I spent a lot of my time on this chair during my 14-day quarantine at the massive field hospital in Mohammed bin Zayed City, Abu Dhabi, which was specifically built to admit patients who tested positive for COVID-19.
Cases in the UAE have impressively dwindled to an average of 250 from a whopping 900, so the facility wasn’t as busy as it has been when it opened in May. It was generally quiet—except for the cricket sounds at night, the thuds and whirring from the daily sanitation of the housekeeping staff, and the knocks on the door that meant a blood pressure and temperature check, food ration, or a doctor’s visit.
I wasn’t physically ill—an asymptomatic, thank God—yet I felt unwell on some fronts: mental, spiritual, and emotional. Hospital quarantine, I found, is a strangely different experience.
I sat on this chair while I pondered a lot about life and death. My own mortality. The world’s injustice, the power of privilege, the fate of the oppressed, the sacrifice of the frontliners, and the loss of lives here and around the world.
I sat on this chair wondering if I should live my life in acquiescence or in resistance. If was meant to observe and not to participate. If I should let nature take its course, or be the gallant harbinger of change.
I sat on this chair wondering if I should stop trying and just be still like water.
I sat on this chair and finished reading five books about philosophy, kindness and compassion, and death. I sat on this chair and watched my breathing. I spent my Eid holidays on this chair, too, traveling as what others often do during the holidays. Only this time, I traveled within.
I realized I have always looked outwards, seldom inwards.
I sat on this chair a lot, away from where I live, away from where my roots are, yet somehow it felt like I’ve already come home.
I’m out of hospital quarantine now, but I’d most likely still do more of this sitting.
In it, I was crying in front of my mother. I was not sure why, but I could feel my front teeth wobble in between my sobs. Around us were many unrecognizable faces that remained still.
And then as if by reflex, I pulled out a tooth. I stared at my hand that held it and looked up to find my mother gasping and saying something I couldn’t understand. I pulled out one more tooth, and then one more after the other. I was becoming more overwrought at every tooth gone not because of the pain but because of its harrowing aftermath.
I woke up in the morning short on breath. My mother, who was already up and was busy packing her things for her flight back home later in the day, didn’t notice.
This is not the first time I’ve lost some of my teeth in my dream. I had a few similar ones when I was younger, and whenever I’d tell these to my mother or to our laundress Ate Arlene, I would often be quickly instructed to bite at any kind of wood, be it a pencil or the arm of our wooden sofa, or—believe it or not—the kanto or the corner of a room to dispel the omen that comes with it. Apparently, old folks believe that dreaming of teeth falling out foretells a person’s death, usually a family member or a close relative or friend. I did bite at any wood I saw then, but not the kanto (because how the f—?).
I kept mum about it because Mama was flying to the Philippines the same day. I didn’t want to turn our low spirits into unnecessary panic. Instead, I looked for the dream’s meaning on Google.
A popular dream website said that it could have been a manifestation of over-exaggerated worries and anxieties or it could mean “sense of powerlessness” over things I wanted control of. Over-exaggerated worries and anxieties. Sense of powerlessness. I sat there in silence and tried to digest what I just read. Well, losing teeth in real life can be pretty disconcerting. This kind of loss was really something to worry about.
Then I figured, maybe the dream didn’t mean a person was about to die. Maybe it actually meant a dream that has died.
Several years ago, when I saw that unforgettable risky coverage of a renowned Filipina TV journalist in the Middle East, I knew right then and there that I want to spend my entire life doing the news. That dream happened years later after college. It was in the action-packed and always-tensed environment of the newsroom that I found my sense of fulfillment and purpose.
But three years into living the dream, I decided to walk away at the time when I felt most exhausted of it. Perhaps it was the perfect timing to escape because I knew that if I didn’t leave at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to do what have to do: to step up and take #adulting to the next level. Like most of the kabayans who went abroad, I had to set my dream aside and go to the Middle East to make someone else’s dream come true.
To be clear, nobody in the family forced me to do this. It was a conscious choice. I figured this is the only way I can give back to my parents who have often refused to accept any intrega or allowance from me or my brother. To Mama and Papa, it is more important that their children always pay it forward. So I did and decided to shoulder the college fees of my cousin, who lost her mother at a young age.
I left the Philippines without any hint of misgivings. But, it hit me hard few months later, when I failed to nail a job in three months and even had to do a visa run before finally getting hired for a job that wasn’t in any way related to “the dream.”
Every waking day I try to make peace with the thought of giving up a career I loved and the precious time I could have been spending with family and friends in exchange for more money. I often begin my day by reminding myself to be grateful for a decent job that has been very elusive to some of the kabayans who gambled their way to a better life abroad. But the feeling of disconnect with everything that mattered to you did not make it easy. I could sometimes hear my last hope’s heavy breathing; my dream is dying.
I reached a point where I desperately scrolled down my Messenger list, in hopes of finding someone whom I can just talk to. But with distance and different time zones, it had been difficult to tap people. While there had been a few fleeting moments of lent ears, at the end of the day I felt that I was left with none at all. After all, who would want to talk to a fretful cynic, when—as what my then significant other had pointed out—it’s not just me who has a cross to carry?
Trust me, I always try to keep all my pessimism at bay but sometimes, they escape in the form of silent tears before I go to sleep, or soft whimpers in one of the stalls of my workplace’s restroom. And in this particular day, they found their way into my subconscious and manifested in the form of a forbidding dream.
What I’d give to make my mother stay longer in the UAE.
Everything was peaceful and in order with Mama around. She didn’t have to try, but Mama put me at ease with her reassuring presence, especially when unwanted thoughts of doubt and regret come knocking at my door.
She was also very hands-on with my father, too, who—for the first time in his entire overseas career—finally had someone to care for him while he’s miles away from his family.
It was my mother who made our home away from home even more homely.
But tempusfugit, she eventually has to go back. My father and I would have to lead solitary lives again. In the following week, we were to move out of this studio-type room that had been my home for nine months. Papa would go back to his original accommodation; I would have to stay with my cousin in another emirate.
At the airport, before sunset, we said our goodbyes. I fought the urge to cry as I watched Mama kissed Papa on his cheeks, and although they tried not to show it, I caught a glimpse of their eyes—longing, melancholic, and tearful. It was a yet another painful episode in their long-distance marriage.
After seeing Mama get engulfed by the wave of passengers at the boarding area, my father and I parted ways. He went home to Al Ain; I headed back to Sharjah.
My eyes were swollen by the time I reached my accommodation. My cousin hasn’t gone back from work yet.
I went straight to my partitioned room, slumped in my bed, and continued to mourn about my old life.
I have never felt so lonely.
I cried over my fate, and wondered wistfully if I’d ever be able to go back doing what I love again. I cried over fading friendships I have been desperately trying to revive and the friendships that I don’t recognize anymore. I cried over my family’s silent ordeal of being apart from each other for so many years. I cried over the sacrifices I needed to make and the rest I’d still have to endure as I continue make peace with my life here abroad.
No one was to blame. Everything was the result of my choice.
I whispered my prayers, emptied my heart, and hoped that I could finally accept the “now.”
I went on with it until I could cry no longer; until I could finally trust myself that I would cry no more. I cried until my head throbbed and my heart ached no more. I cried until I knew it was enough.
The question came not from a kabayan but from the Nigerian driver of the taxi I hailed on the way home. He repeated the question. “Kumusta ka?”
For a moment I could not speak; I still get surprised when a foreigner speaks Filipino, especially when we’re not even in the Philippines. I gave a him a weak smile and said, “okay lang.”
He seemed unsatisfied with my answer so he asked me the question again. And then he sighed and said, “no, no, no. Your answer is wrong. It’s supposed to be ‘mabuti’, right?”
I laughed. Did he just correct me about a language I grew up using? Then again, he was right. In standard conversation, ‘mabuti‘ was the reply. For someone learning a new language, ‘mabuti’ is the correct answer. I apologized and asked him to throw the question again so I can make my response right for him.
“Kumusta ka?” is “how are you?” in Filipino. It is a favorite conversation starter, which often comes after a “hi” or a “hello.” Sometimes, it’s “Uyyyyy, kumusta?!” followed by interrogative and exclamatory sentences that will catch someone off guard like, “Balita ko, nag-break na kayo ni ano?” (I heard, you and your significant other broke up?) or “Nag-resign ka na raw?” (You resigned from your job?) or “Girl, buntis ka?!!!” (Girl, you preggy?!!!) or worse, “Tumataba ka!” (You’re gaining weight!)
Here in the UAE, the people, especially the Arabs, are very fond of the greeting “How are you?” that follows through after their own version of “hello,” which is “marhaba,” or the Islam greeting “assalam-alaykum” that means “peace be unto you.” In the standard Arabic language, “how are you?” is “kheif halik?”
From what I’ve observed in working closely with some of my Arabic colleagues, especially the men, they always, always greet their clients with a quick word of regard and a small talk that lasts for a minute or more before going down to business. They welcome clients in our office with a firm handshake and a beso or two (sometimes three, and that’s alternately per cheek). Same goes with women, only a bit lengthier. This is how the Arabs show courtesy and proper etiquette to other people, and it would be impolite not to reciprocate.
And it’s not just the Arabs. Greeting someone is a form of respect, something we all have learned since we were kids. We were taught that being polite is a reflection on one’s upbringing and, in some cases, one’s social standing. But upon getting introduced to life, I have come to realize that not everything I learned in kindergarten, I can actually live by as an adult.
Here’s a confession: I have seldom sustained the small talk borne out of “How are you?” especially with people I am not really close with. In fact, I feel a little jittery whenever I’d hear that question.
A perfect example would be a few interactions with my boss, or amo in kabayan terms, at work. I know he only means well whenever he’d beam at me and ask the question I’ve grown to dread, but he still gets me slightly petrified all the time.
“Hi, Tez,” he would greet me. He preferred calling me Tez than my real name because according to him, I reminded him of his favorite teacher in elementary. And then he’d ask the million-dollar question: “How are you?”
By instinct, I flash a big smile. But upon closer look, my mind is already in panic trying to figure out how to answer him. Was he really trying to ask how I feel at the moment? Was he trying to chat with me? What do we talk about? Or was he referring to my job? Jeez, maybe he’s just saying it as is, like a greeting. Or, oh my god, am I going to get fired??? And in the next few milliseconds, when I see a slight shift on his face, I scramble to redeem myself with the standard response, “I’m doing good, Sir. You?” before slowly disengaging eye contact and scampering away from him in a manner that I have always hoped wouldn’t offend him.
I honestly do not want to be rude when I am engaged in a small talk. I do manage to hold on to the conversation a few minutes more once in a while, sometimes I become chatty, too, thanks to the needed kick I get in the morning from my coffee, which is really Coffeemate with a dash of powdered coffee. I just don’t feel comfortable getting asked that question.
Possibly because I haven’t been used to warming up conversations lately. After a quick “hello,” “hi,” or the greetings that vary with the time of the day, I go straight to the point about my intention. Wala nang pasikot-sikot. Sayang ang oras. (No beating around the bush. It’s a waste of time.) Or perhaps because growing up, I have come to view this widely used ice breaker as something deeper and more intimate. It is more than a mere act of acknowledgment and politeness; it is a serious and sincere question that should mean every word.
To me, “kumusta ka?” urges you to unravel what specifically bothers you at the moment, to be honest with one’s feelings and say every bit of it no holds barred, simply because the person on the other end showed you that he or she truly cares about you and your whereabouts. To me, it’s an indirect way of letting the other person know that you are available and very much willing to listen, regardless of the circumstances.
I believe that a simple utterance of a “kumusta ka?” could mean so much to a person, say, a long-distance friend who often longs for his or her favorite barkada, or a kabayan who has been missing home a lot, or those who have been praying for a long time now to finally be noticed by their crushes… or whoever they fancy.
So when that Nigerian asked me “kumusta ka?” and smugly corrected me for giving him a wrong answer, I honestly wanted to rain on his parade and tell him that the answer to a “kumusta ka?” will not always be mabuti or “I’m fine.” That sometimes, it is as blunt as “okay lang” and that I could not associate my feelings then with mabuti because I simply don’t feel mabuti. I was a bit homesick, discouraged, and apprehensive that time and I’m not a person who’s clever at hiding feelings. My face often gives me away, too. And why the hell would I share those feelings with a complete stranger, anyway?
But of course, I knew that he was only engaging me in a conversation so that he can practice his Filipino, and I was only being overtly emotional and overreacting.
This is not the first time I’ve been dispirited with people asking me “kumusta ka?” I bet everyone else has experienced at some point in their lives being asked about one’s day, and ended up getting disappointed about how the conversation went.
I experienced getting buzzed up by someone I know from the LGBT community who I haven’t talked to in years, only to realize after that he was merely checking up on me to validate his speculations about a sudden twist of fate that happened in my life—that is, my love life. When he got his answer, he never did send me a message on Facebook again. At least, someone’s getting information first-hand, right? That’s true journalism for you.
I experienced getting a “how are you?” from some friends I’ve been dying to hear from, only to be led to the me-me-me avenue on the way to their me-me-me party. It was nice to learn of the good things that happened in their lives, and I also gladly empathized with them as they share with me the things that are making them give up on life. Although after every conversation, I would always wonder if they really ever meant asking how I am.
And, yes, I also received a “how are you?” from a friend I haven’t spoken to in ages, only to be invited out for coffee and getting asked, “open-minded ka ba?” (“Are you open-minded?” This is a reference to networking gigs and other seemingly legitimate pyramiding schemes in the Philippines.)
But of course, I know I’m just over-analyzing an innocuous greeting. I almost always do.
I just hope “kumusta ka?” would be able to keep its truest and most genuine form as the language continues to evolve. I’ll definitely be using this sparingly, but will also try to get used to this greeting, too, that I have been getting a lot lately in this country. CV