The Space In Their Lives I Had Left Behind

The Gendered Landscapes in Josephine V. Roque’s How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays

Alton Melvar M. Dapanas

(Philippines)


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“… you remained misunderstood because you could not speak the language well enough. One learned to accept the frustration of not being able to express the full range of who you were, to be satisfied with incomplete answers to questions when if asked in another language, you would say more. You learned to bite your tongue when it came to arguments you could not win because you forgot the Mandarin terms for scam or unfair. The language beat you to a pulp even before you opened your mouth. Even then, it was always a question of how long have you lived when they did hear you speak. How long does it take to belong to a place?” 

*****

Fragile Memories, Fragmented Selfhoods 

“In remembered memory” – is how Josephine ‘Joyce’ V. Roque begins “Upriver”, her first essay from her collection How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays, reminiscing about the waterscapes of Shanghai’s Huangpo River and the “glassy layer of calm” it exudes. 

The evocative inner dialogue continues throughout, removing the space between reader and author, thus breaking the fourth wall – a convention that is said to be an invisible barrier between performer and audience, artist and observer. On a bus ride to Wenzhou, for example, Roque muses on the contrast between what Virginia Woolf calls the I-then and the I-now: “I expected the view to change from the last time I was there because the person looking at it was not the same as in the process of writing this down now, I am writing about another self.” 

In a later essay, recreated based on letters Roque had written to friends and photos she had taken and travelling before the age of social media – she recounts writing “about this trip for another person, alone, typing away towards a deadline”; evoking the familiar scene of the lonely author with which we can all identify, posing the question about why we travel and who we are when travelling. While celebrating the Qingming holiday Tomb-Sweeping Day, a holiday that has resemblance with the permutations of All Souls’ Day in former Hispanophone colonies e.g. the Mexican Día de los Muertos and the Filipino Kalag-kalag, she lets go of her worrying persona and becomes more engaged in the experience: “It was me. I was no longer the person holding a tight grip, and a hawk’s-eye focus on her luggage.” 

“Recollection says” – is how Roque starts her suite of flash nonfiction, “Perilous Landings”, which she penned while traversing Hong Kong, from New Territories to Tsim Sha Tsui, from Lan Kwai Fong to Queensway, foregrounded by “long-distance love affairs [that] survived on small hopes.”

Roque discloses her views on the mutability of one’s memory and the Freudian interrogation of the oneness of the self which many essayists, autobiographers, and memoirists in literary nonfiction often engage in. (Useful in this context is Filipino writer Vicente Garcia Groyon’s meditation on his constant traversing between fiction and nonfiction in travel writing.) In her book, we see an against-the-grain rejection of the dog-tired dogma that nonfiction should be written with, and read with the expectation of, the exactingness of journalism, and therefore, “factualness.”

“Truth is malleable when you live away from your past,” Roque tells us. In this, the author sometimes resorts to “borrow[ing from] other people’s version of events … [of the] gaps in memory filled with negative space of the months and years … [of coming] back to an archive of home with files missing.” Sometimes, she writes for past selves and past places, for “the sadness of prior lives.” And this is exactly the book’s gift. Our ever-porous memories of people and of places are not in black and white.

Sten Pultz Moslund, in Geocritical Explorations, covers similar ground. Spaces are not just a passive out there, he says; they are also encountered within sensory memory, “present within language and made present by language … triggering a disorganized intensity” of the senses: from taste to smell, from sight to texture. 

On sleeping through a trip, Roque puts to writing, “I don’t feel bad … because remembering what I had missed was a chance to do it all over again.” Spaces, too, are constructs of the textual. After all, “Why did we travel to repeat images we already saw somewhere else?” 

And so is memory, a construct of the textual.

Roque’s observations of well-traveled places also provide insight. Reflecting on the Great Wall of China, she writes, “Its reason for being was to keep the northern barbarians out, but now the barbarians were not only inside but on top of it, and they paid to get there. The enemy made hotels, pilfered it for bricks and dirtied its face with spray paint.” Her meandering thoughts impart textures of narrative digressions. 

The essayist Judith Kitchen takes these digressions to mean “getting a bit lost on the way out in order to make discoveries on the way back… taking off from the essay at hand, reliving moments from our own lives, rephrasing our positions on issues, meandering into the world of our own thoughts… to get there.”

Roque regularly and deftly strays off-topic, sometimes unforeseen, but always arrives at her destination, both in the tangible and the textual. The travel question also comes answered, although with subtlety. While the dominant discourse in travel writing, as described in Travel Writings on Asia, point to rational curiosities and spatial knowledge, romantic and picturesque, travel writing seems to be preoccupied in making sense of what has been inhabited. Roque counters on why she travels: “But most of all, I was there because my mother died.”

As it happens, this will be recurrent, paraphrased in varied words, interspersed throughout several essays, sometimes with the I-persona somehow billowing in and out of moments of inattention. (In contemporary nonfiction writing, this is called an echo, a phrase, a single word, or a dialogue that is being repeated, and which gains a new meaning each time.) And then Roque goes back to the present here and now, leisurely setting the scene and space. 

*****

The Woman-as-Traveler and/in Gendered Spaces

Roque adds to the discourse by commenting on who travel is for and who we are when we travel. Travel has historically, and predominantly, been framed through the white male experience and functioned within the “domain of constitutive masculinity,” Sidonie Smith observes in Moving Lives: Twentieth-Century Women’s Travel Writing, though “women have always been and continue to be on the move”; particularly shown in the greater presence of women-travellers in historical travel accounts from the former Ottoman Empire and in ancient Bengal region of South Asia than perhaps other ethnoscapes. Steve Clark, in Asian Crossings: Travel Writing on China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, calls these writings, whether written in modern times or in antiquity, as attempts to negotiate and reclaim the stereotypes and archetypes.

In the Philippines, much of contemporary travel literature is, and has been, written by women. In a survey on Anglophone travel writing in the Philippines, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo outlines a canon spanning from the 60s until the late 2000s, comprising of, among others, Gemma Cruz-Araneta’s Hanoi Diary (1968), Kerima Polotan Tuvera’s Adventures in a Forgotten Country (1977), Sylvia Mayuga’s Spy in My Own Country (1981), Criselda Yabes’ A Journey of Scars (1994), Helen T Yap’s From Inside the Berlin Wall (2004), Jessica Zafra’s Twisted Travels (2007).

Hidalgo’s contribution alone includes almost a dozen of her own autobiographical travel books. The most recent additions are Johanna Michelle Lim’s What Distance Tells Us, Alice M Sun-Cua’s Golden Kumquats in Trieste and Other Travel Tales (both published in 2018), and How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays by Roque. “It seems to me that the tradition of travel writing by women in this country is being created by professional writers, mainly journalists and academics, who travel not on leisurely tours or in search of adventure but as part of their work,” Pantoja Hidalgo concludes.

Framing travel as an event, a personal experience, and a cultural symbol, Smith queries, “If travelling, being on the road, makes a man a man – and makes masculinity and its power visible – what does it make of a woman, who is at once a subject as home and a subject at home?” Proof to this are some key texts in Old World travel literature written by women – As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina of eleventh-century mid-Heian Japan, as well as La Monja Alférez and The Travels of Egeria.

Since the 70s, the feminist unearthing of women’s writings and increasing visibility of modern women authors, in the words of Susan Bassnett in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, is “part of [the feminist movements’] intellectual agenda, a conscious revision of what was perceived as male-authored history.” Roque’s narrative whirls along, further problematising this sexist conundrum surrounding the woman-as-lone traveller. Being interrogated by a Korean immigration officer, she ruminates:

“How could we navigate on our own? Independent travellers, more so women, especially women from so-called third-world countries, are a cause for suspicion. Could it be he thought we would work there or break the law because why would we travel alone and make ourselves vulnerable to misfortune? Male friends on knowing a woman who travelled alone would give a wink expecting they did and wanted what they wanted too: to collect flags from flings from every nationality when the more urgent thing that women wanted when they travelled was to be safe from men and not be killed in the process. News of a woman maimed or abused while travelling alone is not unheard of though one doesn’t need to travel for a woman to feel helpless, sometimes it happens even when at home.”

On a personal level for Roque, too, “The assurance came from uncertainty … the thrill of escape overthrew fear.” This is closely what Mary Morris situates us in: “For centuries it was frowned upon for women to travel without escort, chaperon, or husband” (Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers). Morris further elucidates this point by writing that women “move through the world differently than men. The constraints and perils, the perceptions and complex emotions women journey with are different from those of men.” Roque steers through this matter well. Travelling alone in Macau, she writes, “[I] felt like I had stumbled on a secret: I could see the world on my own. I could go to places without bending to someone else’s wishes, without someone else in my head.”

Roque, a migrant Filipino worker herself, also emphatically places Hong Kong Disneyland’s Ariel as an allegorical stand-in for the migrant woman worker: “displaced, moved from the time, place and culture which made her … stolen, many times vandalized, mutilated, beheaded to being supplanted here to a white space, flown in on a business trip to represent a country; a woman working away from homeland just like me.”  

In another essay, “Class A,” she blurs the person and the place in the figure anonymously named Isla Bonita, a Filipino socialite she met at an orphanage, when in fact, Class A – a Filipino idiom for a mere duplicate but could visually and texturally pass as an original – is actually a metaphor for both place and person.

As Susan Morgan in Place Matters: Gendered Geography in Victorian Women’s Travel Books about Southeast Asia, maintains, “critical concepts derived from considering writings about one area of the world cannot simply be transposed to writings about another area, in some sort of global theoretical move. Nor can concepts derived from male-authored travel accounts with male narrators simply be transposed to female-authored accounts with female narrators [as there are] distinctive and quite specific imperial discourses … being written, [that carry] specific conventions and … specific places … [which are] are gender marked.” A different gendered “body” will always mean a different place seen in different light. The travel writer, after all, “selects the ‘bodies” to account for, thus changing the place itself (see Carla Locatelli in “The Space of Travel Writing and the Filipino Gaze”). And Roque masterfully blends both place and gender. 

This collection, I daresay, is also a response to a lack of travel literature in the Philippines. Pantoja Hidalgo writes, “Travel writing has only recently been recognized as a literary genre in the Philippines, although the first travel book by a Filipina was published in 1930 – Maria Paz Mendoza’s Notas de Viaje.” The scholar Petronilo Bn. Daroy, in his foreword to Pantoja Hidalgo’s Five Years in a Forgotten Land: A Burmese Notebook, echoes this: 

“Given our culture, therefore, it is paradoxical that Philippine letters are deficient in travel materials. Even the popular media, whenever they print travel stories, usually deal with the backyard – the Hundred Islands, Boracay, etc. Travel does not seem to expand our vision or even widen the interest of more popular writers. Whenever the personal experience … is narrated, the account usually deals with how adobo was served to an appreciative group of party-goers close to Hyde Park, or how one was able to obtain a bottle of miraculous water from a spring where an apparition had taken place.” 

Stylistically clever, Roque’s travel essays at times take the form of a polyptych. In “Dispatches From a Past Life,” she fluctuates between points of view – first, then second, then first and so on – as well as a suite of a few vignettes or anecdotal sketches (“short shorts,” in the terminology of nonfiction pundits) which take the form of cerebration on spaces she has inhabited.

The same is true in the collection’s title essay, “How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar” – told and meant to be read like a how-to listicle (“The first step when riding a train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is to miss your flight”); the perspective changes, and alternates, sometimes with the I-persona self-referencing herself as the “girl who had been left behind” in an unplanned train ride to the Mongolian capital “where there was no fear of getting lost only of not moving.” 

In his introduction to Asian Crossings, Clark sheds light on this: “movement occurs from a highly self-conscious form of introspective lyricism to more directly referential description of the physical environment.” Pantoja Hidalgo repeats: the Filipino woman-traveller is writing “impressions, producing analysis and reflection as much as reverie.” 

*****

Landscapes of Contrasts and Repetitions

A whiff of the quaint, simpler times from the past encircles the psychic climate of How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar. For many readers of travel literature and place writing, this book resides in the same regions of nostalgia and solastalgia as Wild East: Travels in New Mongolia by Canadian journalist Jill Lawless; the Taishō era Japanese poet Yosano Akiko’s Travels in Manchuria and Mongolia: A Feminist Poet from Japan Encounters Prewar China in translation by Joshua A Fogel; the travelogues published in the Solas House annual anthology The Best Women’s Travel Writing: True Stories from Around the World; and even the larger body of Nikki bungaku, or diary literature, predating the Western diaristic tradition for eight centuries, particularly the travelogues of Lady Sarashina.

For Roque, the present is a repetition of the past, resonating all throughout time and space. She grew up in Angeles City in Pampanga province of the northern Philippine island of Luzon, once populated by Americans because of the presence of US naval bases only to live in ethnically heterogeneous metropoles – Shanghai and Beijing – later in life. As a child who almost died in a pool, she admits being “scared [of water] for most of my life.” As an adult in a swimming class, she would eventually confront this fear of drowning. In “Cowboy Nights at Zapata’s”, perhaps this collection’s most-aflame-with-poetic-insight essay, she questions the privilege that allows the few to be

“… welcomed because of their passport, and no one questioned why a white man, a white immigrant, would go to Asia, though an Asian would always be treated with suspicion when he made the same journey West, burdened to prove intentions through bank accounts, letters, land titles, tax returns. Were they not the people who brought the evils of colonial oppression and abuse to Asia? It is a class issue that permeates into language and policy when a white person is often referred to as an expatriate while the rest are pigeon-holed with the immigrant, migrant worker label.” 

In “Language X-change,” an allusion to a language exchange partner, a mechanism prevalent in Roque’s bygone Beijing, she highlights the contrast between the “inferior” local and the “superior” foreign: Squat toilets versus seat toilets, hard-as-rock mattresses versus softer beds, even in hospital facilities and hotel establishments. Even within Chinese citizens in the mainland, ethno-racial hierarchies are at play, Roque writes as a witness while at the People’s Square and Caoxi Lu station: the Shanghainese majority versus the Uighur minority, China’s Muslim minority from Xinjiang province who are sent to government’s ‘re-education’ camps where their Uighur culture is being erased in the name of so-called nationalism.

Spaces in (post)colonies are, after all, coded in binaries – native or indigène versus the European. The majoritarian culture becomes a stand-in for the European coloniser in the postcolony. The minority contests this “domination [by] a variety of unauthorized uses of spaces … begging, fraud, political demonstrations, nonstandard constructions” (see Seth Graebner’s “Colonial Cities” in The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature). In the words of Carla Locatelli, “the colonizers’ presence always changes a place, making it ‘different’ to the natives.” Thus, the Uighur are stereotypically labeled as “pickpockets” and sellers of cheap food. “I have never seen an Uighur be anything else but a food vendor or a restaurant owner. It seems these are the only roles they are allowed to play,” Roque observes. But unlike in Eurocentric travel narratives of white women-travelers like Isabella Bird, Emily Innes, and Florence Caddy where “the native population … are restricted to mere functional and instrumental narratives,” the locals in Roque’s travel essays come alive. 

In Hong Kong, Roque reflects on truths and untruths using the metaphors of pirated DVDs, printed books that violate copyright laws, and “class AAA” luxury items – the copy and the actual, the real and the replica, the true and the pretend. In the same breath, she meditates on fleeting friendship with the socialite Isla Bonita which “looked like a friendship, felt like a friendship, but was imitation made to pass for the real deal, and maybe that was okay for the time we met, it was what was needed.” Internally, Roque, “one of the few foreigners – and an Asian one at that – to speak English” at one point in Shanghai (thus highlighting the differences in linguistic ideologies within Asia), is no stranger to contrasts.

A self-confessed “nominal Catholic with doubts,” she was born and raised in the Philippines where being a Catholic means being “born into a colonial inheritance and follow the majority.” Then, she found herself living in China where being a “Catholic was to resist, to risk remaining freedoms.” (But paradoxically, China, with a pre-Internet generation that still considers homosexuality as a mental illness, also meant freedom: for an Iranian acquaintance to party and drink; for a closeted gay Filipino friend to display affection in public with his French boyfriend; for a Japanese journalist to party at a gay bar.) All of the above prompted her – and in the process, us readers – to ask, “What did it mean to be faithful?” and confront the paradox that is the self: “My faith was tiny, but the thought of oblivion scared me.” And it is in this sense that she portrays herself as a native and as a nomad of contradictions and paradoxes.

How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays is told mainly through the eyes of a storyteller who revels in the spatio-temporal proclivity of what travel literature scholars call dwelling-in-travelling – “Being away, it was easier to believe the illusion that the life I knew before remained unchanged” – and how that is best translated into the textual. While moving across Macau, Roque reflects on the migrant Filipino worker experience in East Asia beyond the usual issues with local recruiters, foreign employers, and “balikbayan” boxes to paint a lucid image of the half-light world of Filipinos in this part of the globe: “… in the eyes of the government we were cattle to be herded out, out of the country. They don’t want you to go but only half-heartedly because pockets are fuller if you do.” 

In Lhasa, Tibet, “the land of snow,” Roque cross-examines her own leaning towards risk, towards the forbidden. Upon her revisiting of Beijing, her last with a circle of friends, she pores on the ephemerality of ties with people and the permanence of places. “It would be different from the first time I went during winter when our skin shrivelled, and peeled from the dry cold. Memories of the city were a mist, like the wispy branches found in calligraphy paintings.” In Ulaanbaatar, she does not shy away from the political, and lays out a social commentary on China’s militaristic expansionism in its ‘special administrative regions’ in Macau, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Mongolia, as well as the gentrification of places like that of Yangshuo, “a town morphed into a backpacking place catered to foreign tourists.” She elegantly synthesises all the details from the essays, seemingly mundane at first, building her case as a ruminative traveller.

Every detail unfolded by Roque is willful. She laments her Mandarin, a language in which she never felt competent enough: “… words I knew eroded with time, weathered bit by bit in sediments displaced to a lower slope,” only to ask later on, “Does forgetting begin upon departure? Was it possible to be alone with language?” In a way, she was alone in her Mandarin, in her belongingness to nowhere, in her grief brought on by the loss of her mother, navigating through it from a distance. Already estranged to herself and to language, she is even estranged to her fellow Filipinos, migrant workers and international students alike. “Nationality is a label for belonging but what if you decide to belong to no tribe but your own?” In here, both the atypical and the quotidian are the source for the epiphanic.

Encapsulating the whole collection, Roque writes, “Scientists say memories were never meant for nostalgia but survival; the last step. My vision began to blur. Eleven years after her death, I stopped crying for my mother and began crying for myself.” This meditation in prose that maintains a close relationship to the body of works of contemporary writers in the genre, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Johanna Michelle Lim, and Noo Saro-Wiwa, riffing freely on an intimately restful literary form – the travel memoir – is, to me, an engaging and gripping work on placemaking, on histories recollected, impressions once raw that ripened in wisdom and time.

 

Overall, Roque offers a sense-making of loss, and of the distance afforded by and needed to deal with that loss; of places and spaces already travelled or still unexplored, outside and within.

Alton Melvar M. Dapanas

is an

Assistant Nonfiction Editor for Panorama.

Alton Melvar M Dapanas (they/them), essayist, poet, and translator from the southern Philippines, is the author of In the Name of the Body: Lyric Essays (Canada: Wrong Publishing, 2023) and Towards a Theory on City Boys: Prose Poems (UK: Newcomer Press, 2021). Published from South Africa to Japan, from France to Australia, and translated into Chinese and Swedish, their latest works have appeared in World Literature Today, BBC Radio 4, Oxford Anthology of Translation, Sant Jordi Festival of Books, and the University of Alabama Press anthology Infinite Constellations. Their lyric essay has been nominated to the Pushcart Prize and their prose poem was selected for The Best Asian Poetry. Formerly with Creative Nonfiction magazine, they’re editor-at-large at Asymptote and assistant nonfiction editor at Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature and Atlas & Alice Literary Magazine. Find more at https://linktr.ee/samdapanas.

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