Writing Jog

I am writing this as a sort of a writing exercise before I finally continue writing my graduate school paper. Which is, by the way, I think I'm halfway through.

As much as I want to believe that I am doing well in this paper, I think I am sucking at it. And to think again that it rained earlier, thus, making me to lazy to get out of the house, buy a cup of coffee at some random coffee shop and type away makes me want to panic all the more. And the fact that this paper is to be submitted on Thursday and the fact that for the first time in forever, my professor decided to be as free and as limiting with this paper at the same time boggles the mind as well.

This paper is supposed to trace the hows and the whys of what we write, and looking at what I have written so far, my paper is starting to look like a writing autobiography. I haven't even started injecting the epistemologies that my professor was asking us to make explicit there.

I missed the chance of being with my friends in Baguio this sembreak because of this paper. Hopefully this paper will make sense to my professor.

I am not making sense, time to get back to work.

I hope this sem just ends. I hope this year ends already.


What I feel for him
Is entirely forbidden
I must never ever
Overstep my boundaries.
I will always be near
But that is the only distance
I will only be able to bear
To stop myself
From doing my undoing.
What I feel for him
Is truly forbidden.
I must never.
Must, must.

I Can't Find the Words

In a fit of fleeting unmindfulness
Your name is written
With a wish that the ink
Will make you breathe life

This is the only thing that this mind can do
Whisper declarations that no one will hear
Write your name in a dream
In the face of a forbidden reality

Your name is written on a piece of paper
Hoping that the ink will capture you,
All of you.
This is the only thing that this mind can do
You become a reality through my words

And my words alone.

Looking Forward, Looking Beyond

So, it's another school year once again here at my side of the planet where everyone is going nuts in that K to 12 brouhaha and the impending academic calendar shift. The changes are really starting to be felt by everyone here in my school. With all of these educational reforms, we also have to battle, I particularly, some several personal challenges in the profession.

1) After four years of not having a class of my own (a form class, an advisory class or whatever-you-call-it class), I was given one for my fifth year of teaching. I never thought that I will be given one since I've expected that I won't be given any, mainly because of my status in the school. It was just so sudden. I'm currently not loving it, mainly because I just do not have the patience to deal with 40+ student needs and personalities ALL AT THE SAME TIME and multiply it by two because of the parents. My profession is very people-oriented, and there are times when I mull whether I really chose the right profession. At the end of the day, I always come to the conclusion that it's that one profession that you will always love and hate at the same time.

As of now, I already got the room decorated, I've prepped myself up for the challenges, but damn, don't I have any training, AT ALL. They say that it will all come naturally mainly out of responsibility, but damn again, how do I deal with a student who just gives notes to his teachers saying that he hates him/her? How do I deal with the unreturned reply slips? How many days should I wait for the said slips? Those things, it's those little things that I am most nervous about. And students will feel, will see that I am, flat on not ready. Because I am really not.

They always say that being given a form class is a compliment. But being put into the spotlight without any proper prepping is just plain scary. Being a form class teacher is a big responsibility, and I am very sure that people have always expected the best from me, however, I was never fully equipped with what I believe are the necessary things to go around and go about around in this responsibility. For one, I'm not even a senior teacher in the institution, nay, not even a junior faculty, I am a green horn compared to my colleagues, however, they expect that I am going to deliver the same excellence that they have which is, by the way, they have been practicing for a long time that they can do it with their eyes closed. It also doesn't help that if ever there will be any failures, it will be taken against me, when in fact I was never even trained properly.

I just don't like it.

I can deal with the workload, sure. Hell, I'm one of the most efficient teachers in my department, however, the prospect of dealing with these souls disturbs me. A LOT. The funny thing is that they think I'm just acting childish, but hell no, I NEVER HAD ANY CHANCE BEFORE TO DO THIS. I'm still in that process of learning the ropes of the institution, and yet they have given me another rope to deal with, a rope which I have no experience in my entire career. Layers and layers of ropes to learn, man. It's sickening.

That's the first rope.

2) The second rope is they have given me an organization to moderate. This one is at least a familiar territory. I was able to moderate an organization in my previous institution, albeit, a different one. But instead of dealing with facts, I'll be dealing with literary works.

Weirdly enough, this is what they have prepared for me to accept, and not the form class, which for me is just another piece of wood to the fire mainly because the latter is the more important one. They could have told me the form class first, the organization, second. But I don't know, I think they already have the inkling that I will be shocked to the point of malfunctioning if they told me the form class earlier, but that at least would minimize the damage.

Weirdly enough again, I am more excited with the organization that with the form class.

God give me strength and patience. I would really need it.

The True Story of Ah To - Caroline S. Hau

Caroline S. Hau
The True Story of Ah To

I had known Ah To all my life—but this may only be a way of saying that I knew him when the best years of his life were over. He had been, at some point in his life, a coolie, a baker, a shopkeeper’s apprentice, a taho vendor, a vegetable hawker, a guerilla, and a “Communist” fugitive. I knew him in his most recent and, in his opinion, least exciting incarnation as owner of a drugstore in Elcano where six or seven old men (whom my neighbors called, in as many different tones of voice as there were opinions, the Forty-Eight) congregated every evening after supper.

My grandfather, himself a Wha Chi guerilla, had known Ah To way back before they left the T’ang Mountains for Manila in the late 1920s. Grandfather died a few years before I was born, leaving behind a middling dry-goods store in Santo Cristo and several photographs that framed a bald man with startling luminous eyes against painted backdrops and plaster pedestals. He had been in his early fifties when he died, and he had left very little of himself in the memories of his wife my grandmother who, for the first twenty-five years of their marriage, remained in China and saw him only during his occasional furloughs from the many jobs that he, like Ah To, held as a young man in Manila. For his children, it was always already too late. Long before they noticed it, they had lost my grandfather in the minefields of Ligo sardines, century eggs, Perla detergent bars, and dried shrimps. They lost him as surely as we, their children, were destined to lose our own parents in the same nineteen-hour, Monday-to-Sunday battles with loose change and depleted stocks.

Were it not for Ah To, I would not have had much else to say about my grandfather. Everything else that I know about my grandfather—his sharp wit, his evil temper, his fondness for candied plums and martial-arts serials, and his inability to carry a tune—I picked up from Ah To himself during those nights when Ah To and other old men took out their folding chairs to smoke under the stars.

These late-night chats were conducted with an enviable regularity that reflected favorably on Ah To’s habits. At 8:30, Ah To would roll up the ocher-and-green awning and pull the accordion doors half shut. He would spend some time at the counter, funneling bits of herb with sheet of groundwood paper into boxes that he then popped into any number of the hundred or so drawers that lined the wall, drawers the precise content of which only he could locate when he filled in an order the following day. He would replenish the glass shelves that were lined with liniments, ointments, balms, oils, and packaged pills before he stepped out of the store and onto the pavement of an Elcano that stretched out in its own sloppy inventory of rice, flour, hardware, and onion stores, muddy ditches, and parked cars. Here, amidst the folding chairs, in the smoky haze, as I played with other people’s grandchildren, I picked out conversations and arguments, matched names and memories, and kept track of sundry fates and destinies before they dissipated above our heads.

Ah To was a consummate host because he was slow to kindle his opinion in debates over good restaurants, geomancy, and dead emperors—topics that left everybody else feeling dyspeptic if not hemorrhoidal. Any conversation, no matter how fervid, would have ended up as one more smoke ring blown into the darkness but for Ah To’s ability to pick up on a wisp of detail, an anecdote, a turn of phrase that sparked more shoptalk, gossip, polemic, lamentation, eulogy, and what-if ’s. This skill had as much to do with Ah To’s civil status as with his good nature. As a bachelor, Ah To must have felt that he had all the free time to himself in the evening to play host to the Forty-Eight, and it was precisely years of practice that made him such a good host. But I have always suspected that Ah To was good because, having no family to inflict the burden of remembering him, he sensed the fragility of every migrant’s dream of posterity. For Ah To, the stories ceased to be interchangeable and their characters acquired a singularity often denied the stories of migrants like my grandfather, lost somewhere in the constant shuttling between the T’ang Mountains and Manila, between temporary and permanent residence.

Thus, Ah To kept the Forty-Eight from tripping over bad silence long after Tieng Siopieng’s economic policies, the latest kidnappings and assassinations, and the President’s frequent absence had run their course. I can only begin to imagine how much was left unsaid in these conversations, how well the men kept their counsels. I find it hard to remind myself how forgetful old men can become especially when they try very hard to remember. Names, so many names,

plucked by force of memory from the hollows of the sky: Malabon Bakery, where Ah To had spent his first night outside the immigration holding area in the country; Lo Sin, whose stories Ah To had taught himself to read; Lo Lien Hui, the labor union which he had joined as a coolie and a baker.

I would like to have known Ah To when he was young, when pushing carts and hauling sacks of tapioca meant nothing, and young men dreamed only of white tailored suits, of basketball games at the YMCA on Sundays, and of sidelong glances from the young school teachers who hurried along Magdalena Street on weekdays. But there was, of course, the war. And it was this war that the old men returned to again and again in those evenings when we, the grandchildren, sat and listened. There were the usual horror stories that, for many years afterward, gave us nightmares—

of streets that stuck to one’s feet because of blood, of children and parents lost in the rubble, of men forced to dig their own graves, women raped, babies bayoneted. The old men also spoke of fighting alongside the Huks, of going into Mount Arayat only three steps ahead of the Japanese. The men in Ah To’s company had fallen into malarial delirium in the swamps of Candaba, and had spent days dreaming of twelve-course banquets, smiling women who taught geography, and polised wingtips.

When they finally awoke from the war, Ah To and a number of his friends found themselves on the run because the government, with more than a little help from a few zealous turtles among lannang, “our people,” had decided that the country really was crawling with disloyal and ungrateful Communists like Ah To. Those years spent in hiding are a blur to me, because Ah To refused to talk about them except to say that he felt like an animal that was being hunted for its skin.

When the political winds relented a little, Ah To picked himself up in a small town in Cebu and dusted the many aliases and “family” histories off his sleeve. He often told us that he felt like that old man in Lo Sin’s story who, when his turn came, could remember not a scrap of the arias that condemned men sang on their way to execution, not even the reason he was being executed. (The story of that old man haunted me for years, because I could never decide if it was proper to feel pity, contempt, rage, and empathy—all four of them—for that old man.) He later found out that two of his friends had been deported to Taiwan while several others had disappeared into the crevices of the southern provinces. Ah To was one of the few, the Forty-Eight among them, who made their way to Manila to begin yet another lifetime of eking out a living.

It could have been worse.

As the conversation darkened, Ah To would allow himself to talk about the Whiskers Wang and Ah Sun, his compañero near the cash register, with nary a glance but plenty of grimaces all around. Both men had come from the same country, had fought the Japanese together, and had worked in the same jobs before setting up the drugstore. However thrillingly Whiskers Wang and Ah Sun had sung along with the actors each time the famous Peach Grove brotherhood scene was staged by the opera troupe on Lavezarez Street, they could not have known that only a few pesos made all the difference between sworn brothers and sworn enemies.

Ah To would invariably tell us about the summer of 1984, when old age finally caught up with him. As far as he was concerned, his misfortune could not have chosen a more inopportune time to track him down. Ah To was, at that time, was nearly seventy years old. It was too soon for him to give up promenades along Ongpin, Hunan beef steaks, ube ice cream, and long long nights at the opera. But, like the men who came into the drugstore at noon once a week and fingered their badges and talked rather vaguely about “protection,” old age cornered Ah To with the practiced nonchalance of an extortionist. This latest in a lifetime of importunities, however, was not content to wring forty pesos and considerable ill will out of Ah To. Old age, Ah To would say, was when the extortionist demanded payment but did not name the terms.

It was the hemorrhoids, in particular, that really did it for Ah To. Before, they had been a minute flurry in the long slow drift of his routine, an inconvenience, at worst, that could be tucked away in the butt-ends of the everyday struggles that trailed him through his fugitive years and after. But by 1984, he and Whiskers Wang and Ah Sun had rooted through their deepest pockets to open the drugstore, and in the first few years of uncertainty that marked every business venture , the hemorrhoids threatened to burst out of Ah To’s tightly wrapped memories of the unspeakable and incomprehensible. The year before, he had seen on TV a huge crowd surround the coffin of a man who still wore the bloodied clothes he had died in. He had been surprised that the sight of such a huge crowd failed to move him. Ah To’s world had shrunk to a room above the drugstore. He preferred the frightful tension of ambushing Japanese troops to the slow dread of keeping the next day’s appointment with his chamber pot. None of his own pills and ointments and suppositories—not even White Flower Oil, that redoubtable panacea—had offered anything but the slightest relief.

Ah To’s hemorrhoids cost him what little peace of mind had survived the carnage of peacetime. Some days, Chinatown appeared to him a sooty, grilled maw that spewed brown, wasted figures, stippled with flour, rice and onion skin, into the hot sun.

No doubt this mood had been soured, too, by his first visit to China in forty-six years. He had welcomed, had wept at the news about the establishment of diplomatic ties with China. Then, he had spent the next few years saving every centavo he could from selling Baguio lettuce and pumpkins in Divisoria. The years of being somewhere else had cloaked the Middle Kingdom of his childhood in a rosy haze that parted momentarily to reveal white sands, pristine waters, and curving eaves. And if his memories of the T’ang Mountains had been somewhat blurry, well, he had been too poor and too confident of his eventual return to China to worry about remembering the past.

His “homecoming” in early May of 1984 was, I think, as much an act of creating memories as it was an act of exorcising them. Ah To visited Tsinkang not knowing that he was acting like a tourist in more than a legal sense, armed with a camera that was all set to capture the white sands and pristine waters and curving eaves in Kodakcolor.

enough, he had returned to Manila with an album that was passed around among us for the next few evenings. There were carefully mounted pictures of beaches, trees, houses, and people, just like postcards. When Ah To could no longer find the shot he was looking for, he settled for the next best thing. In place of the beaten path he had trodden as a child, for example, Ah To took a picture of the dusty main road. He pointed out the only son of a long-dead younger brother, mused over an ornately carved window, sang the praises of a basket of mussels.

But there were only so many postcard stories, and the evening finally came when Ah To ran out of them. That was when the stories got interesting.

He had had to stay with an eighty-year-old aunt the first few days because her grandson who kept the key to the old house had gone to Kengchiu to look at the new taxicabs. The grandson came home and spent the better part of the afternoon fiddling with the locks, saying that there really wasn’t much to see anyway, since the house had long been stripped of its furniture by relatives scattered throughout the country. You couldn’t see a thing in that room where Ah To had been born. Apparently, nobody had bothered to install plumbing and electricity, either, which meant Ah To could not spend the night in the old house; the relatives had their own homes and figured that keeping the old house locked was all the caretaking they could spare, given the sorry amount that Uncle sent every year. Now, taxicabs were the future what with lannang like Uncle coming back to Tsinkang for a visit. Perhaps if Uncle would invest in this venture?

The grandson had let out a snort of disbelief, or of something else, when Ah To remarked that some of his friends had died owning two changes of underwear and the polo shirt and trousers that they had on their bodies. It was, the young man said, nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t make it. If Uncle wanted so badly to be a Communist, he should have stayed in China, where being a Communist would have been more profitable. When Ah To said that he was not a Communist, the grandson shrugged. Why would anyone want to be a fake Communist, even a falsely accused one?

He himself, said the grandson, would rather be a fake capitalist. At least, he could get his hands on a few taxicabs on credit long enough to sublease them and earn a respectable profit.

Some nights of the two weeks that Ah To spent in Tsinkang, he slept on a foldable bed that he had borrowed from his aunt, a bed just like the one he had slept on for years in Elcano. His aunt spoke to him in hoarse whispers about the fire in her gut and at length extracted a hundred dollars towards an operation from Ah To. He visited the tombs of his parents, as haphazardly plotted as the modern-style concrete buildings that were being built all over his county; he found his father’s tomb on the sandy path that led to the beach, his mother’s on the edge of his neighbor’s peanut fields. He visited the temple and lit joss sticks to the thirteen generals and their retinue, as he had done to their replicas in Manila.

He waded out a short way into the sea and thought that he could see the Philippines from where he was standing.

But, like all the tourists, Ah To left Tsinkang at the end of two weeks feeling as though he had outstayed his welcome. He had, after all, gotten what he came for. He could finally fix this patch of earth and sky in his mind. He could look forward to a shelf-full of recollections and need not worry about replenishing them. Here in this album were the pictures to prove that it was all there, as he had dreamed and imagined. And as for that young man, how could Ah To begin to tell him that in the 1950s, in this country, to which he was more or less bound by all the waking moments of his adult life, it didn’t matter if you were or were not a Communist as long as your enemies believed (or chose to believe) that you were? How can you tell the young people about things that they have been taught to despise?

And on this note of finality, Ah To would switch to other subjects. But there were things that he chose not to bring up during the talks. What Ah To could not understand—and I had to wait until I was grown up to hear Ah To confess this and to figure out what it meant—was why he could not bring himself to let go of the shred of earth and sky, not the one he had brought back with him from Tsinkang, but the one he had had all along, the one he mistook for a replica, the original of which he had sought in China. He had gone into the swamps of Candaba understanding that he was ready to die for a place he could no longer, even then, remember clearly. And years later, when he tried to summon these images in his mind to fill in the tedium of being on the run, he had had to admit to himself that might have remembered the white sands, pristine waters, and curving eaves from his travels across Luzon and the Visayas.

Since I have begun working at the University, I can no longer spare the evenings to listen to the Forty-Eight, the company long dwindled by death, arthritis, and full-time jobs. When I stop by the drugstore, Ah To calls me by my father’s name because he cannot remember which of Yeng Suan’s children I am. I do not correct him because forgetfulness is a small price to pay for a man who has lived in the interstices of the fortunes and debacles of seven republics. Whenever I light joss sticks to the thirteen generals and their retinue in the temple on Tomas Mapua Street, the same generals whom I may see if I ever save enough money to visit my grandfather’s birthplace in Tsinkang, I light some for Ah To and for all the men of my childhood who called up the spirits to watch over them, and their children, in a land that they do not know is their own.