Some of the things I brought with me when I relocated to the US were fabrics from different tribes of the Philippines–the Igorot, Kankanay, Maranaw, Tausug, Yakan–as palpable signs of home. It is strange to feel a kinship with them when I am, perhaps, culturally much closer to the Americans and Europeans. Yet the more I stay here in the US, the more I realize how differently I see the world, or perhaps more correctly, how differently I feel about the world than they (the Americans) do. I remember my friend, the poet Beni Santos, telling me about her trip to England, and her discovery of Shakespeare’s roots. What she found was not an affinity for England’s greatest poet, but a sense of alterity: Shakespeare and the English are totally and strangely different. “Iba talaga sila sa atin,” she said. No matter how anglicized our literary education had been, there remained a continental rift between us.
Other things I brought with me were books I knew I could depend on to reconnect with my country: Kung Baga sa Bigas (Pete Lacaba), Old Timer (Butch Dalisay), Alipato (Beni Santos), Mga Sinaunang Griyego (Roque Ferriols, SJ), Pasyon and Revolution (Reynaldo Ileto). Recently, I frequent the blogsite of my friend and poet Rofel Brion. There he writes simply about work, friends, family, in the Tagalog of Laguna, in a language so whittled down it glints with the clarity of water. There is a purity of feeling: it is not just writing in Filipino, it feels thoroughly Filipino.
On my living room wall in Houston, I had made a little installation–a map of Texas made out of postcards from Europe. It was supposed to be an ironic comment on my sense of dislocation at the time. I called it This is not Texas, and showed it to one of my Texan friends. He didn’t get it. I thought that was funny. We had gone sightseeing in Forthworth and Dallas during Spring Break with Indian friends from engineering. Fortworth still had a belle époque gentility evident in its art deco architecture, and also something of the fading virility of the Old West. We went to see the Stockyards–center of cattle and meatpacking industries in the 1930′s. (I’ve always thought “meatpacker” a poetic word–the enjambment between syllables, death rendered commonplace, the working class romanticized.) There was a rodeo there and a honky tonk bar called Billy Bob’s. We played pool, had a couple of beers. The Indians–holy cow!–rode the iron bull. I got myself a big belt buckle. It had a longhorn’s skull, and said “Texas to the bone”.
The Amon Carter Museum showcased the Western art of Remington and Russel–pictures and sculptures of cowboys and Indians, horses in mid-gallop, mane and tail flailing in the wind–and some of Georgia O’Keefe’s close-cropped flowers–sensuous and fragile–in contrast. There was, at the time, a temporary exhibit of old photographs. I had an interesting discussion with the attending photographer about old techniques such as daguerrotypes, and about dark room versus digital methods. She was overlaying negatives on paper soaked in potassium ferricyanide in order to achieve a blue- (or “cyano”-) print. We did something very similar with our general chemistry students back home. I was delighted.
I have since marked this as the time I had found a sense of place in America. An aunt had once offered me her air miles to visit New York or Montreal, knowing that I was miserable in Houston. I had decided to stay. I had not really soaked up the place yet, nor had found “living, breathing friends” as opposed to, my friend Joy seemed to mock, dead writers. So I had passed the offer, telling myself, I have to learn to love where I live. And I have.