till this land, always looking for the negative, this is an Amorsolo-perfect countryside, a brief, 45-minute sigh of relief from the congestion and claustrophobia of Manila.
As promised, we reach the Angeles City exit in less than an hour. Of course, once you get off the NLEX, it’s back to Third World local color. The roads are primitive (and sometimes non-existent). The small towns we pass through are teeming with pedicabs both motor and bike, which take up the entire three feet width that is each town’s excuse for a road. We are on our way to seek out a hideaway that’s being celebrated all over town recently, Abe’s Farm, owned by the family who’s lorded over the revival of Remedios Circle in Manila, and turned it into a hip, bohemian hotspot in the 90s. There are interesting sights to see along the way, granted you find your way out of the ribbon on the interchange and into Magalang (“Respectful”) and a seemingly private uptown called Abe Road (of course, and no pun and no allusion to the Beatles at all). The best is the rotunda leading into Abe Road. It’s a quaint little park with no seeming purpose except to add to the charm of the old city hall, like a brooch. It’s a two-way circle with no apparent rules and where pedicabs go whichever way they please. City Hall is a butter yellow 2-story building with white icing trimmings and an eerie charm because of its almost deliberate naïf architecture. It’s straight out of Lino Brocka, and you’d expect a Kuala ambling out still looking for her baby.
Abe’s Farm, well, whatever the hype was about it, it’s all true. The house nestles in an undulating garden bursting with orchids and banana trees (which are utilitarian—all meals are served on banana leaves). It’s a traditional house with a modern twist—odd details cleverly inserted here and there, such as a clock wedged into the sunburst pattern of a transom, and a wooden spiral staircase leading to a third-floor bedroom. Because of the innate architecture, everything is open, and there’s a lot of circulating air. The traditional kitchen, complete with a banggera where glasses and cups are placed to dry, has been converted into a prep area. The circular porch has dining tables, the back looking out on a very inviting pool. Every bedroom has been converted into a private dining space, complete with all the furnishings of traditional rooms, such as a large antique aparador in one.
Using a pack of very hungry nephews as our excuse, we over-order because we want to try as many items on the menu as possible. So we have the sisig, the bangus belly in tamarind soup, chicken adobo in coconut sauce, kare-kare (my friend Elisabetta would go nuts with this), Pampanga pinakbet, and binukadkad na plapla (because we want it, and because I personally want to see how a dish with such a picturesque name would look like). For desert, we try Claude’s Dream (a cloud-light concoction of buko ice cream and pandan jello) and Sikreto ni Maria (“Maria’s Secret”) again because we can’t resist the name. It’s a soup dish filled with carabao milk ice cream (quickly melting in the heat) hiding a suman sa lihiya (sweet sticky rice), a dab of panocha (raw sugar), and ripe mangoes.
Bacolor was submerged in lahar about twenty years ago when Mount Pinatubo erupted. There are still signs of the day the town stood still, houses half-submerged but still, knowing the resilience of these people, now re-inhabited, and largely modified organically. The town church peeks out of the concrete-hard lahar that is now the new Bacolor. Its top half is all you can see, and inside a new, makeshift church still draws the faithful on a Sunday like this, the fiesta of La Naval. A gaggle of hawkers try to ply you with rice tamales, suman, fresh pinipig, and crudely made candles with some image of a saint for offerings. There are floats being prepared for the evening’s procession, and in the back, in the convent area, life-size statues of saints and the Santo Sepulcro are being readied for the procession as well. A marching band of young boys and girls is getting ready to march, and just as we leave a brief ati-atihan of about twenty kids and a handful of transvestites swishes past.
I first heard of Guagua from my lola’s cooks, who used to tell us that was where they went home to. It always evoked some exotic foreign land to me, because when I was a kid everything outside of Manila was far and foreign. Guagua (meaning "mouth of the river") was an important port way back in the late 1500's, which probably explains why there's such a grand cathedral here. Built in the late 1700's, the cathedral is a surprising gem, grand enough to rival any in Italy. The altar and vaults remind me of the most stunning baroque cathedrals. Although it’s late in the day, the caretakers let us in to “pray,” which of course we first do—doing the obligatory three Hail Mary’s one says the first time one enters a church—then when they aren’t looking, we snap away.
Barasoian Church is minuscule. It’s downright tiny, and unprepossessing, and rather unimpressive. But this was where the Philippine Republic was proclaimed, and one can easily imagine the throngs of revolutionaries lining the streets of Malolos and the republic’s best men huddled inside this church to see Aguinaldo declare independence. Inside the convent they’ve preserved Aguinaldo’s fancy carriage, a horse-drawn sedan in pristine condition. Sad the say, the young boys begging for alms and pestering every tourist is all that’s left of the revolution’s dream…
There’s a cooking show on TV where the host thanks God after a meal. There’s a church along the highway where the faithful spill out and hear Mass on the steps and the curb, their cars parked all along one lane of the street, clogging traffic.
A gas pipeline burst in Makati and flooded the basement of some buildings with gasoline. No word as to whether the residents have been evacuated or are even willing to move out, regardless of the obvious fact that they live in a bomb that’s waiting to explode.
This week marks the first anniversary of the massacre of journalists and other people in Maguindanao during last year’s presidential campaign. Some members of the family responsible for it, the Amantuans, are in jail, but the witnesses have been harassed one after the other, they have either been assassinated or members of their families have been “disappeared.”
My first tropical storm in eighteen years. The steady downpour turns the mid-day sky as dull as khaki. The sound of the rain hitting the tin roofs makes it seem like something massive has crashed from the heavens. A two-minute blackout leaves me in the dark and in panic. If the rainstorm two nights ago is any indication, the streets around me should be knee deep in floodwaters by now.
People are asking Manny Pacquiao if he’s going to run for president. Look, guys, I adore Pacquiao as much as you do, but being the world’s best boxing champion does not qualify you to run a country. The mere question implies outright stupidity or despair. I don’t have to explain the former. You get what I mean. But to choose a president on the basis of his international celebrity is probably our way of saying what the hell, we’re all so messed up already anyway, so let’s just put a boxing champ up there—at least he’ll heal our wounded amor-propio.
There’s one thing I’ve never really understood about my country. People are so devoted to Diyos, but why does Diyos keep looking away? Everybody hates America (or pretends to), but why does everyone want to sound American?
There’s even an ad for a soap whose slogan is, “Because I want to be white. Because I want to stay white.”
Can people tell that I’m not from here? I try to put on my authentic Pinoy accent and act like I grew up here (which I did) and yet people stare at me—for such a long time that I feel uncomfortable wherever I go. Tonight I go out to get some take-out at Peter Lee, next to my hotel. The waiters are all staring at me and are being over-solicitous, knowing I will give them a “tourist” tip, I guess. There’s a big fat lady across the room who’s with her family. She stops eating and stares straight at me, and as if that isn’t enough, points me out to her family. Next door, at a small grocery, everyone in the place, about five young workers, crowd around me as I pay for my cans of mango juice. Same thing happens when I buy water at a 7-Eleven.
I don’t understand why the city terrifies me, but it does. Today, walking from the ATM, I feel so besieged—people pushing against me, the peddlers all around me, the cops with their rifles slung over their shoulders. I feel so completely alienated. So unused to and shocked by the sewage on the street, the homeless children sleeping on the curb, the insolence of drivers who never stop when you try and cross the street. I think I’ve become a total stranger to my country. I have become one of the people I have always disliked.
(On the plus side: Peter Lee was a find; their lapu lapu escabeche was divine.)
I don’t get it. The Mall of Asia – the pride of all Filipinos, the stuff of legend balikbayans breathlessly talk about when they return to the US – is people power gone berserk. It seems like every barangay in the country comes here for the weekend, and in case you missed the neon-costumed parade, the sunset fireworks, and the gnarled and crawling traffic on the way there, there’s the noise and the chaos to remind you that you are in the gem of the city of Manila. The restaurant area facing the bay (which you can’t see) has a beerhouse atmosphere. You can barely hear yourselves talk above the din. The palengke ambience extends even inside Marina, where the staff is young and inexperienced and totally clueless what to do about the hordes of weekend crowds that line up to savor their lackluster menu. Lackluster is too kind. The batchoy comes with moldy and rubbery puto, the grilled tuna is overcooked and tastes like leather, the seafood kare-kare is a sorry pile of bland peanut butter sauce and empty clam shells, the oysters are over-steamed or over-baked that nothing’s left but gooey strings, the sisig is a pale, bland mash of half-cooked pork, and the crispy kangkong is a pile of fried batter. As if the flustered wait staff and the 40-minute wait for the AC to turn on are not enough, the table next to yours suddenly bursts in a happy birthday song, with the entire staff participating off-key. And just when you think you’ve had enough, a rock band outside starts belting out the most annoying repertoire you could imagine. You try to dash out as soon as you can, but the thickening throngs prevent you from moving more than an inch at a time. It starts to rain. The traffic just getting out of the CCP complex, this epicenter of Filipino art turned talipapa and beer garden, takes forever to move, every car trying to cut the other off, and no one ever going anywhere.
(On the plus side: my nephews and nieces don’t seem to mind the mayhem at all. In fact, they enjoy each other’s company so much they just seem to have a good time no matter where we go or what kind of chaos we deal with.)
On the way to the airport, along Quirino Avenue, a car suddenly cuts us off as we start changing lanes. The near-collision isn’t enough for this imbecile driver. He swerves back into our lane, cutting ahead in front of us, then swerves back to his to let us catch up. The driver rolls down his window. And suddenly my sister is yelling at this guy who’s still looking for a fight. You can tell by the look on his face that he wants to take this to another, bloody level. His dark, pudgy face, his eyes full of hate. Hostility and cruelty make people look ugly, and this was one really ugly dude. But instead he rolls his window up then zooms on. My sister tells me his attempt at machismo has been foiled by his discovery that he’s about to fight with a woman. It makes him look like a sissy fool. This is the last face of Manila I see: ugly guy staring at us, dying for a fight. Just in case you still haven’t had enough local color, my sister tells me. As for her, she takes it as just another fact of life to deal with in this crazy country.
I realize that my relationship with this country is dysfunctional. I can’t let go of it, or it won’t let go of me. I no longer feel any affection for it. I know people back home will hate me for saying that. We all grow up with this self-delusion, that for all the madness of this country, it is still a beautiful place, and we are still a resilient, functional people. To say otherwise is to betray our country and our people. But how long can one keep living in denial? The truth is we are so fucked up. Manila is unlivable. The country is a mess. Our leaders are mercenaries or idiots. The precious few who try to make things better are shot down. The rest of us leave in despair. I don’t know how much longer I can pretend that there is pride in that.
So, back to Schopenhauer. His constantly misunderstood philosophy is summed up in the word currently associated with him, “pessimism.” Schopenhauer believed that we, creatures of time and space, are the manifestation of an ultimate Reality which cannot inhabit time or space, and of which we cannot know. But this existence is a terrible one, everything eats everything in order to survive, and it seems that one must always be on guard to remain alive. If this is the manifestation of that “ultimate being,” then that Reality must be as cruel and terrible. Where do ethics come in an existence such as that? Schopenhauer says that we must reject this Reality, and strive towards its negative: kindness, compassion, charity, love.
So this seems to me a perfect footnote to all my negative impressions of Manila. I have never understood this schizophrenia in the Filipino character. We proudly describe ourselves as a gentle, accommodating, hospitable people, “the land of smiles,” caring and generous. Yet look at the Filipino on the road and you see the devil. Nobody gives a damn, everyone wants to get ahead of the next, they will risk an accident, at worst, or a gridlock, at least, just so you don’t get ahead of them. And they will challenge you to a fight, no matter if you have the right of way.
All those feel-good slogans you hear on TV sound to me like sheer hypocrisy. Or self-delusion. Filipinos should wake up and admit that there’s something really whacked about our personality. And this is what creates the reality we have to deal with. Not the other way around. Don’t blame the world, bro, if that’s a world you yourself created. And don’t come talking to me about Jesus Christ and God. Maybe Filipinos should finally reject Catholicism, the placebo painkiller of this cruel god who doesn’t hear our prayers, always looks away, and teaches us to be cruel and to hate. Instead, try a little Schopenhauer. Who, in this inferno, will have the balls to reject the cruelty and terror, and advocate kindness? I think the answer is the first step towards my country’s salvation. Or am I being too optimistic?
Sunday, November 7, 2010
In my reporting, I regularly travel to banana republics notorious for their inequality. In some of these plutocracies, the richest 1 percent of the population gobbles up 20 percent of the national pie.
But guess what? You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe such rapacious inequality. We now have it right here at home — and in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, it may get worse.
The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.
C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.
That’s the backdrop for one of the first big postelection fights in Washington — how far to extend the Bush tax cuts to the most affluent 2 percent of Americans. Both parties agree on extending tax cuts on the first $250,000 of incomes, even for billionaires. Republicans would also cut taxes above that.
The richest 0.1 percent of taxpayers would get a tax cut of $61,000 from President Obama. They would get $370,000 from Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. And that provides only a modest economic stimulus, because the rich are less likely to spend their tax savings.
At a time of 9.6 percent unemployment, wouldn’t it make more sense to finance a jobs program? For example, the money could be used to avoid laying off teachers and undermining American schools.
Likewise, an obvious priority in the worst economic downturn in 70 years should be to extend unemployment insurance benefits, some of which will be curtailed soon unless Congress renews them. Or there’s the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps train and support workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign trade. It will no longer apply to service workers after Jan. 1, unless Congress intervenes.
So we face a choice. Is our economic priority the jobless, or is it zillionaires?
And if Republicans are worried about long-term budget deficits, a reasonable concern, why are they insistent on two steps that nonpartisan economists say would worsen the deficits by more than $800 billion over a decade — cutting taxes for the most opulent, and repealing health care reform? What other programs would they cut to make up the lost $800 billion in revenue?
In weighing these issues, let’s remember that backdrop of America’s rising inequality.
In the past, many of us acquiesced in discomfiting levels of inequality because we perceived a tradeoff between equity and economic growth. But there’s evidence that the levels of inequality we’ve now reached may actually suppress growth. A drop of inequality lubricates economic growth, but too much may gum it up.
Robert H. Frank of Cornell University, Adam Seth Levine of Vanderbilt University, and Oege Dijk of the European University Institute recently wrote a fascinating paper suggesting that inequality leads to more financial distress. They looked at census data for the 50 states and the 100 most populous counties in America, and found that places where inequality increased the most also endured the greatest surges in bankruptcies.
Here’s their explanation: When inequality rises, the richest rake in their winnings and buy even bigger mansions and fancier cars. Those a notch below then try to catch up, and end up depleting their savings or taking on more debt, making a financial crisis more likely.
Another consequence the scholars found: Rising inequality also led to more divorces, presumably a byproduct of the strains of financial distress. Maybe I’m overly sentimental or romantic, but that pierces me. It’s a reminder that inequality isn’t just an economic issue but also a question of human dignity and happiness.
Mounting evidence suggests that losing a job or a home can rock our identity and savage our self-esteem. Forced moves wrench families from their schools and support networks.
In short, inequality leaves people on the lower rungs feeling like hamsters on a wheel spinning ever faster, without hope or escape.
Economic polarization also shatters our sense of national union and common purpose, fostering political polarization as well.
So in this postelection landscape, let’s not aggravate income gaps that already would make a Latin American caudillo proud. To me, we’ve reached a banana republic point where our inequality has become both economically unhealthy and morally repugnant.