You walk as a stranger in random streets in Portland. You are here for a symposium on cinema studies and are thinking of spending a few hours exploring the city before heading to the venue. You take pictures. Eat shrimps in Chinatown. Marvel at arching bridges over the great Willamette River. Feel small amid tall buildings. Take all images in, as you do when you know you’re in a beautiful dream.
But you are not dreaming. At the university, you work as a teaching assistant in a film class even as you take film classes yourself to complete a doctorate. A dream come true, says one of your friends from the Philippines. An impossibility, said your 10-year-old self 20 years ago when you had to walk two kilometers to get to your classes and were not even sure if you could finish grade school.
As a literature teacher in the Philippines, you’ve read about the loneliness of Filipinos abroad. You almost wrote a thesis about the struggles of Filipinos in the diaspora, thinking you understood what it meant. You believed in big words such as service and love for country. Like going through the eye of the needle, you applied for a scholarship and held on to these big words. You left behind everything you love: family, friends, lover, theater, a small beautiful city, a struggling country you swore you’d never exchange for the world. Because you wanted to become a better teacher when you return.
You thought you were ready for everything. In your first term you watch replays of “Till I Met You” and play Aegis and Max Surban in your room, learn to cook adobo and tinola, trying to find the lost taste of your mother’s cooking within an alternative set of ingredients. There’s no Filipino restaurant in Eugene, no Asian market, so you have to trust that Walmart would rise to the occasion by being your loyal mercado.
Every day, the news from your home country and in the country where you are hurt you. You say: Aren’t these the reasons I’m here? You try to cheer yourself up because how else will you survive the readings you have to finish during the night? You won’t dare say something stupid in an intensely professional graduate class. You’re too proud to fail. You think too much is at stake if you fail, like dragging your country to shame along with you. But you are not always good: Most of the time you do not understand what you read, you say things in inarticulate ways and find your tongue coiling to the roof of your mouth as you try to explain in English how the colonial powers decimated your culture or shattered your identity or demonized your gods, or left irreparable damage—the present as its inevitable consequence: a country where labor and human life are cheap.
There are other embarrassments, too: taking the wrong bus, failing to sustain reason in argumentation, eating one’s bland cooking. Some shots at maturity: swallowing one’s pride, accepting others’ truths, acknowledging vulnerabilities. But what makes these moments precious is that they teach you what self-forgiveness means. Inside, you feel a bitter seed sprouting, growing small roots in the gut. But you smile.
You smile even as you call 911, already too weak to tie your shoelaces because you were vomiting the entire night, hoping prayers can make your stomach pain go away while the other part of your brain is writing a paper on how America’s development is made possible by exploitation of black bodies. As the ambulance rushes through the silent and freezing morning, you whisper: Ma…
Once back where you live, you bounce back by cooking your own arroz caldo, thinking what your family in the Philippines is eating and remembering you have to wire some money for your sister’s schooling and to pay off some family debts. In a few days, you will turn 30 and not a single soul in this big country knows.
No one among these strangers in the streets of Portland knows. What for? You stop for a while and look at a number of homeless people dragging with them all that they have: carts, cartons, big bags, searching for spots where they will pass the night, where a shop owner will not call the police and send them out into the biting cold of winter, to the edge of the earth where no kindness exists. This is not new to you, so why bother? There’s plenty of them back home.
So you go back to your hotel, trying to stomach all the world’s sadness, hearing the voices of people reverberating in your head: Do not complain, choose to be happy, you are lucky, your dream has come true. You take a shower, a long one, trying to recover all the warmth that you have lost, fueling yourself with happy memories: your country, your students in the classroom, your sister’s honor certificate on Facebook, your Tatay patiently, with creased forehead, explaining to his friends that his son is studying to be a doctor but not the kind that heals the sick—the reasons you are here.
So you wear the nice coat you bought as a gift on your 30th birthday. You summon every little bit of courage left in your being. And sing yourself the birthday song.
Eli Garcia taught literature at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City before studying cinema at the University of Oregon in the United States.
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