Charlson Ong's "Another Country" [3/4]

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 off a bit slow, but I do hope you enjoy it.  The entirety of the piece is well worth the read. - paris

Mrs. Wang flashed her imperturbable all-weather smile.  I'd never felt so weak and defenseless before her.  The incident had run the round of the dailies and Cover's editor-in-chief was an old Kuomintang crony of hers.  "Have you had dinner?" she asked as I took my seat. It was six o-clock p.m., my usual check-in time.  She was being civilized about the matter and making things worse for me.   But as her wont, Nancy Wang didn't go right into the Main Event.  "Aurora spoke to me about her visa; it's expired."

"Oh? Is it?"

"She asked if I could help.  You know I have to employ a few foreigners in this business.  And getting involved with anything illegal could affect my relationship with the Foreign affairs people.  It might affect your prospects of getting a work permit."

I know.  I'm sorry she had to bother you with that."

"No bother.  I just wanted you to understand.  She can stay with me.  At her own risk."

Aurora was the least of my concerns; neither was she, I knew, on top of Mrs. Wang's agenda.  "Look, I'm sure you've heard about yesterday." I longed to get it over with.

"These things happen.  You're young and inexperienced.  I knew you weren't a journalist when I sent for you."  She made a point of stressing my "underqualifications" since day one.  And this time it struck a loose nerve.  "The man was drunk.  Shamelessly drunk!"

"Did you know who he was?  No! Of course not.  How could you.  Stupid of me.  I trusted you too much."

"He's seeking the Kuomintang nomination for the legislature."

"That's not half of it."

"A famous historian."

"A war hero." She was really disturbed--this wasn't any regular lesson about China.

"So were a million other guys.  Doesn't give anyone the right to behave like he did.  He was out of line--a discredit to his office."

Her voice trembled--"A dear friend."

I knew it was less the drunken Chu I was assaulting than a Father.  It was the piece of glass I wanted to hurl at him months ago when he threatened to disown my brother Mark for marrying his Filipina girlfriend, Lucy, in New York where they were both working on M.A.s in Business Administration.  "it's not as if she's living with a gay Haitian!" I barked.  "What do you know?! Your Uncle Ah Tin is still counting roaches in Chinatown, selling toilets for that pig-faced Cantoniese, and you know why?  I'll tell you why!" He always did.  "Cause he's got no balls which is worse than having no brains.  He had to marry that huanna wench--daughter of a lousy beat cop just beacuse he brought her home late one night thirty years ago and the asshole threatened to shoot him!"  I'd heard this story a zillion times.  Uncle Ah Tin, father's second cousin, was the "poor relation".  He who dug his own grave by calling off his scheduled marriage to a daughter of Chinatown's foremost grain trader--a fortune in dowry it might have been. The shamed family came down so hard on Ah Tin he couldn't make a decent buck in years.  No one dared extend him credit or they would suffer the wrath of Co Lay.

"That's ancient history.  Times have changed.  I can name you a couple of millionaires who married Filipinas."

"Shut up!"

"What's more, I know who keeps a pretty bold show model in a townhouse in Pasig."

"How dare you!" And that was how I got nicked by the golf club he threw at me--the first time he displayed any form of violence.  Father turned deathly pale when he saw the blood; he scrambled over with a white hanky but I fled, blood dripping from the eyebrows.  We hadn't spoken to each other until that day at the airport.  He hugged me at the departure area and tucked US$300 into my pocket.  "Take care of yourself," he whispered and removed the bandage I kept plastered across my eyebrow for over amonth even as the wound had long healed--"you have to take it off sometime."

I'd seen enough wallowing bohemians to last me a lifetime but Doc Chu, for all his credentials, had suddenly loomed as a safe way to get back at Father for bogeying my forehead.  Presently, though, Nancy Wang was the largest thing I ever laid eyes on.  She possessed the bearing that only great age and genuine grievance could give and for a moment I imagined a ten-feet tall, black-faced woman warrior poised to hack me to bits with a giant gwan sword.  But just as I thought she'd draw blood, the woman turned her back on me and strode away.  For the first time since I came, Nancy Wang did not herself oversee the editing of the Trib--she was normally the final omiscient eye through which all stories, headlines, and rewrites pass in case of "errors" about China.  She took the elevator up to the eight floor private suite and did not so much as call up the editorial room for the rest of the evening.

It was my longest night at the Trib.  My bowels were killing me and I had to keep a lateral eye making sure Nancy Wang wasn't suddenly beside me.  Daryll was off for the night and I quickly fled as soon as the local page editor, Paul Chang, assured me the dummy was fine.  Aurora was used to me showing up at midnight.  In fact she'd often wait for me whenever Mrs. Wang let her off late and I'd take her home to her apartment before turning into the dorm room I shared with Daryll.  She was alone; Donna and May had found jobs in the southern city of Kaohsiung while Letty had gone to Hong Kong to join her musician brother.  Aurora planned to look for a less expensive place and was really hoping Nancy Wang would let her move in.

Nancy must've let her off early that night, she was in her nighties when I called.  The aroma of cooked coconut milk made me hungry.  I realized I'd been too tense and had forgotten all about dinner.  But the screwed up emotions inside were too powerful and, just as in the Doc Chu affair, I needed someone safe to bawl out.  "You should've let me handle it.  I told you not to ask her for favors as yet.  We've got to earn her confidence.  She's wary of people trying to use her!"

"I'm sorry," she muttered, surprised at my anger.  "I'll quit if this will affect your relationship with Mrs. Wang."

"No. I just don't want her thinking we're all at her mercy."

"She's mad at you."

"Who cares?"

"You can afford not to care," she quipped in an almost reprimanding tone.  She seemed to have taken Mrs. Wang's side in the matter.

"Look, I stood up for you!" I shot back wordlessly, my eyes screaming at the injustice of her tone.  Aurora dropped her gaze to her hands.

"Look," she raised her fingers, "my first manicure in Taipei."  She could've been some blue collar wife in another time and place.

"Is that what you're celebrating?"

"Got a package today from my sister, a bottle of gata (coconut milk).  Guess what I cooked it with?  Apples, pears, and peaches.  Want some?"

"I've enough problems with my bowels."

"Have you had merienda (light snacks)?"

"Haven't had dinner."

She fixed something and I ate with vengeance.  It was one of the rare time in nearly half a year that I enjoyed any semblance of domesticity.  I ached for my mother's chicken stew and at once everything I missed found expression in Aurora's dimpled reticence.  Her breast whose outlines I could now decipher were smaller than I'd imagined, neither did it matter that a thousand lusty lips had been buried between them, devouring the nipples, deforming their natural contours.  My throat was dry and my neck throbbed.  "I love you, Aurora."

Her smile was sad and unsurprised--she'd heard those words a hundred times before.  "You're homesick," she whispered, "get some sleep."

"I know it sounds crazy, but..."

"You've been lonely."  She spoke with unassumed certainty.

"And you?"

"I'm used to it.  I can see you're not.  It's difficult at the beginning."

How can I be homesick?  This is my home!  A sourness crept up my throat.  I gripped her wrists to keep from tottering, fighting back a sudden nausea.  "Please..."

Her face tightened into a mask of defiance.  "I don't know what Daryll has been telling you.  You may be my only friend here but I can do without you."

A crippling tiredness swept over me and my eyes welled.  "I'm sorry, forgive me."  I turned and fled the scene as I had years ago--a fourteen-year-old fleeing from the first cathouse I'd ever visited fearful of catching some incurable disease on my first lay, of dying and being thrown into eternal hell, of having lost something that will forever remain unknown--now, gasping for breath as darkness reigned and turned every city into a single sea of restless dreamers.  I knew it had something to do with that gift of love given to all of us raw and abundant as children which we so carelessly shed until we are left powerless and inert.

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