Dapat magsaya ka. You must endure.
There are many things I have come to learn about my recent stay in the Philippines. I have been coming here since I was a young child, yet last this trip has opened my eyes to so many things about the world.
The Filipino view of life is one very different to that of the English.
For example, their view of death. I had to face a heartbreaking reality of death tearing someone dear away from me just as I embarked on my journey. I got the call as I landed in Singapore airport. I remember the air feeling thick, hot, and moist all at the same time. I was alone, but in that moment it wouldn’t have mattered if I had company. That surreal moment, that inevitable piece of life-changing news made the world even more alien to me than it already was. Surrounded by a sea of strangers, no one noticed a young girl break down in the terminal.
Death brings strange thoughts. The morning I got up to go to the hospital, the first thing on my mind was the most trivial thought I ever had. It is a normal day to day thought that many women face daily. Yet today was not a normal day. The thought was, “what should I wear?” Now don’t get me wrong, it was not a superficial thought. It was the thought that, based on the fact that I would never want to see these clothes ever again, I would be haunted by this day for all eternity. I shrugged the thought away and grabbed the first thing I saw.
Arriving in Manila, I was physically, emotionally, and, in every way, exhausted. Any trace of excitement was long gone. Friendly smiling faces greeted me, but it took all I could to smile. Before I knew it, though, the Filipino cheer changed my smile.
On some sad moments, some family members asked why my mood changed so often. After explaining what happened, I was surprised by their casual attitude to my situation. Most of them did not say anything. They simply changed the subject or carried on what they were doing. Another moment that surprised me was when an aunt asked; I told her and she was quiet. My cousin didn’t hear or couldn’t understand what I said so she asked my aunt. To which she simply replied. “Patay.” Meaning simply…DEAD. My cousin then proceeded to laugh at my aunt’s bluntness, and the mood carried on cheerfully.
It took a while for me to process this way of life. In England, when someone close passes away, our mood is as bad as our weather. A storm of sadness, anger, confusion, and, eventually, a sombre acceptance of reality. This could take months. Years, even. Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying that the Filipinos do not grieve. Just that their attitude on death is different. I remember many years ago, I attended a funeral of an auntie here in Manila. I did not know her well as she could not speak English; actually she could not speak at all. She was mute. Every time I saw her she smiled at me and communicated with her eyes. Many years later, I sat at her wake.
A Filipino wake lasts on average for 5 days. The immediate family normally sits with the body the entire time, taking it in turns until the ritual had finished. I remember my mother entering the parlour, greeting old friends and our numerous family as if it were a normal gathering. My mother sat down with, I’m suspecting, more titas (aunties) and gestured to me to come and chat. They were playing card games and were chewing and spitting out sunflower seeds. I refused. I kept my head down and preceded to mourn. I grieved for her family. I grieved over the memories we would not share. Yet still I was surprised at this candid reaction to death.
The longer I am here the more I understand. “Dapat magsaya ka.” The only words of comfort I have heard this entire trip.
The same person who said this to me told me an interesting theory he had as we were discussing topics such as history, war, and politics. He told me about how there are many provinces, many islands, but one people. Yet there are approximately 171 different languages spoken in the Philippines. Likening the situation to the Biblical story of the tower of Babel when God had confused the nation, creating the barrier of language between the people. He said, “If this was not so, the Filipinos could rule the world.”