Decolonizing With Betel Nuts
I look at the colorful, brimming altar that sits on the floor in Leny Mendoza Strobel’s living room. Amid the splendid mandala of collected things laid upon the circular banig (a colorful woven mat made from palm leaves from the Philippines), surrounded by the astonishingly vibrant silver-green large sprigs of white sage that she grew, there are the round slices of what looks like slices of nutmeg laid in a little basket. It turns out the slices are dried betel nut, which are traditional offerings to the ancestors in many Southeast Asia countries. We are all descended from the Philippines, and I am a mestizo: half white, half Filipino, coming home. We feed the altar with photos of our beloved ancestors, and whatever else we wish to bring to the altar. I bring a photo of my father with my chubby son on his lap, as well as an amulet I wear that was made in the Phillipines.
I am greeted with ‘welcome home’, which reminds me of the greeting to Veterans returning home from their tour of duties from the ongoing wars the U.S. has been a part of. It is a fitting greeting, as I am returning from the onslaught of colonization that has impacted the Philippines, as well as my own personal inheritance, being a second generation, half Pinay woman, who has wandered this life as an orphan, so to speak, not really knowing my personal history, the lands, traditions and culture that I spring from; and more significantly, an orphan to the people of my blood and bone.
When I think of betel nut, I think of my childhood, prancing around the living room with my sister, loudly casting our voices to the sound track of South Pacific, singing: ‘She is always chewing betel nut…now ain’t that too damn bad!’.
My ties with my Filipino ancestory are tenuous, almost nonexistent, and here I am at sixty four years of age meeting with other Filipinos on a two day retreat for the first time in my life. Though I have been estranged from my Filipino community, my soul is not estranged whatsoever. My body is like an eager rootling that is set into its ancestral waters. Home.
I know these brown bodies that are not much taller than my own four foot eleven inch body, like a fish knows water. Just the comfort of that settles me more into my own skin. To be in a room with only brown people, my Filipino people. There is an immediate sense of peace.
Here, I do not have to do all the subtle negotiations that I live with, like a second skin with white people. I do not have to employ the habits of trying to forge my place in whiteness, the ongoing habit that is by now, pretty much my unconscious modus operandi, trying to belong to the white club that I never did belong to. But what club did I belong to? The fact that I even think of belonging as a club bespeaks of a club with entrance requirements. The efforting to join, that somehow, I’m sure contributes to my chronic fatigue.
Here, I am a fish back in my ancestral waters, or at least I feel like that. Maybe I am the odd duck to the other Filipino immigrants in our group that have made the U.S. their home, many who have lived in the U.S. for as long as they lived in the Philippines. I know I am steeped in whiteness, yet somehow always separate from it as well. I probably too readily voice my own opinions with Leny, the head of the Babaylan Center for Studies, which, when I think back on it, leaves me feeling oddly chagrinned. Am I white centering my own half white privilege unconsciously?
I do not know any Filipino words. I have never been to the Philippines. And yet, here I am in the readily accessible belonging that was always waiting for me, always had a place at the table for me. Here- there is no club. Just a simple, quiet sense that these are my people, and that I can rest here. A rest that my body has not really ever known. I feel that all the way into my tired adrenals, all the way into my Filipino marrow. There is a simplicity in this. It is a rich fecund ground that a rain forest could spring from.
The weekend is filled with homeland food: rice of course, and delicious pinakbet, a vegetable dish cooked with bitter melons and many squashes. And always, the ubiquitous seasoning of ginger and garlic. There is a mung bean soup that I can’t remember the name of that I keep laddling bowls of, as if my DNA hungers for this culinary implant of so many lost years.
And of course chicken.
There is pretty much the ongoing laughter that we share, the Filipino fireside that plies us with the generations of our ancestral warmth. There is a silliness that we can settle into, somehow, this feels oddly more decolonizing than anything I can think of. We do not need to prove anything, and this sense of belonging evokes much laughter and silliness, especially among the Visayans, the language of their island part of the Philippines, the countryside.
Justine reads us a piece of a memoir that she is writing to her children so they will somehow find their connection to their ancestry, as they are now second generation Filipino Americans. She sprinkles her writing with many words I do not know, but the patois of the language is like gentle footsteps that lead me back into some restfulness that I have missed all my life. My father’s voice. The gentle pak pak roll of the tongue, the sounds of a language whose vowels are formed from the land, from rice and coconuts, rivers and mountains, beloved chicken language that rolls over my heart like gentle ocean surf.
The next day we go to visit the bangka, which is a hand carved canoe being made out of a red cedar log, the log that was gifted to the Filipino community by a local indigenous tribe, so that we, (can I say ‘we’ now?)may also have a canoe to put into the water in 2018 for the Bay area Indigenous gathering. This is a magical creation midwifed into being by a dream that came to Mylene Leng Leng Cahambing. The bangka is sleeping during the winter by a creekside underneath oaks and acacia trees. She survived the fierce fires that swept through the Santa Rosa/Sonoma area in the Fall. You can see the swaths of burned areas carving through the surrounding hillsides that somehow remind me of the design carved on the side of the canoe. The design of waves, snakes, of male/female movements.
I lean against an oak and listen to the cacophany of bird song that suddenly brings an acoustic accompaniment, with woodpeckers knocking out their rat tat tat drum beat, while ravens throw in their cawing for good measure. We throw cedar chips carved from the bangka’s hull into the water with prayers.
Before we leave we visit Alexis’s home. He is a man who is Filipino with Pomo Native American ancestry. His teeth remind me of crocodile teeth, large and in random placement, which are fitting for this weekend, and our talk of crocodiles. The Babaylan healers of the Philippines were a vital part of the communities as shaman, healers, and were always consulted for important decisions affecting the tribes. When the Spanish colonized the Philippines, the Babaylans were systematically killed and then cut up into pieces and fed to the crocodiles. The malevolent intent of total erasure. Though of course, they were not able to completely erase them. I sit in the home of Leny Strobel and the Center for Babaylan Studies in Santa Rosa, who has written many books, Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans, as well as a book she edited: Babaylan, Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous.
When we leave the bangka, we see at least fifteen turkey vultures passing overhead in a winged convocation, riding the thermals of this special valley. Such an ignominious name for the great birds that ride freely through the Americas. As if they have to carry on their backs the name of vultures, which seems to quintessentially describe colonization. The act of seizing upon resources, people, and land in some perversion of white entitlement. Or as is currently done in the spiritual, self help markets: the act of cultural appropriation. In our circle, one of our final questions we take time to answer, as we go around the circle is what did we take away from a course we all just completed on Decolonization.
I say that one of the things I am taking away is how much I had underestimated the impact of racial trauma. I consider the anger that I personally carry, and the anger that I see in others who also carry this trauma. And then I reflect on the flip side of that: the white guilt and white fragility, which I bump up against in any discussions about racism, and beyond discussions, that I experience generally in life, now that I have language to name what I have always experienced.
I come away from the course, decolonizing my own sense of racial justice work, meaning, that somehow because I am a racial justice activist, I am unpeeling my own self-righteous anger and my own re-playing of othering whiteness. I understand that people that care to educate themselves about social and racial justice work, that we are all in the long arduous process of decolonizing our multi-faceted wounds of racial trauma.
In my research on Filipino history, I see that pre-Spanish, the Filipinos were trading partners with India and China. Pre-colonial there were Buddhists and Hindu religion practiced in a part of the Philippines that was once called the Kingdom of Tondo.
There is a Hindu goddess called Akhilandeshvari, who is called: She Who Is Never Not Broken. She rides a crocodile in the way that Durga rides a tiger, the crocodile is her familiar, her pride of place and mount. The crocodile is famous for the death spin, where the reptile or reptilian part of the brain, takes you and rolls you into the water to vanquish its prey. With this goddess, she represents the feminine aspect of ourselves that is the most resilient. She is never not broken, so she is not caught up in the denial of some kind of perfectionism or having to prove herself. She lives in conscious relationship to all the places of her broken, wounded, traumatized inheritance. She has attained the great skill to ride the dizzying, disoriented mount of the crocodile, and thus she is a master of how to live with this brokenness that is imparted to all of us in this world that is so broken and bereft, that is bent on perpetuating colonization. I see Akhilandeshwari as the perfect goddess for decolonization as she presides over the broken cultures, the intergenerational trauma that claims most of us. And some of us, even have the decolonized crooked teeth of the crocodile. I know I have my own.
Today, I am on day five of a fasting cleanse. I was inspired from my Pinay/oy retreat by Nestor, who just completed a 62 day juice fast. Last week I got my blood work back with my tricylcerides in the 900 plus range, basically moving into the death zone. Heart attack on the not so distant horizon. I am someone who has a very colonized sense of eating, and I could not even imagine beginning to do a cleansing fast, as when I get hungry, I experience extreme discomfort.
But I received what felt like a spiritual empowerment from Nestor. I use those words because he was telling us his stories about His Holiness the Karmapa the Seventeenth and Nestor’s personal relationship with him. I had told him that I have done three Black Hat Ceremonies with the Karmapa the Sixteenth when I lived on Maui back in the 70's. The Tibetans have this curious phenomena of reincarnating and finding one another to preserve their religious traditions.
So I received what I am calling in the Tibetan tradition: ‘a transmission’ through Nestor, which felt like also had carried The Karmapa’s presence with it. So I am engaging in a somewhat major miracle of doing a cleansing getting reading for a juice fast.
I go into the store to buy vegetables and get hit with a tsumami of food cravings. By day five, I am feeling like I am decolonizing some strong food habits. It is hard, but not as hard as I thought it would be. I am falling in love with the bitter taste of tumeric tinctures and even the taste of acorn squash is tasting too sweet for me. I am in the spin cycle riding the crocodile, not sleeping well at nights.
All this to say, that I feel the wave of decolonization upon us, collectively. I know that decolonization is the cool, hip thing right now. But it is serious business. It has a life of it’s own, and it takes the grit of a goddess like Akhilandeshvari and her practice of riding the spin. I have a whole new respect for the energies of crocodiles, and their dizzying ride through the Great Detox of decolonization. Though indeed, the oligarchy seem to be running the show, I know that nature has been speaking loudly this year to us in the form of fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes. There are many forces afoot as we are on the precipice of huge changes.
I hold the small round discs of betel nut, and think of the story Leny told about helping her grandmother fold the betel nut into a leaf with lye, which her grandmother would pop into her mouth and chew. In the Visayas, they call the chewing of betel nut leaf and lye: mama.
I think to myself that I get why the older people used to like to chew it, and that I wish I could try some.
I leave my slices of nut on my altar with my red Quan Yin statue, atop a 90 million year old ammonite fossil.
The fossil reminds me of deep time, as I approach the end years of my lifetime. There are also shavings of the bangka which I pray does get her initiation in the water this coming year. I smile knowing that decolonization is like a small weed that is strong enough to crack cement. It is coming for us all, ready or not.
I keep thinking that in 2018, there will be a huge shift. On the solstice I had one of the most powerful dreams that I can remember. As I wake from my dream, my entire body feels molecular, as if I had been tripping on some psychedelic substance. It feels something akin to champagne bubbles coursing through the cells of my body. In the dream, I was the entire body of creation, of darkness, and out of the bubbling darkness, there was erupting the enlivening new life. The dream was both terrifying and life giving. It is a dream that I can see I will spend much time contemplating and growing, as well as, dying into. I will have plenty opportunity to practice my crocodile spin.