Wherein, I Try to Capture a Feeling: A Week in Shanghai

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Terminal 2, Pudong Airport, Shanghai (2018)

There is a gap we do not talk about, the in-betweens. We always talk about point A’s to point B’s, one goalpost to another, the beginning and the end. 

​It’s the middle spaces that get lost in what we talk about: the gray, fuzzy areas that are undetermined and blurry.  
***
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Women talking at the marriage market in People’s Square, Shanghai (2018)

Just a few weeks ago, I was in Shanghai for a trip I had planned with an ex.

To celebrate, we had agreed months back to take this week-long break sandwiched in between our birthdays, and also coinciding with his close friend’s bridal shower. 

Along the way, things happened (a breakup, specifically)–and there we were: left with a looming trip.

Eventually, he decided not to go. He had tickets to the Sam Smith concert happening a day before we landed back in Manila, and chose to enjoy that instead. 

A few days before the pre-booked flight, I was still debating in my head if I should fly or not. 

While I had already applied for the visa together with my friend Francis (who graciously offered to keep me company during the trip), and though my ex’s friends (who had become good friends, by osmosis) were okay with me joining their Disneyland trip and dinners, a part of me still thought that it would be weird to pursue this trip, considering the original reason why I was making it in the first place. 

***
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A view of the buildings from the old Bund

I had been to Beijing in February, which I somewhat found to be an overwhelming experience of culture and history, what with its centuries-old temples and palaces. In contrast to that, Shanghai was a cross between a turn-of-the-century charm and a cosmopolitan energy.

The city pulled your senses towards different directions: to the gaudy and garish (the Oriental Pearl Tower looked like the villainous buildings you saw in futuristic Japanese animes), the imposing and frenetic (walking at the Bund and the East Nanjing Road during the week-long national holiday could be a trigger for agoraphobes), the peaceful, the modern, the past, the present, the future…all of these coalesced into this massive hyperbolic adventure.   

***
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Nanjing, at night

Maybe one really is never lost, when you think about it. There are only unfamiliar places and experiences at the start that you eventually get used to.

To be lost is to exist in a temporary unfamiliarity, in a moment that you do not understand, yet. With enough time, you will understand eventually. And then the feeling of lostness disappears.

Therefore, the distance between the losing and the finding is just time. 

But in between the cracks and crevices of that distance is the fear. You are afraid that you will never find the thing that you seek. You are scared that you will never be found. 

​Perhaps we document everything–with the photos we take, the words we write–because we wish to leave breadcrumbs along the way. 

***
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In the train, two children with their parent

I have a tendency to withdraw into my deepest thoughts at times.

During these moments, I imagine a star collapsing within itself, caving in the weight of its own gravity.

These trips I’ve taken these past few years have made me think: do I enjoy them for the purest pleasure of traveling, or do I interpret them into something more meaningful?

Should traveling be an exercise in personal growth? An expansion of the spirit? 

Or is that snobbery of some sort–a subtle assertion of privilege? Do I wish to display that I am a better person because I have and am able to distance myself from the banal, ordinary life that most will never escape?

During moments like these,  I remember Ate Belle. Before she died, I promised her that I would take her to Singapore. She laughed at the idea, but I felt that she secretly wanted it as well. 

​I wasn’t able to fulfill that promise.

***
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A shoeless man obliviously smoking, in Shanghai

What a strange thing it is, to imagine that the world will persevere even without a witness. 

What a strange feeling it is, to think that all the hurt and all the happiness we experience are fleeting and perhaps immaterial. 

And then you begin to wonder, to what end? What is the goal? Where do we go? 

But maybe, this is it. That we exist, not as a means to an end–like a plot device to a grand scheme of the universe–but to live in these gray, fuzzy areas. In the white noise of existence.  

When I think about it, there is a surreal, humbling sense of acceptance and of gratitude to that.  

I could’ve not been: but then, well here I am. Wherever that “here” may be.

A Necessary Fear

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“Laughing Men” by Yue Minjun (taken in Beijing, 2018)

This was a draft I began writing in August 2014. I am not sure why I didn’t get to finish this. I am publishing this now with some thoughts I’ve added, four years later.

Today I had an anxiety attack. 

It wasn’t the first, nor the worst, but it crept from behind and surprised me. I was having a pretty good day when it suddenly appeared. I was in the middle of a meeting when it popped out, almost paralyzing me.

​​One of the lessons I’ve been having a lot of difficulty mastering is learning how to drown out one’s own voice, or in my case voices. I won’t even dare claim to suffer any mental illness of some sort, since that would be offensive to anyone who’s truly suffering from a mental disease, but I think that any regular person would know how it feels to have a multitude of voices in their head contradicting each other, fighting with each other. 

We are barraged by nagging doubts, fears, and hesitations on a constant basis:  the fear that we’re incapable. Our doubts that we’ll never be good enough. The paralyzing hesitation to act on something because the idea overwhelms you. It seems you (and the world) will never run out of things to make you apologize for. 

And perhaps there is reason to say sorry for a lot of things. In hindsight, a lot of tremendously stupid mistakes are done haphazardly, by people who fail to assess the situation properly and calculate the risks involved. But the thing is, and what we can never avoid is that, there’s always a risk involved in every decision-making process. 

They say that regret over the things that were not done is far worse than going ahead and doing things. I say, it’s not always the case. Apologies cannot make up for the irreversibility of an act already done. 

Maybe this anxiety is simply the realization that I would always be limited. I could only form decisions from a myopic point of view. My experiences cannot fully account for the breadth and depth of the collective human experience. Much as I try to empathize (and believe me, I try so hard to do so), I will always have blind spots. 

The more we assume leadership over certain things, the more we fear that we will make a mistake. And frankly, yes, I think we should be more afraid. Maybe a nourishing fear is necessary, so that we don’t create more harm than good. 

Maybe we should be more careful, more rigorous, more sensitive. 

As much as we are our own cheerleaders, we should also be our great critics (Much like one of the core values we uphold in Taxumo: healthy discontentment.)

Four years since I started this post, I still feel anxious, every now and then. I am slowly growing to embrace that, and finding the balance I neednow, even more importantly so, as I add another year in my life. 

A Series of Incompetent Events

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​Let me tell you a story of mind-boggling incompetence.

​Hang on until the end–perhaps you could learn a lesson too. 

My ex and I bought a unit at The Ellis, a Megaworld property in Salcedo Village, around two years back. 

Everything was smooth-sailing, until we decided to transfer our payments to Paseo Heights, a development that had been built already, and still had a few units waiting to be bought and occupied. My ex and I reasoned that it would be wiser to live in a unit that had already been built, instead of paying for condo lease while also settling the payments for The Ellis.

(Backstory: my lease at my old condo was ending, and I was moving in the new condo.) 

This is where the horror began.

Below, you can see the letter we sent through our broker, Joy Garcia. (Note, the date above the letter which was discussed in our thread is wrong; this letter was sent around March 13.) 

We were frankly generous with the lead time. We had planned this more than a month before the lease of my condominium unit was about to end.

Perhaps, the mistake was the assumption that a few weeks is more than enough time for any decent company to make this happen. 

​Close to the end of April, we followed up again. We were still very polite, in spite of how we wanted to impress the gravity of the situation:

Can you guess what happened next? 
Nothing.
Still nothing.
Nope: nothing.

Fast forward to June–finally, feedback from Megaworld!

However, we decided to allocate the amount elsewhere, because we didn’t know when Megaworld would exactly get back at us.

I asked Joy if Megaworld could allow us an extension–much the same way that we have allowed them so much time to get back to us.

Cut to the next day. No mention of penalties. I guess our request has been granted? (Don’t forget this; this will come up again later.) 
The following day, the discussion was about dating the initial checks to June 15. (Still no mention of penalties.)
Nine days after, we were ready to issue the checks.

We should’ve been able to move in a few weeks after, right? 
Hmm. July 9. At least there’s a date now. 

Still, we clarified more things: 
You would’ve thought the story had ended there–that we were able to move in, and we all lived happily ever after.

​Nope.

Suddenly, the issue of the transfer of payments from the Ellis to Paseo Heights cropped up again–despite how this has been discussed months back. 

We had assumed that because we had released the checks for the downpayment and moving in fee, the transfer issue has been resolved. 

​Apparently, this is not the case. 

Suddenly, we are forced to accept that this is the process of the company. 

I will not bore you with other details (we have already been looped in a long email thread where Art Esplago of the marketing department was involved), but before I wrap up this long entry, let’s go back to the discussion of the penalty: 
All of a sudden, we are being held up with the demand of a penalty, despite how it was clearly Megaworld’s fault that there was a delay.

As much as this gives me a tremendous headache, I think there’s a lesson right here for all companies, big and small:

Stellar customer service cannot be overemphasized.

Months of delay, coupled with unfulfilled promises and overcommitments, is not a good way to make any customer happy.

Not everyone has the luxury of waiting. I was lucky: I have had the privilege to wait.

But what if I didn’t?

I would’ve just come across as an angry, demanding, and unempathetic customer.

The thing is, nobody really cares how much you brand yourself as good.

More than window dressing, what ultimately speaks of you is the work that you do.

In this case, Megaworld has failed us beyond logic, and I strongly advise everyone against purchasing a Megaworld property.

How We Begin

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A hotel room in Singapore, 2013
This is how we begin:
Inch by inch, slowly. Uncertain.
A space, made for one’s self, outside the world.
***
There is the you that faces everyone.
A semblance, perhaps.
A ghost, maybe.
A facade. 
Plywood walls of smiles and handshakes and embraces.
​You start with the fragile things. Then slowly, you put up the steel frames, the bricks.
​Until again, you have built a fortress.
​You are impenetrable.
***
But: leave a little door open.
Just a small crack.
Let the morning light come in.
Let it show you the way.
And when you are ready to begin, walk outside slowly.
​Then breathe.
​​Read Next: To Oppose the Pause

I Did A Thing

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A still from “Delia & Sammy”, a feature length finalist in CineFilipino 2018

Okay, indulge me please. 

Sometime last year, my friend Sher approached me excitedly about this film they were producing. She sent me the script over e-mail, and I read through it with such enthusiasm I was able to finish it in around an hour.

Of course, I may have lost some nuances in the dialogue because of my speed reading, but I knew the script had potential. At turns, the story written by Therese Cayaba (who also directed the movie) is funny, sad, and heart-wrenching. It reminded me of “1st ko si Third” & “Bwakaw” because of its sensitive portrayal of people in their twilight years.

Sher asked me if I could join the cast, to fill in (in her words) one of the “smaller roles of annoyed neighbors and family members”. Maybe it was the early morning daze that got to me (we were sharing ideas about the script close to 1 a.m., after all) when I immediately said yes.

​I’m glad I did. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. Little did I know that I would be acting alongside heavyweights such as Jaime Fabregas, Rosemarie Gil, Dido Dela Paz (whose performance in the critically-acclaimed 2017 movie “Respeto” was amazing), Lui Manansala, and Anthony Falcon–and with a speaking role, at that.

The two main characters–the eponymous has-been actor Delia and her husband Sammy–are both very unloveable and flawed. They struggle to live through a time that no longer remembers them, while still grasping at the privilege they once possessed and had already lost. They are difficult people: both to each other and to everybody else.

Despite this, you can’t help but empathize. You sense their desperate struggle to be relevant. They claw for attention, as much as they acknowledge how the world that once adored them has already moved past them.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, or give away the little part I had in the movie (I encourage you to watch it: see the screening schedules here.) Frankly, I don’t have delusions of ​​fame out of this (if anything, I might end up like Hilda Koronel’s character in “Crying Ladies“, who can’t help but remind people of her bit part in Darna & The Giants).

But go see it. With your parents and grandparents, if you can. Especially if they’ve made your life extra difficult.

​It’s a memento mori of sorts. 😉

Bookends

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I am writing this as I’m taking a break from packing all my belongings in a large suitcase, seeing all the things I’ve accumulated over the past few years. I am moving out of my unit this end of April–the end of my two-year lease in this studio and a four-year stay in this building.

It’s strange and a bit surreal to see all my possessions unravel, the way my whole life is summarized by the objects and trinkets I’ve accumulated. 

​​That shirt belonged to an ex. This magazine, I bought on a whim. There’s a book that’s still unread, gathering dust at the bookshelf. A defective portable bank that has helped me survive a lot of days talking to my friends and loved ones on my mobile phone. A plant that hasn’t survived the summer season, still in the balcony. 
 Slowly, I come to the realization that they all have once been pegs of my identity. I have curated my life in such a way that these material things reveal parts and parcel of myself, if only fleetingly.

​Some things, I choose to keep. Some things, I no longer identify with, and thus let go.

I was having a conversation with my boyfriend Charz about this. In my letter, I asked him this: 

“When they say that you should love yourself, who is that ‘you’ that you should love, exactly? Do I only love the good parts in me? Am I not the totality of the bad and the good? Isn’t that who I am? 

Who am I, ultimately? Who is this ‘I’?”

Who is this “I”, indeed? 

I’m not the first to philosophize about the concept of self. Without doubt, there are better discourses on the topic.

​Personally, I have struggled with creating a definitive explanation of who I am. To assign labels, and identify with these labels, can be a limiting experience.

In college, I used to say: I wanted to be someone who lives for himself, outside others. A person who doesn’t limit himself by what others think or say or do.

I was argumentative. I was defiant. I was building my universe according to my rules. 

A so-called self-made man. 

But as I grow older, and hopefully wiser, the idea becomes somewhat ludicrous. No one truly is a self-made man. We are the by-product of the peoples, histories, and environments around us, and our so-called original thoughts and beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. 

Along the way, some of us just forget or omit.

Out of all these intellectual exercises (and cognitive dissonances), the lesson that I want to regularly remind myself is that I have so many things to be grateful for. Because there is no me without you. There is no I without us. And I’m all the better because there are people who are there for me. 

​I wish that I have also made people’s lives somewhat better, even if it’s just in a small way.

(Now back to packing!) 

Read an old blogpost: What is Essential

More interesting reading: There’s No Such Thing As Free Will (But We’re Better Off Believing in it Anyway) 

Begin at the End

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Indonesia, 2012

Time.

Recently, a friend and former colleague passed away in his sleep, much to the surprise of all of us he left. He was young—in his early 40s. You could say there still was more to life at that age.

But life goes on. We amble forward.

The inevitability of death shouldn’t be that surprising, when one thinks about it. At times it comes quietly; sometimes, violently.

My uncle fell off a cliff a few months after his wedding, his face crushed almost unrecognizably when they found him. At age fifteen, I saw my grandfather commit suicide, ending a long bout with depression. Just a few years before that, my grandmother passed away, in agony over a prolonged disease. My friend’s brother suffered an aneurysm—same age as I was. Another friend’s dad died while taking a shower.

Quickly, slowly. Today, tomorrow, one of these days.

It will happen to the best of us. And to the worst. Just give it time.

In death, we are all humbled as equals.

That sounds morbid, perhaps. We don’t talk about dying that much. It’s not polite to talk about death, and leaves many of us squirming in our seats. We’d like to believe we’d be spared of it, that we will be the exception rather than the rule.

But maybe we should talk about dying more.

In Bhutan, they say people try to think about dying every day, to remind themselves of their mortality, which supposedly helps with the appreciation of life.

Quoting a BBC article:

“In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as ‘jo_’. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as ‘joy’. This led the researchers to conclude that ‘death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts’.”

Contemplating about death is not the exclusive purview of Eastern culture. The concept of memento mori, after all, had became popular in the west during the Middle Ages, and has probably influenced many of today’s artworks (Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull comes to mind.)

Not to be a curbside prophet proclaiming doom and destruction, but the start of the year has made me think about death more than the usual. The constant thought that my lifespan is but a mere speck in the history of the world (and the universe, too), challenged my priorities and perspectives. Specifically, how do I create something long-term, while at the same time, make the most of the short life I have? How can I ensure that my life brings the most meaning, while at the same time, not sacrifice the little pleasures of the now?

I will not lie. I wish for a world like San Junipero in “Black Mirror”, where we can live forever, even as altered forms of consciousness. I want to witness the changes in human history, and I feel that my lifespan is too short to witness crossing over the civilization types on the Kardashev scale. (A pretty exciting prospect to see, in my opinion.)  

Thinking about my limitedness has also made me consider how a lot of things we subscribe to are superfluous. I imagine the many things we strive for that we could perhaps do without: the eternal climb for social status, the walls we build to exclude, the desire to acquire more.

I remembered a dream I once sought: to experience the depth of what it means to be human—to the best of what I could do, and what I have.

Stepping outside of my introverted self, I took a chance and set up to meet some of my online friends, creating an opportunity to see them offline. It was an exercise in empathy, I believed: for me to withhold judgment, and listen to opinions that I might not exactly share, but might be worth considering. I enjoyed these moments of discussion, as it allowed me to see more views from various lenses, and to (perhaps) be reminded that, to paraphrase Desiderata, can discover certain truths in the  clear silence,  and there are stories waiting to be told and heard, by and from people we maybe once thought of as “dull” and “ignorant”.

When I die (or before I transcend into another kind of life, who knows), I want to look back and think that I have done more, that I have left the world a better place than I saw it. It scares me to think that I have not done enough. What is enough exactly, I could never know, but I want to reach a time when I could say that the life I had lived was not purely for myself.

In time, hopefully.