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IMG_2508My partner noticed that I have been extraordinarily quiet and down these past few days. He’s consistently told me that he would support whatever my decision would be. Today was different. As he pulled the handbrake, he looked at me and asked me, “do you want to know what my position is?” I stared at him straight through his eyes, breathed in, waiting for his response.

The past week has been a depressing week for me. I was initially excited that I finished my thesis manuscript in time for my thesis defense. I prepared well and practiced my presentation twice before my partner. I was exhilarated that I would be graduating this year and the defense was only the formality of the years of efforts and a decade of hard work to finish the degree. I was counting the days leading to my thesis defense day and even invited my friends, my sister, and my partner to be there.

The day arrived. I presented my thesis and received comments from my panel. Unfortunately, things did not go as expected.  I got a a grade of ‘fail’.

As I went out of the room to meet my loved ones, I could not paint what face to show them. I was trying to carry a weak smile, convincing myself and everybody that everything would be alright. But it was not.

Days passed, and each day I would reach out to a friend or a family member. They would share different perspectives and thoughts: that I should make an appeal so that the decade-worth of oil-burning would not be gone to waste, or perhaps stop as it has been ten years and my priorities have shifted. Others would ask more questions like ‘what were the panel’s advise? If they were giving you an option to extend, why not take it?’ while others would advise me to find the reason why I took my Masters ten years ago. I understood that all of these were valid points. But all the more, it got me confused with what to do afterwards.

“How could I accept this failure? This was possibly not the worst feeling I have felt. Will things change if I finish it? Will it still matter? But ten years is ten years and I do not want to throw everything away. I was already at the finish line; why am I giving up now?” It was as if a thousand different dimensions of myself were beginning to stretch into the future. I was thankful that my friends and family took time to listen to me, but the choice was mine to make. But my mind was hazy and I just could not make any clear choice.

The person who was probably in the worst position above all was my partner. He would listen to me as I struggle to come up with which decision to take, but he has been wonderfully patient and kind. Every time I asked him what his position was, he would always tell me, “I will support you whatever your decision is.” He assured me that he would always be there supporting me because he was my partner.

Today was different.

We stopped in front of the hotel where my meeting was and he pulled the handbrake. The feeling of depression and sadness was hovering above me like dementors sucking the life out of me. I have been sick for a few days that I did not have the energy to commute. I was about to push the seatbelt off when he asked me, “do you want to know what my position is?” I said yes and waited.

“I’d say you should not continue it. You have been exhausted and tired and every time you think about continuing it, you don’t feel happy anymore. I tell you what, maybe the lesson of this experience of yours for the past ten years is to learn how to accept failure. That we are meant to fail sometimes and that is fine. Everybody fails. You just have to embrace it, pull yourself together, and move on. What else will you lose? You have every opportunity in front of you now. Don’t let this failure drag you and everything else that you do down. I want you to be happy. I love you.”

A huge raindrop knocked on our windshield. It started to drizzle as I broke down beside him and tears began to fall from my eyes. This must be a sign.

 

 

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In pursuit of…

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Thirteen years ago, I was sitting on a ledge of a rice terrace somewhere in Kalinga, lamenting how this fieldwork with the Dananao would hone me towards what I wanted to do in life. It did contribute towards something, and my college graduation blurb on my annuals did summarise what I wanted to become back then. Career-wise, that led me to finding my niche within the development sector, in particular, along the intersections of public health, sexuality, and medical anthropology. I took anthropology as my Masters: a reconciliation of what my family wanted me to become, which was to become a doctor, and my pursuit towards academic excellence. I figured, I did not want to become a doctor, but I wanted to help others especially in the area of health and well-being. Working in the development sector allowed me to do that. It was the pinnacle of my experience, but as years go by, I did miss those moments where I take time to understand the whys more than figuring out the hows. I told myself that I will be shifting towards the academia if given a chance, and finishing my Masters would be a career entry.

Thirteen years later, I found myself sitting on the edge of a rice terrace in Bontoc once again. It was not the same rice terrace, but it brought me back to that same moment of rumination.  Now that my Masters is almost over (for better or for worse), my recent relationship with the discipline made me realise whether this is the direction that I really wanted to take. I did enjoy theorising with my classmates as we explore the terrains of Cordilleras, but this grounding made me question, “to what end”? How, in the pursuit of academic excellence and advancement of scholarship, will this help the people around me who may not even have the means to survive because of their health condition and health-seeking behaviours? Where and when does intellectual pursuit end and applied approaches begin? This set of questions might probably be my compass for the years to come, coupled with added responsibilities and expectations. My partner did confront me last night by saying, “not to offend you, but you are not that young anymore”. I am not, and the older I get, I reckon the clearer our aspirations become. These aspirations also do become more realistic and practical as I find my niche in this world, in this life.

I was not able to find the answers as I stood up from where I was sitting back in Bontoc, but it did help me understand the trajectory of what I wanted to pursue in life. I do still see myself pursuing a career within the academe, but I need to stay closer to the people, finding ways to learn more applied approaches that can help people help themselves. Perhaps this is the trajectory that life is pushing me to go next.

Protester’s Revenge

*CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Of all Black Mirror episodes, I was really moved with the message of Season 4’s finale episode, “Black Museum”. It’s the penultimate response to criticisms around the series’ anti-technology proposition, but what a better way to portray this not through technology’s supremacy but by people reclaiming humanity over technology.

“Black Museum” tells a story of Nish (Letitia Wright, Black Panther) who visited Rolo Haynes’ (Douglas Hodge, Night Manager) Black Museum after stopping by in the middle of nowhere to charge. As expected, this is a full-length, hour-and-a-half finale; a portmanteau of three stories with a great tie-in at the end. While most of Black Mirror episodes centre around the rich, the powerful, and the brains behind the technology (eg. National Anthem, Crocodile, White Christmas, Waldo Moment) or people becoming victims of technology (eg. The Entire History of You, White Bear, Shut Up and Dance) but these episodes never have shown how people fight back. We have yet to see how people take revenge after falling victims from the effects of technology, and “Black Museum” just did that.

Black MuseumIn “Black Museum”, the stories revolved around patients in St. Juniper hospital: those who are desperate and weak but does not have the money to pay to upload their family members’ consciousness in the cloud. Instead, these patients of near-death victims are offered prototypes that may have higher rates of failures, but in order to survive, as with the case of the innocent Clayton, they were offered by Rolo an alternative in exchange of a “better” life. Years later, Rolo did not expect that his time will come when all his failed experiments will come back at him and take his consciousness forever.

“Black Museum” employed the Tales from the Crypt style of storytelling with a good surprise tie-in at the end (or not a surprise by now, since you have been reading this). But what I like about this episode is it wasn’t technology who took revenge against humanity (as with Hated in the Nation). Instead, Nish took advantage of technology to avenge for his father. This episode showed what it means when people are pushed too much to believe that technology will save humanity. It’s a poor, innocent family’s revenge from what happened to them, and not only allowed technology to take that lead: all Nish needs to do is to junket the A/C and a bottle of poison.

One of the ongoing debates around Sustainable Development is the role of technology and innovation in closing the gap between the rich and the poor, in making lives easier and more secured. On the contrary, technology continues to exploit natural resources, widen the gap, and challenge shared values (ie. impact of fake news in global politics). We have seen a building resistance around fake news, and even more recently, Facebook came under fire for aiding the rise of today’s dictators. Technological development is inevitable, but for technology to conquer us or not, the choice is ours to make.

P.S.

I was pretty moved by Nish’s line to Rolo while he’s in agony: “Even the protesters got bored after awhile. Soon as it was clear, the state wouldn’t do a d- thing about clearing him. They just moved on to the next viral miscarriage of justice that you could hang a hashtag off.”

The Year of Growth

If there’s one thing I learned from spending Christmas with my fiance’s family, it’s giving me a glimpse of what life will be like 10 to 20 years from now. These encounters with his folks gave me a chance to peek into a life beyond the kilig and the usual dates and the living together. These past weeks, I saw myself grow as a person.

2017 was a year of endings and beginnings for both myself and my partner: of graduating and of starting a new job; of letting go of opportunities and of opening new doors; of moving out and of coming home; and of ending a current relationship status to levelling up to a more secure state. Little did we know that our 2017 mantra, #voyage2017 and #UnboundBeyond, reflected what happened this 2017, and this year has set us up to what is ahead and what would happen beyond: we tried as much to plan ahead but made sure that we are both prepared what is to come.

Moving back to Manila was not easy. I had to adjust to find my bearing and did a balancing act between work, school, my UNAIDS PCB commitment, and being in a domesticated relationship. When my fiance, then boyfriend, proposed to me, I know that the decision that I will make that night was not a simple “yes, I’m flying back to Manila with you.” It’s not a simple “yes, we’ll start to plan our wedding”. It’s also a yes to bigger responsibilities and bigger stake and investment as his partner. Through this experience, I learned that every decision that we make incurs a certain level of an undeniable responsibility, and it’s up to us to either give it up, or allow ourselves to shape up and become bigger than ourselves in order to embrace these milestones.

These past two weeks seemed to be its culmination. In one instance, I found myself conversing with my fiance’s sister about living a minimalist life, better ways of hanging washed clothes, and choosing between living in a condominium or a house with a garden after me and my partner get married. Coming to this point of our relationship was not a random conversation or a far-off revelation of an ideal. It’s an indication that I am into this seriously, and I am looking at our relationship beyond the usual kilig and the usual dates. I found myself growing as a person with my partner. I found myself growing with him.

I have been meeting his side of the family since we moved to Manila as part of introducing me to his entire family. I have also been doing the same: he has met my lola, my mother’s matriarch, and my entire mother’s clan. This 2018, I know that this engagement will continue to keep us moving forward as one. I’m feeling a little nervous, but I know that this a good sign.

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#grow2018

In relation to my recent posts and replies to random strangers on Twitter and on Facebook about what happened to Whang-Od at Manila Fame, there’s a broader realization that I had. It wasn’t even about the issue. It was about how we express and engage with other people online.

Social media has been tagged as the future of communication and of friendship, and at the same time, there has been recent analyses of how social media has become a threat to democracy. The problem really is not that people are beginning to communicate much more than ever before because of these platforms, but social media changed the way people converse.

Engaging in conversations is a cultural and social exercise. It enables people to think, read, and listen all at the same time. A face-to-face interaction is even more immersive, because people are able to read more than just the text, because simply, conversations are not pure texts. But recently, social media has delimited our forms of interactions into definitive characters, or one frames with two lines, and disables the ability to engage in a much more meaningful, in-depth manner. What happens is that we become so reactive, that we respond based on the limited perception that we have over one thing. Take for instance the viral photo of Whang-Od that spread like wildfire few days ago: people were quick to jump into different conclusions without even trying to know and understand the different facets of the story. In effect, our understanding of the world has become limited and skewed.

Here are five things I learned from Engaging People on Social Media:

  1. It’s an argument with no resolution and no end. Once you engage online, it’s a volley of never-ending propositions and arguments that will have no end. It’s also disruptive of your current stature: imagine responding to an ongoing debate while walking in a park or spending time with your loved ones.
  2. It’s passive. Debates and arguments may happen passively, such as through email, but passive response is different from an active response. Social media is a passive platform: it doesn’t happen live, and it is mediated. While you will have time to edit yourself in responding to other people’s points, because of its passivity, it changes the way we regard and approach people’s points and arguments.
  3. You talk to strangers. In engaging with other people for a debate or for a conversation, you need time to prepare on your thoughts and compose yourself. But because of the informality of social media and the possibilities of anonymity that it can provide, you can engage with people randomly at any point in time. And because you mostly talk to strangers, you can just make an off-the-cuff remark without even thinking of the consequences of what you said.
  4. It’s time-consuming. Imagine wrapping yourself around things that don’t really matter to you in the broader sense of things.
  5. It lies on popularity. Your thoughts and those of others lie on their popularity. It doesn’t mean that your point or theirs are right; but because of social media, what usually is popular becomes what is right. And it is dangerous.

There has been few studies that came out recently about social media’s effects on mental health, and unless we learn how to control it, social media is a dangerous place that can consume us. We should start thinking about how we limit and control social media and how it affects our lives. One possible thing to do is probably write a blog without expecting people to respond. It can even be therapeutic to most of us.

When I accepted this short stint from the Interagency Task Team on Young Key Populations (IATT on YKP) to facilitate the rollout of the Legal Advocacy Training in Myanmar, I was not entirely confident. First, I know that conducting such a difficult, content-heavy training will be a challenge; second, the language barrier. Without any way to facilitate a training that will involve conversations with the participants, and running a session nothing more than giving little inputs will be something that I need to prepare. I was mistaken. This training in Myanmar was probably one of the trainings that I co-facilitated that really grounded me.

The training grounded me in the sense that when content is heavy and as much as you want to give out all things that you know and that the session instructs you to do, you suddenly are awakened to find that facilitating a training is not only about listening to the participants but also listening to oneself. I need to listen to what I say and continuously edit and adjust every time I open my mouth. I was delimited by language, by culture, and by how participants respond to me. Because of language, I was not able to successfully do my usual antics and special claps. Because of culture, participants see themselves in considerably far from me. Because of their responses, there were times wherein I doubted myself if what I was saying are correct. But what I realized was that this training will not be a comparison to my previous trainings as a facilitator. This training is a measure of how culturally sensitive and transformative I can be – both for myself and for others – and how I will help me improve the way I deliver the content, the instructions, how I do trainings, and learn more. This training also reaffirmed that trainings are learning processes not only for the participants, but a learning process also for myself. With this Myanmar rollout, I came to know what participants’ priorities are and where are they coming from. I also learned how to be more sensitive to non-verbal cues and read their responses through body language.

In between translations, participants taught me that language will never be a barrier. It is not the lack of knowledge on the language per se, but the command of it that matters more. Simplicity is key, and at the same time, it pushes one to get to the point and get that point across. Trainings, such as this Legal Advocacy Training in Myanmar, is not like school wherein you want someone to rise among the sea of people. Trainings like this are about pushing people to rise together and work together, leaving nobody behind.

Myanmar Youth Stars (MYS) and Phoenix prepared the entire training: from the logistics, to identifying the participants, to facilitation, to ensuring that we will safely arrive in Yangon. The city is slowly opening up and has a lot of opportunities that it was high time that this training is being conducted. Yangon is possibly one of the safest cities in Asia, but the support that both organizations gave was outstanding. UNAIDS and UNFPA were also committed to help and assist whenever possible. But most of all, I was astounded with the level of energy that these participants brought to the training. They may have no formal experience on legal and policy advocacy and most of them do not understand English as well, but I was able to, with support from Myanmar co-facilitators, run the sessions that were assigned to me with enthusiasm and excitement. I was also able to supervise the entire training through translating, and most of the sessions were done gracefully, thanks to both the co-facilitators who acted as translators too. This one is a training that I will certainly remember.

Fighting back to end TB

It was my first time attending the 48th Union Conference, which is happening in the gorgeous city of Guadalajara, Mexico. The Union Conference’s long name is “World Conference on Lung Health” so it’s technically a conference about lung health, but #tuberculosis being one of the global pandemics, this conference is basically an International TB Conference. It’s apt, given that the R&D on TB and the investment to R&D has slowly moved, and while TB is generally treatable and preventable, the sessions at the Union are focused mostly on treatment — I am not saying that we should not, but I think there must be an equal footing between prevention and treatment, same with HIV.

IMG_3832In terms of HIV, what I observed at the Union Conference was how almost missing TB-affected communities are. Yes, you will see them walking here and there attending sessions, but there was no fire, no anger, no life. I could only count those who really will push and challenge people who develop these drugs to come out soon, and challenge National TB managers (NTPs) to do better. I cringe everytime I hear the word “patients” in the sessions I have attended, still putting people within that paradigm that the TB managers and the doctors are still in-charge of people’s lives, discounting the agency needed to push the TB response to include communities. Most importantly, TB-affected communities have not been the front and centre of the responses, and have only relied to NTPs and those who provide treatment. Nothing more.

I am not saying that it’s bad to establish partnership. In the SDG era, multisectoral approach to ending diseases has proven to be effective and the only way forward. But TB activism needs to learn from HIV activism a lot. Here are some of the few ways that we can do to change the tide and finally put an end to TB:

  1. Let’s stop being kind to each other. Patting each other at the back and circle jerks are good to some extent, but it will never address critical issues needed to push the TB response. TB-affected communities need to change the language that we are patients. We are not. We are people who live, who lived, affected, and has survived TB. To enable communities, we need to break the power dynamics between physicians and people and put people at the front and centre of the response.
  2. We need to learn more from the HIV activism. The reason why investments to new HIV treatments are high and quick was because people are angry because of decision makers’ and health programmers’ complacency. Complacency kills innovation. If we want new drugs for TB, we need to rally before pharma companies. If we want us to be involved in the TB response in the country, we need to demand that to our NTP managers. If we want TB stigma to end, we need to voice that out more.
  3. We need to involve more people who are affected by TB, including people living with HIV. I have heard at the Union Conference that the stigma that people with TB face is different from HIV. I beg to disagree. Stigma, in whatever form, is still stigma. People are discriminated because of inequality and prejudice, the rest are just qualifiers. But TB is an airborne disease, which means it can affect anyone, unlike HIV. However, I haven’t really seen affected populations participating in the activism. Why limit to those who have already have had TB, when we know that once a person who contracted with TB is treated, he or she is most likely not going to involve himself or herself due to the trauma of the treatment? So where are the miners? Where are the indigenous groups? Where are the people who use drugs? Where are the urban poor groups? TB must be and should be their concern too.

The Union Conference might be among the driest conference that I have been. It’s very scientific and exclusive. At the same time, it inspires me to push for better inclusion of people who have and are affected with TB in the TB response. It’s time to change the way we do activism in TB. Just like in HIV, it’s time to play kind. It’s time to fight back, and let’s bring that fight at the High Level Meeting on TB this September 2018.