Clouds don’t actually hang, float, crawl, wisp, or do things. The pungent air doesn’t sit, and nobody swims through it. The city provides nothing in the way of invitation to inspire (though it demands that we perspire). The city seems to be doing everything it can to alienate you. The city doesn’t want you here, but it has no arms with which to push you away, or legs to kick you, or walls to keep you out. The city doesn’t have any human characteristics except the desire to alienate you. The city is telling me to leave but, perhaps obstinately, I will not.
There are reasons to leave. Manila is not beautiful and aloof like Paris, nor is it bitter and friendly like San Francisco. Manila doesn’t need you. It’s not really feeling you being here, you know? It is not aloof. It notices you though. It knows you are here. It wants you to not be here. Everywhere I go the city is there. It can see me. It can’t take away my visa, and it can’t build walls to keep me out because what good is a wall for a city with an airport, but it can make itself undesirable to me. The self-immolation is difficult to endure, and it costs the inhabitants of the city much the same as it costs me. We all sweat. I want to stay here out of this stubborn will to not be conquered. I want to leave because it’s hot and uncomfortable. I ask do you get used to the weather? and people reliably tell me no, you just expect it.
Manila doesn’t need One More White American coming to do social work. I am pretty anchorless in the world, but I feel especially untethered here, where there is no reason for me to be except for the intersection of the singularity of my purpose and the available opportunities within my reach.
The cultural identity is elusive yet omnipresent. From the little I can tell, the whole cultural history of the Philippines began to be recorded when Spain arrived. Before then there was little local recordkeeping. There was, however, trade between China, Philippines, and Vietnam, so the culture was already not homogenous. Spain arrived and brought record-keeping (why China didn’t bring record-keeping is a mystery to me), and that is how far back written Filipino history goes, according to the Filipino history and anthropological museums.
To the ornery: There are good things here. I don’t want it to sound like this is a terrible place, just that it’s not a good place for my mental health. These observations are all subjective, and since I’m in a bad mood fuck you.
Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod. That’s what he said to me. The 34-year-old graduate from the top law school in the Philippines. We’ll call him Juan. We were talking about the artifacts in his office that were purchased by the “beloved technocrat” who commissioned the office in the first place under Marcos. He said something in German, and so I responded in German that we could use that language as well. He charismatically responded with the few disjunctive phrases he’d managed to gather during his studies. Zero, one, two, three and Where is the bathroom? and I’m looking forward to my death. He said it in the same tone as the first two groups of words. I responded echt? He said yes, really. Then went on the rest of the tour, telling jokes and irreverently showing us all of the original artwork and sculptures from the Spanish occupation hundreds of years ago.
There were some original pieces by Juan Luna in the room we were sat in. They were amazing works, too. There were dusty chairs and figurines of biblical figures, of unnamed saints. They were just taking up space though. Honestly, rustic isn’t my aesthetic, and I probably would have done the same thing with the statues and chairs. Among the husks and shed skins of former Spanish culture in the Old City, being shown around by the youngest ever administrator of Intramuros, he told me he was looking forward to his death.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s a difference between looking forward to death and looking forward to dying. I think dying will not be a good experience. I think it’s often accompanied by fear and pain, or otherwise unconsciousness but that’s just the death of the body happening at a different time from death of the self. Looking forward to death is like looking forward to everything that’s associated with it. Looking forward to a world you’re not a part of. Your influence tapers, no exit, until even your people don’t remember you. What a horrible thing to be famous and dead. Let the dead lie still. Don’t build statues, don’t write lasting eulogies, don’t remember us. Forget us and pay attention to the living. You can learn much more from them. If we died in stupid ways, remember not to do that, but don’t pretend that by building a statue we can live on “in the hearts and minds” of the people. We don’t. You living eventually pervert the dead, you turn us into what you want us to be.
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Of the dead, nothing unless good. What the fuck. When I am gone but still remembered, don’t cheat me out of my whole personality. Don’t only remember my generosity or love. Remember that I have punched my best friend. Remember that I was quick to anger and violence when I was on my bicycle. Remember that I was not very compassionate. Remember that I was a liar and emotionally manipulative. Remember that I struggled to love. Don’t deny me or any of the dead these parts as well. I am trying to leave the world in a better place than I found it—I think we all are—but I am a whole person. I have scars from mistakes made permanent. One time I taught a 13-year-old girl who was too cool to try to learn in front of her friends how to ride a bike. When they came back an hour later they all rode around the parking lot laughing and playing around. Another time I had an affair and left directly to go meet my girlfriend at a cafe around the corner, the taste of another woman still on my lips. Another time a friend called me at midnight and I rode my bike through the rain to meet them on the bridge and we talked and cried and hugged one another until the sun rose and I saved their life.
I think I get what Juan was saying. We can’t help but touch the world.
He hopes it’s not tomorrow because he still has good to do in the world. He told me a little bit about what he’s trying to do for his country, and he’s got a good start. It’s just that he’s also looking forward to a world where he doesn’t exist. What a horrible thing it would be to just keep living. Not in the sense you’d live long enough to see all your friends die; you can still do that—just don’t smoke or drink, exercise regularly, get plenty of water, and always eat healthy. I just think that nobody’s important enough that the world needs them for a long time. Life is hard and unfair and full of suffering and failure with the little benefits of happiness or peacefulness and then it’s been enough. You get 80 years on the outside and if that’s not enough time you’ve overestimated yourself. If that’s too much time you’re not doing enough.
Life’s an endurance sport. Ask a cyclist. It’s good to ride a century, but while you’re doing the riding part you can enjoy it and also look forward to the having ridden part. You don’t ride a hundred miles in order to get a hundred miles away from where you are. You do it because it’s an experience you can learn from, filled with new kinds of pain and personal glory, and to have done it. Life is a good thing, but it will also be a good thing to have done, I think.