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Living through upheaval

/ 05:03 AM August 12, 2019

My father, who lives and works in Hong Kong, has lived through a number of upheavals. In the days of martial law, he was a fine arts student and his illustrations and print materials were circulated among those in the struggle. Effigies that he and fellow students meticulously crafted were burned during rallies. The only evidence of a youth of protest, bravery and loss are fragments of memorabilia: a letter from his college dean informing my grandparents that my father had been detained after a rally; a similar letter to President Ferdinand Marcos himself pleading for the release of the student detainees one Christmas; stained illustrations, documents, pictures.

My father is old enough to have seen the end of martial law and the beginning of stability. He has lived through the growth of corruption and poverty in our country, and the growth and progress of his new home. He has, with dismay, lived to see the death of human rights in the Philippines, seeing the same cycle of violence that seems to repeat itself every few decades, when a new tyrant claws his way to the top.

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He is now, in another country, experienced enough to know how to navigate the Hong Kong protests. What was once just a commute to work has turned into a minefield; to a worried daughter he might as well be back dodging bullets in Mendiola. On the night of the second massive protest against the extradition bill, he sent me a photo taken from the top of his office building. In it, the streets were overflowing with more people I’ve ever seen in one place. A few weeks later when I asked after him, he said disjointedly, “Teargassing downstairs. Hopefully over by midnight.” I began demanding daily updates.

“Streets are quiet today,” he said in a text one day.

“Be safe,” I said. “Don’t wear black.” He is no spring chicken, and while he may have survived capture and detention before, I am not so sure now.

My father is old enough to have seen a number of upheavals, but his age alone is not a qualifier. His youth was the stuff of Isabel Allende-type sweeping epics, with my parents meeting while my father was a detainee, and later getting married among their comrades. In comparison, the stories of my parents’ friends were sedate, uninteresting. Their middle class lives were largely unaffected by the struggle of the manggagawa, of political prisoners, of the victims of unjust killings. It was a point of pride for me that my parents then had no qualms about sending me to UP, land of the rally, while my parents’ friends wrung their hands and worried about their children catching radical ideas.

Now in adulthood, and having largely passed my 20s in the same quiet manner as my parents’ friends, it is striking to realize how, with the protection of socioeconomic class and money, we can live in times of upheaval and still not be a part of them. My work is unaffected by victims of the drug war; their bodies, mere “carcasses” to the President, might lie mere miles away but might as well be countries apart, for all the impact that they have on my day-to-day. I am in danger of the same apathy, of living through this time of darkness while being sheltered from it. The same goes for so many in my circle, who go about their lives while many are killed, displaced or disenfranchised.

It’s a contrast to the huge number of the people involved in the monthslong Hong Kong protests. It’s to their credit that so many are able to recognize how much of their individual rights is at stake. Now, there are struggles between police and protesters, flights in and out of Hong Kong have been canceled, and the local economy is paralyzed. The fight could have ended two months ago if people hadn’t taken to the streets; instead, the protest is alive, and on Saturday, Joshua Wong tweeted a video of more than a thousand people singing “Do you hear the people sing?” at the HK International Airport. How much more of our society needs to break down, I wonder, before we Filipinos wake up and find ourselves in a similar situation of desperation and fear? How much are we willing not to question and disturb our own comfort?

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