By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD
My first serious brush with South East Asia, aside from the obligatory and compulsory history courses in high school and college in the Philippines, was when I was assigned to teach a major course on South East Asian Literary Relations at the University of the Philippines.
As a philipinologist, my academic department had expected me that I knew about the bigger issues of the country in relation to the other countries of this region.
Previously, I had my training in cultural studies and in the literary arts so that when the senior faculty who taught the SEA literary relations and the South American-Philippine Literary Relations for years and years on end retired, he personally chose me to take his place. That was an undeserved anointment.
As an academic, I became aware of the pretensions of academia and its almost manic pursuits of false human knowledge.
For one, the academia that does not have a critical consciousness emphasizes personal interests and research projects.
This has another name: specialization—or the inutile pursuit of knowledge that is supposed to be liberating because it is parceled, disintegrated, cut up, divided. The pressure on the academic is to specialize in one area and then to be dumb in so many others.
This was the situation that I found myself in when I began to put together my coursework on the South East Asian Literary Relations.
What I had was a topsy-turvy knowledge of the not so many things about the 11 countries comprising this region of the Asian continent.
I will give a rundown here of that pop knowledge that did not amount to anything substantial but afforded me some excuse to hold the fort.
Then in some instances, I got involved with a national textbook project. Mine was on South East Asian literatures and those literatures had to be in Filipino, that repertoire of national language that takes its cue from Tagalog.
The Raya series forced me to rethink of the “Timog Silangang Asya” that I only knew from raw sources.
The rundown is as follows:
I know Brunei from the framework of some friends, some of them colleagues, who went there to teach; I had thought of teaching there but backed out before I even took the first step to applying.
I know of Vietnam through the Vietnam War movies courtesy of Hollywood and other centers of pulp culture that tended to produce and reproduce an official and administratively controlled view of that war and the involvement of so many countries and interests.
With Lea Salonga taking the plum role of a lifetime as Kim in “Miss Saigon,” my knowledge of Vietnam took a different turn.
There was some military romance coloring the pains of a people left to fend for themselves after that havoc and destruction brought about by the war.
There was also the ultimate sacrifice of a mother: “Get my child. Give him a future in America.”
The songs in the play haunted you so—and you can only bleed.
There was the spectacle of a helicopter landing on the stage of the Cultural Center of the Philippines when the London producers decided to stage the show in Manila.
You were not impressed with the spectacle; the discourse of war and the legitimizing that came after troubled you as in the other poems and stories you would read for the Raya series.
There was, of course, that repeated reference to the American dream—that dream of liberty and life, of dignity and honor, of self-respect and progress, of opportunity and fulfillment.
Not the dollars, for sure, even if these were some symbols to that triumph of the human spirit.
The American dream was all about finding self and salvation again after having gone through a litany of woe and misery that visited a land and its people.
You remember, of course, the Bataan refugee-processing center.
At one point, you had wanted to teach there but did not push through because sad and happy lights Manila attracted you more than the prospect of teaching English as a second language to people who had the same miseries as your people.
In Puerto Princesa, you met them again, the Vietnamese refugees.
There you tasted your first pho, in that restaurant by the city, not far from the state university where you went for a conference on the native psychology and philosophy of the environment.
The pho soothed you and you remembered the herbs your barrio people in the Ilocos would put in their head, heart, and back to relieve them of their pains.
Of Malaysia and Indonesia, you know them well.
These served as a backdoor to so many activists who were haunted and hunted by the Marcos regime.
Some of the activists and radicals exited to North America through the seas in these parts, in the kumpit of the seafarers, those who had defined our commerce and cultural life in the past as in the present.
Some people used these doors as well to go through other countries, moving with stealth from one point to another until one had assumed a new name, acquired a new passport, and then memorized all the details of a new life born of the need to eke out a life away from the Philippines that had failed them.
You now admit it is possible that some people did the same thing with the Philippines, with its open seas, with its unguarded shores, with its welcoming spaces.
Singapore you knew through Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yu, the man who preached about being more autocratic and less democratic to make sense in effecting change and reaping the results. At a certain point, you get the feeling that this Mr. Lee remade Singapore in his own image. He is Singapore still.
You know it too well too: our Filipino women go to Singapore to sell their talent and labor, becoming domestics to rich families even if our women were teachers, midwives, nurses, accountants, and other professionals.
Then this: it was in Changi prison where finally the whole country, even if it prayed for a miracle, had to admit in Christian resignation that it could not do something to stay the execution of Flor Contemplacion. You remember the poem you wrote: “The Contemplation of Flor” to honor her sacrifice.
We contemplated on our fates and fortunes—and we had only miseries after miseries—when on that day, she had to die that death.
And there was not any possibility for a proxy even if then Pres. Fidel Ramos pulled some strings but had to be diplomatically correct.
That execution was preordained to make us learn our lessons as a people—or so we said.
But we never learned.
As always, we glory in the fact that the economy is growing but we hide that ugly truth that it is growing because some families have to put in more sacrifices than those in the Palace, in the Senate, and in the House of Representatives.
You wonder: are there any OFWs—overseas Filipino workers—among the ranks of the “honorable” in the high places?
Of Cambodia, you remember that pianist of a young man whom you taught how to construct metaphors out of the ordinary experience in his haunted country.
The picture of that young man—a boy scout—you kept in your drawer including his card he sent from his country to say thank you for teaching him the meaning of senesthesia—that poetic movement of experience from feeling to mind, from emotion to intellect and which must be translated into images and words.
You met this boy—and many others like him—in that international conference of boy and girl scouts in Asia. You taught them art—and you taught them how to go back to their people and draw from the experiences of their people the substance of their poems.
But you felt just the same: that the boy scout and the many others joining that conference were the children of the elite, those who had the means, those who had the gifts because they had the means to develop those gifts.
You looked for the other faces—the faceless in the paddies of Cambodia, the same faceless in the paddies in the Philippines.
You looked for the nameless—the nameless in the history Cambodia’s conflicts and struggles for survival, the same nameless that you had in the Philippines as it struggled to liberate itself from the clutches of the political and economic elites, those who were making it sure that the poor would always be poor so that there would be some people left to serve them.
The pianist dreamed of composing a Chopin for his suffering people. Or a Lizst?
(To be continued).
Pub, INQ, V1N23, Dec 2005