Essays, Journal

Foreign lands

It was so stupid, really. Today, I wanted to roast some cauliflower to snack on and I found out when I looked for it in the refrigerator that I couldn’t cook it the way I wanted to because our maid had half-steamed it already. And for some reason, in that moment, I was so upset that I ran up to my bedroom, curled up under the covers, and cried. It was the most absurd thing to be upset about, and I knew it even at the height of my uncontrollable sobbing. But then, a part of me knew that it wasn’t really the cauliflower I was ugly-crying over. It was just the last little frustration compounding so many greater frustrations, finally pushing me over the edge. That last grain of sand, tipping the scale.

And it was when I realized that I didn’t know who I could possibly talk to about my feelings that I felt even lonelier. I don’t have much of a support system left in this country. And how the hell was I supposed to explain to my boyfriend that I was crying because of a head of cooked cauliflower? How stupid would I sound? But I knew then that it was never about that, and so I messaged him, because one of the things I love best about him is that we’re of such similar backgrounds and temperaments that he’s the person I’ve least had to explain myself to in all my life.

It is hard to come home to a city you no longer recognize. I left Manila cavalierly and essentially put it out of my mind while I was away. What I wasn’t expecting was that it was doing exactly the same to me. The city as I knew it had changed while I was gone, filling in whatever void I left behind with other things. “I came home to a dynamic that changed to accommodate my absence, and it hasn’t adjusted for my return,” I told him. It feels like there is no longer any room for me here. And oddly enough, that’s what I wanted when I left: a clean break from Manila, detachment from the toxic environment that made me so miserable. But I never thought that emancipating myself from the bad would also divorce me from the good.

It’s unbelievably lonely here. I almost never leave my house, let alone my room, because I’m tired of trying to carve out a new space for myself — what’s the point, when I intend to leave again? I don’t go out anymore because the only thing lonelier than being home alone is trying not to be lonely and failing.

I feel like a peg trying to shove myself into the hole I used to occupy, only to find that I am an entirely different shape now, and I can’t find a corresponding slot for myself anywhere on the board. It’s so difficult to go back to being less when you know what it feels like to feel like so much more.

And it doesn’t help that Manila is a shadow of what she was when I left her.

More than the distance and detachment from the people and places I loved — and still love — in it, the city itself has a constant cloud hanging over it. The city as I knew her is just a shade, haunted and haunting. The color has leached out of her brightest of spaces, and the light has gone out of her eyes.

I guess that’s what happens when everyone is living in a state of fear, fury, and distrust.

I had my issues with Manila before I left, but there was always a vibrancy and spirit to it that I loved. I remember us describing it to foreign friends as being dirty but sexy. It was always fun here, at least in the circles I actively chose to run around with. We’d have our drama here and there, but for the most part, we were happy and carefree, and we loved to dance, and we loved to sing along to Robyn in Future. We’d drink on the sidewalks, talking about all manner of things you’d never expect to discuss with near strangers in what is essentially a dive bar in a corner of Cubao.

We still sing along, but it’s not the same. You can feel the climate has changed. Everyone is so subdued — is it because we’re afraid to be too exuberant, lest that exuberance be attributed to being high, lest we be mistaken for drug personalities? We’re all so eccentric to begin with that your average judgmental person — 85% of Filipinos, probably — would find it easy to take one look at us queers and weirdos and feel justified in their judgment. Far more normal people than us have died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in this state of uncertainty, any place could be the wrong place and any time could be the wrong time. Within days of my arrival here, I was already told not to be too friendly with an acquaintance I’ve always been friendly with because this person was rumored to have popped up on a drugs watchlist, and I shouldn’t want to be associated with that. Rumors fly everywhere about who else is a suspect, about who has supposedly turned informant and sold out his friends, and these intrigues chip away more and more at the sense of community the alternative spaces of the city used to have. How true are any of these rumors? How many have been started by people with bad intentions? And yet, you can’t just ignore these things because you need to be smart. You need to look out for yourself.

And when my thoughts turn darkest, I wonder if there aren’t people out there who hate me enough to hurl unfounded accusations at me, too; lies that will be seen as gospel truth in this new world order of guilty until proven innocent, murdered before proven guilty. I tell myself that it’s an overly paranoid thought. I’ve always had a tendency towards anxiety and paranoia; it’s the curse of the oversensitive overthinker, with a side of clinical depression and her fair share of anonymous haters. But if anything, human nature has never been more transparent, and human nature is proving to be cruel and vicious and void of empathy.

That’s the kind of environment we live in now. So I don’t go out at all. It’s safer at home.

I know this is superficial, and that there are more important things than the city’s nightlife and the city’s sense of fun, but those were among the few things left that I had to love about it, and now they are gone. Whatever camaraderie there used to be is falling away. The parts of Manila that I loved best, the ones I used to escape into, are taking their last gasping breaths and I am watching them die. It is heartbreaking to see such a colorful, fascinating character turn solemn and gray. The atmosphere is funereal and cold. There is so much anger and grief.

If you get me started on the even more important things, I’m going to fall into a black hole that I will not be able to pull myself from. And besides, smarter and more eloquent people than me have written plenty — but apparently never enough. I can’t tell you how profoundly saddening it is to read or hear the appalling opinions of people I thought I knew, only to realize with indescribable disappointment that maybe I never actually knew them at all. It is with incredulity and disgust that I watch and read the news. Every morning, I wake up expecting to hear at least five new fucked up things before breakfast. I am not surprised when that number is exceeded.

I don’t know how to be here anymore. Rationally I know that these things that bother me aren’t going to affect me, but just because I’m safe doesn’t mean that I can be silent, that I can turn a blind eye to those who are affected, who aren’t safe.

The only thing keeping me going is knowing that I am going away to a place that I love, where I am happier, and where the physical distance will enable the detachment that I’m not capable of while I’m here. And I hate that. I’ve never been emotionally strong enough for disillusionment. I want to love this place but I don’t know how.