Much has been said about persistence and perseverance: how, if you are only forceful and determined enough, you could achieve whatever it is that you set your mind to.
“They’re rich, but still nice.”
– “They’re nice because they’re rich.”Jon Bong Hoo, “Parasite”
During my freshman year in high school, my older brother and I had to be sent off to a public high school in Quezon City after my parents incurred a huge debt because of a failed business. The financial loss meant that they could no longer afford to send us to the private school near our home in Las Piñas. My aunt convinced my mom that the high school near her place had better standards than the usual public schools, and so my mom decided that we would live with our aunt and our cousins so we could study there.
As a kid, I felt that it was all a game. I imagined how that year was going to be fun, and how I’d have interesting stories to share to my friends back home once I came back to my old school.
My new classmates saw me and my brother as a curiosity. I remember how they would ask me questions about my old school–why I had to uproot myself from that life in exchange for this strange one. I vaguely remember dodging some of those questions, but what I could recall was how I found it amusing that they would speak to me in English, as if they expected me to be beyond speaking in the vernacular.
You don’t really realize the privilege you have until you live the life without it. And by live, I mean to experience it on a daily basis, without an alternate life to go back to anymore. As the days passed by, followed by weeks, and then finally a month, a switch clicked inside me: the life I once lived was now gone.
Suddenly, the excitement of being able to tell my old friends about the little field trip we went to slowly waned.
Granted, it wasn’t that awful. Our aunt took care of us and made sure we were well-fed all the time. The school was, like my aunt said, fairly better than most of the public schools, what with its sprawling field and a large court where my classmates and I would hang out during breaks. There was a small garden in front of our classroom which our class tended to, charged by our adviser to sweep the leaves and water the plants. Every Friday, my dad would pick us up and we would spend the weekends back home.
But the shame still crept in.
As an outsider, I became more sensitive to the disparities of class. I didn’t have the words for the feeling as a child, but I quietly observed how far removed I have been back then from this reality.
One day, one of my classmates went to class with his uniform creased and dirty, reeking with an overpowering odor that was unmistakably from someone who didn’t shower properly. Our teacher called him out for his poor hygiene, reminding him that we were expected to keep ourselves tidy all the time. He was asked to step in front of the class, and he ended up crying. I eventually found out that they couldn’t afford to pay for their electric bill, that’s why his mom wasn’t able to iron his uniform.
That memory played in my head while watching Jon Bong Hoo’s “Parasite”–this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival–the other night. There was a scene in the movie where the rich man Mr. Park, oblivious that the family chauffeur was nearby, casually comments to his wife that their driver has a particularly offensive smell, like that of old radish. It was the smell of people who had to take subways, he said.
It was the stench of poverty.
The poor are asked to go to great lengths to conceal their suffering and desperation, as if displays of suffering and desperation are unforgivable offenses that must never be committed.
To enter the rarefied existence and ensure that the opportunities it affords will never be denied to you, you must dress, speak, and act like the privileged do.
Before you can become truly one of them, you must first become them, even if as a lie, in the beginning.
The charade is a hard one to prop up. There will always be a crack that will reveal itself, at one point or another. The branded bag exposed as an imitation. (To digress: this reminds me of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”.) The neighborhood one grew up in, or lives at. The school one went to. The slip of the accent. The uncharacteristic brusqueness that shows itself.
And so the tragedy transforms into a farce.
Those who have less feel it, the exclusion. Perhaps not immediately, not shoved in front of them. But they feel it in the way they are treated. The pained smiles. The terse politeness. The ensuing, awkward silence. The patronizing pats on their backs.
What affects me most about “Parasite” is that in the movie, as in real life, evil is the subtlest thing. There are no bad guys one could hate in the film. The real enemy, if one thinks about it, is the invisible one that never shows its face: the system that creates these tensions between peoples of different classes.
Until we let go of the fallacy that the world is just, and that poverty is purely moral failing, we will never break the system that demands the poor to perform for the privileged few. If we must give evil an embodiment, it is how we repeatedly romanticize the happiness by the less privileged in our stories, as if suffering is something that must be celebrated.
A few weeks ago, my startup company Taxumo had a two-day sprint activity to assess how we can create exciting new products for our customers—the thousands of Filipino self-employed-professionals, freelancers, and sole proprietors (and many thousands more, soon to come.)
During the session, our CEO EJ Arboleda introduced to us the Kano Model, the product development and customer satisfaction theory developed by Japanese professor Noriaki Kano. The said theory advocates going beyond the functional benefits of your product and service, and assessing the emotions which you can elicit by introducing certain new features.
The theory posits that products/services are composed of either three attributes: threshold attributes, otherwise known as the “basics”; performance attributes, or the ” satisfiers”; and the excitement attributes, or the “delighters”.
For example, think of an insulated water bottle. It’s basic (threshold attribute) that the said water bottle would not get hot and still be holdable even after you put in hot water. Now, if the said water bottle also keeps your water’s temperature stable for 48 hours (versus its competitor’s 24-hour temperature stability), that could be really satisfying (a performance attribute) for you as a customer, since it boosts your enjoyment of an expected feature. But what if the water bottle also changes color depending on how cold or hot the water is? That’s a totally unexpected feature, and could be a delightful thing for your customer (an excitement attribute.)
In time, however, as people become used to the exciting feature which you’ve once offered, it sort of becomes an expected property for your product. (Think of mobile phones having touchscreens—a feature Apple popularized.)
Oddly, but perhaps with good reason, the Kano model came to mind when I was thinking about our work within the LGBT advocacy, specifically during the recent IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia) event which the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce did with the Embassy of the Netherlands in the Philippines.
I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one evening when the ad from Without Walls Ministries (@withoutwallsph) appeared:
“Jesus never mentions homosexuality. How can it be wrong?”
I curiously clicked on the link from this organization who claims to be “a community of people who love Jesus and are on a mission to spread the gospel in our city and beyond.”
They were organizing a free conference, open to the public. The speaker is a British pastor named Sam Allberry, a man who says he experiences same-sex attraction, and now preaches about how his attraction is not integral to his identity.
It was amusing, to say the least.
“Why are you so forceful?”
The words hit me like a brick.
I was talking to a friend earlier, trying to motivate him to start on his fitness routine. He had reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, saying that he had wanted to begin finally.
The thought excited me. I had always been dropping hints to my friend that his lifestyle was really messing him up–physically, mentally, and emotionally. He had been complaining of being stressed all the time. Secretly, I was hoping that he would somewhat take my advice to heart and sort of change his ways.
Finally, he said that he was going to the gym with me to inquire about the membership rates. On the way, I was planning everything in my head, and voicing it out to him. I was thinking that all he needed was an extra push to finally make that change.
That was when he called me out.
The thing is, forceful is an adjective which I don’t readily associate myself with. But I guess that is somewhat a form of self-delusion.
The truth is, I’ve been called various permutations of that word, in a lot of occasions, by different people.
Granted, I understand I can be very passionate about things. Sometimes it is exhausting. It takes a lot of effort to curb my enthusiasm just so I come across as friendly or fun or, in millennial parlance, chill.
Perhaps, there is a more graceful way of doing things.
But the thing is, I am very absorbed with the things I care about. And sometimes, it does get personal. Of course, I do catch myself at times when I feel that a criticism is really just that–a way to help me improve myself, and not an attack on my character.
I am intense because I care. Because I’d like to believe that I have done everything in my power to make things happen. I can rest well knowing that I have exhausted all means to solve the problem I’m facing.
At times, it does spill over to people close to me. And I feel guilty knowing that I have a tendency to put pressure on my loved ones to become better. Maybe it’s also because I have experienced that very same pressure growing up, and that to let myself buckle under it is a terrible sign of defeat.
As a song goes: “When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”
I have to learn how to master this fire and make it last for a very long time, without burning the ones I care for the most.
In my unending mission to improve myself, I constantly pummel myself with this phrase: never enough.
There’s always something left to be done.
There’s always room to improve myself.
There’s always a better way to do things.
It can be an unforgiving mantra. And I will admit that I can be very unforgiving towards myself, at times. I sometimes envy people who could laugh their mistakes off and think nothing of it. I see the smarter ones mull over their errors and charge it to experience.
I don’t. I often see failures as weaknesses of my character. I could’ve done better, but I didn’t–hence I failed.
I couldn’t learn fast enough.
I didn’t act quickly enough.
I didn’t do enough.
While the good thing is that it reminds me to never become complacent, telling myself all the time that it’s never enough can be very exhausting. And frankly, there are times when I just want to curl up in a ball and not do anything at all, paralyzed by this fear that I am setting myself up for a landslide of failures.
Sometimes I wonder how my mom did it. I remember this one night, while I was still young, when she told me: “Sometimes I feel weak too, you know?”
It was weird and somewhat disconcerting to see her that way. There was my mother, who always seemed to know what she was doing, admitting that she wasn’t as strong as I imagined her to be.
It’s easy to box people into certain facets that we see of them. I’ve always known my mom as this stern, impenetrable, invincible force that held the world together. She got shit done. That may have meant, at times, that she was emotionally inaccessible, but perhaps that was how she made things happen.
She had to be strong because people depended on her. She was the stereotypical tiger mom.
I feel like I’ve emulated that attitude, maybe a bit to the extreme. Most moments, I would keep quiet as I try to lay out all the scenarios that could happen, planning my course of action for each possibility.
I want to be the best of what I can be. And to want this constantly is to assume that who I am is not exactly the best. The room for improvement is always ever-growing.
I suppose the solution for this is to maintain a healthy discontentment.
The human experience is fraught with failures as well as successes, after all. Each failure is an opportunity to dust one’s self off and try again.
By not being enough, I can keep on trying. And that should be enough to make me kinder to myself.
I type this inside a speeding car, believing I am sitting comfortably, except my body doesn’t even truly touch the seat—instead, the electrons of this seat repel the electrons of my body, ensuring that I am only ever so near, but never really.
And it is the same for everything that we will ever encounter in life: even the longest, most heartfelt embrace between two lovers will remain to be, ever so slightly, distant.
This emptiness is so immense that the whole of humanity could actually be compressed in a single sugar cube, if we had enough energy to compact all of us into that infinitesimal thing.
I think about the year that has gone, and I observe as many of my friends and family write what the year has meant for them: celebrations, reconnections, accidents, deaths.
Happiness, sadness, loss, grief.
Each event, a bookmark. A neon highlighter marking chunks of text on a thick gray book.
The year has been wonderful to me. The year has also been challenging for me. Unfamiliar cities and countries I’ve traveled to, a breakup that happened midyear, an unexpected eviction and a harrowing two months waiting for the new place to move into.
Loves lost. Love gained.
I remember everything. I feel everything. And I’d like to believe that this is what is means to be truly human—to remember and to feel. To continue to remember and feel. To never give up on experiencing and learning from all the happiness and pain, as overwhelming as they can both be, at times.
But, much as I am grateful for the dog-eared pages, I am also grateful for all the fillers, the flatline of ordinary life.
I will only skim just above the surface. I know that I will never truly understand everything fully. Perhaps even the greatest love and the greatest hurt will only be a semblance of what those feelings are. Perhaps everything I sense are mere shadows cast by the ideal, as if I watch them in the darkness of this cave.
There are only a few hours left until the end of 2018. I am not demanding for a plot twist, for a sudden change in direction. I am content with my discontentment of all the blank spaces and uncertainties.
Give me this silence—because in the silence, in the gaping maw, in the pause of the seconds, I imagine us coming closer, despite how there will always be this distance we cannot transgress.
I will look into that abyss ahead, yet unspeckled by light—and take it all in, smiling.