LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - May 1, 2021 - 12:00am

One night, in deepest darkest Scotland, I was listening to a rock band from Glasgow called Texas (yes) when I saw what looked like balls of cotton drifting down the sky. Down they fell, softly, silently, reminding me of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” I was doing my research at the Scottish university for my M.Phil. in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling, and it was my first winter in a  foreign land.

The morning after, the grass was gone, covered by an immense whiteness that hurt the eyes. Two Africans in our building ran out of their flats, with hands raised, looking at the gray sky. I pressed my face against the window and looked at them. One of them formed the word “snow” on his lips. They must have been so excited running down the hilly slope, such that one of them fell face down on the snow.

Then December, my sister who just arrived in Summit, New Jersey to work as a nurse had wanted me to come over and visit her. It would be her first Christmas away, and she was also homesick.  So I bought cheap return tickets at Air New Zealand and on the plane, the pilot said we would have a stopover in Gander.

“Where is that?” my Australian seatmate asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Then the pilot’s voice crackled again, and he said, “We’ll have a stopover in Newfoundland.”

And the Aussie again asked, “Where is that?”

“In northwestern Canada,” I answered.

Over in Newfoundland, we were asked to disembark. When I looked outside, my jaw fell. There was nothing else in sight, except mile upon mile of snow. In the gloomy darkness, the airport lights looked like the points of pins. Wrapping my winter coat around me, I stood up and walked down the plane.

The old couple beside me said, “Oh my, it’s so far away. We’re from Florida.” The couple on my left, their nasal voices floating in the wind, said, “We’re from Texas.”

I couldn’t help it, so I butted in: “And I’m from the Philippines.” The old man from Texas said, “Oh, poor boy,” and then we all walked as briskly as we could, even if our cheeks were numb from the terrible cold.

At the airport I told the guard that I thought only penguins lived here. He said, “Aye, it’s cold, son, but this is only a mild winter.”

New York City was worse. It was the coldest winter in 70 years. The New York Times said that ten old people had already died in a home and, indeed, when my sister and I left Kennedy Airport, it was horrible. The wind-chill factor had made the temperature dip to below 45 degrees Centigrade. We ran and ran until we reached the car, but the Indian woman who was getting our parking ticket just smiled at us. Beneath her coat, her sari was resplendent.

I remember this because I saw again the film, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” a week ago. The film is framed by a snowfall, within which was a film that ran the dangerous line between being cute and being violent.

When my students 20 years ago first told me about the ice skating rink at the SM Megamall, I recalled the ice-skating rink in Stirling. I went there during my first week. The moment we entered the building, the “Third Worlders” amongst us just stood silently, letting the chilly air circulate in our lungs. Then we tried to skate. I’ve always been clumsy, and all I did was to fall. So I never went ice-falling again.

Thus, the owner of the humongous shopping mall was only offering us a way to fulfill our colonial dreams. He only extends for us what some Filipinos have been doing all along: burdening our Christmas trees with snow dust, building houses in the rich enclaves of Makati complete with a fireplace in the living room, walking around the northern mountain city of Baguio in their winter coats bought in thrift shops.

Snow is beautiful and white, yes, but it is cold. I saw one old woman slip on a winding street in Stirling. We ran to her and she just lay there. Gingerly, we helped her to her feet. A Filipina doctor visiting us said the old woman must have been shocked, her mind fighting the fear that the fall must have broken her already-brittle bones.

Moreover, snow can be dirty, too, like the snow in Washington, D.C., the snow lying around the poor black people pitching makeshift tents at The Mall, the government buildings standing like dominoes beside each other. The homeless black people warming their fingers with the heat coming from the grates of the government buildings that surrounded them, seemingly without any care in the world.

*      *      *

Some young people have been emailing me asking should they leave the country and study overseas, and perhaps even live there? Now that I am almost 60 my answer is “Yes” to both. When I was younger, I studied overseas but I always came back, the moment my studies were over. I never even entertained thoughts of overstaying, or working there as an undocumented alien. I had job offers after my studies at the graduate school of the Department of English at Rutgers University, but I came back to take care of my old parents and my sister with Down Syndrome.

But my parents have passed away and my sister has a reliable caretaker. That was why I was able to work at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia from 2017 to 2020 as a Head of School and Full Professor. I think I might be possibly the first Head of School of English of a British university, for that is the classification of the university I worked for.

I think we should go to a place that can contain all the dreams we have in our hearts. That is my answer to all of these young people asking me about leaving.

*      *      *

Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, has been published by Penguin Books. It is available at Shopee in the Philippines and globally at Amazon. Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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