Rice Soldiers

10:30am-11:00am Saturday morning, Sikatuna Village, Quezon City, Philippines

Anonas Extension across from Savemore.

After grocery shopping this morning, I go to a local carinderia to eat lugaw (hot chicken rice porridge).  Because that’s the thing to do after you buy groceries…buy food to eat instantaneously.  

Anyways, as I’m ordering, a feel a slight tug on my bag and look to my side and see a boy, roughly around 8-13 years old.  Quite frankly, he’s malnourished so though his body looks like that of an 8 year old, he can very well be in his teens.  This is the case for some of my students.  Their bodies look small but their faces and eyes carry the weight and heaviness of experience.  He mumbles something to me and I assume it’s him asking for me to buy him food.  I ignore him and carry on with my ordering since living in Metro Manila, it’s an unspoken norm to have children beg you for food or money, them holding out their hand as you walk by, walking along side you, repeating over and over in a low, sing-song tone for you to give to them.  Sometimes, their words sound even chant-like.  However, I’ll stop myself there before I further wax poetic about poverty.

I figure this boy would just walk away, unabashed, as so many of these kids do, seemingly unscathed by the constant rejection of humanitarian assistance they encounter on the daily (Yet again, another irony.  Here I am wanting to work with an international humanitarian org yet I am unwilling to consistently give aid on the ground level?  Long story short.  If you choose to give to a child, the expectation may be that you always give.  Further, if you give to one child, why won’t you give to another, etc., so on and so forth.  Some days, I give.  Some days, I don’t.  And I never give money.  NEVER.  I guess I’m going to have to leave it at that rather than further defend my point of being an inconsistent giver because basically, if you knew where I’m coming from, you wouldn’t need an explanation because you, actually, (gasp) get it.)

I notice the Ate working the carinderia is dishing up a big plate of rice and sauce.  Since I’m the only customer, I figure she’s going to give it to the boy.  In a matter of 2 minutes, the boy who was previously begging (or, for those who prefer more flowerly language, “emphatically encouraging”) me to give him food, was now sitting as a customer would (albeit at the table closest to the exit–far away as possible from the disapproving eyes of the other carinderia workers), awaiting his feast of a mountain of hot steamed white rice drenched in adobo sauce.  His meal of simple carbs that many of my friends (myself, included) would cringe at the thought of eating because it would just, like totally, add to the fat around my stomach–white rice, white starch, white anything–(intentional, quick, superficial commentary on race relations in the U.S. because it’s not about white versus all people of color, it’s a perpetuated system of privilege and power in which those with positions of power and influence are blind to and/or unwilling to recognize certain advantages that are afforded them by virtue of their race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, dominant language, etc.) are just a big no-no for my physical and spiritual nourishment.  I mean, isn’t there a brown or whole grain alternative? (head tilt)

As I sit alone at my table, the sounds of the electric fan whirring, car horns and trykes, and that oh-so-loveable and condoned woman beater Chris Brown’s (“I don’t judge the man.  I judge the music.” said maybe every person who’s never experienced abuse.) “Forever” cacophoning in the background, relishing my hot bowl of soup because no matter how hot it is, I will never turn down a bowl of hot soup, I do my best to not stare at the little boy as he thoroughly enjoys his meal with a new buddy that’s appeared by his side.  His companion is a bit healthier, but still malnourished.  He has smudges on his face that make the teacher in me want to lick my thumb and wipe them off only to follow-up with giving him and myself a healthy heaping of hand sanitzer (and a lesson in reading and hygiene)!  His hair is slightly bleached at the ends and he carries himself the way I imagine a young Jay-Z on the streets of Brooklyn (pre-hipster era of NYC, of course, you know, “the glory days” when you could do a line of coke then your partner at Studio 54 (or maybe both at the same time) and call it a good day…or so I’m told by my adventurous NYC-living parents in the 70’s.  Oh wait.  You can still do that just not at Studio 54 but at the local Shake Shack? Oh…got it.)  Anyways, as the first boy eats, I notice that the half of his face I saw previously while we were standing side-by-side is drastically different from the other half that I now see, as I sit facing him, and he perpendicular to me.

The side of his face I see explains why he has the fine motor skills of a 3 year old or eats as any red-blooded drunk-as-a-skunk frat bro would post-Beat-the-Clock…almost like a puppet whose strings controlling his arms are being yanked erratically by a mischievous puppet master.  Half his mouth looks like it’s pulled taut by an invisible fishing line, his right arm juts out as if he’s doing a permanent robot pose, elbow raised first.  He eats with his left hand, his hand holding the spoon as Beast did pre-Belle in “Beauty and the Beast”.  Not the most sensitive way to describe a boy eating, but his mangled fingers grasp the spoon and shovel rice-filled heap after rice-filled heap into his smiling, muttering mouth.  Now, I realize he was mumbling to me earlier because he can’t fully open his mouth what with his muscles pulling half of it upwards like he’s the Joker or just has perma-smirk.

He and his friend chat excitably about who knows what.  Toys? Girls? The latest crisis in Syria?  One minute they’re laughing and just like that, mid-conversation, his friend runs out into the street, beelines to a van stopped due to traffic, hand out, expectant, but not overly because he knows he’ll probably be ignored or minimized or rationalized away just like any problem in this country.  After the van shows no acknowledgement of his little self, he runs around it to the other side of the vehicle to help guide a different car out of the parking lot, again, right hand in the air, waving the “okay” to keep backing up, and left hand, lowered, straight out, palm up, awaiting the change from the driver.  After this quick hustle, his friend’s back just in time for the first boy to finish his meal of a mountain of rice.  They both walk out, with the first boy, doing a half-hail/half-wave back at the Ate who gave them food.

As the Ate cleaned up his plate, I stopped her as she walked by my table.  I asked her if she knew those boys (knowing full well she didn’t, but then again, I don’t want to assume).  As our conversation wholly in Tagalog goes (Why, yes, what do you know?  Living here and being thrust into quotidian life here has equipped me with some language skills, after all.  The pedagogy basically akin to teaching a kid to swim by throwing them head-first into the ocean.  While effective in its approach of acquiring a skill, this sink-or-swim technique is both terrifying and insensitive to the recipient of said knowledge, but I suppose that’s life. Wipes hand clean of any personal responsibility.), she basically says she gives them food (particularly those two boys who are regulars on our block) because they don’t have food.  She doesn’t give all the time, but sometimes.  She then asks if I’m from another country.  I say yes.  She says, “You may not be Filipino, but you have the heart of one.”.  I then tell her that my parents are Filipino, but I was born elsewhere, but irregardless, my being born in Canada and being raised in the States has given me a different understanding of life…a certain understanding that is constantly being questioned and challenged and having to be resorted and re-centered with every passing day here.  We leave our girl talk at that and carry on with our days, both giving a knowing smile of a connection made though it was through mutual pity/resignation to how life is for these young boys. 

I named this entry “Rice Soldiers” both as an allusion to this one nameless boy who made an impression on my spirit today and to the movie “Sundalong Kanin” that I saw last week as part of the Cinemalaya Movie Festival.  Long story short, the movie is disturbing, but sometimes, we need to be shaken up to come face-to-face to the many harsh, complex realities of life.  Sometimes, the most inhumane actions actually reveal more about humanity than any half-life spent in comfortable, ignorant bliss could ever afford a person.  Not condoning violence as a means to an end, but just saying, it’s about time this world wakes up from this slumber we’re in.


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