It’s been almost a year since I was in Hong Kong for a poetry festival, an opportunity I was eager to accept at the time because it meant I could meet up with A (yup, shamelessly shallow). We were still doing the long distance thing then, so a free trip for me to anywhere near the Philippines and a cheap flight for A to HK was a treat so random and amazing and undeserved (the invitation reached me by way of academia.edu–I didn’t even know people could reach you that way) that we just had to ask, how could this even happen? And so meet up in Hong Kong we did, and though the question was initially rhetorical, we started to really want to know why it happened. It took being there for me to realize the extent of my luck: I was in the same poetry festival as the Chilean poet Raul Zurita, I was in a poetry festival organized by the Chinese poet Bei Dao, I was in the presence of poets I had only read about in anthologies of avant-garde poetries and histories of art activism. What was I doing there?
I was star-struck and struck dumb almost the entire week of the festival. I had a case of timidity so severe that even A, who can be reticent himself, started to nudge me to “talk to people.” I kept wondering why I was there but was too embarrassed to ask the staff. I coordinated my trip by email with two women who were as cheery and friendly in person as they were by email, and still I was shy to ask them. Part of me figured that someone back home (the chair of the English Department? a writer friend?) recommended me to attend the festival and didn’t bother to let me know about it. I have mixed feelings about access to opportunities simply because you’re “in the loop”; I think this is also why for the longest time I didn’t bother to find out why I got invited. I didn’t want confirm that I was there because I knew or was friends with whoever. That would mean owning up to my mercenary ways.
Anyway. One night less than halfway through the festival, I unexpectedly got my answer. After attending a poetry reading, A and I stood self-consciously among the festival crowd outside the hall to wait for the bus that would take us back to the hotel. A woman caught my eye. Big smile. Clearly Pinay. She approached us and greeted me warmly, saying that I must be the Filipina participant in the festival. She squeezed my arm, told me I was pretty, said she was so happy to see me. I laughed, switched to Filipino, naku salamat, I said. Pinay ka, I said. Oo, yaya ako ng anak ni Bei Dao, she said.
Our short conversation that night revealed this: Auntie Lorenza, chatting with Bei Dao one day while he was planning for the festival, told him he should invite a Filipino. Bei Dao, later on, got back to her with possibilities. He showed her a male writer (I guess they were Googling?), and she said, sana babae. He considered a female writer from the US, and she said sana hindi Fil-Am. Sana yung laking Pinas talaga. Somewhere along the way, Bei Dao ended up with me, and Auntie Lorenza approved. So that was my recommendation. Random, amazing, and totally undeserved.