By Phoenix Chiu Chin Wai
Unsurprisingly, life in Tubod Mar has essentially nothing in common with my life back in Hong Kong. It is not beyond my expectations that there would be no hot water baths nor air-conditioned accommodation – in fact, I had carried with me the worst imaginable scenarios, and this mental preparation had probably lifted my endurance, allowing me, a spoiled Hongkonger, to actually start to get accustomed to the way of life here – okay, THAT is not exactly true, I am still not quite used to the mosquito bites, and, possessing the uncommon cynophobia, my body is still overwhelmed with immense fear whenever I walk alone in the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, I believe the differences in expectations on one’s standard of living between Hongkongers and the Tubod Mar community has led to the substantial discrepancies between our lives. Here, there is a long list of things they do not view as problematic or as a hindrance to their enjoying their living – from ubiquitous crawling ants inside the house, blaring trumpet-like sounds made by roosters that wake you up twice a night, to lack of a shower system, use of firewood for cooking, and unconfined space so whatever creatures including gecko the length of your entire arm pay a visit occasionally.
Back in my home city, people emphasize particularly on hygiene. Here? Their washroom has no toilet paper, the people hardly clean their hands before meals, and they touch (and kill) bugs with their bare hands or one of the flip flops they are wearing. This is the most challenging part for me. I remember there was this night when I was struck by a wave of inexplicable, extremely negative sensations such that I lost my inner peace and became fed up with this place – I could not bear the environment anymore, I could not see the fun in playing with a giant beetle at dinner or the joy in bucket-water baths under aged spider webs. Anyhow, after a long sleep, I realized I had been applying my overindulged-Hongkonger notion of a good living to this place which is fundamentally different from a metropolis. And that was when I learnt how this ignorant attitude would have drawn me away from experiencing all the delights here.
When I abandon the affluent city-dweller expectations, it is effortless to see the beauty and luxury in life here.
For starters, the food, slow-cooked and seasoned with natural spices, is scrumptious (though, honestly, it does not necessarily look so). The hostess of my homestay family, Neneng, is an adept chef despite her reluctance to admit this fact. I am amazed by her fried eggplant-egg delicacy and carrot pancake, regardless of my lifelong loathing towards eggplants and carrots. No, I am not exaggerating. Even the simple assorted vegetables coupled with fried rice taste restaurant-served. Our meals are always paired with starchy sweet bananas or juicy mangoes, which add a further layer of pleasure to the dining experience. Sounds like I am writing a Tripadvisor review… let’s just say, I like to appreciate what I put into my mouth and the food INDEED tastes “lami” (the Visayan word for “yummy”)!
After satisfying our stomachs, we usually hang out at the bamboo hut built by the locals for Beau. It is my favourite structure here, which functions like a common area to gather kids and families, who knit rugs, play mini games, or just chill and chat till bedtime. I can barely remember the last time I have spent my evening in such a trouble-free atmosphere.
Hong Kong, after nine hectic hours at the workplace, I am completely drained when dinner is served, and everyone in the family seldom has the incentive to chat since we tend to let our smartphones and soap drama occupy our idling moments. Here in Tubod Mar – or in general Jagna, or even the Philippines, the concept of time is non-existent. People seem to have all the time in the world to just inhale the ambience (and they are late all the time, thanks to this trait). I am not sure if I, a Hongkonger since birth, entirely savor this carefree lifestyle, nonetheless, I see this as an everyday luxury our career-oriented students cannot afford (unless, well, when they go on a week-long vacation to some tourist-packed beach resorts after enduring the examinations or before starting their summertime internships).
One night, our neighbor Leto had his 40th birthday, and a few families, as well as the students, were invited to the celebratory feast. They rented for the first time ever a karaoke station, the adults just hung out at the hut, whereas a dozen of children frisked around. We saw the simplicity of finding happiness by observing the kids, as they did all sorts of tiny, silly things with genuine, unbounded laughter. We immersed ourselves in the kids and were overwhelmed by joy. Happiness, I guarantee, is another extravagance rarely spotted in Hong Kong.
People here certainly do not share the same aspirations as ours. What is the meaning of life, after all? I asked Reannie, the daughter in my host family, who takes Philosophy class at high school. We both do not have a clue, frankly, but it is probably defined by ourselves and shaped by the surroundings we are soaked in. In the past, I liked to ask myself this question a lot – until I figured out my life is a mere transience in the colossal universe and rather, I should focus on the present studies.
I took a common core course on seeking happiness in my freshman year, which basically unfolded that many of us are hopelessly trapped by the hedonic treadmill – first, you believe obtaining something will gain you happiness, then, after you have attained that something, you wish for something further as you believe that would (and is the only thing which would) bring you happiness; the process goes on, and as your desires intensify, your level of happiness remains stagnant or even faces diminishment. As we embark on the journey to look for “happiness”, we are always driven by materialism; it seems that when you have less to start with – like the communities here – you can reap this universally sought feeling effortlessly.
I see that as a luxury, as mentioned above. However, after being shaped by Hong Kong’s capitalist way of life infiltrated by consumerism and the sense of career fulfilment, I do not think I am ready to lead a simple life in Tubod Mar. Yet, I will take back to Hong Kong with me these beautiful memories which remind me how to find peace in life.