Problems of Place: Contemplating Multiplicities and Space/s

I once got lost in New Taipei.

I braved the city with screenshots of maps telling me where my destination was and with limited to none Internet access. I spoke no Chinese, even if my passport carried a Chinese surname. I desperately wanted to visit the obscure miniature museum, but could not figure out the characters etched on the street signs halfway through. Many locals on the street could not understand me or point me to the right direction. At the peak of my desperation, I stood in the middle of an intersection and felt the immensity of fear.

It was one of the best moments of my life.

In retrospect (and after finding baristas in a coffee shop that gladly helped me find the right way to my destination), I know why I regard that singular moment as crucial: identifying with clarity the feeling of oddness I have carried all my life in extremely vulnerable conditions renders the rest of the world in sharp focus.

I have a complicated background: I am Filipinx, from a country ravaged by colonization of the Spaniards, Americans, British, and Japanese, and the current violent neoliberalism by China and other transnational companies. My mother is half-Spanish, and my father half-Chinese. Both never completed their university degrees, as my mother and her white-passing looks made her eligible to become a flight stewardess, and my father quit university as the first few symptoms of his bipolar disorder began to take over his functionality. Their currency was education, and just like many first generation students, I was stirred towards careers that were not my choosing: nurse, lawyer, engineer… maybe teacher. We were allowed to pursue programs that they could afford to support us with, but it should be a profession that would still generate substantial income so that we can support them in return. My sister tried her best, but she faltered after completing her Master’s Degree. We both never really knew what to do with our degrees after we’ve satisfied what both Mom and Dad wanted. I persevered despite constant discouragement (“You shouldn’t go to such an expensive university” or “Maybe you can stop studying and apply for a permanent position”) only because I found some direction after having my daughter at twenty-one years old.

What an alienating experience it is to have a human being growing inside of you, especially when you don’t want to be pregnant at all… and had no other option but to be pregnant.  Of course, everyone was disappointed with me, and as a result, I succumbed to being a disappointment: I let anyone tell me what I should and should not do. Abortion was illegal in the Philippines, and my ex-boyfriend promised to stand by me if I kept the child. My aunt, who was my gynaecologist, even told me when to give birth. She called my Mom when I was thirty-six weeks and asked her (not me) if I could deliver via CS so that I would not have a leap-year baby.

Three months after my daughter was born, my ex-boyfriend left me for someone else. Without thinking, I processed my application for graduate school.

When I attended my first classes in graduate school, I could not understand why my classmates were speaking in such eloquent terms: Marxism, formalism, postmodernism, the MLA, deconstruction, avant-garde, agency. These were not dinnertime chat in the household I grew up in, and I had no illustrious literary heritage I could piggyback off from (I did, indirectly: my great-grandfather was a former Senate president who wrote the first Philippine textbooks used in public schools, but I never really felt that I owned that heritage). I oftentimes felt lost in the sea of all these discourses as I watch many writers look at me for what I thought I was back then: a charlatan—someone who was not smart or privileged enough to be there. Many thought I was just there because I was bored and had extra piles of cash lying around.

Yet, it was always inside the classroom where I felt assured and confident. When I am in front of students, classmates, a crowd… I felt as if I can speak from within; that I can speak for myself.

Recently, when my supervisor and I sat down in his office to talk about my dissertation prospectus, he asked me an important question about my project: “Why do you choose to use space instead of place?”

I think about that query a lot.

Though I try to separate the personal from my work, I know that as someone who is in the crosshairs of struggles, I cannot: my personal is political. I live within the many struggles I was born with, and to embrace these meant that I have to blur or remap my associations with place. I have never belonged in any metaphorical or symbolical place: I’m not a “traditional” Filipinx; I’m a single parent; I’m a first generation student; I’m constantly struggling financially; I never get the prestigious grants or scholarships; I’m a migrant but I’m not an Overseas Filipino Worker; I’m in Canada but I don’t belong here; I’m from Manila but I don’t belong there. Once, I told my professor in Literary Methodologies class that I’m of multiplicities—I can be one and many; I can be myself, and all. Embracing all these multiple parts of me have allowed me to be comfortable with who I am, and in turn, with the work that I do. She smirked and nodded as if she understood, but I doubt if anyone truly does understand what I mean, since I am still cultivating that concept every day myself.

So, why space?

I say space because my work threatens to interrogate institutionalised systems in the environmental humanities that still enforce hegemonies and binaries. I say space because I endeavour for new spaces in ecological literacy, where environmental pedagogies can look beyond what is deemed canonical or institutional so that other discourses from marginalised communities can also, finally, flourish. I say space because it is permissible, borderless, malleable. I say space because I can imagine space as one that occupies multiple identities, bodies, and places. I say space because that is where I can find myself—the many multiplicities of me—occupying a body or many bodies where it can be safe and sacred.

The Bellevue Creek that runs through the Woodhaven Regional Park during autumn (photo by author).

Two months after I arrived in Canada, my Dad unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack. I could not afford to go home for his funeral so I watched videos of my family coming together to celebrate his life. I mourned in the comfort of my room back then, inside a cabin in the middle of a Regional Park where deer and brown bears frequent.

That same year, snow hit the Okanagan Valley hard. There was a twenty-minute walk through ankle-deep snow in the woods to the nearest bus stop, and then three bus rides before I arrive at the university. During those first few months, I oftentimes would get lost in multitude of embarrassing way—getting on the wrong bus, getting off the wrong stop, or missing the bus by five minutes. I also slipped on black ice one time and had to hobble to the bus stop where I missed the bus by a hair’s second. I was in too much pain to run after it, so I had to wait for the next one, in -20 degrees Celsius, for at least thirty minutes.

One day, exhausted and defeated, I stopped in the middle of a wooden footbridge and looked at the frozen creek. There were pockets of running water that peeked beneath the snow and ice, and I imagined my Dad slowly climbing down the rocky edges of that creek to pick up a maple leaf, an acorn, the brown pine needles, maybe the banana heart that he was climbing for one late afternoon when his own fragile heart gave up on him.

I imagined him telling me it was time to go home; he has the banana heart for dinner. I imagined myself asking him… But where is home in all this cold?

No answer was needed. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that I was not lost anymore. I was where I needed to be.

*Featured image: The Woodhaven Eco-Culture Centre is a graduate student housing for UBC students in Kelowna, Canada. It is within the Woodhaven Regional Park, which is 8.7 hectares and has four distinct natural ecosystems. I lived here after first arriving in Canada for eight months.