Attack Decay Sustain Release

It's all in the cards

Published on 22 December 2019 in the Philippine STAR.


How well do you really know your friends and your loved ones? How in touch are you with yourself and your own feelings?

We live in strange times — never have the stories of our lives been more readily available for the perusal of others, friends and strangers alike. But at the same time, never have we been more isolated. Yes, social media allows us to share our lives with so many people, but mostly only on a surface level. What we put on the Internet is, to some extent, still just a performance. So rarely will you happen across real depth and true vulnerability. (It’s there, it’s just hard to find.) And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — it’s wise, to be smart about what you allow the Internet to know about you. But sometimes, our real friends are relegated into the same categories. When social media becomes our primary form of communication, a lot of intimacy gets lost along the way.

Does the Internet make you feel lonely, too? Of the hundreds — or thousands — of people you follow on Instagram, how many do you feel you really know, and really know you in return? There is a yearning for deeper connections that is more common than any of us imagine. I know I feel it.

I consider myself fortunate, in that my friend group isn’t afraid of a ‘deep chat.’ In fact, we seek them out. We’re the kind of people who, at a party, will find a quiet corner in which to sit together and ask each other the kinds of questions you don’t really get asked very often in more casual conversation. “How are you, really?” “What has been your biggest regret in life?” “Are you who, or where, you thought you were going to be by now?” (This is exactly what we did at a pool party the other week. It was, perhaps, a little antisocial to break away from the main party to find some lounge chairs and talk to each other, but I think what we ended up doing was ultimately of more value than some forced superficial niceties over gin-based cocktails. We got to know each other better.)

It’s why we’ve all been so excited for a number of items that I ordered online recently — decks of cards, of all things. The mechanics of each are different, but their purpose is the same: to encourage openness, facilitate deeper conversations, and foster intimacy by gamifying it. One of my resolutions for the coming New Year is to make better connections and to build real relationships with the people in my life that go beyond a casual hello at the club. I said I didn’t want to play any more games with people in 2020, but for these games, I’ll make an exception.


We’re Not Really Strangers

I discovered the Instagram account @werenotreallystrangers through a few other friends who followed it. It’s been a favourite ever since, mostly because its posts say many things I feel I need to hear, or need to think more deeply about. Vulnerable statements that anyone who’s ever lived a little can relate to. In the course of following the account, I learned that its creator also produced a card game meant to encourage meaningful connections and ‘deepen your existing relationships and create new ones.’

We’re Not Really Strangers is optimised to be played by two individuals, but can be played by up to six. The card game has three levels. You draw a card, the other person answers. You can opt to answer the same question yourself in turn. There are clear ‘Dig Deeper’ cards that every player can use once per round to ‘encourage transparency if you feel your partner is holding back.’ Sounds simple enough. The depth is what you bring to it.

Level 1, Perception, which, with questions like “What was your first impression of me?” and “Do I look kind? Explain” is all about exploring initial impressions and challenging the assumptions we make about others, and others make about us in turn.

Level 2, Connection, goes deeper, and asks questions that help you get to know each other better, and explore your own emotions in the process. “Have you ever told someone ‘I love you’ but didn’t mean it? If so, why?” “What is a dream you’ve let go of?”

Level 3, Reflection, is about looking back on the previous two levels and the new connection you’ve hopefully made. It’s meant to explore any new understanding of each other that you and your partner might now have after allowing yourselves to be open and vulnerable with each other. “Do you believe everyone has a calling? If so, do you think I’ve found mine?” “Why do you think we met?”

And the final card involves a bit of writing — each player writes a brief note to the other, that can’t be opened until they have parted ways.

The game isn’t always in stock (it’s currently available for pre-order), and shipping to the Philippines is quite expensive, but if you can manage to ship it to a friend in the US or have it shipped home through services like MyShoppingBox, it’s well worth having on your coffee table for the next time you have friends over.

US$24.99, werenotreallystrangers.com

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Non-fiction, Vignettes

Summer daze

I think I just saw someone who looks like you, you text me on a Sunday morning in Berlin. Are you here somewhere?

Not yet, I reply. That’s not me. Still getting dressed. But I’m coming.

Eleven in the morning is a little too early for Berghain when you aren’t trying to catch a particular DJ set, even for me, but what I don’t tell you, and what I’m trying not to admit to myself, is that I was not yet dressed when I said I was getting dressed — I rushed the process to see you, the handsome new friend I have an embarrassingly huge crush on. Luckily, the club is easy to dress for.

Berghain is at that strange transition time on Sunday morning, when I arrive. The tourists of Saturday night have either hooked up or struck out, and are now slowly filtering out of the club, spent, making room for the next wave — the real Berliners — to take their place after brunchtime. It’s far emptier than I’m used to, but having enough space on the dance floor for myself and both of my hand-fans is a rare and special privilege that I intend to enjoy. Two last minute stragglers approach me — a couple, from the looks of it. A little too close for comfort given how much room there currently is. “You look like Rihanna,” the girl tells me. I do not look like Rihanna. Smoky black eyes and blue lipstick do not Robyn Fenty make, but it’s a compliment and I thank her awkwardly, mildly bemused to realise that they see me as a prospective unicorn — a potential third in a threesome. I am also very uninterested and I don’t quite know how to escape this conversation.

You and the three black crows on your shoulder swoop in out of the smoke and shadows like a dark daydream and sort that problem out for me. She’s spoken for is the message that doesn’t need to be said to be made very clear when you take my hand. They say goodbye and head for the stairs behind us, presumably for the exit.

You and I, we dance.

Weeks later, after we’ve fallen in love and refuse to admit it to ourselves or to each other, I will tease you relentlessly about your inability to tell one Asian girl from another. “Remember that time you thought you saw me in Berghain? I mean, come on, I don’t actually look like every other Asian girl.”

“You idiot,” you’ll tell me then. “Didn’t you get it? I knew you weren’t there. I wanted to find out if you were coming but I didn’t want to make it obvious.”

For all that I consider myself clever, I’ll be surprised by that revelation. I’ll think it’s the sweetest thing.

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Journal

Modern love walks on by

From the moment we became real friends (there is always a threshold over which you cross into something true — you will know exactly when it happens), I waited for her to meet the love of her life.

We got to know each other by chance, introduced by a mutual friend even though we should, by all means, have already known each other beforehand since we inhabited the same circles. In Manila, those circles are often too small and extremely concentric. In the Manila I live in, all the girls like us know each other. But we met at the right time, at the perfect point in both our lives for our friendship to become so much more than the surface-level acquaintanceship we were accustomed to.

It’s a rare thing, to meet someone almost exactly like you. I have always felt lonely in Manila. I have always been a little strange, a little out of the ordinary. I always tried to find myself in other places because I didn’t feel free enough to know myself here. My lived experience always felt so singular — no one in my life really understood it in its fullness before her, although others certainly tried. (And I loved them for trying.) I didn’t know anyone else who lived it, too.

She knew me immediately. She is one of the kindest, most generous, most loving, and most loyal people I’m fortunate to know. We were both recovering from bad romances. And she was the person who told me I needed a list.

“Babe,” she said, “you need to know what you want in a partner. I know exactly what I want. I’m unwilling to compromise on those points. I’m not going to take anyone seriously until they tick all those boxes.”

I was there when she finally met the man who ticked all those boxes: a kind man, purpose-driven, as loving and ambitious and hardworking as the father she adored. Someone whose hopes and dreams extended beyond himself, who wanted to serve his country and his people, but still had more than enough room for her and her own dreams. An equal who treated her like a queen. None of us knew then, least of all her; it was an ordinary night out on the town. No one expected it.

Who ever expects to go to a club and meet the love of their life?


I never felt worthy of a list — a symptom of my condition, probably. A popular young adult novel says that we accept the love we think we deserve. The misfiring synapses in my brain always told me I didn’t deserve any, that I was lucky to get whatever paltry shadow of love came my way. I am still working today to correct that. I think I’m getting better at it.

But in 2017, because she told me to, I started a list. It is in my phone, tucked away in my Notes with things like my passport details, bank information, quotes I have loved, and movies people have told me I need to see. I always felt a bit embarrassed about it (I don’t know why — perhaps because we’re conditioned in this day and age to shunt vulnerability aside), but after every heartbreak, I added to it little by little. I suppose I had to learn through experience — trial and excruciating error — what I really wanted from a long-term partner by living through what I didn’t want in a partner.

It’s a hard way to learn. I don’t recommend it.

But I do recommend learning. I recommend that you learn this particular lesson as early as you can.


In August, I returned to Manila from my annual summer trip to Berlin to the realisation that I’d developed feelings I never wanted to have for my Two-Year Stand; feelings I knew that he was absolutely incapable of ever reciprocating. I missed him while I was away, and I fucking hated that I did. It felt like weakness. It felt like defeat. I felt like I’d lost, because in the game of not-quite-love, the first one to catch feelings is always the loser, and I had done that which I never thought I would do: I fucking lost.

I hate losing. I never fucking lose.

But also, I returned home to the realisation that I could no longer delude myself into believing that whatever it was we were doing would ever be enough for me. I could no longer tell myself that it wasn’t a waste of my time, a waste of my heart. And I could no longer pretend that I didn’t want more — with someone else who might actually be capable of giving back as much as I myself kept giving.

“It’s no one’s fault,” I told him then, as I was ending it, “that we want different things. I want the things that I want, you want the things that you want, and those things are no longer compatible. It is what it is. But for as long as I stay in this, I’m not ever going to make space for the things that I do want, that I know I deserve, that you won’t — can’t — give me.”

I wanted to stay friends. After two years, and despite our best efforts, our lives and our friendships had become a little too intertwined to unravel and separate. It was a tall order, but I wanted to try.


In September, she told me about something he was trying to keep from me that devastated me inside. It was a feeling I’m sad to admit I was used to — he’d completely disregarded my feelings before. But that was a time when any disrespect towards me was just a hit on my pride, because I had no real feelings for him. It had become much more than that, now that I — despite myself — did. It wasn’t just my ego any longer. It was a real hurt.

“I need you to remember,” said the girl with the list, because she could read me like a book, “that you told me the day after you met him that you didn’t think you would ever introduce him to your parents. I need you to remember that you already knew two years ago that he absolutely wasn’t the one for you. This is just more proof.”

Later that night, when I went home, I thought of him and of every other man — boy, child — who had broken my heart in one way or another, and I added to my list. Because I finally understood that I deserved to have a list, too.

I needed one, so that I would never allow anyone to make me feel like that again.

Small, unlovable, insufficient, replaceable, unworthy. Even I knew, in spite of all my self-loathing, that I was none of those things.

How dare a man have the audacity to make me feel that way?

How dare I permit one to?


In October, on a Girls’ Night In, I read my list out loud for the first time.

And now I am writing it out here, because we should never be afraid to ask for the things we want, because we should never be afraid to establish healthy boundaries to protect ourselves, because we should never be afraid to say, this is what I deserve. Because we should never settle for less than that, and if a list helps to remind us of our worth, then it’s good to have one.

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