During one of my early morning commutes, the bus I took was showing GMA News TV’s Balikbayan. It’s a program where celebrities – actors, singers, and television personalities – take us back to their hometown, and show us around the place they grew up in. We see their childhood homes, meet their family and friends, and get a tour of the nooks and crannies of their hometown. It’s a trip down memory lane for the celebrities who meet childhood friends they haven’t seen for years, or reacquaint with grade school teachers who saw their bright futures early on – people who knew them before they were known to the world.
The episode of Balikbayan featured Ivan Mayrina – one of the more recognizable faces and voices of GMA’s news arm. His hometown of Angeles City, Pampanga isn’t one of those pleasant bucolic grounds familiar in provinces further away from Manila. But it does possess the pleasantries of rural life – albeit mixed with growing urban development spilling from the capital region.
Throughout the episode Mayrina waxes nostalgic. His family home – where his father and a few of his siblings still reside – appear to retain the warmth of his childhood years. He meets up with his best friend and favourite teacher later on, both of whom agreed Mayrina was bound to be successful, as they recalled the broadcaster’s dedication in high school academics. We also get to see dining establishments (mostly local eateries) Maryina frequented, especially to savour the iconic sisig.
Before the episode wrapped up, Mayrina made an interesting juxtaposition of life abroad, and life in his hometown and in the country. As a newscaster, he explained the perks of being assigned to a story (or tasked to follow one) – travelling abroad, immersing in a tapestry cultures, and meeting people with sometimes entirely different systems of belief. But he continued by saying there was really no place like the Philippines. While more developed nations offered the comforts of modern life – better infrastructure, disciplined citizens, and cleaner cities – the chaos of the Philippines was something you will always go back to. The dust, the traffic, the madness, the systems or lack thereof – this was home.
“You don’t belong there.” That was how I recalled Mayrina’s succinct conclusion of being a Filipino abroad.
His comment struck a chord especially after a colleague of mine gave me a book which I had just read a few days prior: J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime. In the book, Coetzee examines his life in what seems to be an autobiography presented as fiction. His narrative is simple – interview people who knew the late writer John Coetzee – and create a story out of it. The result is an exploration of Coetzee’s views about being a white man born in South Africa. He mentions, if I recall correctly, how out of place he was in his own country wrought by apartheid and the effects of colonialism. Quite simply, Coetzee says he has no claim of inheritance in South Africa, even if he was born there. The true South Africans, those who till the land, those who trace their ancestors birthed in its very earth, had the truest claim of country’s riches and resources, victories and failures. He does not belong in South Africa.
Mayrina’s sentiments echo my own feelings, regardless if feelings should never be relied on in matters such as this. A part of me desires to be someplace else where Manila’s smog, chaos, failures, and vanities will not consume me. But will the physical escape truly free me from the city’s clutches? I have no claim on other lands, not even a stake at the view of the sky from a different point in the ground. I have only a blood pulsating with the city’s intangible genetic make-up. Although I yearn to become someone else, it is simply not possible by leaving the land of my birth. Manila, for all her infirmities, still has my affections.
The episode of Balikbayan ends, and I’m still nowhere near my destination. I look out of the bus’ window and onto the EDSA gridlock, the plague of shiny SUVs sharing cramped space with monstrous trucks, and vulnerable motorcycles switching and squeezing between lanes. A haze of grey hangs above the air, as my own cramped space inside the bus is filled by the imaginings of fellow commuters.
Do they think they belong in this place – a city that seems to have been damned in spite of the many claims of economic progress? Do they long to return to their own hometowns, knowing so many of Manila’s people are migrants, descendants of migrants, coming from all sorts of provincial refuge or distant island? And those like me, who were born in the tremor of a shifting land – do they still have their affections for Manila, or are they tempted to to become someone else in someplace far?
“You can’t bring an unwritten place to life without losing something substantial. Manila is the cradle, the graveyard, the memory. The Mecca, the Cathedral, the bordello. The shopping mall, the urinal, the discotheque. I’m hardly speaking in metaphor. It’s the most impermeable of cities. How does one convey all that?”