One of the latest fashionable acronyms is DRM, which means disaster risk management. And a major challenge for DRM is the “R”: Just how do Filipinos perceive risk? Language offers us insights into these risk perceptions. “Riesgo” is one of the terms used, but it is borrowed from Spanish, and is not that widely used. Another Spanish word, “peligro,” is used more often but it means “danger.”
I rarely hear the English “risk” used with lower-income Filipinos. It is a word that reflects a consciousness about one’s vulnerability as well as a willingness to take a chance. A calculated risk means even greater consciousness about vulnerabilities, perhaps even converted into numbers, as in “there’s a 70-percent chance of rain today.”
We talk all the time about how Filipinos can be so reckless, a term that implies a lack of a sense of risk. It can be recklessness to cross the street right at the place where a sign is posted saying, “May namatay na dito” (Someone has died here, presumably through jaywalking). Or how entire villages refuse to evacuate even as a volcano is erupting. In these cases, we’re not even talking about long-term risk but of being confronted with a dangerous situation, peligrong-peligro.
I thought of an alternative term while reading about how informal settlers in San Juan were relocated last Monday without the usual barricades and battles with police. The settlers lived next to an estero (creek) that floods easily. A report in the Inquirer quoted one resident as saying that he was relocating because he knew he lived in a “danger area.”
I wondered what he actually said in Filipino and suspect he might have used “alangan” rather than “danger” or “peligro.” I’ve been thinking about that term, and “alanganin,” for some time now. It’s a term that means uncertainty, and, I feel, comes closer to risk than “riesgo” or “peligro.”
Last Saturday I thought of “alangan” while talking with some faculty and security people about the long queue of students waiting to enter a building where they were to take the UPCAT (the University of the Philippines’ College Admissions Test). It was around 12 noon and the morning batch was about to come out, to allow this afternoon group to go in for their exam.
A doctor who was there to provide first aid told me they had “only” two incidents, both involving vomiting, and the medical people were able to help the students. On Monday, in my own college at UP Diliman, I again asked about medical emergencies and one staff told me she had handled one student who wouldn’t stop vomiting.
What we think of as “nervous” vomiting and diarrhea are actually part of nature’s risk management. When the body senses something is wrong, it’s our gastrointestinal tract that is often the first to respond, making us eject what might be dangerous substances, either orally or through the “backdoor.”
The trigger is uncertainty. All of us know of the variations on “UPCAT-itis,” the butterflies in our stomach coming with stage fright, with job interviews and, unfortunately, with all kinds of events where we least want the vomiting or diarrhea—for example, at a wedding ceremony.
But a wedding actually offers more certainty than the UPCAT: At least you’re pretty certain you’ll get the “I do” within the hour… unless it’s the prospects of a life-long “I do” that gets your intestines racing. With the UPCAT, just seeing the long queues reminds you of the competition, and its uncertainties.
The UPCAT and weddings are similar in that both are alangan—what western sociologists call periods of liminality, neither here nor there, and it’s the lack of clarity that reminds us of our vulnerability. It’s during these uncertainties that we resort to magic, bringing pencils blessed by a priest for the UPCAT, for example, or observing all kinds of taboos around a wedding.
Jose Villa Panganiban’s classic “Diksyunaryong Tesauro Pilipino-Ingles” has five separate entries for “alangan”: unfit or improper, unworthy, unbecoming, insufficient or lacking in measure, and perplexed. It was the last entry, “perplexed,” that gave an example—“alanganing kalagayan” which was in turn translated to a “precarious position.”
In an uncertain situation, we can feel all the other adjectives that Panganiban used, from “insufficient” to “unworthy.” Think again of the UPCAT and weddings and the feelings of ambiguity, of being perplexed: Was it right for me to take this chance?
“Alangan” and “alanganin” do open the doors for more discussions of risk because when people use the term, it indicates that they at least recognize a situation of risk. I think it helped in San Juan that authorities had “Danger Zone” signs posted in the areas near the informal settlers’ shanties: Seeing the signs every day impressed on them the idea of “alangan.”
But the other meanings are important, too. We know that alangan is not right, not proper, as when we hear our intestines rumbling like Mayon about to erupt. For the informal settlers, “Danger Zone” signs move them away from the idea of their dwelling site away from “home” to “alangan.”
Often, though, living with uncertainty creates familiarity, and therefore a willingness to accept the risks. In other instances, because we feel inadequate and unworthy of anything better, we choose to remain trapped in a situation of alangan.
It’s important as well to get people to think of the times when they do try to escape alangan through reckless measures, only to find they’ve jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, a graver alangan.
Returning to the San Juan estero dwellers, their willingness to move comes about when they see that there is an alternative to the present alangan, meaning the relocation site seems to be less prone to flooding, or even flood-free.
After the relocation, though, the former San Juan residents will continue to assess their situation. If they face new alangan with jobs, for example, or schools and health care for their families, they just might move back to slum areas in Metro Manila.
I’m still at the stage of ruminating on the Tagalog “alangan” and how we can use this not just for disaster preparedness but for all kinds of other risk-reduction programs, from road safety to HIV/AIDS prevention. In Panganiban’s dictionary right before the entries on “alangan” was “alang-alang,” referring to a consciousness about one’s situation, or of a person, or of memories. Relating “alang-alang” to “alangan” can be part of risk-reduction programs.
Meanwhile, we do need to look into languages other than Tagalog for similar terms that better capture the way we deal with risks in the Philippines.