Sunday, June 07, 2009

To Whom You Are Accountable

Filipinos have a cultural trademark of slapping nicknames on folks which have absolutely nothing to do with their real names. For example, my full first name is Ana Lisa, but growing up, my parents had a slew of nicknames for me that slid in and out of my life. I never questioned it, just knew they were terms of endearment and I embraced my cultural names.

My father called me Shouloo [SHAO-loo], which typically meant, "little one." The youngest of four, it seemed appropriate and a sign of affection. "Shouloo! Get me my tsinelas [sandals]!" My nickname always softened the request to get my father whatever he was requesting.

My mother had a few names for me. "Anak," [ah-NAHK] means "dear" or "child" as she also frequently called me "Ming," which I never completely understood. But they were always said lovingly so I had a feeling they were similar in nature.

As a child, they told me stories of the Philippines and I imagined a faraway place of paradox. A tropical paradise. Unthinkable poverty. Dirt. Spirit. Malls. A home.

* * * *

Last year, I went to the Philippines for multiple reasons. One reason was to academically immerse myself in history, economics, language, and the arts. I was also researching the history of the women's movement in the Philippines and was to study under a professor who had endured political trauma - kidnapping and torture - during the martial law under then president Ferdinand Marcos. Dr. T* was an excellent teacher and I often felt confounded by her life experiece that she used in her teaching college students.

I studied at the University of the Philippines (UP) and quickly absorbed the political tension on campus. I was to attend a rally in one of my first afternoons at the campus. The rally was to raise awareness about the missing Sociology professor and student who disappeared during a research project they had been conducting in the mountains. These young women - Karen* and Carolyn* - were intent on researching the trials and life of rural agricultural workers in the mountains.

They disappeared.

Like so many other philosophers, teachers, activists, and thinkers in the Philippines. Disappeared.


* * * *

No one was as interested in my research as they were about my personal story, however. Most of the feedback I received when folks learned of my trip mostly centralized on either one of two assumptions. I actually 1) "abandoned my husband" to learn and conduct independent research OR 2) defiantly traveled alone to the other side of the world without him

* * * *

My parents never taught me or my siblings Tagalog, or any other dialect of the Philippines. Language, its sole function so often understood as the train of understanding, is the carrier of so much more in the Philippines. Being able to speak Tagalog is a marker of cultural acceptance, of union. Stuttering in half English (though nearly all urban areas speak English) is a billboard of westernized upbringing.

The latter. That was me.

* * * *

I meet with all kinds of human rights groups that talk about the many struggles of the bleeding nation. Without filters or softeners, the reality of the corrupt violence makes me afraid. I tell a native that I am afraid. She laughs in my face. "You are an American citizen, yes?"

I nod.

"Just show your passport. No one will ever touch you." She dismisses me.

Feeling slighted and awkwardly untouchable, I turn to a friend for a brief processing. She is from New York. "Yeah, Leese, I mean, come on. We lead different lives. It doesn't matter if we're Filipino, we don't live the same danger these other women do. Janice* just survived her first round of chemo therapy while she spent the night in her office, advocating for justice. She's committed. Why? Because her friends, her actual friends, have been kidnapped, murdered and raped. She's allowed to laugh at us because we don't live that. We can take her bitter laughter if we understand what she goes through."

* * * *

"Tell them we're beyond poverty. We're not even allowed to eat the garbage. We're even charged for the remains no one wants," a Filipina tells me as my research project ends. I say nothing, remembering the communities I met who are charged $60 USD for a truckload of garbage to sift through.

* * * *

"Please, don't forget us. Please, tell others our stories so others will understand what we're living through." I hold the hand of a widow whose husband, a union rights organizer, was assassinated two years ago with no one brought to justice.

* * * *

My parents call me Ming and Shouloo, names of love. Lately, though, I notice they don't call me those names anymore. I realize it's because they were all names for a little girl.

I am no longer.

* * * *

It has been almost a year since I left for my first trip to my parents homeland and I have written nothing but scratches about its impact on my life. My notes, my research sits out waiting for me, waiting for my commitment to travel back in my memory and relive some of the most gorgeous moments of my life, and also some of the most horrific.

I realize, with sadness, as I nurse this plum of a life inside me, s/he will likely not receive the cultural division that I experienced growing up. The intense confusion, and resulting drive, that came with growing up Ming and Shouloo in the United States will not be present for my child.

But the stories I have, the memories still burning in my mind will shape this child into understanding a certain part of the world to where s/he will always have a connection. With connection, comes accountability. Loving accountability.

* * * *

With a picture of the growing Plum on my desk, I reach for overstuffed notebooks with handouts and maps as bookmarks, reeking with the smell of dust and dried sweat.

I remember. I begin writing.

Salamat to Tanglad for your inspiration, companionship, support, and incivise writing.


  1. Anonymous3:24 AM

    Ning, Ming, and Ding/Deng are popular contractions for Ineng or Neneng. Young girl. Am not sure if that's where your Ming comes from, but maybe?

    I'm incredibly moved, my friend. Salamat.

    -Tanglad (or "Ning" to my grandparents)

  2. I don't think there is much else to say to this but your writing makes the world better.

    It does it makes the world a less closed more open amazing place

    And I am honored you would call me friend.

    Love you so much


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