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Crossing the Waters

By Anissa J. Cadar '93

The thought of burial disturbs me. Images of being encased in cocoons of successive layers of satin and mahogany and dirt seem extravagant and wasteful, a fancy-dress party where no one gets to dance. Whenever the subject of death comes up, I tell people that I plan to be cremated and have my ashes thrown into the Pacific Ocean. I want to reclaim what I have lost.

I grew up in the Philippines on my mother's farm, on the island of Panay, near Ilo Ilo. We flew there just after I was born in Seattle and remained for three sunlit years. Our house was at the very edge of the property, on top of a hill and facing the sea. It was completely round and made of bamboo. A third of the house, supported by bamboo stilts, hung out over the top of the hill. This area between the house and the earth was used as a chicken coop, and when I peered down through the slats of the floor, I saw the chickens running below. My mother's family encircled the area from the coop to the bottom of the hill with a fence which did double duty to keep chickens in and little children out. As I climbed down the hill to the sea, I could not put my hand on the fence to support myself as a myriad of dragonflies, far larger than any I have seen in the United States, was permanently settled on top of each spike. They made me think of strange and tempting flowers blooming from a shaft of bamboo, flowers that frightened me because I thought that the “dragon” part meant they would bite.

The exterior of the house was similarly decorated with all sorts of glistening insects and lizards. From a distance, with the sun slanting in just the right direction to reflect off the rainbow wings of the insects, the bamboo house looked as if it were studded with jewels and at sundown, the gecko lizards would run up and down the side of the house, seeming to touch their lips and kiss the ground before running back up again. In the darkness or daylight, we could feel and smell and taste the ocean from the top of that hill.

My uncle, the architect in the family, designed the house to shelter two families, my lolo (grandfather) and lola (grandmother). My mother found great peace in living there. A covered balcony ran around the house, and my mother put me there to play as she worked in the garden below the house, occasionally looking up to see that I was safe. Here she grew fruits for our own enjoyment, when the rest of the farm was planted with rice and bananas.

My days in the Philippines began just after the sun rose, when the air still held the night's coolness and the wet earth smelled new and fresh. Lola carried me down to the sea to bathe before the white sands became too hot to cross. She descended the hill holding me on her right shoulder. My inquisitive arms and hands were left free to grab at the leaves and vines that hung so enticingly in our path. Successful grabs would result in a small shower of dew; in my own way, I thought I was calling down the rain from the skies. After crossing a two-lane dirt road, we shuffled our way through the white sand to reach the edge of the sea. The first step to reach the reward of cool blue started in sand that looked so pure and so fine yet could become so hot, leading me into a frenzied hopping dance that ended once I reached the wet sand.

At that time, the only structure built on the shore was a tiny white school house topped by a cupola. In an area with little electricity and few precious wind-up clocks, the clanking bell that rang across the country side guaranteed that everyone came to school on time and that no one would be shamed by not having a clock. My father accompanied the fishermen sometimes, having majored in Fisheries in college. He studied the techniques they used to bring in a catch, as a good day meant that the whole village could buy fish. I'm sure that the less tangible reason he had for going out on those boats was to feel the waves rocking and swelling as if they were laughing at the mortals who swayed and bowed at the least movement and for the delicious tingle that crept up his spine at the realization that he did not know the depth of the water beneath him or the animals sheltered there.

Soon after my third birthday, we left the Philippines and moved to Ireland. Our stay there only lasted one year and my memories of the time were not as dear as those of the Philippines. We returned to Seattle within a year and once again I could touch the real ocean. The Atlantic, which I saw once in Ireland, had been such a strange gray body of water — it seemed old to me, tired and in need of rest. I was very glad to get back to the Pacific Ocean, to see familiar whitecaps and swells, the waves crashing and tumbling like children dancing. I was only four and the energy here made me laugh and sing. It smelled colder than the ocean in the Philippines, but it was the same one that had made my heart race as I wondered about its mysteries below.

I made up a clever game that I could play for hours. Dressed in my red and white striped bathing suit, I stood at the edge of the warm, clear water then ran until the water swirled around my hips. Just as the undertow began to pull me out, I would scream, “Namakata's mad at you!!!” and run back to the safety of the sand. Namakata was the sea witch coming to grab my ankles and drag me out to sea.

Much time has passed since I played with abandon in the Pacific Ocean, and now I am confounded by such burdens of dignity that I can no longer scream at Namakata. Perhaps that is why I have decided to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled in the Pacific. I told my parents that they should look forward to the same and whether they know it or not, I will do this to release my father back to the fishes and depths that he so loves, and my mother so that she may float from island to island and in that way return to her Philippines.

This essay has been exerpted from a lengthier original. Anissa J. Cadar '93 was twice president of the Asian Students' Association at Bryn Mawr, a commitment she undertook to improve resources for and dispel ignorance about Asian Americans. She is pursuing a law career.

Taking risks for beliefs

My grandmother, a grade-school educated subsistence farmer from the rural Philippines, told my mother, “If you tell the truth, you will always stand tall, even if you walk with a king with seven crowns or with the poorest of the poor, or if you face your executioner.” My parents tell me this story of how our family almost died for ideals. In 1972, as teachers at Mindanao State University in the Philippines, they organized petitions, strikes and protests against corruption and the Marcos regime. One petition concerned graft that occurred with the government's blessing, and how the University's president diverted money from legitimate school needs to buy land for himself. My parents were singled out as troublemakers and our house burglarized three times as warnings. One time the burglars killed our small watchdog. The following day my grandfather sent 18 armed body guards to live with us. They tell me that my puppy was yellow. Barely a year old, I do not remember these details.

The story does not end there. Mindanao remains the predominantly (80%) Moslem island of the Philippines, the island of my father's heritage. My parents were popularly seen as the ideal couple -- Moslem and Christian married, educated in the United States and returning to the Philippines to help their country. They were young and bold at a time when conflicts between the Moslems and Christians in Mindanao intensified. After the last burglary, my parents tried to leave Mindanao and the Army attempted to frame them for a bomb that exploded in Iligan, a predominantly Christian city. The bomb exploded in the hotel room adjacent to ours, as we were taking the elevator to the lobby to check out. We missed death by two minutes and then entered a second trap as the army took us into custody and broadcast reports of the capture of two “terrorists” responsible for the bombing. A lynch mob formed around the station where we were held. They wanted Moslem blood. My mother somehow got a hold of Colonel Incarnacion, who came from the same barrio (village) she did and knew her family. He helped us escape to Manila and then to Ilo Ilo. This, too, I do not recall, but somehow it must have been instilled in me at an early age that it was worth taking risks for what you believed.

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