Making a case for Manila: Is this goodbye?

Making a case for Manila: Is this goodbye?

Breaking up is hard to do — especially with a city.

Photos by Maine Manalansan

They say art is never the same, because you are never the same. A movie is never the way you remembered it as a child. An artwork is never the same, because a second look will let you notice the finer details. A certain hue or shade will evoke a feeling or memory that holds fresher bearing. Even Friends becomes more emotional when you watch it as a 20-something trying to get through life. I mean, it was emotional then, yes. When Chandler proposed to Monica. When Phoebe gave birth. The saga of Rachel and Ross. But it’s not quite the same as when you’ve gone through heartbreak, or seeing your best friend give birth; after that, these scenarios hit a little bit harder. Could the same hold true for your relationship with a place?

I’ve often wondered how people made great art — you know, the Edadeses,  Amorsolos, and Cabreras of our time. There’s art that engages the eye; information that flows through our veins and towards the cerebral cortex, and then possibly something more perplexing like the heart. Then there’s art that you smell — the food we imbibe which goes onto our Instagram accounts before it hits our bellies. You remember its composition but not as much as the memory of the first bite. Maybe the proposal that comes after. There’s art that you wear that gets recycled across generations, art that you listen to. Then there’s art that you live in, deconstructed in times of turmoil, and demolished by the very hands that made it.

I used to think Manila was the most perfect piece of art — a luminous cocktail of art and commerce that stood on the shoulders of friends, family, industry, and technology. I’ve lived in a gated community all my life, made some really nice friends, traveled on occasion (mostly to New York), worked in the media and met the most fascinating people, attended the best parties and most happening events, felt like I was the sh*t, and while I was never really “it,” I was at least surrounded by “it.” In a perfect world fashioned for me as though it were a birthright, I wiggled myself into an even more perfect one. So why pull off a Pleasantville or The Giver when living in the status quo always yielded comfort.

An interesting turn of events led me to go outside the city that I called home. I have to admit, I hated the thought of leaving periodically. I could only leave for another country but never to somewhere else within the place of our heritage. Blame it on self-styled colonial mentality or the brown brother’s aspiration to be the exact replica of his captors. Hey, we followed them to their dream of democracy. We listened to their music. We dressed the way they do. We spoke the way they did. When ownership of self became so subjective, we might have forgotten the very foundations that made us who we are in the first place.

The curveball in this whole situation — this displacement — is that I actually needed it. My intellect needed it, lest I degenerated within the superficiality of my own doing. My body needed it lest I died from the polluted air that pervaded my atmosphere. My spirit needed it lest I remained empty upon the coterminous assumption that there was nothing else I needed other than what I had. My soul needed it lest I’d have never realized that for almost 30 years, I’d been living a lie that began with the previous generation, exacerbated by technology and rapid gentrification.

I don’t want to wax pontifical about the other side (unless I’m singing Adele). I’ve always found that preaching is a turnoff.It’s just a little bit harder to reconcile within myself how conflicting and disparate these realities are. Picture this: a milestone occasion at a snazzy landmark oozing with luxury, while here I was, returning from weeks of immersion in the trenches of poverty. I had to speak differently, act differently, dress differently, or be labeled an outsider. An outsider inside my once perfect world. And an insider to a foreign one. Something felt wrong here. Thankfully, I had Drake: “You used to call me on my cellphone.”

I wish there was a way to transplant the best of both worlds and create a Mr. Right, a perfect world in which we could all be happy… But it’s kind of like saying that it’s possible to land the perfect mate who has no imperfections. The curveball? You kinda need those imperfections, as John Legend would say. Because it’s imperfections that keep you going.

Try as I could to fit in, I realized, well, everything was the same and I shouldn’t assign any blame. It’s just that I wasn’t. I read other things now, like the newspaper front to back. In fact, my theater books are slowly gathering dust on my to-read pile. I miss reading about Anne Bogart. I miss reading a script or two a week. I miss reading my theater blogs. But these days, I barely find the time to read fiction when all I’m faced with are cold and hard facts. Fact: our comfort women have still not gotten any social or economic reparation from the Japanese government, and only four of them remain strong enough to lobby for reprieve. Fact: a group of students dared to sail to the hotly contested Spratleys to make a stand and yet no one from my world seems to know about their plight. Fact: there are over 700 Lumads in Mindanao who have been displaced from their homes and are in desperate need of our attention. Fact: the same is true for hundreds of families in Tacloban who have yet to be resettled despite all the international aid and relief efforts that came in. Fact: none of our presidentiables have outlined their policies on culture and the youth.

I believe it’s called breakup season. When occurrences happening around you force you to rethink your current situation. I just finished attending an environmental summit in SMX as we speak where I learned about the benefits of organic farming and other technologies that can uplift the poor state of our farmers. And it takes me a little less than two hours to travel from Pasay to Makati, causing me to be late for my doctor’s appointment. So I think to myself, why am I even here? Why am I slugging it out or hanging on to something, to a dream, to art that was just no longer working? Was it time for a makeover?

It’s because of friends (who I have yet to see, by the way, since I’ve buried myself way too deep in books and current events). Family who, as much as I can hate them, I still love them. Industry, because where else would I be able to attend a convention on culture and learn about linguistics and what it reveals about our identity than at the National Historical Commission. Culture, because this month is arts month and there are like a hundred productions happening in the city at once. And technology, because while traffic is sh*tty, this is the place where my Internet is fastest even if it’s supposedly the slowest (and most expensive) in Asia.

I wish there was a way to transplant the best of both worlds and create a Mr. Right, a perfect world in which we could all be happy — one that had no traffic, all the culture and freedom you could ever want and need, manufactured (you need junk every now and then) and organic, clean air, proudly Filipino (whatever that word means these days), and a spirit of its own. But it’s kind of like saying that it’s possible to land the perfect mate who has no imperfections. The curveball? You kinda need those imperfections, as John Legend would say. Because it’s imperfections that keep you going.

Manila, I thought I was ready to give up on you. But not just yet. After all, I love a good challenge. One more chance? Here’s hoping.

#art #love

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