Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for December 19th, 2010

Extraordinary stories from ‘ordinary’ people 8

Posted on December 19, 2010 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated December 19, 2010 12:00 AM

Looking out from my car at the countless people on the sidewalks, or walking through thick crowds in a mall, I am overwhelmed by the realization that every person has a story to tell.

I have met and listened to enough so-called ordinary people to come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an ordinary person with an ordinary life. In conversations with OFWs, waiters, students, young and old people, I have had been surprised, amazed, and impressed at the stories I have heard them tell.

This article is a tribute to “small” people and the extraordinary episodes in their lives that they have generously shared with me through the years.

Sometime in the late ‘80s, I was in Rome at the Termini, the train station, where many of our kababayans like to hang out on weekends. Many of them stood beside their cars with the trunks open from where they sold various types of Filipino food to fellow Filipinos and a few Italians.

There was one young woman who caught my fancy. She was around 22 years old and had been in Italy for about three years. What drew my attention was not what she had in her car. In fact, she had no car. She carried a basket with a cover, hiding the goods she was hawking. In a voice that transported me to Anywhere, Philippines, she chanted “Balut!” so melodically and with gusto, attracting our countrymen to buy the delicacy.

Thoroughly amused, I went to talk to her about the balut and penoy she was selling. Where did she get them? Where they imported? How much was she selling them for? Was she selling them only to Filipinos?

I can’t remember her name but let us call her “Grace.” Grace was from Navotas and was formerly a balut vendor in Manila. She went to Europe to work and landed in Italy where, she said, she found a duck farm not too far from Rome and made friends with the owner, which is how she was able to make balut and penoy to sell. She said she normally sold her products at the Termini and outside the churches where Filipinos congregate. She always sold everything she made.

At the Termini, vendors are not allowed; their presence is merely tolerated by the police, and so they are not able to sell there all the time. But Grace said the police looked kindly upon her because some of them had actually tried the balut she peddled and liked it. She said she was working hard to send money home to finance her husband’s schooling. She had married early, and vowed to her parents that she and her husband would make it in the world.

I sometimes wonder about Grace. Did she ever come back to the Philippines? Did her husband finish his studies? Is her life better now?

Another person who made an impression on me is a woman who had called to make an appointment to be photographed. She was from overseas. She said she wanted the pictorial to be daring; she was going to give it to someone special.

On the day of the photo shoot, I met this rather good-looking young lady in her very early 20’s accompanied by her doting gay brother. I remember watching her hand mannerisms and being so charmed at how womanly she moved them.

We began the session. Soon, she was posing in different stages of undress and before long, she was totally nude. As a photographer, I went for really elegant angles, which I would occasionally show her brother who was quite delighted with them. They were talking throughout the session. Around 15 minutes into the shoot, it dawned on me from snippets of the verbal exchange going on that my very womanly subject was, in fact, not what I thought she was. She had undergone a sex change. She was a transgender.

I giggled inside at the novelty as I realized what was going on. Soon, I got in on the conversation which had turned quite candid and asked her who she was giving the pictures to. She said she was giving it to her Japanese boyfriend as a token of gratitude since he had financed her operation. Her brother explained that his “sister” had always been a “girl” since he/she was six years old. Hers was the classic “woman trapped in a man’s body” story.

Soon we were talking about the more intimate aspects of her new sexuality compared to what it was when she was still a man. She said her physical pleasures were more intense then but she found more psychological authenticity, and felt truer, feelings-wise, in her new body.

It was an awesome moment being with someone who had shown complete vulnerability to me and had asked me to photograph her in her reconstructed beauty and glory. Contrary to how some people might imagine such a situation, it was not in any way funny or even close to anything that invited derision. It was, in fact, an epiphany for me which expanded my understanding and compassion for the complicated human condition.

That was quite hard to forget.

These are just two chance encounters with “ordinary” people. But how ordinary are they, really? Perhaps we merely categorize everyone outside of us as ordinary or regular people because we have not had the chance to know them, and hear their human stories. To them, we are perhaps ordinary as well for the same reasons.

It’s easy and quite normal to classify people and put them in boxes based on their socio-economic class, gender, the school they went to, etc. We do this all the time not realizing that a person is not just a one-dimensional statistic. And when we do, we diminish our chance to hear their real stories and thus deprive ourselves of something that could touch our lives in a real way.

Every person in the world is a carrier of stories. If we just stop and appreciate every person’s uniqueness, we will find that there can never be enough of their stories to enrich our lives. The next time you see some stranger in the street, or the office, or anywhere, remind yourself that he/she has parents who actually have histories of their own. He/she has probably loved and has experienced being loved in turn, has cried and laughed, and has faced troubles just like you.

We don’t have to befriend everyone. Besides, it is just impossible to do so. But by extending the specialness we feel about ourselves to others, we make a world with less strangers and distrust.

That should somehow make for a better planet somehow.

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