We don’t waste can­dle­wax

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Lit -

Icame home from the worst date of my life.I re­mem­ber com­ing home and clos­ing the door be­hind me, heaved a big sigh of re­lief to which my room­mate re­marked, "Bad date?"Roomie could tell be­cause I was al­ready home be­fore 9, she said, and that al­ways in­di­cated a hor­ri­ble turn of events. "It's still 9, so want to grab some milk tea? My treat," she said.

I could sure need some milk tea, and some de­brief­ing, I thought, as I put on my coat again and we walked out to­gether to Chi­na­town while talk­ing. On pa­per, he seemed like a re­ally swell guy: En­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer. Spoke four lan­guages. Trav­eled around the world. Played sev­eral sports. Swanky apart­ment on the up­town neigh­bor­hood. Drives a Tesla.

Right off the bat he talked a lot about the en­vi­ron­ment, his work, and him­self. He was quite interesting to con­verse with, ex­cept that he didn't seem in­ter­ested in me. He cer­tainly didn't ask ques­tions.That's okay. Peo­ple like to talk about them­selves and their work. Plus, I pre­fer to lis­ten.Our en­trée ar­rived. He had Pork Medal­lion and Tiger Prawns. My date lit­er­ally took two bites and then put it on the side, called the waiter, and re­quested to dish it out and throw it away.The waiter looked a lit­tle em­bar­rassed, but apol­o­gized. When the waiter left, I asked him what's wrong. He said he didn't like the food, and that he "wasn't hungry any­way." Mr. Tesla pro­ceeded to or­der an­other meal (which he also didn't fin­ish, by the way). My room­mate was laugh­ing re­ally hard as I told her my story, be­cause she thought it was a petty thing to hate on a per­son.

"Let me make my point," I dis­agreed with her, as I thought it was a big deal. I was fu­ri­ous,

Funny how it took a bad date in New York to process what my 12-year-old brain then couldn't: to re­al­ize the sac­ri­fice they went through to host us that day...

more so about how un­aware he was — here's some gen­tle­man, who a few min­utes ago was talk­ing about his en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy, claim­ing his pas­sion for the en­vi­ron­ment, and here he is now, wast­ing food and to­tally non­cha­lant about it.Maybe it was also cul­ture shock on my part. Back in the Philip­pines, we were never al­lowed to waste food, and we were al­ways told to fin­ish ev­ery­thing on our plates. "We don't even waste can­dle­wax in the Philip­pines!" I ex­plained in in­dig­na­tion to my room­mate.

"Can­dle­wax?" she asked, con­fused. Oddly, the whole event trans­ported me to a time when I was 13, a ran­dom me­mory that I had al­most com­pletely for­got­ten un­til tonight.

The dis­as­trous din­ner at the fine din­ing restau­rant was an odd jux­ta­po­si­tion of my for­got­ten me­mory: it sud­denly re­minded me of my visit to a fam­ily who lived in the slums near the land­fill in Ili­gan, Philip­pines.I re­mem­ber com­ing into the fam­ily home: a sim­ple shanty made of wood and bed­springs propped up as a fence. Their house had one room that could barely fit two, but was home to a fam­ily of six. When my chap­er­one asked where the toi­let was, the mother pointed with her lips to out­side by the pile of rub­bish.

"Oh," my chap­er­one said, as I saw her face drop to a look of I-guess-my­blad­der-can-wait.

The fa­ther and el­dest brother, the main bread­win­ners, were both scav­engers and were cur­rently out work­ing in the land­fill. The mother was chatty and ex­citable, while the younger chil­dren were ex­tremely shy and con­tent in hid­ing be­hind their mother. I re­mem­ber when lunchtime came, and the woman an­nounced proudly that they will be slaugh­ter­ing one of their chick­ens for to­day's lunch. And then I re­mem­ber her tak­ing out a P50 bill and giv­ing it to her 10-year-old.

"Please buy Coke from the nearby store, and please don't lose the money!" she said sternly, as her daugh­ter hur­ried off ex­cit­edly.And of course, can­dle­wax. Af­ter lunch, the mother asked for help for some work to do. She said she sells can­dles for ex­tra income, and with that she re­vealed a plas­tic bag and took out the con­tents in­side: string and melted can­dle­wax that she said she col­lected from the nearby ceme­tery. The whole af­ter­noon, she pa­tiently taught me how to make can­dles from re­cy­cled can­dle­wax so they could sell them the next day. The fam­i­lies there cer­tainly don't waste can­dle­wax, or bed­springs, or metal sheets, or any ma­te­rial they could use for an dif­fer­ent pur­pose. That was my first eye-open­ing en­counter that made me see in­vis­i­ble peo­ple in so­ci­ety — peo­ple who didn't have the priv­i­lege to live the life I or my peers have. Some 30 per­cent of the coun­try's pop­u­la­tion lived like that: be­low the poverty line.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer's priv­i­leged up­bring­ing hadn't granted him the ex­pe­ri­ence that might have helped him gain per­spec­tive and maybe some self-aware­ness. Even if he's trav­eled around the world and seen poverty be­fore his eyes, he prob­a­bly wouldn't even re­al­ize the lessons these en­coun­ters could en­rich him. I cer­tainly hadn't, for many years, at the least. Funny how it took a bad date in New York to process what my 12-year-old brain then couldn't: to re­al­ize the sac­ri­fice they went through to host us that day, or that the 1.5-liter Coke was al­ready more than a day's worth of pay for the scav­enger's fam­ily. It's funny how you only re­al­ize the lessons of your past ex­pe­ri­ences later in life, when you have an­other eye­open­ing event to help you process them.

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