(The following essay was submitted in 2012 to an Experimental Writing course at the Ateneo de Manila University. Save for typographical corrections and visual enhancements, the original text and notes have been retained.)
The first line in my notes for Filipino 11 that day ran thus: Ang Pitong Sumpa ng Modernismo Ayon kay Ihab Hassan sa Paracriticisms1.
Whenever I ruined the strap of a Juicy Couture watch, or my sister a Hewlett-Packard laptop, or my father one of the Blackberrys, the attendants of the repair shops at our local malls usually regretted to inform us that the repair would be extra expensive because the replacement parts would have to be shipped from Manila.
The first time I took a cab from NAIA to the Ateneo dormitories, I thought to myself, Aha! At last I can ruin all the gadgets I want. No need to worry about repair shipping costs. I am in Manila. Then I cringed. I was so far away from home. I was in Manila.
Now, of course, whenever I get into a cab at the arrivals area of Terminal 3, everything feels a bit more laidback, more routine. I put my suitcases in the trunk, sit back in my seat, and surreptitiously glance at the meter. Once every few minutes, I check on the meter again. Almost fifteen pesos added every time because there is traffic. Then I grumble to myself why everything has to be so much more expensive here. It doesn’t take me very long to figure out why: I am no longer in the province. I am in Metro Manila.
Whenever I am in the cab (and I am in it for a long time, for the dorm is so far away from the airport), it is very difficult to ignore the hubbub of the city. I always look out the window — partly to check if the driver has not kidnapped me yet, and partly to learn the taxi’s route which changes almost every time. I look out and take in the gargantuan buildings, the massive billboards that contain elitist advertisements in Makati and depict less expensive products in QC, the crowded streets blurred and hazy in the sweltering sun. First impressions of Metro Manila arise. Looking around me, I instantly think, I do not want this kind of progress in my city.
The rest of the notes went something like this: Urbanismo – usapin ng espasyo, sentro ng sibilisasyon (PAGPIGIL) ang lungsod, lokasyon ng lungsod sa lipunan.
Everybody seems so sure of what they are doing. Too sure, in fact, so that I end up looking lost next to everybody else. It takes me ten months and thirteen days to realize the word I am looking for: city-centrism.
City-centrism may not even be a real word, but it is the closest descriptor I can come up with. In one Filipino class, we read a personal essay about susosentrismo2 — obsession with the female breasts. I get an idea from that and insert the word “city” to make “city-centrism” — obsession with the city life. The city is not just any city, of course. It is Metro Manila.
The obsession is not unmerited, that much may be said. If my own Cagayan de Oro had standards, they would be at the bottom here in Manila. Here, everything is in order, has an order. There is a hierarchy in language: English, then Filipino, then Tagalog and other Luzon dialects. In food: lutong-bahay served in restaurants, then fastfood, then lutong-bahay served at home. In schools that win inter-school competitions: private schools (both exclusive and coeducational), then public schools. Everything is controlled, in order.
Teknolohismo – ang daigdig ng makina at pabrika, at ang makinasyon at pabrikasyon ng buhay.
It is a mistake to ruin my watch in Manila, so far away from home, from parents, from the source of finances. The repair costs twice or thrice my daily allowance, so I end up shipping back my watch to Cagayan de Oro. So much for I am in Manila.
It proves just as much a mistake to try and survive without a watch. I have never seen a place more populated by people who had such a mechanized view of time, of life in general. Everybody’s days revolve around their iPads or iPhones or other expensive little gadgets. I have a friend who looks scandalized when I tell him that there is not even an iStore in my city. I quickly reassure him. We do have 3D cinemas, and we do know what the Internet is.
Deshumanisasyon – walang oportunidad na maging malikhain; ang pagkabasag ng pagkatao, at ang iniimpit na identidad.
I have never seen a place more different from my own little hometown. The differences designate Manila to superiority, for in a city-centric country, what else would do? The superiority is not unmerited, of course. If my own Cagayan de Oro had standards, they would be at the bottom here in Manila, and it breaks my little probinsiyana heart to realize that. Back home, hierarchies are upside down. The hierarchy in language is Filipino, then English, then Bisaya.3 In food, it is fastfood, then lutong-bahay served at home. In schools that win inter-school competitions, it is the public schools, then the private schools. The loss of control, of order (in accordance with the control and order I see in Manila) disturbs me and shatters my idealistic vision of Cagayan de Oro.
Out of the confusion, I am unable to think of anything beyond the stark contrast of where I am and where I used to live. The city has had that effect on me.
Erotisismo – seksuwalisasyon ng sensibilidad; ang kasarian bilang karamdaman.
I have never seen a place more populated with lovestruck teenagers, adults, and homosexuals. In our city that was mostly Christian and barely affected by our Muslim Mindanao heritage, we were taught that there existed only two sexes and two sexualities: male and female. Here, I see males who are interested in males and females who are interested in females and people who look as if they had given up on being interested in anything a long time ago. We were taught that intimate relationships and marriage always went side by side. Here, I see couples who are destined to elevate the country’s population rate in the near future. It is only in Metro Manila that I understand the trickster characteristic of the national language. Karamdaman may be translated in two ways: emotion, or disease.4
Antinomianismo – ang pagkakahon at pagkakataon ng pangalan; ang bansag bilang hanggahan.
I have never seen a place more obsessed with brands and labels. Object’s name equals brand equals price equals cost equals (usually) worth. Here, everything is taken at a literal level, at face value. What you see is what you get. The object is limited to what its name says it can be. The name limits everything.
Primitibismo – ang pagbabalik sa mga arketipo, ang mga nilalang ng dilim.
I have never seen a place more suffocated by religions and non-religions (for what do non-believers believe in? Non-religions, of course.). I make my first Buddhist, atheist, and Wiccan acquaintances in Manila. The motley arrangement of believers and non-believers fascinates me. It is like a blast from the past, a return to the time of paganisms and idolatries.
Eksperimentalismo – hindi mo alam kung magiging matagumpay ang resulta.
The cab pulls over in front of Eliazo Hall. Just before the driver turns to me expectantly, there is a moment of indecision: do I want to pay and get out, or do I want to pay more and tell the driver to take me back to the airport?
There is something very thrilling about living away from one’s parents, about living alone in a city miles and miles away. The city has a pull, an attractive characteristic; despite the outrageous cost of living and the mediocre way of living, people continue to flock here. The sense of adventure brought about by the overwhelming confusion of the city and the possibility of losing one’s self anytime — this excitement proves too much to resist. I am unable to resist the siren call of the streets of Cubao (which I frequent almost every week), or of the sidewalks of Tondo (which I intend to experience soon). I must stay. I must keep looking.
The sensation is unexplainable, because the source of the sensation is also that. My attempts to describe Metro Manila from the viewpoint of a probinsiyana are like the city I am trying to describe: proportionally epic, bordering on the surreal.
I look at my notes one more time, and notice for the first time the title of Ihab Hassan’s book — Paracriticisms. Does it mean “paracriticisms” as in “paradox” or “paragogue”? “Para” is a Greek prefix for “beyond.” Aptly put, since it dawns on me that Metro Manila is actually characterized not by expensive cost of living or high-rise architecture, but by transcendence, a form of transcendence that reaches to the extremes and borders on the surreal. The city is so much more than anyone might first think it to be. That is, after all, why city-centrism exists, why all countrysides try to imitate the metropolitan structure of the capital city, and with it, the city’s magnetic pull, its labyrinthine quality, its unexplainable capacity to fascinate. The city is so much more than anyone might think it to be. First impressions can be proven wrong.
1 The notes were taken during the first semester of this school year, in a Fil 11 class under Edgar Calabia Samar. The modernist short story taken up in the discussion of these “seven curses” was entitled “Ang Tikbalang,” from Tony Perez’s Cubao Pagkagat ng Dilim.
2 Alvin B. Yapan, Burador (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010) 159-169.
3 To be able to speak in Filipino was a sign of having lived in Manila. Since our school was a private school, most everybody could speak in English but not everybody could speak in Filipino, because not everybody had been to Manila. That is why Filipino is above English in the hierarchy.
4 Either way, to say that in this modern place the gender (kasarian) may be an emotion or a disease is very much different from previous notions of gender (that it is a classification, a basis for hierarchy, etc.).