By Joan Ariete
New York City
In the evening of November 9, the day after Yolanda, the strongest storm recorded in history battered the Philippines, my three-year-old son Liam was excitedly assembling a house, a Lego tower of yellow, red and orange, and assuring himself, “very good.” He would ecstatically say “wow!” every time his tiny fingers managed to secure another block.
I was, on the other side of the room, distraught – sitting in front of my computer and letting the horrific images of the super typhoon assault me. The entire Tacloban City flattened by water; the soaked and muddied leftovers of an apocalyptic episode, clothes and knickknacks laid bare, rusty tin roofs pulled out from under-constructed concrete houses, a doll, its blonde hair now a lonely mermaid’s mane.
The dead sprawled amongst these mundane objects of what used to be a bustling everyday life in Tacloban where the eye of the storm was. I caught a glimpse of a child’s hand, very much like my own son’s, and I almost blacked out. I wept louder than I did when my grandfather passed away two months before.
My son turned to me and asked, “Mommy, are you okay?” – one of the few things he has learned on etiquette from his babysitter. Outside, the autumn breeze hummed and kissed the yellowing leaves, making way for a kaleidoscopic show of colors in New York. Inside our small apartment in Queens, I longed to be with my own people who were by now suffering the most unspeakable of horrors.
I have seen these horrific images when I was child. They seem to be realized versions of my childhood nightmares. I come from Pampanga, one of the provinces that suffered most when in June 1991, Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano that had been dormant for 600 years, woke up, excitedly spewing smoke, lava, ash and pebbles.
The ash and pebbles fell like rainfall and transformed my hometown, Lubao, into a winter wonderland of gray snow. Then came the mud mixed in water, boiling to a temperature of what Hell must feel like. PAGASA called it lahar. It never reached our town, but Bacolor, which was a mere 30-minute drive away, bore its brunt, galloping and relentless. It buried the town alive, erasing it off the map. I vaguely recall a radio news report on how those who survived had to place their dead inside used rice sacks and tie them up to sturdy tree branches so as not to be swept away by the surge.
I cannot trace the time government officials or neighborhood gossips started warning us about the water. After the eruption, the topography of the land had been transformed into a welcoming hall for any arriving deluge. As a kid, I would always imagine water barging into our home, filling every corner like an aquarium. It would come in the dead of night ferrying logs weighing tons and bashing our front door, as if knocking in jest.
I would plan our escape, my little brother, my baby sister and I, and rewind it in my head, but would get stuck, realizing we were fenced by intricate metal bars for windows. I would obsess about our house’s ‘inescapable’ architecture- a one-story bungalow built in 1985. The metal bars coiled and bent to assume the shape of a flower or an intricate triangle, stayed glued to the beams. How are we going to escape all this water? In my imaginings, I would refer to Peter Pan’s escape routes through more sensible English windows.
The flash floods in Ormoc City took place in the same year, five months after the volcano woke up. Until today, I can’t shake off the television image of the bloated body of a man with both his arms raised as if in anticipation of a half-embrace. The sun was kissing his face, which by then had turned into a lamentable blue.
Monday morning at work, I wept once more as concerned coworkers asked me if my family was okay. I started a frantic fundraiser and raised $710, which I split in half and sent to two friends from college who had already launched their own individual relief efforts– one group went to Dulag, a town outside of Tacloban, which also suffered greatly. I was moved by my coworkers’ generosity; most of them had children to send to school, monthly mortgage, and still donated a good fraction of their paychecks. My bosses were more than gracious as well. When one of my friends received the money, he started crying. It was the least we could do. It was nothing compared to what they, who were physically there, were dealing with. Albeit in a tragedy of this magnitude, cash is always the most potent resource.
The week that followed was a state of distraction and grief. In mourning and angered by any sign of indifference, I reprimanded my partner for not finishing his leftovers, when so many of my people back home were starving. I debated with my parents, who thought that Anderson Cooper’s reporting was a bit offensive and the government’s slow response understandable considering the country is an archipelago and all its resources Third-World.
On Facebook, I told an aunt she was insensitive for telling me that a lot of people who claimed to have not had anything to eat for five days were lying, as they could still line up for relief goods in the heat. They were probably going for seconds, she said. In this half-crazed state, I thought I could easily alienate anyone.
On November 23, two weeks after the storm, my son and I trekked to Chelsea in Manhattan, where Filipino-American literary writers and journalists organized a fundraiser reading named “Kaya Natin!” (We can do this!), featuring legends in contemporary Filipino literature held at the Asian American Writers Workshop office.
Via video, Gina Apostol, author of the novel Gun Dealer’s Daughter and a native of Tacloban, read some Waray poems by another Taclobanon, Voltaire Araza. As she translated each line she put emphasis on the verbs, explaining that Araza’s language is fueled by these “ordinary, quotidian verbs.” In the poems, the verbs flow with a solemn eagerness about them, elegant and mighty in their sadness. There’s something enthralling about the Waray language, the way the last syllable of a word is repeated to magnify its meaning. As is the case in any other Filipino language, this type of repetition amplifies the words, bolsters their caliber.
Lambunao, which literally means ‘water,’ laments on water’s insidious nature:
Water is a bad guest, especially when it enters the house.
It’s a pest because it occupies everything, touching everything,
Making everything wet: the floor, the chairs…the mat, the blanket…
and the picture of the two of us, my wife and I.
It’s been overstaying for three or four days now.
It keeps living in our house.
I’m not complaining. I’m just annoyed, because these clothes I’ve been drying keep shedding tears.
Jessica Hagedorn, author of acclaimed novels Dogeaters and The Gangster of Love, read Gina Apostol’s Op-Ed piece in The New York Times. She shared three moving paragraphs that describe the author’s nostalgic memories about how Taclobanons would usually deal with the typhoons that regularly pass through their city. The grief and anger that followed after the Yolanda leveled her city could be sensed as the article progresses.
“Always, after the rains on Juan Luna Street, there was the great communal cleansing, children, housemaids and busybodies sharing stories; the familiar howl of Bruce Lee, our cowardly dog; the usual flooding of our walkway that doubled as a pigpen, housing a single hygienic pig owned by our neighbor Mano Bading, whose love for his pig we tolerated because we would eat it at fiesta; the examination of debris — clotheslines, buckets, cardboard election posters falling off a corner store, where we got our i.o.u.’s when typhoons hit, racking up our debts in Spam, Hunt’s pork and beans and rice. But this year’s post-typhoon cleansing has become an unimaginable orgy of grief. Friends who have escaped speak of strangled, directionless horror: No one is in charge. We don’t know how to account for our damage, or where to go to repair our fate.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/opinion/surrender-oblivion-survival.html
Ninotchka Rosca, author of award-winning novels, State of War and Twice Blessed, cautioned against calling Filipinos resilient in a commentary for Yahoo! Philippines. Headlined “Calling Filipinos resilient is an insult,” the piece drew a lot of attention from readers. According to Rosca, Yahoo! was delighted because the commentary pushed people to type in comments in complete sentences.
No, we are not resilient. We break, when the world is just too much, and in the process of breaking, are transformed into something difficult to understand. Or we take full measure of misfortune, wrestle with it and emerge transformed into something equally terrifying.
It is what is…and what isn’t
This is in sync with our indigenous worldview, expressed by our riddles, the talinhaga, on which every Filipino child used to be raised: an understanding of reality, including ourselves, as metamorphic (or, capable of transformation).http://news.yahoo.com/commentary–calling-filipinos-resilient-is-an-insult-011053161.html
I discovered a little piece of home in these readings. The writers’ words brought me back to that time of uncertainty, the memory of a frightened eight-year-old who couldn’t stop thinking about her homeland’s impending doom.
It wasn’t a shameful anomaly anymore, to have all these memories– visions of water taking back what we hold dear. It is, sadly, every Filipino’s reality. “What a horror it would be to lose the poets,” Apostol said when she didn’t hear from her literary friends in Tacloban for the first four days since the storm struck. Yes, what a horror it would be to lose the crafters of words that speak of truth and beauty.
Rosca’s commentary has been empowering. I hold on to the word ‘metamorphic,’ during these trying times. On that fateful night in June 1991, my brother and I jumped up and down in our living room to evade the tremors; in the dark I asked my father if we could escape to Manila and stay with our cousins the following day. He didn’t answer; he was figuring out how to get clean water for my newborn sister. By this time, the potable water pipes had been shut off. After that night, life had never been the same.
Internationally known as Haiyan, locally called Yolanda, the typhoon left a magnitude of destruction that is beyond understanding. At press time, there are over 5000 accounted-for deaths. While local and financial aids continue to pour in, numerous barangays and islets in the Visayas are still in need of relief and attention. Scientists say that the escalating strength and sophistication of current typhoons can only be directly caused by climate change.
The 1991 flash floods of Ormoc were attributed to illegal logging. Over 4000 died and 3000 more missing; none of the missing was ever found and they are all presumed dead.
Naderev ‘Yev’ Sano, head of the Philippine delegation to the UN Climate Convention in Warsaw delivered a speech in tears: “We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a way of life.”
He challenged those who are still denying climate change, those coming from wealthier nations to “get off their ivory towers,” and see for themselves the extent of the natural calamities that have befallen the more vulnerable countries.
The question now is how will the Philippines deal with climate change? I summon our capacity to metamorphose: hold the powerful and corrupt accountable– government officials, huge corporations that plunder our natural resources. Unfortunately, the United States is among those countries that have the highest greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t have a firm stance on how to deal with the warming planet as of yet. It hasn’t committed itself.
More than ever, I vow to recycle more, not waste water, and refrain from consuming too much– some may accuse me of having too much of that self-righteous complex, but this culture of consumption and waste is just too much for the planet. I refuse to shop. Was never a shopper, anyway.
When hell came down and tested my people’s humanity, they rose above the rubble with a level of humanity that left a CNN reporter in awe. We still reel from the pain. We still mourn our dead. And we will never forget.
At the writers’ fundraiser, Liam passed out in my arms when the poets started. A man sitting beside asked me if he could take a picture of us. The message, which he typed on his IPhone for me to read to avoid disturbing the reading, was very touching: Taking your son to these events is a very moving gesture. Can I take a picture of you two?
It wasn’t as much as consciously taking him to such activities as not having enough to pay for a babysitter. But maybe it was a must to take him. After all, through his blood runs the DNA of a race that has, time and time again, redefined the meaning of strength. (Photos at the Asian American Writers Workshop by Kristina Kalaw Joyas)
(Joan works full time – as a young mom and a bouncing-back writer in NYC.)