...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Quezon City 2014 - Week 1

Driving through Manila on the way to QC from NAIA airport

Quezon City, Philippines
14°38′ N 121°2′ E
Time 22:55, Temperature 28° C

There are almost three million people living in Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila. For perspective, my mid-sized city of Norrköping celebrated its 135,000 resident this year, Emil. This same year, the Philippines celebrated its 100th millionth baby, which its parents named Chonalynlyn. It seems that there may have been a few more hundred thousand people living here since my last visit two years ago, if you’re to judge by the number of cars, the increasing traffic, the sprouting shopping malls and new apartment buildings. Many things in the city look the same. The buildings just look a tad older and more worn, but there are also new ones that replaced the old. This year, as I celebrate my 31st birthday in QC, I realize how some things haven’t changed and are very familiar here, despite the fact that I’ve moved to Sweden for actually almost a decade now, or in other words, almost a third of my life.

Sounds and smells

Temperature readings brought to you by IKEA

Nature takes over so fast in this heat and humidity. Things rot and rust faster, but things also grow faster. In our yard, the two banana plants that first grew fruit in 2012 have since multiplied. Now there are banana bunches growing almost at arm’s reach from our own window, which is a fun sight to see. So is the sight of mom and dad taking bunches down with a long curved knife tied to a bamboo pole. Teamwork right there!

Since my arrival in QC, the most noticeable difference from back in Norrköping are the sounds and smells that literally envelop you here. The smells of the city seem just so much more intense, just like on a hot Swedish summer. They are dog smells, exhaust smells, food smells, shampooed hair smells. With houses tight next to each other, our backyard neighbors literally have to remove their laundry from the drying line when the ones beside them fry chicken. Of course QC-folk are used to living this tightly, but one of the things I just can’t help noticing after living in Norrköping for quite a while now is that it’s never ever quiet anywhere here. I hear what the neighbors are playing on the radio in the evenings, and I hear ringing doorbells, street vendors, barking dogs and air conditioner hums in the distance as I go to sleep. I’m two minds about this. On the other hand, I’m used to it and I seem to be able to filter the sounds off when I want to. In my mind, I think the sound pollution is bothersome and unhealthy, but I’m afraid in my heart that I might go home to the quiet of my bedroom at home in Sweden and miss having sounds of people in movement around me. Maybe, maybe not.

The banana plant just outside our window, with bananas and a banana flower

The most intrusive and occasionally annoying sounds are however not in one’s own neighborhood but out in the shopping malls, where lights and sounds and signs from all directions all try to catch a fraction of the buyer’s attention span. The sound barrage already begins upon entering the mall. More often than not, the entrances are equipped with metal detectors that beep (of course!) for every single passing person, ca. once every two seconds. Everyone’s bag gets a cursory “check up” by the security guards who shout you a welcome greeting, and it’s all sounds and lights from there on. “WELCOME TO [STORE NAME]!!!”, “MA’AM, BUY [PRODUCT]!!”, “SPECIAL PROMO!”, “MA’AM, BROCHURE FOR [NEW BUILDING] FOR INVESTMENT!”, “THANK YOU, COME AGAIIIN!”. This is besides the sound made by shoppers themselves. And above all this, there is a radio, often blaring because the mall’s own station sells ad space. The sales people are often friendly and you rarely bump into anyone even in a crowd, but the loud sounds are everywhere. Thankfully I could ask a mall restaurant waiter to turn down the volume when it got so bad that I couldn’t even here what dad was saying across the table. People have to talk so loud here, I remember how I used to (and sometimes still do) have to ask Swedes to say things twice to me when they talk too softly.

Jollibee, the Filipino equivalent of the Swedish Max

A piece of Japan in central QC

I mentioned this before: One of the advantages of QC-living is there is good value for good food here. And as a culture that really likes food, much of urban exploring is about having food experiences. There is good food in all price classes. For some people, it is a sport to get something really good at the cheapest price. For others, it is a city indulgence to get something quite good and pretty expensive. It is also big-city folk cred to know where the best places to eat are, or know restaurants that give more of an experience than just the food.

As my sister and I are going to Japan for five days next week, Prixie (my sister’s oldest friend) and her husband Chris brought my sister and I to Zaan, a Japanese tea house in central Quezon City, to start off our journey. The place was small but cozy, and all the food there was cooked by the Japanese owner from scratch, from the soba noodles to the ice cream. Places like these are a pearl; the atmosphere was cozy and home-like. But the highlight of Zaan without any doubt was our introduction to the Japanese tea ceremony, which would have cost us a fortune in Japan, if there was even a slim chance of getting invited to one. The tea house owner explained the rituals of the tea ceremony as we performed it. At bottom, the feeling instilled in you is an appreciation for the craft of making food and drink and gratitude for the good company sharing the sweets and tea.

After the tea master presents the bowl to you and you bow thanks, you bow to the person beside you to say something like, "I'm sorry if I go ahead of you". 

The photo op doesn't reveal how our legs were actually tingling from sitting through the whole ceremony

Tale of two cities

Picking up on the note on gratitude, I just turned 31 and I’m surrounded by friends and family, which is truly valuable  and irreplaceable. We’re having lots of fun too, which is great. Yet I don’t really know if I want to spend all of my future in this city, even if it is a place I also call home. And it’s an ambivalence that I’ve learned to accept for what it is. I’m not idealizing Sweden either, but I do feel more and more that it is my physical home. There are many things in QC that I’m sure I could get used to again, but I’m not sure if I could quite accept. Like living in congestion. Like living in a class society that is sometimes so blatantly unequal. Like having to pay for all leisure, health and education and the absence of communal city resources like good public libraries, good public parks and good public schools. As an occasional tourist, I can more easily accept that things are this way without judging. I go with the flow that signs are not followed, that rules are non-existent and the systems are illogical and ineffective. Most people who live here do as I do, and there is often a Filipino sense of humor and a flexible attitude about never expecting anything to work as it should. But the difference is, that I can also choose not to live in that way.

I had a reflection today on my birthday. My brother suggested that we eat at an international buffet, so we did. For 800 pesos a plate, you could eat anything you wish, as much as you wanted. A whole big hall the size of a house were filled with trays of Japanese food, Mexican food, Filipino food, American food, etc and desserts galore. Of course, this is the concept for any buffet, even in Sweden too. A smörgåsbord, for example, or why not even a julbord. The food was okay, but I couldn’t help feeling a little wasteful. I could find no justification for all this abundance of food being served to a few hundred people when I also see that a large part of the three million in this city can’t even get food in their mouths, and live on scraps of trash. I felt in complicity to a system that I could not change or influence, not even with a power of a vote.


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