The pivot to Asia
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - November 23, 2019 - 12:00am

We have seen the unimaginable the past week. The United States’ pivot to Asia has made sure that its erstwhile enemy, Vietnam, would receive warships that would patrol the West Philippine Sea and hold rapacious China at bay. Japan, whose postwar Constitution forbade militarism, has just converted two of its helicopter carriers into fully-fitted carriers whose fighter planes could zoom to the sea in a few minutes.

This pivot to Asia reminds of me a short speech that I read at the Asian Scholarship Foundation closing program in July of 2003, in Bangkok, Thailand. Thanks to Dr. Lourdes Salvador, director of the now-defunct and much-lamented Asian Scholarship Foundation, which gave me two successive fellowships to live and write in Malaysia and then in Singapore.

Like many Filipinos of my generation, the only thing I wanted was to live abroad. Abroad, of course, meant Europe and the United States of America. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil famously said that the Philippines lived for 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. Thus, the Filipino was a Catholic priest before he became a Brad Pitt, or a Catholic nun before she became Britney Spears.

And so I studied in the United Kingdom, finally living in the land of Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. I studied at the University of Stirling, lived in a dormitory beside a 400-year-old castle inhabited by ghosts, and spoke Scottish-accented English for a year and a half. Later, I studied in the US, finally living in the land of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, so very happy in the library that remained open until 12 o’clock in the evening. Why, I even did the unimaginable – I taught college-age Americans how to write their poems and stories – in English!

But one day I came back to Manila and thought that maybe, I should know more about Kota Kinabalu than Kansas. And so I applied for an Asian Scholarship Foundation grant and lived in Malaysia for a year. Malaysia is the country closest to the Philippines, but it’s a country we know nothing about. We might as well be talking about Saturn, or Pluto. When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 1, 2002 they were busy deporting planeloads of Indonesians and Filipinos who were overstaying and working illegally. I clung to my passport every day and tried to look nonchalant about it. Being a Filipino, Malaysian police thought I was either a construction worker or a singer in a club.

It was good my friends were there to comfort and humor me. My friends at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia teased me for my American English. The Chinese taxi cab driver thought I was Chinese and talked to me in Cantonese. The Japanese tourists at the Petronas Twin Towers thought I came from northern Japan and started a conversation with me in Nihonggo. And the Spaniards in Melaka struck up a conversation with me in Spanish. Well, they were all partly correct, because being Filipino, I have mixed bloodlines – Malay and Spanish and Chinese.

But I only felt at home  truly, madly and deeply at home  when I lived in Southeast Asia. I did not feel any sense of alienation. None of the sense of alienation I felt when I saw the dark and sooty buildings of London while on the train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station that dawn of September 1989 when I arrived, to take up my graduate studies in the UK. None of the sense of alienation I felt when I was walking on the cobblestoned streets of Amsterdam, on a chilly day with no sun in the sky, walking on the way to the university to deliver a paper on “gayspeak” in the Philippines. None of the sense of alienation I felt when I was rushing to take the subway train in New York, among a horde of people who pointedly avoided each other’s eyes, for to do so means you want to strike up a conversation, and that is a no-no in these cold and lonely countries.

Instead, when I lived in Southeast Asia, when I traveled to Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, lived in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, I felt like I was coming home. The sound of the gamelan playing at the Actors’ Studio on the basement of Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. Crossing a stone bridge in Hanoi that leads to a museum of ancient turtles carved in stone, the turtle shells symbolizing the quest – and the burden – of knowledge. My jaw dropping at the sight of the ceramic fragments at Wat Arun Temple beside the Chao Praya River, glittering in the setting sun, the various colors bouncing off the fragments. A black-and-white butterfly followed me as I walked round and round the stone steps of Borobudur, toward the stupa trying to reach the Indonesian sky. The ancient temple was destroyed by dynamite planted there more than 20 years ago. I remember one Buddha, green with lichen and slippery with rain. Half of its face had been blown off by the blast of dynamite, but its one surviving eye looked at me.

Its steady gaze tunneled inside me, into my very veins. It seemed to be telling me to let everything go, and let my heart be.

And I have done just that. Everyone in my family has migrated either to the US, Canada, or the UK. Only my sister with Down Syndrome and I have stayed in the Philippines. I am running a school and teaching Creative Writing in Malaysia but comes home frequently to the Philippines. And this week I am attending the George Town International Literary Festival in lovely Penang, one of UNESCO’s prized heritage cities.

But I am staying here, where I am happiest – in Asia, where beauty and poverty commingle, whose countries are not separated but linked by the sea, bodies of islands where the cultures are ancient, diverse and dazzling, where the food – nasi goreng, mee hon, and beef satay; pho ha, tom yam kung, and bulgogi; Hainanese chicken, roti chanai, and adobo – all remain there, in one’s tongue like the most vivid memories.

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