9/26/2021
The imperialists

I didn't prompt the conversation. I wouldn't start talking about politics in most circumstances while having a haircut, especially a haircut that's three weeks behind schedule. Me-time is pretty rare as it is.

But then, I understand my barber just really wants to shoot the breeze with someone.

"Sinong presidente mo?" he asked.

"Masyado pang maaga," I answered.

It is too early. Sure, you check the news and it's as if our leaders have forgotten about the pandemic still being an ongoing concern and have resumed their power games. By the time I had my haircut - one delayed by yet another closure of barber shops due to yet another supposedly-ultra-strict lockdown - up to five people have officially declared their intentions to run for president, depending on whether you count the two PDP-Laban factions as, well, two candidates. And even then we're still months away from the period for filing of candidacy papers, and even more months away from the official start of campaigning, as if that fazed anybody, judging from the social media ads and the billboard of Sal Panelo just outside my flat.

"Ikaw," my barber asked, gesturing to the lady working on my nails, "sino presidente mo?"

"Si Isko," she answered. "Taga-Maynila ako, eh."

"Ako, basta hindi si Duterte," he said. "Puro na lang lockdown. Hindi ako makatrabaho."

Now, I'll have to confess that there's a lot of this conversation I am cutting out. For one, I inevitably ended up talking a fair bit - okay, perhaps a lot - about why lockdowns are necessary, but should not be the only thing in the government's arsenal. On that, we agree. There was also a pretty long tangent about how I got yams as part of the government-mandated ayuda - as in, a whole bag of yams and potatoes, and rice, and three packs of instant noodles, and maybe one can of meat loaf - and how, in the province, they cook it with the rice, which reminded me of the rice-and-beans thing the Koreans have. (Looked it up. It's called japgokbap.)

Anyway, the last time I had a haircut - just before everything closed again - my barber gave me his mobile phone number, just in case I need another haircut. He says he lives in Mandaluyong anyway, so the journey wouldn't be as long. Turns out he stayed with a relative in Caloocan throughout the lockdown, rather than the boarding house he's staying in. There wasn't much to do. The barber shops were closed.

He wasn't happy with it, obviously. I mean, not having any work for a month? (I know some barbers have resorted to doing "home service" within their immediate neighborhoods so they can continue to make ends meet.) And even now that barber shops are allowed to open, there aren't that many people stopping by for a haircut. We were chatting around six in the evening, and - if I got his story right - he hasn't had any customer the whole day. ("Hindi pa nga ako nanananghalian," he said. "Puro meryenda lang.") I don't know if it's because folks have to be fully vaccinated to get a haircut indoors. (The mall has an outdoor area, but imagine getting a haircut in very windy conditions. In this climate.) In any case, he's relieved that he can get back to work, but he hopes it doesn't happen again. Which leads us to the upcoming elections, and how he's not going to vote for Duterte.

"Kapag si Duterte ulit naging presidente, puro lockdown pa rin tayo," he said.

"'Yun nga eh," I agreed. "Puro tayo ang may responsibilidad, pero anong ginagawa nila?"

Of course, I say this knowing that what I just said doesn't quite cover everything. I'm sure I have written before about how government work isn't as easy as just doing things. There's a lot of bureaucracy to navigate before you can start construction on, say, a new train line. But, of course, the current president's defense - that no country was ready for COVID-19 - doesn't hold water, even if it's technically true, because most countries did not start from scratch, and also, eighteen months in, we still haven't really done anything apart from forcing people to wear face shields and blaming them for spikes in cases. But explaining all that would make me sound like an ass, so I don't belabor the point.

"Matagal na akong nasa Maynila," he continued. "Matatalino ang mga tao dito. Alam kong hindi nila iboboto si Duterte sa susunod."

"Hindi lang naman mga taga-Maynila ang bumoboto," I answered.

I remembered going to Davao City for the first time. It was a very short trip for work - I was barely there for 24 hours - but I distinctly remember a resident talking about the emergency hotline Duterte implemented when he was still mayor there. As the story goes, a nephew had to be rushed to the hospital, and an ambulance arrived just five minutes after calling 911. Something about how there's a dispatcher in many points in the city ensuring fast response time, or something. I don't remember to specifics; the story was from three years ago. "This is why we can complain about things!" the local said, beaming with pride.

Over there, it makes sense why Duterte would make a good president: in their view, he did some really good things while he was mayor. Over here in Manila, well, we don't see that. All we know - or choose to dwell on - is how he's a vulgar (no, blunt!) son-of-a-bitch (no, straight-shooter!) who does not care for the rules (no, he wants things done very fast!) and who's focused his time on the top consolidating power for himself and tearing apart the institutions that hold us together. Surely the rest of the country sees things differently, depending on where they are, what they've experienced, and more critically, what they believe.

It's why I kind of wanted to refute the thinking that just because people here think the current president did pretty badly, it means he will be removed from power. Consider that many places in the country have seen the loosest form of lockdown (but not out of it) for months now. They'd think things are fine. They'd think it could get worse if someone else is in charge. It's very much how we should not think Leni Robredo would make a good (no, great!) president just because everyone we talk to - likely the ones we haven't purged from our social media feeds in the past five years - thinks that way. For one, she never came up as a possible choice during our conversation. Neither my barber nor my manicurist are sure of what she's done, although there's also a long explanation for that. It's why the consensus seems to gravitate towards Isko Moreno. Theirs, not mine.

Come to think of it, the mindset that us folks in Manila think we know what's best for everyone has helped fuel the conditions that led to where we are right now. The "imperial Manila" thing is not empty rhetoric but a legitimate mindset in other parts of the country. I don't like it, but if you see things another way it will be sensible and, perhaps, valid. The point is, just because everyone we know believes one thing doesn't mean everyone believes it. Don't be too complacent - and don't act like you've been done dirty when you don't get the results you feel you're entitled to.

And your responses...

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