The author of this piece, Ninotchka Rosca, works as a literary writer and a journalist. She is also an activist, advocating for women’s rights. She resides in New York City but lives in the world.
It was difficult to see and hear those words repeated, in media reports, articles, military and even White House briefings: “The Filipino people are resilient.” A characterization which should raise anyone’s hackles, with its image of a jelly blob, quivering when punched, then quieting back to what it was before the rain of blows: sans sharpness, inert and passive, non-evaluating of what happens to its self.
No, we are not resilient.
We break, when the world is just too much, and in the process of breaking, are transformed into something difficult to understand. Or we take full measure of misfortune, wrestle with it and emerge transformed into something equally terrifying.
It is what is…and what isn’t
This is in sync with our indigenous worldview, expressed by our riddles, the talinhaga, on which every Filipino child used to be raised: an understanding of reality, including ourselves, as metamorphic (or, capable of transformation).
A leaf by night; a bamboo by day – is how we look at our buri mat. It is both what it is and isn’t.
And because this is a worldview which has to be lived in situ, it is unfathomable to the outsider, despite scholarship and analyses, which come up with nothing but the label “resilient.”
We don’t spring back, we transform
Across oceans and throughout the five continents of this Earth, we carry the tales of our old heroes and muses, our elementals, who confront, in each re-telling, tests of strength and spirit.
Some break, like Mariang Makiling who hides in a thousand-year hibernation; others metamorphose, like Bernardo Carpio who becomes a pillar of stone stopping cliffs from caving in on his village.
We may not remember their old names – names being the first to be erased under colonialism – but we remember how they were and how we are supposed to be: metamorphic.
What have we become after Yolanda?
These two legends represent the twin possibilities for the Filipinos’ metamorphosis. Both are inexplicable outside of the local paradigm. Just as what we’re watching now in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda seems inexplicable.
Who can fathom what drives a woman to open body bags of putrefying corpses in search of a husband, a son, a daughter? At the end of a gaze that has lingered over a hundred dead faces, what is she now?
Who can measure the rage of the peaceable man breaking through the walls of groceries, warehouses, shopping malls? And having pierced both law and walls of Authority, what is he now?
The absence of thousands
To say that Filipinos are resilient is an assurance for those who have imposed upon them – much and repeatedly.
It is to say to themselves that we shake off tragedy much like ducks shaking off water.
It is to ignore the monuments to what has been suffered: matchstick debris of houses, muck and mud of vanished cities, stench of the dead and – oh! – the absence, thousands of absence, of those who used to be in our midst. Who could be so resilient as not to be transformed by that?