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Is the white woman awake?

August 5, 2011

I arrived in Manila at 4am, local time, on Thursday morning.  I was too excited to sleep on my way to Philippines, but once in the Manila airport that excitement sustained me.  I was too nervous to rest on my cab ride to my friend’s community, and when a minor glitch left me waiting a while, the nervousness sustained me.  When I got to the house, my friend gave me coffee, and the caffeine sustained me.  Then my friend’s auntie suggested I rest, and I passed on the hard wood bed.  
An hour later, I woke up to voices outside of the window.  I only understand a few words of Tagalog, but I knew the sentence when I heard it:  “Is the white woman awake?”
I answered the question in writing at five o’clock the following morning.  The style is not completely original- I was heavily inspired by a poem my partner read to me before I left Berkeley.  I’ll reference that poem when I find the title and author.

Is the white woman awake?
No, I’m asleep.  I’m exhausted from an overnight flight, and my hosts have given me permission to rest, and, even better, have given me an electric fan.
Yes, I’m awake.  You’re talking quite loudly outside my window.  I woke up laughing when I understood what you were saying about me.  You laughed, too.
No, I’m asleep.  You see, I’m only here for a few days.  It might as well be a dream.  If I sleep in poverty with you, it is only because I have made a choice.
Yes, I am here, if only for a few days.  Maybe there haven’t been many white people here before.  You have stared at me when I come and go, even now, you are asking my hosts so many questions.
No, I was asleep.  This sort of attention used to bother me.  It was the main focus of so much of my time when I first came here.  I wasted so much time being petty.  I was asleep to the power I bring to your place, to the way my presence can disturb you.  Sometimes, I still fall asleep- forgive me.  But right now
I am awake.  I am telling you, “I am still learning.”  I am receiving your hospitality and I am moved by you.
No, I am asleep.  I struggled with what gifts to bring, and I am always afraid I will accidentally insult you.
Yes, I am awake.  I am beginning to see myself as you see me.  I am American, I am the colonizer. You and generations like you have suffered for my benefit, and for the benefit of those like me.  And yet, here you are welcoming me, nurturing me.
No, you need to sleep.  Such tension would weigh me down with bitterness, exhausting me.  And yet, you are the one who smiles, who embraces me with gifts of water and vegetables.
Yes, I am awake.  You are ready to teach, and I sit up on my mat, listening.

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