By Resto S Cruz I (Edinburgh Fieldwork Prize Winner)
In my red backpack, you’ll find a small plastic bag with two fingers of ginger. I’ve been carrying this bag with me everywhere I go for two weeks now: to the field, to the malls and the grocery shop, even to the local Starbucks. It’s a must-bring whenever I know I’ll be getting home late. At night, before I go to bed, I make sure it’s beside me.
Since January of this year, I’ve been conducting fieldwork on kinship, personhood, and time in Iloilo City in the Central Philippines. My field site is a densely populated riverine and coastal village where histories of dispossession, urban insecurity and development, poverty and suffering, and transnational labour migration are intricately intertwined in the lives of its residents. My affair with ginger started a month ago when elderly interlocutors warned me to be careful of the places I go to; that I shouldn’t just eat everything that’s offered to me by the people I meet (including their neighbours); and that I shouldn’t walk around the village at night. They told me stories of their encounters with the asuang – creatures that transform at night from human to giant dogs, birds, goats, and other animals (often with eyes ablaze), and which feast using their long tongues on the unborn and the young, the viscera and internal organs of adults, the phlegm and other excreta of the ill, and the remains of the dead. These creatures also transform humans into fellow asuangs by secretly mixing their saliva into the food and water of their neighbours, friends, kin, and visitors, or by serving human internal organs passed off as animal meat to unsuspecting victims. In order to ward off asuangs, one must have ginger (if possible, also ash and salt) in one’s pocket at all times. Unlike powerful entities such as the Catholic God and saints, it is not possible to enter into reciprocal relations with the asuang – either it devours you or you expel or kill it.
The stories narrated to me were quite specific. One saw a now deceased neighbour struggle for more than a decade to not become an asuang – mainly by ingesting tobacco, medicinal oil, and potent herbs – after being victimised by another neighbour. This other neighbour was later on killed when residents of a nearby village caught her on the roof of a pregnant woman’s house. Another one saw a neighbour bent forward with her head inside her legs, ready to transform into her animal form. And then there’s the woman who doesn’t get scared of asuangs because she has strong dungan (soul stuff or life force; comparable to the Malay semangat): when her husband was hospitalised, she caught an asuang trying to enter their hospital room. She shouted at it and warned it that should it make the mistake of entering the room, she won’t hesitate killing it using potent oil that a local medicine man gave her.
The figure of the asuang has, of course captivated anthropologists working on Philippine societies. They have underscored how stories about the asuang tend to emerge wherever people are anxious about the moral and cosmological order of society, including norms of sociality, reciprocity, and relations amongst men and between men and women. The asuang, by virtue of the sheer impossibility of establishing reciprocity with it, embodies that which lies outside society. Whilst not all asuangs are female, anxieties about it bear continuities with anxieties over women’s power and potential to threaten ties of reciprocity that energise Philippine societies. More recent analyses suggest how the asuang menaces the temporal continuities that are at heart of social relations, such as the ties between the living and the dead (that is, between past and present), and between the present and future generations (i.e. when asuangs devour pregnant women and the unborn).
At this point of fieldwork, I remain unsure whether asuangs, as anthropologists before me have suggested, are simply avatars of society’s (possible) breakdown, or, as suggested by my interlocutors, are actual if dangerous entities. How does one take one’s interlocutors seriously without giving up one’s critical distance? If the world of my interlocutors is populated not just by humans, but also by powerful non-humans such as asuangs, by conducting my fieldwork amongst them, am I also rendering myself vulnerable to these non-humans? When I return to Edinburgh to write my PhD thesis, might the asuang follow me?
These questions are complicated for me by the fact that I grew up in a place where asuangs and other powerful nonhumans are part of everyday conversations. My mother left for London on a scholarship when I was five, and upon her return, had to work in Manila as a state veterinary and animal health scientist. My maternal grandparents (especially my grandmother) in Bicol (a province south of Manila) raised me, as my mother and my father parted ways years earlier. I remember my grandmother warning my cousins and myself that so-and-so person belongs to a family of asuangs. I also remember an aunt being concerned that her elderly and sickly neighbour is visited regularly by an asuang. As a fellow Bicolano postgraduate reminded me recently, it’s also the case that our city, particularly a village at its outer edge, has a reputation in the wider province and region for being the ‘home’ of asuangs.
Yet my connections with Bicol have been severely attenuated through the years. After leaving for university, and especially after the subsequent deaths of my grandparents, I haven’t really been back (except maybe once or twice). Moreover, studying in Manila, particularly in my university (a Jesuit university that caters mostly to the country’s elite and where I later on worked as a researcher and undergraduate lecturer) has a way of transforming one’s self, including one’s pronunciation and diction, manner of dressing and comportment, and ways of thinking about the world.
One curious effect of my on-going fieldwork has in a way been to activate memories of my childhood and to rekindle ties with a world that has been, for the most part, relegated to the back of my mind. As I get to know my interlocutors more and more, I also reclaim bits and pieces of my self. Perhaps such fragments of knowledge and sentiment will allow me to grasp better my life and those of my interlocutors.
Resto S Cruz I is a PhD candidate in social anthropology. He is conducting fieldwork in Iloilo City, the Philippines, on kinship, personhood, time, and intertwined histories of dispossession, urban insecurity and development, poverty and suffering, and transnational labour migration.