13 June 2015


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Twenty!

Every June is Foreign Shores month for Locus Focus, but this is the first time I'm actually going foreign on you. That is, everything was formerly foreign to you, but now it gets to be foreign to me. (Get it?) Last week, we almost went on an unforgettable tour of a major American metropolis. (It is the "almost" that makes it so unforgettable.) Today, we visit a city in another country that has played a part in Philippine history and continues to figure, whether it likes it or not, in the Philippines' present.

Viajero: A Filipino Novel

by F. Sionil Jose

. . . Chika's house was near the end of a narrow lane with flagstones, both sides palisaded with dried reeds tied together with black vine. It was a small house with three rooms in the Japanese style, with tatami floors and set apart by shoji screens, except the room I was to have; it had wooded walls throughout. All the rooms opened to the back and a small garden planted to a lone cherry tree and bushes and, beyond the garden, fenced by a low hedge of azalea and a high wire mesh, was the river, pushing on to the sea.

Chika showed me the kitchen, a cubicle which she seldom used, a small refrigerator stocked with food, and down the short corridor, the Japanese-style toilet, and beyond it the Japanese bath, with its shower and sunken tile tub which I learned to appreciate later.

. . . "The middle room, the room between us," she said. "Please, do not enter. It is closed. Only I go. It is a holy place."

The real defining moments of Filipino-American scholar Salvador "Buddy" de la Raza's year in Japan are not visits to places, but interactions with people. This makes sense. What else is culture but the soul of a people made tangible? If he sees every temple and monument in the country but does not talk to a single local, can he say that has he truly been to Japan?

Buddy makes three memorable friends in Kyoto--and two are just whom you'd expect, though they do shatter his own expectations of Japanese women: Chika, the retired geisha who now owns a restaurant, and Emiko, her maiko (i.e., geisha-in-training) niece. Together, they represent a living culture: the older woman passes on the fruits of history to her younger counterpart, and the latter mixes and matches them with what modern pop culture has to offer. Both give him a greater sense of Kyoto as a place: one by opening her home to him as a landlady; the other by showing him around the city as a tour guide.

Sometimes, I would pick Emiko up . . . and we would end up at one of those small coffee shops where she listened to rock music; in fact, she had a whole set of Japanese rock tapes which she often played in the morning while she cooked breakfast. She also prepared simple lunchboxes, bento they call it, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with pickled things inside, the thermos bottle filled with tea, and off we would go on one-day trips to Osaka, to Nara, to so many temples. She never really enjoyed the temples, I realised later, but had assiduously taken me there because she understood I was a student of Japanese culture.

At home, in the early evenings, she would be reading Japanese comics. Always mindful of her duties, she would ask me if I wanted her to sing, or dance. She said I was easy to please and she was forgetting the technique of those dances that geishas perform. She would turn on her stereo set and in jeans or short skirt, she would perform snatches of them, incongruous as it was . . .

Yes, past and present come together for Buddy in Kyoto--and not just for Japan, but also for the Philippines. (Slighty spoilery hint for your Secret Decoder Rings: well, of course Chika's old-fashioned home would turn out to hold a key piece of history!) What is missing, however, is the future. Japan welcomes Buddy as a paying tenant, but makes it clear that it is not, for him, a home where he can put down new roots.

Which brings me to the third friend he makes in Kyoto, who is actually his first friend from there. But the oddly named Vladimir Acosta, Filipino illegal alien, is not at all a representative of Japan. The country may have had issues with undocumented workers for decades, tens of thousands of them Filipino; but I don't think it would be markedly different today had it not. (This isn't something I'd say of, say, Italy, Sweden, or the US.) Acosta is not, like Emiko, a symbol of a dynamic Japan; he and the other Filipinos eking out a living there might as well be ghosts. They don't like it very much, but they know it's still better than what they can find for themselves in their own homeland.

Kyoto is not the only Filipino-haunted city in the world. Acosta has haunted several others in his time. They are all different and they are all the same: tangible expressions of other people's souls, but never Filipinos'.

Question of the Week: Do you think you make a good representative of the place where you live?

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And do you think you'd like to read F. Sionil Jose's Viajero? If so, I hope you will try your luck in the June Giveaway now that it has made the giveaway pool. Just use the Rafflecopter below . . .

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Image Source: Viajero by F. Sionil Jose

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