a conversation with an expatriate poet in macao

The morning before we had that rarer-than-miracle talk, he told me he had a word fight with his boss. Word fight means they were able to keep their tempers at a diplomatic and manageable degree and did not run to fetch knives and hammers…”

by papa osmubal

He is there again. It is fixed schedule and venue: midnight, almost always 12-something at midnight, along Nam Van Lake. It seems to me to sit there in the same spot- a big rock caressed by waves- and at almost the same time of the day has become part of his instinct, not of his human will. He is now a bird returning to its nest not out of its willingness to do it, rather out of its nature. Sipping beer and holding a book, he sometimes fixes his gaze at the blankness of the night shrouding the murky waters. His mind must be full of stars and moons.

The moon paints his figure yellow. At least now, he belongs to the lords of this City, Macao, who are mostly yellow. At moonlit midnights like this, he is not brown; he is not Filipino; he is a real citizen of Macao. Yellow. Anyway who would dare approach a total stranger sitting in the dark just to find out if his eyes are almond-shaped or not? Even his shadow is yellow.

I never had the chance to talk with him, except once over a nice round of Tsingtao beer. That was a very long time ago; and having forgotten when makes me think as though it never happened at all. And once is an eternity. Because we talked of the past and the future.

How about the present? The present, he said, is not a thing to talk about because, he believes, it is not essential and is devoid of mystery. He said the present is just a moment to spend whether in vain or in glory. The present to him is naked—it does not hide anything; thus one does not need to spend so much effort to discover and uncover anything in or about it.

The morning before we had that rarer-than-miracle talk, he told me he had a word fight with his boss. Word fight means they were able to keep their tempers at a diplomatic and manageable degree and did not run to fetch knives and hammers. Contrary to popular belief, he said, fighting connotes understanding, not misunderstanding. Whether we like it or not, he said, fighting, whatever is its nature, starts and ends with a talk. That is why when we fight we know what we and others are fighting for, otherwise it is but foolishness and a waste of time. We fight to impose our opinions, not to clarify them. We negate others’ opinions because such opinions, whether true and logical, whether untrue and illogical, are a threat to our identity. This is how culture has been abused, he averred. He said that is especially true in Macao. Because Macao, he explained, is a city of colors. Opinions therefore are colors; they show one’s identity; they show where one comes from; they show how one’s opinions work; they show to where one proceeds. Unluckily in Macao, although there are brown citizens, there are no brown opinions. In Macao, as in many places of the world where culture has been manipulated, color flaunts intelligence: light is intelligent, and dark is something that needs further refinement.

This man must be sad, if not angry.

His boss, he said, is a Portuguese who grew up and was educated in Brazil. Therefore he speaks the tongue of those who, before the face and eyes of all the earth, recklessly violated the grammar of his language. He came to Macao after university to test how his so-called education can reap fortune. Portuguese is white. Filipino is brown. He said, perhaps unwittingly and unwillingly, Macao has become hypocritical, or something worse. Macao before, he said, considered white as superior to yellow. Now it considers white as the counterpart of yellow. This is one of the reasons why the present is insignificant: it defiles the past and the future. The past is a twisted and aborted present—on its surface is outright falsity. This is why one should dig deeper into it to mine and grasp its clandestinely concealed truth, which is its mystery. Citing an example, he said, the Philippines, not like what many believe, is not a cowardly and gullible nation. It is a land of unending dissent; it is the land of fists and shouts. The Spaniards did not rule there. After signing a pact of friendship and peace with the native Datus (Sultans) with blood for ink, they retreated and hid behind their walls; ate spiced foods; quaffed wine, and penned prayer books and their version of history; and they called this endeavor as ruling and conquering. The walled city of Intramuros, in Manila, he said, this time his eyes burning and shrieking, is shameful evidence to that. Which is quite true: twisting the facts and making the world believe they are true is the real meaning and purpose of ruling and conquering. It happened around the world. It happened too here in his adoptive city, but here only the strategy was rendered with another flavor: lease—the Portuguese rented the place from the Mandarins, but behind the Mandarins’ back they were whispering in everybody’s ear that Macao was their conquered territory. That has been always the case of conquest. You have to corrupt the truth and ink it into paper.

Macao, he said, is rife with contradictions. The Portuguese, being Christians, think their soul is of the same color as the Filipino soul, religion-wise. And status-wise, as a result of social compromise and for the sake of history, yellow and white souls bear a resemblance.

His words were heavy like boulders forcing their way out of his throat and mouth. To talk of his life and who he is was harrowing. Sloshing his guts and veins with Tsingtao beer, or with Vinho do Porto if the day is so kind to him (or rather if he is so kind to the day), is the only way to alleviate and assuage the pains.

Pains, he said, allude to one’s loyalty to one’s country. Pains are patriotism made manifest. To feel one’s country’s pains (or pains sired by one’s identity) is the real meaning of nationality.

And to savor and hold pains in the most spiritual way, he also reads and writes poetry. He believes that poetry is the deepest of all human endeavors. It involves the entirety of one’s being when indulging in it. Writing and reading poetry makes one reach and touch the stars and moons, he mused, and that is the only way at the moment to liberate one’s soul. And in a redundant effort, he said, poetry is the only means to mystify the present, otherwise one lives like many others do. Philosophy, he said, is another human endeavor that is equally deep as poetry. But it has never been in the hands of the common people, and never will be; that is why it is considered never to have been alive. Not like poetry, which was the only form of entertainment for people before the onset of television, radio, and mass media. That is why before it was permanently weeded out of its roots, poetry was springing like fresh water in everyone’s heart. Modernity got rid of poetry, he lamented. He said he studied philosophy and poetry at the university and that is why now he knows perfectly how to live in and with pains and poverty.

You can call me Oscar Balajadia, he said with hesitation, after I asked him his name. But names bear no importance in the life of an individual, he revealed, after I sensed the bitter reluctance in his voice and face. He said name imprisons the soul. And in order not to embarrass me, he diverted the subject about names by picking up his beer and taking a detailed sip of it. But before doing so, he pointed at my beer and gestured with his open palm as an invitation to a toast.

Sipping beer is like an art to him. He does it with all his heart. He does it with perfect subtlety and heartfelt religiosity. It is in utmost foolishness and ignorance that people drink spirits without knowing the meaning of pains and poetry. Wine, he said, in his case beer, is the drink of those who want to converse with their soul. It is the drink of those who want to give meaning to the absurdity that each day offers. It is the drink of those who want to find meanings in the meaningless present. Drinking wine to forget and evade problems is a cardinal sin, he said, because drinking wine has a holy purpose: to face problems, to face one’s own self.

We were just total strangers exchanging nods and lazy smiles before the night we had a talk. After that we reverted back to being total strangers, but with whispers in our thoughts. Now we nod and greet each other with deeper meaning. Though still total strangers, we are now brothers, because he let me know of his soul and his soul’s desires and voice.

There are other few people sitting near Nam Van Lake. All are fishing. But this Filipino is fishing for something else, not fish, but thoughts. That is why his mind is full of stars and moons.

Originally published:
Issue Forty-One
February 2006

Papa Osmubal is a graduate student at the University of Macau, in Southern China, taking Master of Art in English Studies.  His wife and children make his home an eternal spring. He has been anthologized in Synaptic Graffiti: Slam the Body Politik (Literature and Art on CD, Australia, 2004); Mitochondria: an Anthology of Rarities and Loose Ends (USA, 2004); and Honoring Fathers: An International Poetry Collection (University of the  Philippines Press, 2005).  His poems have appeared in various places, hardcopy and online, and several are forthcoming in The Golden Lantern, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Word Riot, Leaf Press, The Taj Mahal Review, and others.

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