For the Privileged, a Performance of the Poor

film, personal life, reflections, Uncategorized

“They’re rich, but still nice.”

“They’re nice because they’re rich.”

Jon Bong Hoo, “Parasite
A still from Jon Bong Hoo’s “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.

On the Kano Model and the LGBT Movement: Musings on the Intersections of my Startup and Advocacy Life

gay, lgbt, personal life, reflections, startup life, Uncategorized

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.

To Rage Against the Dying Light

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PictureZambales sunset, March 2016

“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.

Intense.

Obsessive.

​Extreme.

Too much. 

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.

The Potential Project

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Picture

“So ephemeral is that will-o’-the-wisp, Success!” – “Half a Sheet of Paper”, August Strindberg (Photo taken during New Year’s Eve 2018)
Never enough.

​​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.

 I’m my worst critic. I have a tendency to constantly review the things I’ve done, the words that I’ve said, and the way I have reacted to some things. ​I try my best–but despite this, I always feel that I fall short. 

Never enough.

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.

The Immutable Laws of Silence & Distance

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Colored panels in Beijing 2018

Colored panels (Beijing, 2018)

What a strange feeling, to realize that you can never really touch anything.

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.

How strange this is—this concept, and that the universe is really, mostly empty space: particles whizzing and buzzing in the lonely silence.

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.

The Observer Effect

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​The other day, I was watching a video on Facebook about a group of filmmakers who were caught in a predicament: should they rescue the emperor penguins which were trapped in a ravine, or should they let nature run its course and uphold the documentarist’s code of non-intervention?   
I found the video interesting, considering that just recently, I had a talk one evening with someone I had dated in the past.

He had admitted that he was scared of confrontations, and I realized that it could’ve been the reason why he never really asked for a proper explanation when I said back then that we should stop dating.

I told him to be honest: was there anything that he wanted to ask that he had been, years back, afraid to?

He said that he had always wondered if I had feelings for him during the time we were dating, or if he was the only one who had felt that what we had was special.

I guess I was unfair at the time of the “breakup”. I told him then that we were better off as friends, and that I thought that he needed some time for himself.

Frankly, what I really wanted to say was that, I felt that our relationship was stopping him from growing.

Yes, the space we have created between us had provided a certain comfort. But I surmised that, at that point in his life, the comfort of our relationship was not what he needed. He needed to discover himself, and to be challenged to become better.

In my head, I thought that the only way he could only realize that better version of himself–career-, emotion-, and even health-wise–was having me out of the picture as a potential partner.

Being the intuitive person that he was, he told me that he somewhat felt that that was what I had wanted to happen by breaking up, although he never really confirmed it–until now.

But he also said that it wasn’t right for me to not have given him the opportunity to fully understand the reasons why I had terminated the relationship.

He made sense. I may have been wrong.

But in that moment though, I thought: by telling him the true reason behind the breakup, would I have forced him to grow as a person that he didn’t want to be or wasn’t ready to become? Would he have negotiated the relationship and promised to change, simply because I told him that he had so much unrealized potential and that our relationship was hindering him?

The thing is, I’ve always believed that it’s more sustainable for people to have changed because of a realization that they made on their own, rather than to have changed because someone else had twisted their arm into changing.

To paraphrase a popular quote: “When the student is ready, the lesson will appear.”

I didn’t want to force the lesson on him. I didn’t want to beat him with my frustration that he wasn’t growing as fast as I would want him to grow. I didn’t want to hold the relationship hostage and make it seem like I was turning him into my pet project.

I genuinely was fond of him for being the kind, wonderful soul that he was.

I also knew that I needed to step back and not intervene with his growth.

It’s funny because, had I chosen to intervene then, would things have fared well for us? Would we have become terrific partners?

I don’t know, honestly.

Maybe, with matters of the heart, we can never really not intervene. To participate in other people’s lives is to change their lives in a certain way. We cannot isolate parts of their lives into little fragments, and assess whether each fragment had been changed since we had become part of their lives.

At the end of that conversation, I told him that I truly wanted him to succeed in life. We may never have been boyfriends, but I sincerely am cheering him on at the sidelines as a real friend, hoping for the best.

I never had imagined before that it could be possible to root for someone without any agenda, until he came in my life.

So maybe I was the one who learnt an important lesson, after all.

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

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Picture

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.  
***
Picture

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. 

***
Picture

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.   

***
Picture

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. 

***
Picture

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.

***
Picture

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.