I WANTED to use the word “alien” but that may conjure a slew of sub-meanings from legal/immigration perspective to extra-terrestrial plane. So I will just simplify the subject as foreigners in America, or those who live here (irrelevant of their legal status) but who grew up or got “older” in their country of birth. Like me. Like Neil, a Taiwanese who is a US citizen. Like Mario, a Mexican who is an undocumented illegal. Whatever details are embedded on their visa or passport or maybe they don't an ID at all—the commonality of their truth is, their spirit is rooted to oceans or borders away.
I am always asked, “Do foreigners like you get depressed like we do in America?” Let me rephrase that and ask myself instead, “Do foreigners like me believe in the existence of depression?” Of course we do. I do. “Depression” is defined, textbook-wise as, “A state of feeling sad” or “A serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless, and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way.” Depression or funk (in case you choose to call it that) is also a fact of life back home although it is not widely seen as a “medical condition.” Why is that?
First, sadness and hopelessness are usually brought forth by very physical misery in the islands where I came from. Natural calamities. Huge typhoons, widespread flooding, landslides etc that spawn other torments like sickness, hunger, homelessness, crime etc. Typhoons happen many times a year in a such a way that we become used to it, or immuned to the pain. Sort of. So usually there is no time to figure things out, psychology-wise, why we are sad. It's pretty obvious. There's no such thing as “therapy” or counselling or shrinks. These are not part of the sociocultural conditioning. Instead, friends talk with friends, families gravitate as communities. It is a natural progression of existence. It is kind of weird to be licking your wounds in a shut room. People pull you out because there's some more problems to attend to. During and after typhoons, there are matters to deal with other than dramatic outbursts or crying nonstop.
“Medical conditions” are usually confined to obvious ailments like severe diarrhea, tuberculosis, hepatitis, heart conditions, diabetes etc. Little aggravations like headaches, slight fever, dislocated shoulders, strained knee or allergies are usually shrugged off. The village herbolario (herbalist) will take care of that or mom will devise some healing brew from boiled guava leaves or something in the backyard. These things and remedies work, after all.
In a way, it is also economics. Second, it's a cultural truth. Although workers and employees usually have health insurance and there are free/public hospitals, people are not conditioned to go to the doctor on “mere” allergy or stuffed nose. Herbs, right food and a people's fatalism that says, “Back spasm? Let's go play basketball!” Depressed? “I have a joke, this is funny!” or “Let's serenade this beautiful lady.”
THEN suddenly, we are in America. We are not clobbered by typhoons five months a year anymore. No more nonstop monsoon rains that last for days or weeks. Meantime, I don't need to enumerate the polar extremes of scarcity and plenty. I sit in the quiet comfort of a living room Facebooking and watching Game of Thrones, and there's always a lot of food in the freezer and cupboard. And a lot more than make a typical Filipino parallel America with Heaven or Paradise.
So you may ask, I should be happy. So why should I feel depression? Why be sad? Back home, it's a lot harder. But then I ask myself, is it really hard back home? Or am I, in fact, saddened by other stuff and things? In a way I tackled it in my poem, “Seeking home.” Below.
I see fragments of home fall like broken
stars from an immaculate winter sky,
like tears or blood
or sweat, that spread through
the night and reflect faded
photographs of war and poverty
on weeping windowpanes;
home is lost in the din
of freeway skids, thud of subway
concrete, hallow of $.50 7-Eleven coffee
canisters, wail of Grayhound ticket
stubs. The smell of monsoon is gone.
The stench of fowl entrails strewn
with bamboo sticks on coal beds
are gone. Foot trails to river shacks
are blurred by interstate smog;
Christmas carols have been muted
by incessant grumblings of washer-dryers
gnawing at guts like rubber
ulcers. All these tap at my heart
like hammerheads on tincan
roofs, emaciated flesh cut
on credit card gallows:
sharp, hallow, loud, intent, sure.
Winter storms have washed away
directions home; I seek comfort in
many open doors that remain close
even as I am freely welcomed in.
Love fails to communicate
in a borrowed language
that seems to grow more strange
in each mumbling of sorrow
or joy; words that bounce back
like ten-minute autumn rain
that dry down like cheap vodka
on chapped lips, hot clinches stolen
in between hours-rendered,
dollars-paid; oh pain, that familiar
pain is nowhere to be felt
within this tiny cubicle in heaven
where the agony of homesickness
translates to warmth—
warmth that speaks of
a vagrant truth that have long
sentenced my soul in exile.
14 December 2009; 11:52 PM
Despite my facility of the English language, it is never easy for me to accentuate a message in a way that I can be understood fully just like the other dude beside me. Even simple gestures of caring or intense espousal of frutration are read on usually different context. It is not how I word the word or constructed my sentence or how the accent went. I am usually read on a totally different context. It's weird sometimes but I usually shrug it off.
When I speak my mind (about my observation of the culture), which I usually do, I judged as condescending and rude. If I don't say a thing, I am stereotyped as clueless or I may not even understand an English word other than yes or no. So I needed to explain gestures of kindness, appreciation, admiration or even frustration, disagreement or protest. I struggle in explaining myself—and still, I end up oblique, shady and absurd.
I digress though. All I am saying is, this blankness or emptiness—of not having to fully explain myself, or the stigma of rejection from being told “It's time to stop, we got other things to do” drives me back to my shell out of frustration—evolves into a kind of depression. Loneliness, isolation. I can read a poem in front of a crowd and get all the nice handshakes and good words, yet I still head home alone. I feel like I am a novelty. A new gadget off the rack, a strange new product from some planet. And if that gadget seems too complex to figure out—then I am dismissed for the meantime. Wait for my next show, maybe I'll have another magic. Did you see it? Oh man, you are so complicated, dude! Uh huh.
You may ask, do I really feel that way? Yes, I do.
Is that depression at all? A kind of aloneness that I still believe can never be healed by pills or all the scholarly psychological treatises. It can only be healed by people in front of me. Just like in the islands. Typhoons pummel, wars rage, poverty slams—but we got people in and around the unease and discomfort. People get angry, people are sweet, people are rude, people are nice. But we belong. Aloneness is never a given. It is physical—hence it is seen. I want to be “seen” before I am “felt.” But it seems I am invisible, I am so out-of-there that no matter how I am appreciated, I am still negated. I am attached but I am largely detached.