Ghosts and dragons
Funny how each year I’m reminded by more and more non-Chinese Filipinos about the coming ghost month. This year, it will start tomorrow, Aug. 11, and end Sept. 9. This is the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar, and varies each year between August and September.
The ghost month panic started out as a Buddhist belief that hungry souls are let out of hell for the whole month, to wreak havoc on the living. The phobia has led to doctors not wanting to do surgery unless absolutely necessary, business people not wanting to start a new business or invest in new stocks, and many more kinds of risk avoidance.
I did think about last year’s ghost month, which extended into mid-September. I remember it distinctly because it was, according to research from a consortium of universities (Ateneo, La Salle and UP Diliman), the bloodiest during the Duterte presidency.
I attended the wake of Carl Arnaiz, a former UP Diliman student who had dropped out because of depression and had not returned to school, instead trying to help the family with a sari-sari store. He was killed not because of drugs, but supposedly because he was robbing a taxi. The taxicab driver later surfaced and testified that Arnaiz was executed not during the robbery. Nothing seems to have come out of the investigation.
I stayed at the wake for some three hours, on the request of the mother; I left after midnight feeling helpless and hopeless. I realized, on the way home, that perhaps the Chinese ghost month resonates for us because we have so many victims of violence. What we should fear, really, are the living humans who kill, rather than those who have been killed. But we need as well to think of the ghosts in terms of a hunger for justice.
On a more positive note, universities have been busy with this year’s new college freshmen, who are special in the sense that they went through the full K-to-12 system with two years of senior high school. At UP and several other universities, we started the new schoolyear just this month.
Planning my welcoming remarks for the new students in UP Diliman, numbering some 3,000, I realized that, as K-to-12 graduates, they would be mostly 18 years old—born in 2000. In the Chinese calendar, that was a year of the dragon. It’s a year that’s considered auspicious, so Chinese couples must have gone through elaborate strategies so they could have a dragon child, said to be bold and energetic with leadership qualities.
In UP Diliman, I showed, at our welcome assemblies (we had to have two), a video showing carps in northwest China swimming upstream and jumping (actually flying) over waterfalls called Dragon Gate to reach their destination. The awesome sight of these carps gave rise to an expression, “the carp jumping over Dragon Gate,” to refer to people who overcome great difficulties such as university exams, which are really tough in China. Our local dragons’ Dragon Gate was our UPCAT (UP College Admissions Test).
The story of the carps doesn’t end with their jumping over the falls. Those who do make it are said to transform into dragons!
I told our freshmen that, whether they were born in 2000 or not, all of them, including transfer students, should be considered dragons in terms of the many challenges they’ve hurdled, from K-to-12 to being a part of the Z generation. That term is now being used for the “digital natives,” the ones born, as the joke goes, with a cell phone or tablet in their hand.
It’s a generation with easy access to communications, to voluminous information—the world, really, at their fingertips.
Yet it is a generation that faces many challenges, including a tendency to stay confined to their virtual worlds on the Web. The temptation to retreat into these virtual worlds is greater now, in a post-truth era where democracy and human rights are seen as all too indispensable.
There will be more Dragon Gates for these students in the years ahead, including the ghosts of injustice whose memories stalk us all year round. “Enter the dragons!” I said to welcome the freshmen, while imploring them to challenge the world outside, and assuring them we educators will be there for and with them.
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