THERE IS GEOGRAPHY OF PAIN IN AN EXILE and it is in that living memory he keeps locked in his head.
That geography has a thousand and one wars written all over its valleys and plains and mountain peaks and ragged lands and it is worse than the Christ’s Gethsemane, with its promise of a spring garden. There is no redemption here, except in the imaginings that come in full color and Bose-sound. The imaginings come in split seconds until reality comes to take its hold over your heart, resides there, and does not leave until you shoo it away with agua bendita that you gather from your tears.
Days and nights are the same when the exile, in his sorrow, welcomes the cleansing of the ducts, and the hanky does not come in handy but the sleeves of the shirt, your mucus coming into a happy union with the salt of your tears.
All the holidays are reminders of what you lack and what you need—and you know full well there is no way you can fill that except to sing alone and greet yourself with the best of good luck in the years to come. The heart of an exile beats in pain and labors in suffering in order to renew itself, one day at a time, just to renew itself so that when the seasons change, the exile can change by putting up that smile for another performance of exilic existence.
The geography of this pain comes with the exile’s territory or its absence, the territory having no space and having all the space: it is in the mind and it haunts and its haunting continues in all climes and times. And in all the seasons when the least that you feel is remorse, regret, and revenge—all three being the abstraction of having been born in a country that has promised democracy of well-being but has managed to deliver wretchedness as a naturalized way of life—the pain comes close to loving it, masochists that we are, we who have run away from the homeland in order to resist remembering, in order to forget with finality that we are Filipinos that have been blessed by the gods and goddesses but cursed for eternity by our political leaders who speak English and the national language of our greed, apathy, and selfishness. Erasures in the mind must be final as well. No palimpsest here. This is how to get even with the land that you have loved so much, with your contribution to two people’s power revolution of peace and quiet and so much hope. But it is a homeland that does not know how to return love for love.
From afar, I see this, and I feel sorry for all those who have been left behind. The CNN images cannot be real, with sacks of rice disappearing before your view, and in a country whose people cannot live without seeing the shadow of this staple food in a day. The self-flagellation of men before the Black Nazarene cannot be real as well: the political leaders have it all wrong, and here we are, these castrated men with their castrated wishes kidnapped by those who can say with ease, We have a democracy, we have a democracy.
But I feel sorrier for myself: I needed to go away so that in the blank spaces between servitude and servitude, I could find myself.
Of course, I know the trick of the trade—or so I thought: the finding of myself is in the creation of a metaphor that can both hide and reveal the hell I am going through as an exile. Some days I do find the metaphor or what passes for one; some other days, I don’t. Not a glimmer. Which is the point of imagining what my letters to my exilic self would be. Yes, to myself. For I have stopped believing that I could ever write to my countrymen, from Heidelberg or from Honolulu, with or without the blooming flowers with their riot of colors. Or the nostalgia that comes with seeing that there are many colors of the tulips in the Istanbul of beautiful Ruffa Gutierrez, close to the shrines where prayers are called for those who believe in miracles.
At the start of my exilic life, I have kept a journal.
This journal writing became my religion, perhaps part of my training in ethnographic work as a one-time academic trying to train others to look at ‘Filipinoness’ from the standpoint of our collective experience, with the seeing from within, with the scholarly and interpretive distance in the seeing a requirement to mark off when validity of knowledge begins and when uncertainty ends.
The entries in the journal are written in long-hand, with a variety of inks, any ink that can make permanent my thoughts in those flighty, flimsy moments of asking whether it was ever worth it, this trying to eke out a life somewhere, away from the familiar, away from the temple of the sacred that we know best: the sacred landmarks that we know will lead us to some concrete places, eyes open or shut.
In the strange lands, this is not to be the case. Maps on hand, more from Mapquest, downloaded from the ubiquitous and omnipresent Internet, those maps of a printout tell you which freeway to take in order to be lost anyway. It is not because the maps are printouts; it is because to be in a place is to call out to that soul to come and reside with you in that place. There is no ‘hylemorphic’ divide here, one where the body gets to be separated from the soul, whether the soul is warm or cold in a country that is warm or cold. Or else, a ceremony begins: you call out to your name, said so with clarity, and allow the wind to deliver the message to where the soul went. In that ceremony, you ask your soul—or four souls if you were Ilokano—to come back and join your body.
The cheap stenographic notebooks I bought from Staples pass off as a field journal to justify what I am doing in a foreign country where foreignness has lost its significance because here, in these exilic communities, we have replicated what we do in the islands yonder: the fiestas and the flores-de-Mayo festivals that advertise our medieval past, the coronation pageants of queens of each town where we hail to mark our being part of a feudal fiefdom of a municipality in our living but useless traditions, and the unending banquets in hotels that have morphed from the plantation days in Hawai`i and California, and the cannery days in Alaska. The banquets—always in five-star hotels where Filipino workers are paid a pittance—are the masks for gatherings that are called in the name of the sick and poor and the low-income-but-deserving scholars of the homeland. Call this blackmail, and you are right. We never change, even in exilic lands.
About the letters to myself—they are what challenge me to be honest about myself as a poor poet, with my poor way of parsing the pain I have always felt. How do you translate, for instance, your young daughter’s plea that says, in her e-mail, that on Christmas, they will have singing and dancing and carousing but my place on the table and in the living room will be empty and no one is sitting in these seats, always mindful that one day, one Christmas day, I will come and take my place? I can only cry in rivers, but I do not tell her: I do not tell my young daughter that in the six years of her life, I have only watched her grow and bloom into a child during her first year, long before she could utter her first word. In moments like these, you bite your lips, run to your corner in your apartment where loneliness keeps you perpetual company, and in the dark, you allow the quiet of the late hours to mark off the healing power of tears. You are a man, and those tears are not to your constitution as a man—or so you were made to believe by that society that has trained you to be tough and strong and unfeeling. Macho, you call this, and it is Marlboro toughness, with the Wild Wild West image of a man to reinforce the sturdy stuff in your bones and sinews.
But you are a father too, and the loving kindness of children makes you feel at a loss, guilty in many ways, guilt-ridden forever. But you have to be a prophetic father, to think ahead, think of the dinner table, think of tuition money, think of little joys, just little joys you can never buy with your teachers salary from the government that can afford to waste but not to give benefits to its public servants. Ah, you say. You have called it quits with your homeland—you have painfully learned how to quit your place of birth where you navel was left to visit you in your troubled sleep and in your aimless wandering. The blaming begins, and the hurting too.
You grab your first field notebook and with the black Sharpie, put in the date of the beginning of your reckoning of what it takes to be an exile: March 2003. The Bamiya statues had been blasted to smithereens and two years before, the Twin Towers had turned to dust, like exiles when they go back to the bowels of the earth. A ship from China docked in a cargo container with its load of illegal immigrants, many of them dead from suffocation in the long days of sea voyage. A freight truck in Texas yielded Asians that came into the country illegally. Establishments in Los Angeles were raided, many with Filipino workers abused by the Filipino employers because the workers did not have the proper papers. Walang papel, no paper. That is a world all its own, a taxonomy, a verdict, a sentence. And so having nothing, having no paper, you end up in the dustbin: you follow orders, you do not squeal, you do not say anything to another Filipino, you do not ever reveal that you were once a poet in the homeland, singing songs about a happy people, that you raised the Filipino flag in that euphoria we call People Power that gave us so much promise for tomorrow.
I have seen lawyers in the Philippines doing clerical work for bosses who know the meaning of abuse and how to capitalize on fear.
I have seen teachers doing errands for erratic households, with the rich WASP housewives treating the Filipinos with disdain as if the equality principle in the United States has never been declared. To top it off, I have seen how Filipinos have taken advantage of other Filipinos because those who just arrived—the bagong dating—just do not have the right to live like everyone else but must be reminded to stay close to his corner, and only in his corner.
On Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, as in other big American cities, they make commerce out of this plight of Filipinos who just arrived. The Filipino American newspapers connive with these difficult circumstance, and permit themselves to become instrument for this kind of commercialization of this plight of our bagong dating, that, if not serving as photo albums of the big shots of the various Filipino American communities that can afford to wage war against each other, are a cut-and-paste journalism of the internet version of the bigger newspapers of Manila. You look into the classified ads section and you will see misery in the face: the hidden agenda of Filipino companies looking for employees, with the promise that their immigration papers could be arranged and worked out. In my despair, I cut those ads in 2003 and counted them until I lost count of how misery begets another one. At that time, I was working for my credential to teach English in America. I wanted to teach English to the immigrants like me so that they would have the chance to fight it out in this jungle we call exile, in this unruly business we call immigration, and in this modern abomination we call diaspora.
All these I kept in my journal, that by the start of the second month of my exilic life, when my first spring was about to go full blast with the flowers on mountainsides giving me hope that somehow I could make it here, I was writing furiously, finishing up to a notebook in a single week, writing all, details necessary and not so, confessing in these journals, naming my fears, christening my pains, and revealing that, indeed, the dark corner of the night can hide fully your doubts. The least that can happen to an exile is to start anew, with nothing he has on hand but boldness, daring, and that capacity to see that something good may come out of his sacrifices. I was a poet in my home country and I could not write anything with a joyful heart. In one email from a poet-friend, she complained: Your write sad poetry, your lines do not redeem at all.
I wrote back: I am parroting Pablo Neruda with his sad, sad lines.
Come on, come home, she wrote back.
I try to find the dollars down here, assuming I will be able to figure out a way.
You will lend me some when you will have them, the dollars?
Sure, I will, I wrote back, not sure whether I could fulfill that banter.
That was how we deal with each other, we poets who were always struggling—are still starving. It is one of those contradictions its settling I do not know and which I write about in my journal. Why should it be that a poet has to be so poor in my home country? How is it that hunger is always on our lips, that our pockets are always empty? Should the poet die of poverty so that his poetry will live in richness?
I take all those to heart each day, the pangs of hunger keeping me company in my search even as I allowed myself to grow more in faith. I have understood Weber’s idea of religion, and I went through that: I went to church, many churches, in fact. I discovered prayer again, and the days became longer, and the waiting more so, but the capacity to endure became a second skin: I could wait it out, or so I kept reminding myself. There were days I could just let it go by walking on the shores of Redondo Beach for hours and hours on end. I talked to the waves like an idiot. I talked to the wind like an imbecile. I talked to the blue and vast ocean with its hands and feet and eyes and ears: Bless me, ocean, bless me ocean. Life is a difficult text, the hermeneut says, and it is so. I welcome the difficulty and I take it as a matter of practice. Which I did.
Once, in the dead of winter, I was walking along Normandy Avenue that cuts across Wilshire but I was on 223 Street. That should mean 223 cross streets away from the heart of Los Angeles. This is Gardena, the city where I first lived, in an apartment that looks out into the path of airplanes departing and arriving at the Los Angeles Airport. The early evening cold got into my bones, even with my thermals. I was walking towards a library where I would get a copy of the United States Constitution. I needed that book to review for my California examination. I could not wait for the Metro bus: an hour was needed to wait. I did not have the patience to be standing on a bus station without the benches, with the cold getting your neck and ears and lips. So I walked and walked towards the west, towards Palos Verdes, to the hills that jut out of the calm and quiet sea whose other side, I know is my homeland’s peaceful and bountiful ocean, the very ocean we depend our life on. A man in tatters, shivering in the cold, approached me. I need a quarter, he says.
I looked for some quarters in my pocket. I knew I had some from the change for the orange chicken meal I bought from the Chinese resto. Here, I say. Get them.
You are from the Philippines, he asks.
You guessed it right.
I was a soldier, and I had been to Subic. I am homeless now.
I am sorry, I say. I looked at him straight in the eye and I saw fear in those eyes, until the fear became my own, and the fear has no name.
I could not work and I could not get any help, he says.
How so? I ask.
Sorry to hear that.
You will realize more. You are new, I see.
I am trying to find a life here, scratch out one if I can.
You will. You have a good heart, he says, and he is gone.
Darkness had come so suddenly as is the case of winter in these parts. You do not know when you lose the lights, as the dimming of the unpredictable hours can come so quickly. As soon as I got home, I went to my makeshift altar, put fresh water on the clear glass that I use to invoke the spirit of life, and lighted an incense stick of cinnamon and Italian rose to start my ceremony of daring the gods. You guide me, I say. You guard me, I ask.
By then, I had been asked to start a program to train teachers to pass the first stage of a credentialing program in California. Here I saw them come, the teachers, some of them our best, who have come here, but having no one to turn to, had just contented themselves stacking up shelves at Walmart or Albertson’s. Or cashiering at a McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr. Or tending the old and sick people in foster homes at a wage below the minimum.
What have you been doing? I ask, in disbelief, but more so in exasperation of what exile can bring upon immigrants. Exile can be a life sentence, indeed.
We have no one to go.
You never want to go back to the classrooms?
We have continued to be teachers in our dreams.
Let us get back to work then, I enjoin them.
So I would drill them on the rudiments of the basic skills required for credentialing.
Saturdays would see us together at an office in Wilshire, churning out exercises after exercises, and building up some confidence among these ex-future teachers who are compatriots who would have never dreamed of going back to the classrooms and share their knowledge with the young. In the evening, I would be too exhausted to even try to sleep. So I would be awake for a longer time in anticipation of the Sunday morning that I could run to St. Philomena where there, the Samoans and the Filipinos and the Latino Americans would gather for the mass officiated by a Filipino priest with a thick Filipino accent, that priest who would never hide his being a Filipino but would announce it to the public. My week would be complete, and another week would start, in the same cycle of days and weeks and months that I have to pass to go past what exile is all about.
Many times, the nights were long, as were the shadows during winter and fall. There was gloom in days like this, with people in their thick jackets, with less people on the street in the neighborhood in Torrance that I moved to. I would look at the hours, and wait for that time that I could call home, always on the guard for the six-hour difference, in reverse, so that when it was day in the Philippines, it was night over here in this second city of my gallivanting and wandering life.
I would run to the liquor store to buy the phone card that promises more minutes than the rest of them, always knowing that that promise may not be true in the real sense, what with all the unseen cost that you have to pay. In California, your life must depend on phone cards if you wanted to keep your sanity. The choice is among those cards that cheat less. There is a customer service you can call when you feel you were gypped, but they would never return your call.
I scratch the card.
I allow the numbers at the back to come out in their glory. I need these numbers to dial home, get hooked up with the wife and children, but always mindful that anytime the line would be cut.
Hello, I say.
Hello, father, the young would answer back.
I am alone here. Mother is not here, so is ate and kuya. I am sick, so I did not go to school. I hope that you are here so you can massage my feet.
I would come home soon, anak, I say.
When would that be? It is too long, father.
When is soon?
Tell me when.
I control myself. I do not know what to say next. It is night in Torrance, about 12 midnight, and I see the night sky with its brilliant stars. Over at the west, I see the moon looming large.
Is it night there, father?
It is night here.
Are there big stars? Are there beautiful and brilliant stars?
There are a million stars.
Can I see them?
When you come here.
Wait, she says, wait. I run to the window and see what is happening outside.
Ok, I say, and the silence between us is stillness.
It is raining over here, pouring rain, torrential rains, she says.
I see, I tell her.
In your house, father, is it raining too?
I choke. How do you say you are so sorry to a child you have left behind but is now coming on her own, with her first word you did not hear but is now using a full language despite your absence? You have never contributed any word to that language, and here you are, in self-exultation, here you are, with your daughter, able to tell straight in the face that you live in another place and time, and you live in another house.
Her word caught you by surprise and knifed through your chest.
Yes, you say, I live in another house now.
You take your journal and write all of these to your self. These will be your letters. Your secret and sacred letters to your exilic self.
A solver Agcaoili