Essays

Circle of Fifths

Christine Vicera writes about turbulence, holding space, building harmonies, and liberatory modes of thinking and being.

Part of the And We Begin Again series—writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck.

 

 

I once read somewhere that to love someone long term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be. I think a lot about my funeral. Not in a morbid way, but in a selfish way, I think about who would show up. Who would choose to pencil in a date on their calendar to mourn my absence? Who would give the eulogy? Who will the stories be for when the address line is left blank?

Before take-off, the pilot tells us it’s clear skies until three-to-four hours in, then it’s an hour of turbulence. In the grand scheme of things, two weeks isn’t a long time to be away. It’s fourteen days. Around half a month. 3.8% of a year (I don’t like fractions). A lot can happen and nothing can happen.

I was seven when I asked my father why he stopped every ten seconds on Tsuen King Circuit to steal sepia-toned seconds of our Sundays through the lens of his new Canon. I don’t remember how he explained to a seven-year-old that memory and forgetting are lovers on the run from consciousness. Left to our own devices, we connect to disconnect, barter presence for pixelated paintings on a three-inch LCD. “We don’t realise the value of a moment until it has passed,” or some other cliché along those lines.

In the absence of presence, we make a promise to live through an exchange of half-meant, heartfelt “how’ve you beens” in the form of WhatsApp notifications, attaching photos of each other next to people we have yet to meet. The silence was laced with absence as we sat on the steps facing Victoria Harbour, eyes fixed on the sound of waves holding a handful of clichés and love with nowhere to go. If there’s anything more powerful than love it’s time. There was a tone of impossibility in your voice, but I think about the impossible, often.

Fourteen hours left on this sixteen hour flight and I put on the Whitney Houston biopic in hopes that it’ll keep me up long enough for my circadian rhythm to find its way back to our time zone. I count the beat as the piano intro of “I Have Nothing” lulls me into its 6/8 reverie.

The turbulence hits and I’m taken back to when you said my fear of flights was a euphemism for my fear of dying. We were standing in line at the cha chaan teng on Jubilee Street when the waiter asked us whether we would want to daap toi. It’s lunch-hour rush on a Tuesday and if it were any other restaurant, he would apologetically turn us away. We skim through the menu as if it’s our first time there, even though we know we’ll end up ordering what we usually get. You glance at the plate of French toast the person sitting beside us ordered.

You tell me about this scene from Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, which I find out later is an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. The protagonist in the film, Yusuke Kafuku, is a stage actor hired to direct a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, while he grieves the sudden loss of his unfaithful wife. In the scene, the actors rehearse for the production reading off a shared script in different languages. Most of the actors don’t speak the same language, so they have to imagine creative ways to communicate their lines to each other. There’s a figurative wall between each of them, which they have to overcome to understand each other.

I think about how “daap toi” literally translates to “build a table,” and what that means figuratively. Just as the waiter asked us if we would like to “daap toi” and share a table with a stranger or two during the lunch-hour rush, maybe it means to hold space for one another; to accept an invitation into each others’ intimate spaces of thoughts. I think about how the figurative wall between the actors in that rehearsal room is often an imaginary one and what Walter Benjamin said when he speaks of the burden of translation. A release of a pure language; a liberation of an imprisoned language. I think about the prefix “ka-” used in several Filipino languages which means “to be with.” It is used in words like “kaibigan” (friend), and even “katunggali” (rival). I think about how spaces like these require us to prioritise relationality and connectedness with one another.

 

Image: Sylvano Bussoti’s piano piece for David Tudor 4 (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 1987, p 3).

 

As we sat there annotating our drafts at an old factory building in Kwun Tong, you told us about the walks you would take to the bookstore that had closed down not too long ago. I notice the ink marks on our copies of each other’s writing and how in that space, we weaved together a tapestry of our thoughts. I think about other relational methodologies that require us to exercise the art of listening and the art of being listened to. Growing up, I remember being woken up to Air Supply’s “Lost in Love” every Sunday morning. My father would loop this album as he cooked up a hearty silog—a classic Filipino breakfast containing sinangag, garlic fried rice topped with itlog, a fried sunny side up egg, extra crispy, with a runny yolk—for my brother and I. That was my earliest memory of hearing harmony. Then it was every sha-la-la-la-la, every whoa-oa-oa. I questioned my mother’s Karen Carpenter lullabies, asking why they felt kulang; why it felt as if there was something missing in her rendition.

My parents put me in piano classes when I was seven, but not with the intention of making me reach Grade 8. Once they teach you the basics, we’ll pick up the rest together. You tell me about how weeknights in your living room became an exercise in the art of collaboration. ‘Tie Amai strummed to the rhythm of “Usahay,” while Lola and Lolo painted harmonies over your melodies. To build harmonies, you must first listen. I think about the jazz musicians Kaplan and Rose wrote about in a text you shared at one of our earlier sessions: “They had their language cues, and when they were playing they told each other things the audience, even those who were musicologists could never hear.” This is what I imagined my mother’s living room felt like. She tells me over a cup of warm tsokolate in the house Lolo constructed that was as old as she was. I think the home they built together in that living room is older. It transcended the physical, geographical location of Martilo, the little seaside town in the eastern coast of Negros Oriental. The next time my mother put on The Carpenters, I started paying attention to how Karen and Richard paid attention to each other. It was the beginning of an obsession.

 

Image: Budbud (“bood-bood”), a rice cake snack or dessert wrapped in banana leaves and Tsokolate (“cho-ko-lat-eh”), a beverage made by dissolving cacao tablets in hot water or milk.
Image: Budbud (“bood-bood”), a rice cake snack or dessert wrapped in banana leaves and Tsokolate (“cho-ko-lat-eh”), a beverage made by dissolving cacao tablets in hot water or milk.

 

Our Year 11 history teacher made us do in-class activities on Google documents. This was a different experience from my Form 3 history classes, where we’d get carpal tunnel from copying what was written on the blackboard onto lined paper as quickly as we could before she erased everything and moved on. Exposing my half-formed, incoherent sentences attempting to outline the economic factors that led to increasing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War on a live document where my classmates could see me think in real time was a familiar hell. So instead I opened a local Word document, typing away until I had stringed together sentences that were perfect, polished, and “ready-to-be-perceived.” I grew comfortable with self-censorship which slowly, incrementally, began to take root and shapeshift into a form of self-sabotage I had only recently become acquainted with.

You send me a demo of an instrumental we were so excited to work on together, asking me to layer my vocals onto, after which I ghosted you. You can’t just let me be another blue dot on WhatsApp. You knew this was the right amount of melodrama I needed to stop thinking and start recording, because once I started I couldn’t stop. The track never ended up being finished, although our WhatsApp conversations at the time were flooded with voice memos titled “finalfinal.mp3” and “finalfinalfinal.mp3,” along with the other .mp3 files of guitar riffs and beats we've forgotten. It was messy, nonlinear, incomplete—but utopias are boring anyway.

 

*   *   *

 

Twelve hours. I start scribbling six-digit numbers on a Trader Joe’s receipt which correspond to the songs we would queue on the karaoke machine as a mental note for the next time we see each other at Junels. I convince myself they are the correct numbers. Sometimes the songs never end up playing because the machine is out of date. How do you grieve something without having yet experienced its loss?

You tell me about going to Disneyland as a kid, and feeling a wave of melancholy sweep through you midday as they make an announcement for the evening fireworks display. I felt this—that morning we got up extra early to watch the sunrise at Gold Coast only to end up in McDonalds at opening shift once the rain washed away our anticipation. I felt this watching the tunnel scene from Perks of Being a Wallflower with you through FaceTime knowing the movie was about to come to an end. And I feel this every year when the countdown for Christmas on GMA News TV, which begins in September, comes to an end. Ilang araw na lang, bago mag-Pasko! The grief of losing each present moment, and the comfort knowing each moment is built on the past.

The turbulence hits, and I know I can’t rush this.

 

*   *   *

 

There is a saying in Tagalog: kapit sa patalim. Literally, the phrase translates to “clutching [the blade of] a knife.” Figuratively, it describes a desperation of the highest degree, one that exists amidst hopelessness and any prospect of success. In July 2020, Duterte passed the Anti-terror Act, just a week after news broke that the HK National Security Law would be passed. We were at Junels, singing Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” while we waited for the rest of us to arrive. You enter the dimly lit restaurant and immediately the iconic “vomiting is strictly prohibited” sign written in three languages catches your attention. The last time we saw each other was high school graduation. We reminisce as you flip through the sticky pages of the songbook, browsing their collection of Korean songs. You queue Jo Jeong-hyeon’s “I Even Loved the Pain” (그 아픔까지 사랑한거야) and the synth reminds me of the opening piano riff of Freestyle’s “Before I Let You Go.”

Anticipatory grief is weird. My therapist tells me it’s a subconscious form of self-preservation, so that when the grief finally hits, you’ll be prepared for the impact. I think about that time we decided to try out Krav Maga, which in hindsight is not something we were proud of. Don’t wait for it to begin, leave while you can. Our instructor might have been talking about de-escalating as the first step of self-defence, because no amount of adrenaline will be able to prepare you for the moment oxygen is sucker punched out of your lungs. I think about our compulsion to erase what has left indelible marks on us. But there are things rain cannot wash away. You tell me my face lights up when I talk about music and ask me about the first song I learned to play on guitar. I tell you I’m scared of turbulence.

 

*   *   *

 

they tell us
our existence
is contingent
on an expiry date;
that we are running
out of time.

we are not.

our worlds have ended,
again and again and
the sun rises, still.

they tell us
to colour inside the lines

they take away
our tongues

so in this meanwhile,
we’ll create new vocabularies

of being,
longing,
and belonging.

and we’ll be the tide
that makes history
and hope
rhyme.

 

*   *   *

 

I’m still trying to figure out if this is a eulogy for the people we once were, or for the people we have yet to become. Many have written about the revolutionary potential of holding space for each other. Others have written about the limits of this kind of empathy. Perhaps it is in the spaces in-between, where we can continue to resist against forgetting; kapit-bisig, with arms interlocked. This is a politics that requires us to imagine liberatory modes of thinking and being, one that Daniel Elam writes is “not accountable to regimes of ‘success,’ ‘sustainability,’ or ‘attainability,’ but rather to [...] the passing moment, and the present.”

 

Image: Exquisite Corpse from our first “AAA Thingy” session, 29 September 2022.

 

 

 

Christine Vicera is a Filipino writer, researcher, and filmmaker from Hong Kong. At the heart of her interdisciplinary research and praxis lies a broader interest in the relationship between memory, migration, and “post”-/anti-/decoloniality in the context of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines. Her writing has been published in the International Journal of Diaspora & Cultural Criticism, and Ekphrasis, Kritika Kultura, Voice & Verse, MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, and Verge: Studies in Global Asias. Storytelling and community building are integral to her praxis. Screened at the 2021 Southeast Asia x Seattle Film Festival, Sisig and Puchero (2021), a documentary short she co-directed, tells the story of Julie Mangrobang, the owner of Junels, a Filipino restobar in Hong Kong. It questions what remains constant for migrant workers in a world that has been put on pause by COVID-19. In August 2021, together with Ericka Regalado, and support from Leslie Chan Ka-long, former district councillor of Yau Tsim Mong, and Hong Kong Unison, she founded be/longing, an arts-for-education lab that harnesses the transformative power of storytelling to cultivate cultures of inclusion for Hong Kong’s ethnically diverse communities.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 

 

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Author

Christine VICERA

Topic
Essays
Date
Fri, 13 Oct 2023
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And We Begin Again
Part of series

And We Begin Again

Writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck