Charlson Ong's "Another Country" [2/4]

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

Cops are the bane of overstaying aliens in Taiwan.  The country hasn't head of an immigration bureau.  Tourists with expired visas are deemed a police problem.  Sgt. Lin Yaw and his buddies like to patrol the premises of St. Christopher Catholic Church on Sunday mornings.  The place is usually packed with Filipina devotees eight out of ten whom are police problems.  They hie away the pack, or those they can corner, to the station where Sister Adelaide would come to negotiate for the temporary release of those whose cases can still be "reconsidered".  The less fortunate are sent home.

But most Sundays Lin Yaw kept a safe distance, content to watch the gathering of brown women speaking their melodious, lethargic language which lulled him like the monotone chanting of Buddhist sutras.  Since his wife left him, Lin had developed a strange affinity for these foreign women.  It gave him a sense of purpose to accost them, stare into their pained eyes, and demand their passports even as they tried to explain themselves in a potpourri of English and pidgin Mandarin Chinese.  These were the only time Lin Yaw felt anything like a person in authority--an officer of the Law.  AFter all, his country, which couldn't even fly her own flag at the Olympics, was being inundated by aliens--who knew what sickness of body and spirit they bore?
Once he bagged himself a pretty one.  She turned out to be a Catholic Thai.  He asked for her passport and the woman took him home to her apartment.  She told him her passport had been taken away by underworld recruiters who were forcing her into prostitution.  She had escaped.  Could he please help her?  Perhaps, he said, but he'd have to turn her in for the meantime.  The woman began to weep, then she prayed to her God.  And for a moment Lin Yaw was oppressed by such an unsufferable beauty that he took her in his arms and the woman fell limp.  She was a nun.
"These Thai women are something else," he opened his fourth can of Budweiser. "Tight as any virgin, but the best lay in my life.  No questions asked... just followed everything I said.  But you know what?  Every night I dream of having one of your Manila wenches.  Once I get my hands on one of 'em... just watch." Lin was delirious.  He said he'd been looking for the Thai girl ever since but she seemed to have vanished into thin air.  I thought of explaining to him the basics about Mortal Sin but he'd probably have thought Hell was where they lock up all those with forged passports to Heaven.
I mustered enough guts to tell Mrs. Wang about Aurora.  She agreed to give the woman a try, but Aurora could not as yet move in until Agnes sent definite word she wasn't coming back.  Agnes was all-around aide-de-camp to Mrs. Wang.  She opened her mail, boiled her tea, checked her schedule, cooked her meals, and accompanied her to parties.  Nancy Wang was childless, as far as I knew.  Her husband, I'd heard, was killed by Japs during the war; her two sisters were both in L.A.
Anyone who finds difficulty imagining how many Chinese there are in the world should visit downtown Taipei on a Sunday afternoon.  Department stores crawl with shoppers buying up cut-rate bargains every hour.  Theater lines wind down blocks crisscrossing pedestrian lanes.  It was the second Sunday after the quake.  Oppositionists were still haranguing about the "questionable state of public construction", hinting at the collusion among contractors, city officials, and even mobsters.  Families and lovers winding in and out of middle-aged movie houses and commercial blocks didn't seem to have caught the Mayor in TV arguing caution--in case of aftershocks--much less read my editorial about Taiwan sitting on an earthquake belt and how this tragedy should "shock us into action on improving the standards of urban planning".  Tragedies seem to fade as quickly as fashion fads  in this place and are forgotten as easily as the last torn-down edifice.  It's a teflon city where not even public death sticks overnight.  Nothing, not even faulty construction, can delay the inexorable march "towards full development by the year 2000."
Mrs. Wang had, as usual, ignored my editorial work until Mark MAthieson--in an uncharacteristics moment--called her attention to a UPI wire report quoting the China Tribune editorial.  And once more I heard of what a great team Mrs. Wang, who taught me everything I needed to learn "about China", and myself, who fashioned her teachings into timely commentaries, made.  And what a fine future I certainly had at the Trib as long as I continued learning and keeping faith with teamwork.  "Teamwork", she stretched her vowels as long as Chinese people her age--with Harvard degrees--are wont to, flashing her perfect teeth in a solid arc of triumph.  I didn't really have to be reminded, though, that this was our editorial.
As a gesture of her trust in me, despite my being on probation, Mrs. Wang sent me and Daryll over to cover a conference "close to our hearts".  My heart sunk at the prospect of another public construction lecture by some Taiwan-born architect who'd flown all the way home from California after hearing of the tragedy.
It turned out to be a symposium on illegal aliens working as domestics in Taiwan, sponsored by Cover--a highbrow Chinese language magazine.  It surprised no one that the discussion focused on Filipinas--the formal theme being one of those diplomatic niceties to make the invited Philippine charge d'affaires appear more like a "resource person" than a suspect.  I spotted Sister Adelaide on the panel; the petite fortyish nun was one of the first Pinoys I met in Taipei.  I'd visited her place where she "adopted" unemployed Pinays after reading about in in Cover. "So you're Filipino?" she'd asked me then.  Her tone seemed poised between accusation and genuine delight and for amoment the question struck me as either metaphysical or pointless, until I blurted: "yes".  No one had ever asked it of me in Taipei.  I was a hua-chiao, member of one of the lost tribes who had found his way home to free China.
Seeing her now flanked between two larger-than-average Chinamen reminded me curiosly of Lin Yaw's CAtholic Thai, and I had to remind myself about the basics of mortal sin.  Dr. Chu to her left, a historian running for a legislative seat, well-known for his views against the unrestricted entry of Filipinas, appeared more like a debauched poet awakened from his long dark night of the soul.  Prof. Mo, a sociologist cum government adviser, seemed the college type.  He spoke of the "surplus labor" now bedeviling the Philippines as Pres. Aquino placed her house in order.  Filipinos are a charming and freedom-loving lot, staunch allies of the Free World.  Their peaceful revolution is the envy of nations and once the economic machinery starts running smoothly, no doubt, the well of surplus domestics will run dry and the problem shall be solved.  Mo talked of lending a helping hand to our neighbors, he was after all Presbyterian, and reminded everyone of "our own compatriots who have sought sustenance in foreign shores through the decades".  I could hear the unspoken punchline--do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you.
"I love Filipinas," Dr. Chu drew sterile laughter with his half-drunken declaration.  "I think it criminal, unjust, and inhuman that we should tear them away from their loved ones to take care of our own kids so our brilliant wives can sit in corporation boards chatting about slimming diets."
A motley gang of reporters applauded and he went on about the social crimes overstaying Filipinas are prey to, discouraging "export labor" as an unethical way of earning foreign exchange, social imbalances caused by a flooding of foreign workers, and such reasons to make clear his opposition to the idea of a "quota system" being floated by Philippine and Taiwanese officials.
Charge d'Affaires Mallari explained that a definite number of Filipinas would be allowed to enter legally as domestics for a specific time period and would be replaced by another batch after their term has expired.  The plan, he stressed, "was suggested by your officials.  We wouldn't be forcing them on you if there wasn't such a demand."  He adjusted his tie painfully like an evangelical healer trying to explain away a failed attempt.  I'd never felt sorrier for anyone in a three-piece suit.  Third world diplomats are tasked with presenting countries prepackaged by satellite communication.  Your normal Taipei citizens deluged with new footage of skin-and-bone Negros children may not find it easy emphatizing with this Caucasian-looking mestizo.  He appeared too much a member of the well-scrubbed ruling class to be speaking for the poor.  In another time and city I'd have pictured him myself, lounging in a tropical hacienda with servants galore.  But here and now I was arrested by an urge to throw in my lot with him.
"With your massive foreign debts perhaps your government should restrict this outflow of tourists," Chu suggested, his sarcasm dripping all over while Mallari pretended not to hear.  Daryll caught my uneasiness and flashed a dagger look.  We were, so far, unidentified; part of the inquisition, even, or at least objective observers.  Why shoot our mouths off about being from the land of bananas, mangoes, coconuts, cheap English-speaking maids, and US$28 billion in foreign debt?  How may foreign-language and journalism graduates were, after all, among the gathering ready to pounce upon hua-chiaos from Manila like ourselves who were creating imbalances in employment, grabbing potential jobs away from them?
When it was Sister Adelaida's turn to speak, my heart weighed a ton.  I was sure no Filipina domestic would be caught dead in these premises.  What, with representatives of the Taiwan Domestic Welfare League on hand with position paper and a symbolic broom to sweep away any illegal alien job-steaker who happens to fall dead?  Her voice sounded thin and lost in the sardonic air created by Dr. Chu's sharp-witted stupor, the man was definitely loaded.  I had to strain to catch the Sister's words.  "My girls," she began.  Something nipped me. My girls.  She was painting herself into some sort of mama san right off the bat.  Being a Catholic nun didn't hold much water where altar boys outnumber participants during Sunday mass.  None of them I'm sure would dare sit on a ballot box, much less kneel in front of an advancing tank in this city.
"They do not wish anyone harm.  Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.  Who would want to leave behind family and loved ones for an uncertain destiny?"  I was a pathetic pitch, but bluster is a luxury when trying to win over public opinion on behalf of others.  I squirmed and Daryll stared.
"Are we helping the Philippines by being an absorbent of excess labor?  This is a panacea, not a solution.  they have to get back on their own feet.  If we allow this quota for Filipunas we'll have to agree to the same for Thais, Malaysians, and what have you."  The welfare league representative commented in her sing-song Taiwanese.
The discussion dragged on pointlessly until Sister Adelaide observed rather offhandedly, and a mite tactlessly, that most of the women who sought her advice on employment problems worked for locals while those employed by foreigners were relatively untroubled.  An expectant murmur descended--she didn't know anything about China. Dr. Chu rose, she had just set him p for the winner.  "It hurts me," he drawled, "that these lovely women, so dear to me, should suffer indignities at the hands of my people.  No!  Shame on us."
"That's not her point!" I shouted.  Something churning inside me; my heart clubbing at the rib cage.  Chu was unperturbed--"let them rather savor the favors of New York, Venice, London".  The crowd was more amused than anything; he was at least entertaining them in an afternoon turned rather boring.  Daryll grabbed desperately at my elbows but the terrible pounding in my chest demanded redress.  I sensed Sister Adelaide's gentle soul being ravaged by this drunken madman sharpening his wicked wit on another's dignity.  "That man is drunk!  He has no right to be here!" I couldn't recognize my own voice.  It sounded halfway falsetto.  He squinted and adjusted his glasses; the balding blubber mouth pained for a scene.  "Who speaks?"  Chu gestured in mock imperial court fashion; he was putting on a show.  "Drunkenness is a virtue when the world is disordered."
"I come from Manila," I quipped even as Daryll fidgeted.  "I was born there."  A potent grin broke across Chu's face.  "It is my country," I said looking at Sister Adelaide; her eyes remained uncommitted.  "My father had to leave his own village in search for a new life.  The Chinese people should be proud that now there are those who come to this country for sustenance.  I know they cause worry, but before you condemn them, I hope you think of my father and... of me."
Daryll turned away, rocking on the iron legs of his chair, shaking his head at the overdose of sentimentality oozing from my appeal.  I'd hope to give flesh to Prof. Mo's academic point but Chu was irretrievable.  "I think about you and your father every night, young man, and the more I think of you the more I know you should all stay."  I  would have let that pass except that he kept on with stale jokes about there being too many unrecognizable half-breeds in the Philippines, as it is, to be adding on to their number in Taiwan--"you know how fast they multiply.  They're Catholics."  The clubbing inside my rib cage threatened to explode and before I could clear my head I'd flung the glass of water across the room missing Chu by a fraction: "Bigot!" Daryll had to restrain me.  My bones ached even as Chu laughed; he'd never had so much fun in his life.

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