The Long-Term Effects of Colonialism

There are several reasons why some countries are more developed than others. One of the factors is the interconnected relationships between colonialism, geography, culture, institutions, and the leadership in those institutions.

From examining different examples throughout history, and the effect they had on the present day, I found that various political dynamics, such as physical and cultural colonialism, partly explains why many developing countries are buried in a mountain of poverty.

During the 16th and 17th century, European countries began to exert their control over larger parts of the world. The Spanish and Portuguese founded colonies in what would be known as Latin America. Britain and France, on the other hand, began to colonize most of North America and the Middle East. These countries–which make up the power players of today’s European Union–also established colonies in Asia and Africa.

Colonialism gave European powers access to fund their own economic development by exploiting their colonies. This affected the growth of those very colonies long after they gained their independence.

Haiti is a prime example of exploitation by its colonial masters. In 1790, Haiti was recognized as one of the richest countries in the world due to its lucrative export of sugar, but most of its profits went to the French colonizers. After winning their independence in 1804, Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France, in which they had to shell out almost 80% of their national budget.

As a result, this impoverished Haiti and increased France’s income. European powers used lucrative forced labor to grow cash crops for the booming global market. Even though colonialism isn’t sufficient enough to be causal proof as to why some countries are more developed than others, it’s quite evident that, in terms of GDP, more than 20 countries that were once colonies are among the world’s poorest.

Factors include: the draining of resources, exploitation, and the inevitable dependency these developing countries grew accustomed to, which in later years helped feed the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These are two institutions that loaned large sums of money to developing countries, but with a high interest rate.

Another factor is geography, which continues to explain why many less-developed countries cannot make as much progress as the more developed ones. Some regions have more advantage than others in terms of wealth and power due in part to their location. Good soil for agriculture is one example of this. Different regions, such as the Nile Delta in North Africa and Fertile Crescent in Iraq, had the advantage early on to produce an abundance of grain products, because they had favorable soil. But these very regions were also exploited by many European nations by way of colonialism. In North Africa, the French and Italians divided the region amongst themselves, like pieces of a pie. Parts of the Middle East were under the control of the British Empire, such as Palestine and present-day Israel.

Civil wars and revolutions, both pre- and post-colonial rule, have also had its effects on the present-day inequality among developing nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Incidentally, many civil wars during post-colonial rule stem from the effects of colonization due to the re-mapping of traditional tribal lands and the installation of minority groups to rule over a rival majority, as was the case in Rwanda.

Speaking on inequality, Nancy Birdsall (1999) states:

”[…] the developing countries face special risks that globalization and the market reforms that reflect and reinforce their integration into the global economy, will exacerbate inequality, at least in the short run, and raise the political costs of inequality and the social tensions associated with it.”

Let’s take a look at two developing countries that have been both colonized, but whose trajectory, in terms of economy, have varied greatly: Brazil and Nigeria. The Portuguese colonized Brazil during the Atlantic slave trade and Nigeria was colonized by the English from 1861 to 1900. Many of Afro-Caribbean slaves ended up in Brazil, along with various European and Asian immigrants. Nigeria, meanwhile, stayed relatively heterogeneous.

Brazil has risen to become a member of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), while Nigeria developed well in its own right, though relatively poorer than Brazil. Having said that, let us not dodge the fact that the gap between the small percentage of the Brazilian population reaping the benefits of a booming economy and the lower-class is conspicuously wide. Both countries export agriculture, but Brazil was able to create an economic system that capitalized on this type of industry, whereas Nigeria couldn’t seem to find the right formula due to political corruption inherited from post-colonial fracturing.

There are many factors as to why both of these countries, though similar in political history, are on different levels. For one, Brazil has not only capitalized on their agriculture industry, but have also been business-friendly to many types of other industries, such as technology, architecture, livestock and Web-based entrepreneurship. Though Nigeria has the second largest film industry in the world (India has the largest), their market only caters to local and regional interests and the Nigerian diaspora, whereas India has made capital in its success of exporting Bollywood culture outside of New Delhi. Nigeria has also turned away many possible investors due to the notorious “African Prince Scam”, which has its origins in Nigerian internet cafes.

Economist Dambisa Moyo expands the big picture pertaining to inequality and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by stating that a culture of dependency, by way of celebrity-endorsed charities, has harmed the growth of the continent. Millions of dollars are poured into Africa, but little evidence has shown that this type of system works in a practical sense. What happens is that these countries become reliant on donors. Their governments don’t truly care about the people’s interest, and turn to private institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, despite the high interest rate. In turn, the debts of these countries skyrocket as poverty rates remain stagnant.

There are many variables that can be measured through a retrospective look at history, but since the economic and political systems vary, both in micro and macro levels, there is no accurate measurement tool in proving the cause of inequalities among different developing nations. For instance, during the height of the late-2000s global economic meltdown, Nigeria, along with the Philippines, another impoverished country with a long history of colonization, maintained a strong currency, while the dollar and euro decreased in value.

What can’t be denied, on the other hand, is the fact that imperialism had tremendous long-term repercussions. Historians like to play the “What If” game. What if Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia were never colonized? What if Western nations hadn’t become the superpowers post-WWII, but instead countries like Malawi, Azerbaijan and Chile had? The fact is that it will take a handful of decades more to see if colonialism will continue to haunt the countries it touched, or if the inequalities will eventually balance out.

To Last of Us / The Last of Us

“I loved the water of you, the snake of
you, everything amorphous and short-lived,

as I expected nothing to last of us.”

– Excerpt from Nommo in September, Hannah Sanghee Park

 

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only change forms: sparks create fire; atom bombs create explosions. I thought about this last Halloween, when we visited the family mausoleum. I sat in front of my grandmother’s tomb with a candle illuminating the dark crevices as it slowly melted to death. Since they are buried underneath the tile floors of the mausoleum, there was no choice but to sit, stand or lie above the deceased. It’s not disrespectful; that’s just the architectural design of the afterlife.

I laid down next to my grandmother, the way I did as a child when we used to share a bed in our small New York apartment, the way I laid next to her the morning she had a fatal stroke. I imagined that I could feel the vibration of her atoms. I imagined that it was the vibration of a rocket ship punching the stratosphere, her tomb as my backrest, and we were on our way to the edge of the universe as dark matter expands it. It will be a long ride. Spacefarers Michael and Taciana, grandson and grandmother, sailing through the cosmos.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only change forms: sparks create fire; atom bombs create explosions. I thought about this years ago, while kissing her jugular notch, her straddling me in the backseat of her SUV.

“I’ll make love to you everyday,” I told her when she moved her face closer. She cried.

Words, too, can create fire. Sparks by Coldplay was playing softly through the speakers. I touched the frame of the window.

“This. This is my idea of a perfect world. I mean, not the car, the engineering is shit on this model, but you and me…and Chris Martin lurking somewhere in the background…and nothing else inside this bubble. I want to photocopy this moment and staple it all over my room until it’s completely covered.”

When we finally had to call it a night an hour before sunrise, I remember I had forgotten my eyeglasses in the passenger door compartment. She, still in the backseat, leaned forward to unlock the front door for me. I remember her silhouette, the arch of her back, her hair hanging down over her cheeks. I leaned forward and kissed her.

It sounds juvenile now, but that one simple, short gesture is tattooed in my mind. We’ve never had a normal relationship and something so normal, like a kiss on the lips, gave me a glimpse of what could’ve been if life, warfare, and heartbreak hadn’t gotten in the way.

When I got home, the residue of her favorite perfume, the same one she wore on our first date years before, coated my skin and shirt. It rubbed off on my pillow, my entire bed, until her presence in my dark, empty room eased me to sleep.

In Another Place, Another Time, I Loved You

“You don’t want love. You want a love experience.”

Knight of Cups

In the Tech Age, the “human experience” has become harder to define. Before, the “human experience” meant all of the things that a person experiences as a mortal on planet Earth: joy, grief, enlightenment, fear, anger and lust. These are experiences and emotions that occur naturally through our interaction with the world, with each other, through our five senses. Nowadays, experiencing the joy of listening to a beautiful piece of music for the first time, or seeing magnificent landscapes thousands of miles away from your home, can be achieved digitally.

Through synthetic realities–such as virtual reality simulations or simply photos online–we can feel and think we know the backstreets of Le Marais, in Paris, as if it were our hometown by navigating through it on Google Street View a hundred times.

When we are in love with someone, are we truly “in love” with them or are we actually addicted to the holistic experience of above-average infatuation (as I like to define the term “in love”)?

After all, humans are, to put it simplistically, sophisticated animals that learned to respond to external stimuli through complex processes in our mind (psychological) and brain (physiological/neurological) that was developed via evolutionary adaptation. We’ve also created social constructs, such as codes of ethics based on religion and laws based on those codes of ethics (and perceptions of the state as an administrator of public safety and order–e.g. why it’s illegal to run a red light or corporations are fined millions of dollars for improperly disposing hazardous waste).

Through these social constructs and psychological processes, we’ve evolved to become biological machines that are constantly thinking, analyzing and making judgments every minute or less. So how can we discern what it is love–which to this day still does not have a clear definition–and what is the love experience?

I once thought I loved a woman overseas. We wrote letters to each other, communicated online, and went through ups and downs like any other couple (although we were never officially in a relationship). We both admitted to each other that we “loved” or was “in love” with the other at certain points in our timeline. We’ve known each other for almost a decade. We’ve never met. Was love possible without physical presence, without physical intimacy, without shared memories of actually doing things together in person? Perhaps we were just in love with the experience of what we thought was love.

When I was 19, I wrote a poem about walking through the woods in the northern parts of New England. I was able to depict the scenery in vivid details, despite never having been to New England at that time, due to extensive reading and thorough visual research online. About 8 years later, I finally went to New Hampshire and when I stood on the ridge of a mountain after walking through a heavily wooded trail, I felt a sense of déjà vu.

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Did the “memory” I construct through my imagination when I wrote that poem and through web photos overlap with my actual first-hand experience?

I believe that first-hand accounts are important. I believe that seeking genuine experiences are important. If we rely heavily on second-hand information–whether through travel stories from a friend or YouTube videos–we can become susceptible to misinformation, deception and mind pollution. In fact, military and political propaganda is applied using this premise.

On a personal note, I believe that seeking “genuine experiences” like the love experience is just as good as seeking love itself. After all, what is love but an experience, right?

Lying Dormant Deep Inside You and You Know It

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While working on the screenplay based on my late-uncle’s life and writings, I can’t help but think: am I headed in the same direction as him? I’m not talking about death, but the obvious undiagnosed mental illness which played a part in his demise. The man was a genius–the archetypal mad writer who almost destroyed every relationship he’s had with family members, friends and spouse.

As I write pages and pages of notes on my legal pad–how he began his writing career, hilarious outbursts, fears, preferred brand of cigarettes, et al.–a notification that I try to ignore blinks in the back of my mind. It tells me, “You might as well be writing your future memoir.”

Uncle Danny has never been diagnosed by a licensed psychiatrist. Filipino men of his generation thought that was for pussies. Older Filipino men turned to alcohol, cigarettes, women, fistfights and cockfighting (and occasionally street basketball with money on the line) to keep their minds sane. Why go to a boring therapy session when you can have fun? Psychotherapy was rare in the Philippines, especially in the rural areas, in those days.

But that machismo was just a way to suppress emotions that their fathers taught them never to show. Eventually, the pressure will cause a man to blow up or spiral into a deep hole of alcoholism, or worse, drugs. Uncle Danny did drink a lot, like a lot of men in the country, and he was almost sent to rehab by his priest brother back in the 1990s. However, he was never that type of guy. He was probably more addicted to writing than any other vice.

I like to think I would not reach the extremes of my cyclothymia (a.k.a. “Bipolar Lite”) or graduate on to a higher caliber of psychosis. Despite being a weirdo, I’m pretty average, mostly boring, and I function quite well in society. Yeah, I have many flaws and I’m a bit crazy in the commonly-used sense of the word, but I have not had visual or auditory hallucinations…except this one time.

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A decade ago, I wast smoking crystal meth with a friend’s mom for three straight days. I wasn’t eating nor sleeping and I wanted to keep going higher. By the time I was going through the “come-down” phase, the shitty withdrawal part of drugging it up, I was experiencing all sorts of hallucinations:

1. I thought my parents were plotting my murder.

2. I was being framed by my friend’s mom and the police. I inspected every tiny white speck and dust in my car and room, thinking they were cocaine or meth sprinkled by conspirators.

3. I drove around town trying to find a place to hide.

Yeah, it was fucking terrible. The thing about drugs is that it doesn’t inject these illogical thoughts into your mind. Crystal meth does not contain data packets containing hallucinations that are uploaded into your brain. What drugs do is open that bolted seal imprisoning the demons you already have inside you. They have been lying dormant for years, since your birth, waiting to be unleashed. Those psychotic episodes I had during my withdrawal were products of my own mind.

That was one of the worst and best experiences I’ve ever had. Why? Because after those drug-assisted episodes, I discovered the truth about how far my mind can go once the chains and shackles were broken. I am fine now and I’m sure I will be fine for many more years to come, but now I know that all it takes is a tragedy or a trauma to fuck my whole world up. That is my greatest fear. I have a feeling my uncle felt the same way.

Men act like tough guys until something traumatic happens to them. This is because we are so confident in being the captain of our ship that we make ourselves believe that we will always conquer the storm ahead. Once the illusion of control is broken, men become reduced to fragile little boys. We are shown our true reflection in the mirror: the dumb naked animal in the wilderness of God’s universe.

This is to say that I am still partially in denial that a full-on psychosis will ever happen to me. But at least I’m now fully aware of who I am and what I could become.

Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand

 

I like to check into motels and hotels–sometimes in my own city–to work on writings. I lock myself in and blaze through notebooks and legal pads, scribbling ideas as they flow out. I don’t even bring my laptop because it just becomes another distraction. If I have to research something, I’ll use my phone, but I keep it turned off inside a drawer the rest of the time.

San Jose. Los Angeles. Santa Fe. Chicago. Brooklyn. Portland. Baltimore. Omaha. Marfa.

I’ll go wherever there’s a story to be dug up and a writing desk to fuck up.

Motels can be used for many purposes besides sleep and I’ve seen it all: extramarital affairs; drug deals; drug binges; prostitution; investigative journalists interviewing confidential sources;  music composition (I once saw a guy move an old bulky piano into a room); temporary shelters for runaways kicked out by their parents; fugitives hiding from the police or feds.

I use shitty motels to write about these people. A+ for old inns that still have a working payphone. Why? Because it’s great for midnight confessional conversations with someone you love, loathe or both.

Texting, social media, emails and unlimited calls on your cellphone gives you too much freedom, too many blank spaces for “uhms” and awkward silences. A payphone forces you to get to the fucking point, to the heart of the matter, as the time and stack of quarters decrease.

Some of the most genuine conversations I’ve ever had only lasted under 10 minutes. There’s nothing quite like saying “I love you” or “I hate you” or “I miss you” or “I’m never coming back” while staring at the names of lovers long gone etched on the payphone booth, cigarette smoke swirling towards the star-flooded night sky, and one last quarter between your fingers.

Interpretation

I used to work as a Tagalog-English interpreter on a freelance basis and still do assignments on occasion. The jobs are few and far between because almost all Filipinos speak English. Half of my clients were foreign guys from Nebraska or Virginia with Filipina wives who needed documents written in Tagalog translated.

Years ago, I was assigned to translate for a client at a deposition at a nice-looking law firm in downtown Houston, in one of the city’s arrogant skyscrapers towering like an old rich dude’s dick on Viagra.

It was a human trafficking case involving a group of Filipino men who were conned into paying thousands of dollars to fly them to the United States, get an enthusiastic stamp of approval for work by Uncle Sammy, and then get hooked up with labor work. The human trafficking ring posed as job agencies in Houston and Manila.

It wasn’t hard to believe this type of scam because numerous legitimate agencies have been recruiting Filipinos/Filipinas to work abroad for many decades. This is the reason why you see so many Filipino nurses in America, laborers in Dubai, nannies in Hong Kong and engineers in Saudi Arabia.

The man who was being interviewed was in his late-50s and had the look of a former soldier who had aged with a certain degree of humility. He was very nervous, but determined to bring justice to him and his companions.

He had a cough and it worried me that his health might not be too stellar. This was a stranger and yet I felt protective over him because his streaks of white hair reminded me of my uncle Rey, who used to bring us live chickens in the province for tinola or adobo. I asked him if he was all right and if he wanted some hot tea. He politely declined and immediately began talking to me in Tagalog.

He told me about his daughter, who just graduated college; how his wife won battles against cancer but still had poor health; finding out that his youngest son was gay but loving him for who he is. We had this conversation, filled with secrets spilling out, in front of everyone and yet it remained private. The language we spoke was like Navajo code to them.

I’ve always loved the company of older people. I have infinite patience for them, even when I was a lava-tempered teenager. To be honest, I wanted to forget about the deposition and just listen to his stories all day.

My client, the man’s lawyer, sat across from me and asked a series of questions, which were followed by the prosecutor’s own inquiries. I was the literal and figurative man in the middle. I was the lovechild of two adoring divorced parents–America and Pilipinas–and I was stretched between them like an extension bridge. Through my tongue, I was able to be a diplomat for both cultures and yet I was still the kid with no name, no country.

I looked towards the man and I gave him a smile every now and then to assure him that he had a tag-team partner in his corner.

I thought about how different our lives were. I came to America on a first-class flight with my wealthy godmother, where my parents and a decent apartment in New York City waited for me. I later grew up like any first-generation Asian-American that rose from the middle-class immigrant struggle to the affluent suburbs. I even went to a prestigious Catholic high school near my hometown in the Philippines. I divulge these things not to pat myself on the back, but to remind myself just how lucky I am and how hard my parents had to work to grasp that elusive American Dream.

Next to me sat a man who came here with debt, a bad back and fragile hope. To this day, he still didn’t make any profit because of the traffickers’ exploitative practices. They forced him and his comrades to work as miscellaneous laborers across Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, New Mexico and Louisiana, yet the money all went into the bank accounts of their “employers.”

After the deposition, he went back to his family—whose lives literally depended on him—with nothing to show. He broke down and cried at the end of the deposition when his lawyer asked him if he had suffered emotional damage. It was pretty heartbreaking to hear him talk about his wife and how it affected her the most due to stress and worry.

“‘Please don’t forget to eat while you’re there’ she would tell me whenever we were able to sneak in a prepaid phone and calling card in our apartment,” he said to me during the break.

They were all crammed into a tiny apartment in Northwest Houston. An armed man was always present in a van in the parking lot to make sure they didn’t try to escape.

When his lawyer asked if he would ever try to come back to the United States with a legitimate work visa, I saw the resentment and hurt in the old man’s face. He shook his head firmly and said, “I never want to come back to this country again.”

I remained objective and professional, but I did feel and hear my voice quiver every now and then when I translated, filtered and articulated his raw emotions into All-American English. Even the eyes of the prosecutor, who was there to make sure he gets deported (as well as gather enough testimony to make sure the human traffickers get put away for a very long time), showed that certain things need no translation.

I admired the old man a lot and I’m saddened that a bunch of crooks had to give him such a bad impression of America and its people. Unfortunately, there are many individuals who feel it is necessary to exploit others, especially those who are poor and defenseless.

When it was all over, I asked for his email address. I told him that maybe someday, whenever I make it back to the Philippines, that I’d come visit him and meet his large beautiful family. I told him that perhaps he could treat me to some of his home-cooked meals.

He smiled and said, “I hope you knock on my door one day, son.”

Yeah, one day.

Lucena City, 2005

I stumbled out of the bar I had spent 3 hours bullying my liver and kidneys, and wobbled my way towards the cathedral. This was in 2005, Lucena City, a Saturday night, maybe around 11, and the main avenue was bustling with people and vehicles of every kind.

Next to the cathedral was a small chapel that was holding a wake. I didn’t know the deceased, but I had a very strange habit of offering a prayer to every funeral I stumbled upon (sometimes literally) when I was heavily inebriated. The weird thing is I was no longer a practicing Roman Catholic at that point, wearing the badge of a “militant existentialist.”

There are many kinds of drunken habits, from smoking cigarettes to singing every tune in Queen’s discography. Me? I go to random wakes that happen to be in the vicinity of whatever bar or nightclub I was at.

I remember a nice old lady thanking me for stopping by to offer her loved one a prayer. I thanked her for not calling the police and shook her hand gently, patting the back of it in the same way I would with my aunt.

I walked out of the chapel and crossed the avenue to the bright, two-story McDonald’s. I don’t remember getting in line and ordering food. I don’t even like McDonald’s and I especially hated going there in the Philippines, because I didn’t want to be the American who “missed” a taste of home, who equated a cup of Bush-approved “freedom fries” with the torch of Lady Liberty illuminating my treacherous journey into the heart of a Third World wilderness.

Having said all that, I do remember standing out on the sidewalk, bathed in neon lights, holding my super-sized food, and a young kid looking up at me like a sad puppy.

There was a man dressed in casual business attire who stood to my left waiting for the jeepney. He seemed amused by the sight of this drunken teenager holding a cup of fries as if gripping the torch of liberty that would lead humanity into the Promised Land and the disheveled street kid next to him.

There we were on that brightly lit urban epicenter, standing silently like statues of forgotten national heroes. At that point, I didn’t even want the fries anymore despite my alcohol-soaked brain’s yearning for something oily and starchy. I handed the kid my food and he smiled. He thanked me a million times and I just patted him on the shoulder. The man who was standing next to me said that I did a nice thing.

Honestly, it wasn’t kindness, but an act of middle-class privilege. It was as if I reached down the socioeconomic ladder to give the child a high-five and nothing more. I wasn’t proud of that little gesture, because it reminded me of the economic gaps between us. Why did I deserve to be the one at the top of the ladder and not him? How did the world order get so fucked up that he had to beg for food in the streets and I could blow my money on alcohol?

Back then, I drank to numb whatever pain my demons were inflicting inside me. I went to wakes because I secretly wanted to be the one in the coffin. I gave to the poor, even if it just perpetuated their habit of dependency, because I am too weak to say no–too weak to do something about his situation, my situation, and the world’s situation.

Actually, I think the real reason why I did those things–if I were to be honest with myself–was because it showed me what could’ve easily happened to me if the algorithms of the universe hadn’t worked in my favor: death and poverty.

The funerals made me appreciate life. I was a “tourist” a la Fight Club, except I didn’t do it consciously, and I found feel-good self-hugs from the dead rather than the dying (if you’ve never read or watched Fight Club then you won’t get these references, in which case, sorry).

Likewise, giving to the poor made me realize my privilege as a middle-class American, and that the closest thing I had to a painful struggle at that point in my young life was severe depression.

I was a strange teenager with strange habits, experiencing a strange time in my life. But in that moment, we were just three people standing on the sidewalk, simply co-existing as the whole city moved past us.

Space Man

“If a robot had a pussy, best believe I’d fuck that robot until its screws fell off,” said Mr. Patrick before breaking into a long playful howl.

This is how our conversations usually concluded. We were standing under a tree at the side of the local library, trying to dodge the blistering Texas sun. It was a busy mid-afternoon and a mother clutching on to her toddler’s hand overhead us. She shot us an icy glance and shook her head in disgust.

If you were to spot Mr. Patrick walking along the side of the road you would assume that he was a homeless vagrant. He always wore the same white muscle shirt and pair of gray sweatpants, which was always sprinkled with cigarette ash clinging to fibers for dear life.

mr patrick

Mr. Patrick moved down to Houston from New York and loved to complain about the ignorance here. “Man, I wouldn’t get treated like this back in Brooklyn,” he would say. Another school board had turned down his proposal for a rocketry after school program. He has a grand plan to “bring back science to the forefront of education.” Mr. Patrick believes that there are too many lazy, overweight kids with nothing else to do after school but get into trouble—or simply do nothing at all.

After school programs in general, and science-oriented ones in particular, have gradually been in decline over the last few years, and Mr. Patrick took it upon himself to change the statistics. He has brilliant ideas involving perpetual motion and free energy using electromagnetism, and wanted to pass this knowledge on to the younger generation.

“These high school kids,” he said, just as a group of teenagers from the local high school walked in to the library. “They don’t know jack about the basic mechanism of automobiles and airplanes. They don’t retain information that’s given to them.”

Mr. Patrick stepped a few feet from the entrance and lit a cigarette underneath a No Smoking sign. “I’m gonna change that. These kids are going to learn the fundamentals. If they don’t, then we might as well dump all of our engineering jobs to the Indians now, and get it over with.”

When he went on one of his long monologues, feverishly articulating an idea like a professor possessed, I couldn’t help but be captivated by his long, winding unbroken sentences to the point of experiencing something like a mental paralysis. I once had asked him where he learned all of this knowledge. He paused and nonchalantly said, “The aliens told me.”

He was only a child, maybe ten or eleven-years old at the time. His mother asked him to go to the corner store to buy some milk. While walking through the dimly-lit Brooklyn streets, this snot-nosed kid suddenly found himself bathed in an intensely bright light.

“Next thing I knew I was being probed and shit,” Mr. Patrick recounted. “It was real fucked up.”

It was after these alleged experimentations that the extraterrestrials taught him about their propulsion system and how to harvest energy from stars to power an entire civilization. I pointed out that this was the fundamental idea behind Freeman Dyson’s sphere.

“They probably probed him too,” Mr. Patrick replied.

 

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The idea of being abducted by extraterrestrial beings is a 20th Century phenomenon. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the claims of alien abduction came into the mainstream. Some researchers who study such cases claim that abductions have been going on for centuries, as “evidenced” in historical documents that describe extraterrestrial events, despite the vagueness of these ancient writings.

Psychologists, on the other hand, claim that “memories” of alien abduction aren’t real memories at all, but rather replacements for a much more traumatic real-life memory. It’s all up in the air at this point. Theories (and conspiracy theories) abound.

In any case, I can’t refute what I haven’t seen firsthand. If someone tells me that they were probed by gray insectoid creatures that travel in spaceships decked out with technology only a Trekkie can fathom or appreciate, I have no choice but to take their word for it.

Observing his speech and sifting through his stories, you do get the sense that he had a colorful past. Whatever lies underneath that stormy cranium of his, deep in the halls of his memory library, will probably remain a mystery—at least to me.

“They see a black man and suddenly they change their mind,” Mr. Patrick said as he slammed a thick spiral notebook on the steel bench. He had been talking to school board members from across the city and surrounding counties for the past few months.

He told me that the Houston Independent School District shot down his proposal without hearing the full presentation. However, he was most furious about the school he visited the week before. He had spoken to the board members on the phone and he explained, in detail, what his idea was. They were excited about it over the phone and had set up an appointment to meet him.

I imagined Mr. Patrick ironing his best suit; picking out a duo-tone tie with diagonal stripes that says, I’m all about serious business, but I’m not a social ladder-climbing corporate prick.

I asked him how it went. He recounted how the panel scrutinized him from top to bottom, trying to find holes in his program. In the end, they declined his proposal.

“Once they saw that I was a black man, they clammed up. They told me they didn’t want to do business with me,” said Mr. Patrick.

I thought he was over-exaggerating, but then again I have no right to question his experiences. I will never know what it’s like to be a black man in America. Personally, I’ve only heard a few blatantly racist comments growing up in the South, but interestingly, most of the racism I’ve witnessed were from other minorities.

I myself have not felt the sting of racism besides the time a black police officer pulled up to the side of my car and asked if I knew what “ching-chong” meant. After I told him that he was just speaking gibberish, he repeated the rhythmic nonsense before peeling off in the Impala cruiser I probably paid for with my tax dollars. My friend, who was driving, and I looked at each other and laughed. We were always mistaken for Latinos and we high-fived each other that someone finally guessed our race correctly. Our membership to the Oriental Gang had just been revalidated.

I wonder how Mr. Patrick felt under his own skin. Does he feel alienated? Like an alien? There are times when his patience for humanity reaches a boiling point, but I can’t blame him. This world is full of shit. I learned that when I was a toddler and experienced my first set of broken promises from my dad, mom, and just about anyone else who lied to save me from being hurt but was actually saving themselves from raising an unwanted child.

I could relate with him when he says he does not belong in this world. More often than not, I half-believe that I’m actually an anthropologist sent to this planet by my superiors on another planet. “Go to that trailer trash planet,” I imagined them telling before I embarked on my mission. “And find out if they’re as dumb as they look.”

However, there are times when his cynicism can be so overwhelming that storm clouds begin to form over my head. When that happens, I would ask him to tell me more stories about UFO sightings, and his angry facial expression would turn into glee. He had a lot of stories. I know all of them better than my own poetry.

After three months of sparring with board members, hundreds of hours of phone conversations, Mr. Patrick was still hitting the pavement, this time with a large stack of printed brochures. I read it and noticed a typo. His sister had loaned him three-hundred dollars for the printing cost. I didn’t tell him about the error.

I once asked him where he gets the drive to keep going despite numerous failed attempts and obstacles. “Those aliens told me that if we don’t change the direction we’re headed in right now,” he said with a hint of exhaustion in his voice, “then the next generation won’t have a chance for a decent life.”

I don’t know if these were the words of a wise extraterrestrial or the prophecy of a man who truly believes he can make a difference in the world. Whether as a black man or a space man, Mr. Patrick represents the selfless individual in a world where how you look, or how well your ideologies fit in with the beliefs of the majority, is placed at a higher value than good intentions.

Just ask those who are persecuted for their culture or principles. During the height of the Cold War, many law-abiding citizens were blacklisted during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to weed out suspected communists in the country. Talk to those who have been discriminated against for being a Jew; persecuted for being a Catholic or Muslim; arrested on false charges for being black; killed for being gay.

You don’t have to be an abductee to feel alien. In an increasingly impersonal world—ironically as instant communication becomes more accessible globally—the definition of what it is to be human becomes less clear.

Mr. Patrick walked into my study room at the library with a wide smile on his face. He looked clean and business-like.

“Good news?” I asked.

He said nothing at first, his smile getting wider. Finally, he told me what he was so damn happy about.

“A school on the west side of town says I can use their facility for the program. All I need now is to pass out these brochures and get enough students to sign up for it,” he said triumphantly.

I congratulate him and tell him that all of the toil and heartbreak was worth it.

“Oh, you bet. We’re making progress, but there’s still a lot to be done. In a year, we’ll be off to space, my friend!”

With that he was out the door again, hitting the pavement.

Down and Out in New York City

During the height of the 2008 economic recession, I spent a very brief period of time without a residence in New York City. It was a life-changing experience and it took me a while to realize that.

I spent a few nights taking short naps at the very top of an apartment building stairwell. It was the dead of winter and the cold air seeping through the rooftop access door didn’t allow me to get any rest. The concrete floor and cramp space didn’t help either. After a couple of days, I became paranoid every time I heard people open the stairwell doors below me. I thought the apartment security would find me and kick me out into the cold or call the cops.

I managed to make those sleepless nights productive though. I wrote poetry on napkins that I lifted from a Dunkin’ Donuts, and some of those poems ended up getting published a year later.

CIMG7825One sleepless night, after a close call with a security guard at an apartment complex, I took the F train to Rockefeller Center and walked to Times Square. It was 2 in the morning and the city felt so alive. I sat in the middle of the Square and watched humanity flow past me. I also made a few bucks taking pictures of insomniac tourists with my old point-and-shoot camera. There was a drug store nearby that had a photo printing kiosk and I just printed the photos with the little bit of money I had. I then gave it to the tourists waiting outside and they happily gave me $20 for 4 bucks worth of prints.

I bought a stupendously-greasy-but-delicious halal gyro and a can of Pepsi, and still had money for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of subway rides. The rates were a bit cheaper back then. New York taught me urban survival.

During the day, I spent hours at the Queens public library. I read books on philosophy and urban design; wrote shitty screenplays and short stories; slept on the comfortable cushioned chairs they had by the magazine racks; talked to strangers and librarians about politics; used their Wi-Fi to look for jobs on my busted Motorola Sidekick.

I also made up my mind that I was too proud to ask my family for help, and that I would rather hitchhike to South Florida because it was warm there. I had read somewhere that the Keys were actually “homeless-friendly” — whatever that meant. I figured I could at least sleep on the beach, wash up in public restrooms and hunt for low-wage jobs during the day.

After spending hours at the library, I would go to a Filipino restaurant a few blocks from the library–which, unfortunately, is no longer there–and sweet-talked the owner, in Tagalog, to let me eat lunch in exchange for cleaning the restrooms, tables and mopping the floor.

I gained 5 lbs. that day, because they practically gave me a feast. I remember eating a particular dish that my parents used to cook all the time and thought of home. When something that was once familiar to you fades away, it suddenly becomes sacred.

I eventually gave up trying to plot the logistics of my migration to Florida after realizing that job prospects were not looking that good down there either. I knew I had to look for shelter soon. My phone finally had enough of its miserable existence and committed suicide on the sidewalk. I was running towards the subway entrance to catch a train in Forest Hills when my phone leapt out of my jacket pocket and exploded into six different pieces on the pavement.

I suddenly found myself disconnected from family and friends. In a sense, I felt disconnected from the world. My life had become the parable of the modern man caught in a system, in a cold machine, that functioned automatically, and the moral of the story was a disheartening one: don’t ever think that you can control or destroy the machine.

My aunt and uncle used to babysit me when I was 7 years old, because my mom’s shift at St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn sometimes overlapped with my dad’s schedule at the Marriott in Manhattan. I went with my aunt and uncle on errands, driving around the outer boroughs.

My uncle would tell me corny jokes, his eyes smiling at me through the rear-view mirror, as my aunt smacked his shoulder, yelling at him to focus on the road. Whenever we went to Pioneer — that endearingly dysfunctional “supermarket” where you could find cereal boxes with taped up rips and half-used tubes of toothpaste — we would always pass by a Catholic church that sat on top of a hill. As soon as we drove past the front of the church, my aunt and uncle would simultaneously make a quick sign of the cross.

I stood outside the church looking at the cross on the peak of the roof. It was very windy and my hands were completely numb. I knew the sanctuary was closed, but I saw a few cars out front and decided to try the office. I went to the side of the church, which is actually part of a large monastery complex, and opened the door. It was very warm inside and my blood slowly thawed out. I was greeted by a lady who was walking by. I asked her if I could use a phone and if she knew any homeless shelters nearby or in the city. The easygoing smile that she had turned into a look of concern and asked me to have a seat at what looked like a meeting or dining room.

A few moments later, a petite elderly nun walked in and greeted me. She introduced herself as “Sister Karen.” Right off the bat, I knew she was someone you did not want to mess with. Memories of Catholic school flashed in my mind and thought of the nun who I got into an argument with during Religion class about reincarnation.

She had piercing green eyes. She was friendly and showed deep concern about my situation. After explaining to her all of the intricate, spaghetti-plot details as to how I ended up on the streets, she offered to pay for my bus ticket home to Texas.

That was the last time I had hit rock bottom. I felt like such a loser, a complete failure as a person. She assured me I was a “gift from God.”

I cried harder than I’ve ever cried before.

The morning I left New York City, hours before I found myself at the footsteps of the church on top of that hill, I spent my last little bit of money I had to reload my MTA card with a single-ride subway fare. I rode the train back and forth, end to end, several times, going in and out of sleep, worrying about what to do next. The heater in the train was broken and the temperature outside was -10 degrees.

When I was passing through Brooklyn — the borough I once called home as a child — I looked out the window and realized we were on elevated tracks. The sun had just started rising, glimmering over brownstone buildings, illuminating a city that has given me so much love, so many memories, so much heartache, and I swear, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Mice and Men

It feels weird waiting for a defenseless mouse to die, especially when it’s slowly dying next to you. The two of you, one alive, the other on the edge of mortality, divided by a thin white wall. The mouse wasn’t much of a threat, but was an annoyance. Imagine being executed for being annoying. It’s terrible and unjust. But what’s more terrible is that my guilt highlights my hypocrisy, because I’m the one who set up the trap.

The trap was made of some adhesive substance spread evenly upon a square plastic base, like cream cheese on toast. I would have bought the classic mousetrap–that wood and metal contraption that delivers a quick death to its victim–but the local bodega is not known for its variety.

It’s a depressing end for a life equally as sad. What kind of life does a mouse lead anyway? Their lives are governed by instincts, not intellect. They scavenge for food, eat, and share the leftovers with the other mice living between my walls. They repeat this natural cycle in the same way I mechanically ride the subway train to my cubicle every morning. We work, we get paid, pay for food, eat the food, and we live another day. Repeat.

Our life revolves around food. Despite what scientists and philosophers say about the wonders of the brain; despite how many poets have composed sonnets about the heart, the stomach is the most influential organ in our body. You can live without the luxuries modern life offers you. You can even live without sex (although, you might go insane). But how long will you live before you die from starvation?

There have been cases where people have resorted to cannibalism when presented with no other choice. The risk of starvation can cause mentally healthy individuals to react in extreme ways. But just like the floor of my cramp New York apartment, our world is filled with traps, placed strategically by the property owners of our hierarchical society.

However, the contraptions we deal with on a daily basis are far more complex than wood, metal and springs. Their traps cost millions of dollars; tried and tested on focus groups and surveys. The traps are everywhere, in front of us, and yet we are clueless, blind and ignorant to the fact.

Just like the sticky adhesive that immobilized the unfortunate mouse, the traps of men will bring a slow, painful death. Just ask the guy over there, outside the federal building, smoking a cigarette, hair balding, dark circles around his eyes, lost in a flurry of thoughts, thinking of the next scheme to get out of his debtor’s pockets.

The body of my victim is rotting. I should throw it into the garbage so I can erase it from my life—my perfect life in my perfect universe. The stench is unbearable. It’s the stench of everything that is wrong in this world.