Charlson Ong's "Another Country" [1/4]

There are many kinds of love--some toxic and consuming, like drugs that induce dependence.  This work displays love in its most destructive yet beguiling form: passionate and without reason nor consideration.  The main character Arthur is a man whose longing for his home country is transformed into an uncontrollable misplaced love for Aurora.  There are the older generation of the Chinese embodied by Nancy and Arthur's father whose longing for their home country became a lifelong obsession slowly being emptied of hope.  As they cling on to the home that is slowly being transformed by cultural revolution, their devotion to their China becomes a tacit racism.

This piece by Filipino-Chinese writer Charlson Ong was taken from the book "A Tropical Winter's Tale and Other Stories".  The back cover of the book quotes the writer Ronald Baytan on Ong:
"There have been many Chinese writers writing in English... perhaps as early as the 1960s.  No one else has achieved the status attained by Ong.  In a way, it is his entry into the mainstream Philippine Literature that has forced the critics to acknowledge the presence of a dynamic and growing body of writings by the Chinese... Pain juxtaposed with a certain wry humor governs Ong's fictional worlds, and Chinese or not, the charaacters are endowed with an ironic and laughing voice that hits home only because their laughter is synonymous with grief."
"Another Country", according to the Acknowledgements contained in the book, won 3rd prize in the Carlos Palanca Awards in 1987 and 2nd prize in the Asiaweek Short Story Competition in 1988.  This story is set in 1987.  It is set in a Taiwan that is recovering from the massive earthquake of 14 November 1986.  

Despite the earthquake, under the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) government, Taiwan is still thriving, developing rapidly as one of the four Asian economic tigers (with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore).  In contrast, the Philippine economy is floundering after the corrupt Marcos regime and under the tumultuous beginnings of the first Aquino administration.  People Power had just happened and yet no change was felt by the Filipino people.  Hoping to get a piece of the development in the tiger economies, many Filipinos tried their luck in those countries.  Flor Contemplacion and Delia Maga are familiar names who were part of this exodus for financial gain.  On the other hand, mainland China is also in economic turmoil.  Economic reforms imposed by the Communist Party of China led to double-digit inflation rates, abuse of the system by well-connected people, and, slowly, to the 1989 Tianamen Square massacre.  Many mainland Chinese fled to other states for refuge or for a better life.  Perhaps because of its Chinese mestiza president, the Philippines was one of their destinations.  

There are so many layers to this story that can only be appreciated upon fully reading it.  It starts iff a bit slow, but I do hope you enjoy it.  The entirety of the piece is well worth the read. - paris

The night we met, the city was in pain.  A powerful quake had rocked Taipei at dawn, felling an old suburban commercial building-turned-residence killing at least fourteen people and injuring scores while a two-year-old skyscraper had been tilted.  It was the first major national disaster in years and in a country where the death of a seventy-five-year-old zoo elephant made front-page news, this was grist for the media grill to grind for weeks.  I had to keep posted at my rewrite desk awaiting the latest figures--"nightoff" or no nightoff.  And Aurora simply had to wait until we had put the China Tribune to bed.

It was my fourth month in town; I'd answered the ad for an unmarried English language journalist, knowledgeable in Chinese which the Trib had placed in Manila.  The occasional features I did on UFOs and movie extras wasn't much in the way of mainstream journalism but somehow, someone in Taipei found my English "good though not excellent", and my Chinese "passable".  I suspected that the someone may have been my cousin Daryll Chua who moved to Taipei two years ago, and had been with the Trib for a year, or someone very open to his recommendations.  I got my roundtrip ticket within two weeks of the application and found myself facing a "mongrel" word processor and a pile of Chinese language press releases to translate.  I was to be news writer, features writer, economist, and part-time editorial writer to boot, during my six months probation since I still had a load to "learn about China".

"If I wanted to learn about china, I'd have gone to China!" I fumed wordlessly at the septuagenarian "woman warrior" of a publisher.  Nancy Lin-Wang was a massive woman of seventy-two, with a perfect set of teeth which she bared to display anything from displeasure to approval--you just had to catch on to the nuances--double eyelids, patrician nose, and a healthy crop of dirt-grey bobbed hair betraying traces of a mandarin, if faded beauty.

A native of Honan province, she founded her paper in Shanghai during the late '30s after a stint at Harvard.  She'd joined the Kuomintang party as a youngster and became a confidante of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.  Mrs. Wang fled with what remained of  her family to Taiwan with the Kuomintang loyalists in '49 following the communist victory in the mainland and had been in "temporary exile" ever since, shuttling between Taipei and Los Angeles.

"Learning about China" consisted mainly of listening to Nancy Wang reminisce about how the two-faced, poison-tongued commies stabbed he legitimate democratic government of the Republic of China on the back and on how the pragmatic whiz kids of Chiang had transformed this tiny island of 20 million into an economic wonder with US$50 billion in reserves--a lasting testament to Sun Yat-sens's Three Principles of the People--in stark contrast to the quagmire Mao and his cohorts had made of the mainland.

It's not easy arguing against US$50 billion and the publishes of the only English-language daily in "Free" China.  She who once upon a war-torn evening interviewed Chou En-lai in a communist mountain lair and silenced Mao's righthand man with her enumeration of leftist fallacies--this, according to her, still to be published memoirs.  I'd began to suspect whether our frequent one-on-one "learn about China" powwows didn't have something to do with the final draft of those memoirs.  But arguing history with the woman required a much stealthier mettle than I could muster.  I usually resorted to our mutually agreeable conclusion--"It was fate".

The China Tribune news and editorial staff was an eight-person affair.  The Trib's nine-story building housed a skeletal operation.  The daily had seen the glory days, or so I'd heard--when Taipei was still the capital of the Republic of China, permanent member of the UN Security Council, host to hundreds of foreign embassies.  Then, what the country had to say still mattered somehow to the rest of the world, and diplomats and correspondents read the Trib for the latest.  Since most countries had shifted recognition to the mainland government, Taiwan's political isolation had meant a grossly reduced profile for the Tribune--an independent but pro-government daily.  The China Tribune was now little more than a trade paper for businesses trying to woo foreign capital markets, or English language majors polishing their prose with letters to the editor--which I had to screen--about improving traffic conditions.

It was the only daily I knew of functioning sans reporters.  We relied on cutouts from the over twenty Chinese language papers and the foreign wire services.  The publishers seemed to have given up the battle against the massive resources of the Chinese dailies with their large local circulation.. Although by no means a "quitter", Nancy Lin-Wang seemed desperate.  After fifty years her paper was suddenly grasping at a reason for being.
Most of the staffers struck me as being in the same quandary--displaced drifters trying to make sense of their days in this city fast being torn down and a new on put up.  There was out Wasp copy editor Mark Mathieson marooned in Taipei for the past five years who hated the city as much as Iowa; Chinese-American Bruce Lu trying to relearn the language of his elders to land a job as far east correspondent for Time; Daryll who'd lived in five cities in seven years; Ben Gomez, also from Manila, who worked the foreign wires and didn't know enough Chinese to order a decent meal; the motley assortment of mainlanders who joined the '49 exodus and couldn't construct a passable sentence in English after twenty years with the Trib; and the gang of fresh journalism graduates, doing their practicum, trying to earn the right credentials and idioms for Columbia or UCLA.  Everyone seemed in "temporary exile", in transit for a last leg somewhere.  Though most appeared headed for Canada or the US rather than "storming back to retake the mainland" as the president would have it in his annual National Day address.

And me?  Well, US$600 a month wasn't exactly peanuts for the people-powered global superstar but economically screwed-up city I came from.  The media outfit I worked for had closed shop and most everyone had been so caught in the wave of emotion that carried the "widow" to power, that a little distance might provide a clearer perspective once the fairy tale ended and the realpolitik persists.  But above all else I wanted to find out if coming here would amount to any sort of "homecoming".  I waned to figure out why Father always "went home" to Taiwan whenever he'd gone on business trips--just as he'd wanted to "go home" to Amoy, China--I could take that since it was his birthplace after all.  And why, contrary to most accepted international conventions, a rational individual like himself should continue to swear by the Republic of China in its "temporary bastion" in Taiwan.  We had our spats about the "legitimate" rulers of China--making me, perhaps, forswear committing a similar grave error with Mrs. Wang--which always ended with his harangue: "What do you young people know?! You're fed all these red lies by Americans. I lived through it."
Father was his usual unflappable self when he heard about my Taipei job.  But I could catch the glimmer in his eyes and the mute satisfaction--"now you're finally doing something with yourself".  I'd been in Taiwan several years back, but that was a three-week tour not long enough for anything to sink in.  I could see father toasting his band of Overseas Chinese WWII Veteran's League, pride brimming from his face--his son "going home"to work for the China Tribune.  And the congratulations and exaltations as the rest of the guys lament the destinies of their own kids who, despite M.B.A.'s and M.D.'s have lost all sense of their ancestry.  "At least his one is saved," I could hear the verdict, "not going to be another huanna (may be read as 'barbarian')."

It was almost 1:00 a.m. when Daryll came up to remind me about Aurora.  The woman had worked as a masseuse in one of downtown Manila's classier joints and had been Daryll's "regular" before he went to Taipei.  Daryll had spotted Aurora shopping for winter clothes in downtown Shimenting and had arranged for the three of us to meet in Aurora's studio room which she shared with other Pinays.

"Come on, you need this as much as I do." Daryll tugged desperately at my jacket.  I'd been up for twenty-two straight hours and not even the prospect of sex could lure me away from sleep.  Taipei's sex scene, or what we knew of it at least, left us both celibate most nights.  It was a choice between the last remaining legalized prostitution alleys in the old district of Wanhua where one could get laid dirt cheap--even by Manila standards--by aboriginal teenagers who literally dragged you into cubicles with life-sized portraits of syphillitic organs staring down at you or second-class hotels where you got ripped off by charming ladies of the night who would shed their tender smiles as fast as their Parisian clothes and wouldn't even pretend to be enjoying their thirty minutes much less faking a couple of orgasms.  Where, oh, where were the gentle, accommodating whores of Manila?  The homely harlots who'd settle for half their regular fee after the wilting rose you bought them?  Who'd even sleep-in for the night when you're too drunk to drive?  There wasn't any middle ground here. No haggling.  Prices were set as if by some regulatory commission.  And most nights we'd simply drown our lust in stale Taiwanese beer with Sgt. Lin Yaw, the local patrolman Daryll had befriended.  The guy had been promising us some "interesting French coeds" for weeks bet could not even show us a poodle.  Lin Yaw's wife, a sometime travel agent, had left him for a Japanese tourist, so he didn't have much else to spend his nights with, save listen to our stories about Manila erotica.

So it was that Aurora came like a blessing to Daryll.  A promise of sensuality in the lethargy of his Taipei days.  "She's probably keeping house for some Irish diplomat in Yangmishan," I quipped.  There were over ten thousand Filipinas working as domestics in Taiwan according to the latest conservative estimates, most of them overstaying tourists.

"I told you, Arthur, she was numero uno in 'Paradise', superstar.  she'd be playing house with your Irish if I knew the lady.  And there are four of them! Man, four wild tropical lasses!  We might even get to manage."

"Domestics, Daryll. The competition here's too stiff; I'll bet my monthly wages they're tsimays."

"No harm looking in."

Aurora, Letty, Donna, and May shared a quaint, half-furnished studio room in a middle-class district.  From all appearances I'd won my bet with Daryll.  Aurora didn't look anything like the insatiable bitch Daryll had painted her.  She wore thin make-up and spoke with a measured timidity not unlike physicians' secretaries politely showing you the bill--"it's P200 per consultation sir".  I tried to imagine her demurely asking a satiated customer for her "tip" but could simply find nothing vaguely erotic about the woman.

She must have been in her early thirties although women in her profession seem to age faster once they "retire".  Cooped up in the darkness of their massage cubicles they look ageless, unchanging--at least to drunken customers/  But once exposed to sunlight, their skins seemed wounded and on the verge of breaking, like those of exposed vampires in old Hollywood horror flicks.  Many seasons, a thousand customers, hundreds of faked orgasms, and tens of thousands of miles away, I could see a petite charmer with almond black eyes and soft lips.  But the years have taken away the soul from her face.

"You're very pretty," I blurted in Tagalog drawing an awkward glance from Aurora and sniggles from her roommates.  It had been quite awhile since I'd spoken a line of straight Tagalog.  Daryll and I conversed in a hodgepodge of Fukienese-English-Tagalog as most Filipino-Chinese of our generation do, while Ben Gomez was so acerbic that I avoided him like the plague.

"You've been seeing so many Chinese, anything else looks out-of-this-world," she retorted.  "That guy at the airport was asking all sorts of questions just to get to first base.  Detained us for over an hour, but Au wouldn't even give him a kiss.  He ended up believing we were actually booked at the Grand Hotel."  Letty's disclosure brought a shade of crimson to Aurora's pale brown cheeks.

"Shut up, Letty.  If you don't stop telling those airport stories they'll pick us up in no time at all."

Daryll knocked his knees uneasily.  Aurora's unexpected countenance bothered him; he didn't think it would be so difficult to "propose".  "So, what beings you here?" He finally asked.

"What else? Maids here make a lot more than teachers back home.  A school-teacher friend of mine managed to send home enough money to buy her folks a piece of land after two years.  Why not? I thought.  Have to send my boy through high school and college pretty soon."

Daryll forced a smile.  "Sure.  But you know where the real money is, don't you?"

The women looked curiously at him unsure whether to flash conspirational smiles or frown at his audacity.  "No, we don't," Aurora answered in a hard tone.  "We've been here less than a month, and we need to work soon before our funds dry up.  But we're decent women."  She spoke with an unnerving clarity.

Daryll fidgeted.  He knew he was powerless to use her past in any way against the woman.  She was the sole master of her destiny and for a moment, Daryll with his 5 ft. 8 in. 175-pound athlete's frame wrapped in autumnal cotton shirt and slacks looked rather puny.

"There's this Filipina nun, Sister Adelaida, who might be of some help.  She's spiritual adviser to many Pinoys working here." I wanted to save the meeting.

"Yes, we've been in touch," May, the smallest of them, said.

"How are your papers?" I asked.

An unsteady silence came over our hostesses; they looked at each other listlessly.  "Expired," Aurora quipped, having been given tacit permission to speak for the rest.  "We were all issued two-week tourist visas.  We're overdue by a few days."

Daryll came to life.  "No problem," he declared.  "What are kababayans (fellow countrymen) for?"

"Kababayans my ass," I muttered under my breath.  Daryll would be the last person alive to admit to holding a Philippine passport.  Twice in his sojourns he'd been singled out from the arrival line in some foreign airport and grilled for his "real reasons for traveling".  Despite his "pure-bred" Chinese ancestry, the guy's tropical sunbaked complexion and passe Jimi Hendrix getups marked him as some itinerant musician or Manila pimp.
"We'll take on any work," Aurora whispered, "so long as it's decent"--this time the word sounded almost morbid.

"Come to think of it, our boss at the Tribune, Mrs. Wang, used to have a Filipina aide, Agnes.  She went home to get married; might not come back.  Mrs. Wang is interested in employing a new girl, she likes Filipinas.  What do you think, Daryll?"

Daryll was a mass of nerves.  I couldn't tell whether he was peeved or frustrated.  It was clear, though, that he was unprepared for the situation.  I, who had met Aurora for the first time, could readily accept what I saw--another woman trying to keep her wits, her dignity, and what remained of her prime while seeking redemption in another country.  And what I saw in Aurora strangely reminded me of the first time I met Nancy Lin-Wang.  The same unnerving quality of voice.  A confidence bordering on arrogance.  Yet you knew none of it was a facade.  Nothing in her past could ever haunt her.  Everyone else she came across was a mere footnote to some epic personal history she was creating.  It struck me that they would make a good tandem.  I resolved to broach the idea to Mrs. Wang once I got the chance and bade the women good night.

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