My anxiety is mostly invisible and that really bothers me. Then a friend decided to reach out.Read More
On Saturday morning, my fiancé and I were faced with a difficult decision: Should we wait out a nuclear attack from the basement apartment of our home, or should we risk it on the road and drive up to a family member’s house?
As a Hawaii reporter who’s covered the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, I knew we only had up to 15 minutes to seek shelter before the missile hit. I knew that buildings with concrete walls were the safest bet. I knew that you were supposed to stay away from windows and not look directly into the light.
But that didn’t matter now.
Here I was at 8:08 a.m. on a Saturday reading this alert:
When I read “THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” I ran.
I was on my way to the beach, but I crashed into our bedroom instead and grabbed Jonathan out of the blankets. I grabbed a sarong (you can’t face a bomb in a bikini), my cellphone, my computer (I knew my editors would want some information soon) and a charger. Jonathan jolted out of bed when I told him there was a missile headed this way. Not a drill, I said. We have to go downstairs.
I slung a Hydroflask water bottle into my arms, ditched it when it began to spill, and ran downstairs to my neighbor’s apartment. I rushed everyone into her concrete-walled bathroom. I was sitting on the floor smelling the scent of a dirty litter box, and Jonathan was sitting on the tub. My neighbor hadn’t seen the alert, so she didn’t know what was happening. I tried to explain, but I speak fast when I’m nervous. She didn’t understand. I was hugging my laptop, and the charger was tangled in my sarong. Then my oldest sister, who lives in my neighborhood, called. It was 8:09 a.m.
She, her husband and her 5-month-old were about to leave their house to go to her in-law’s place up the road. She insisted we go there too. It’s high up on a hill, she said. There are fruit trees and chickens on the property. It’ll be safer. We’ll all be together.
I asked Jonathan if we should go. We need to make a decision fast, I pleaded. We have less than 15 minutes to get there.
On the way to Jonathan’s truck, I saw my friend in a towel standing on her porch. She looked confused, and I begged her to go back inside and head to the downstairs unit of her house ― the one with concrete walls and few windows. I felt guilty driving away in a panic, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had my family to get to. It was safer for her to stay put, anyway.
On the road, cars were pulling over to tell pedestrians to take cover. We warned a pair of tourists to go inside and stay there. We drove fast. Everyone outside looked confused. The police cars, typically topped with blue lights, had red lights turned on. Few people knew what to do.
It was also a very beautiful day, chaos aside. There were almost no clouds over the Pacific Ocean, and the mountains looked as green as ever. You could see all the way to Kaena Point.
At 8:17 a.m., halfway to the house, I opened my family’s group chat and wrote, I love you all, please be safe. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I needed my parents, who are in California, and my other sister, who lives on the other side of the island, to know that.
Then I took a breath and squeezed Jonathan’s hand. He looked at me, and I told him I loved him. He loved me too. The world stood still for a moment, and I thought to myself, We’re doing this together and that makes it OK.
On the last stretch of our drive, we got stuck on a two-way road behind a slow-as-hell tractor going uphill around a blind corner. Jonathan and I argued over whether we should pass it or not.
It's dangerous to pass this guy up here, he said. We could get into a head-on collision!
But what about the missile? I argued back. We could be too late!
For at least a minute, we had an honest-to-God argument over which way was worse to die. My blood boiled. I couldn’t believe I was defending myself to my partner in the last moments of our lives. For fuck’s sake, we were fighting over a tractor and a two-lane road. But we were petrified, and we were stressed.
After what felt like a million years, the man in the tractor waved us around him. We dropped the argument immediately, and Jonathan drove fast.
Something came over me after that. Maybe it’s because I had to seriously consider whether dying in a crash was better than dying from nuclear fallout. My brain had gone into default mode, and the only way to disable it was to get to that house.
I also knew that we had run out of time.
It was 8:20 a.m., and we were still five minutes away. The 15-minute window isn’t even a hard-and-fast rule. Some experts estimate the missile could get here in 12 minutes. I braced myself for the sounds of sirens or a loud boom. I stared at the road.
Now, from the safety of the future on an island that wasn’t attacked, I realize that leaving our neighbor’s concrete-walled apartment could’ve been the worst decision we made that day. I knew that fact when I agreed to get in the truck, but it somehow felt like the right thing to do. I felt a sense of camaraderie. I needed to be with my family, especially if they were on the road too. I didn’t mind if I died trying to get to them, either. I don’t know if this is dumb or noble. I’m OK if it’s both.
At 8:23 a.m., I got a text message from my other sister on the west side of the island. She knew a police officer who told her a state employee pushed the wrong button sending out the missile warning alert. A minute later, we pulled up to the house on the hill.
I wanted to throw up.
My sister, her family, her husband’s brothers, wives and their children gathered around the dining room table and living room while their parents made us coffee. We ate apple slices while joking about nuclear war. We discussed better emergency meeting areas and agreed on one that was less than a minute from all of our homes. We shared survival tips for the apocalypse. We talked about death and how there’s nothing anyone could do, really.
I had already opened my laptop and was searching for answers. I reached out to state officials, I talked to the police. I told my editors and colleagues what I saw, what I did, how everyone felt. I started writing, as I usually do in times of stress.
At 8:45 a.m. ― 37 minutes after I pulled Jonathan out of bed and ran for my life ― the state issued a correction alert that dinged on everyone’s phones.
I wanted to throw up again.
I’m writing about this now because I need a recorded account of the way I felt that morning. I want to remember how I reacted, how I let my emotions tumble and toss, flare up and fight. And I want to learn how I can be better for the next time the world might end.
Putting all pride aside, I have to admit that I was scared shitless. I didn’t quite panic, but my body moved so fast that I tripped and I spilled things. My voice shook and, especially at the onset of the alert, none of my sentences made sense.
In those moments, I thought hard about my family. I really needed them to know that I loved them. When I looked into Jonathan’s eyes, I really saw him. I saw how he looked back at me and how he wanted to save us.
When we were behind the tractor, I really felt like we were about to die and were wasting time slogging behind this rickety thing. I mean, there were no houses or structures on that stretch of the road. I was really mad Jonathan wouldn’t pass him. It all felt so urgent and real.
Following the false alarm, I interviewed other locals who had heroic stories in the 30 minutes we thought we were under attack. I wrote about a woman who was in tears while she consoled her kids in the closet. Her husband, an Army soldier, stood guard in front of the door. I talked to one man who pulled his fiancée into their guest house, told her he loved her and asked her to text her family “goodbye” ― just in case.
I’m mad at myself for not being more heroic. Instead, I fought over a tractor and tried to take back power over how I should die. I feel foolish now, but at least I ended that morning with family and confirmed one thing I always knew to be true: I’d choose them over anything, even if it meant racing into uncertainty.
But if I learned anything that day ― in between the race for survival, the love, the anger, the desperation ― it’s this: Be softer and love harder when the world ends. It’s the only sane thing to do.
I asked my friend if I could instead write something for her wedding. She agreed. I wrote the following while sitting in my hostel on Palawan at 3 a.m. I thought a lot about love. I thought a lot about their relationship, my own relationship, the relationships in my family. I thought about all the people who are looking for love. Then, I came up with this.Read More
I'm sitting on a tiny plane in El Nido. My heart is aching, bursting, full. It aches because this island showed me so much goodness. It aches because its people treated me so well. It aches because I miss my family. But it's aching most of all because I'm just not ready to leave.Read More
When I looked at the blank confusion on the security guard’s face, I knew that I had vastly underestimated how easy this trip to the Philippines would be. Sweat was already beading at my temples and I regretted instantly wearing this immodest, ribbed tank top with my shoulders exposed. I smiled at him, anyhow, lowering my black wing-tipped eyes like I always do. It didn’t have the same effect.
I planned this solo trip on a whim. I figured, I’m Filipino, the first-generation daughter of immigrants who found their way to Southern California. My parents spoke tagalog at home, cooked pinakbet and sinagong, and we had a three-foot-tall rice dispenser. We had noisy family parties at the park nearly every week, with giant deep-fried pigs known lovingly as lechon. We had an army of baby Jesuses and Mother Marys ever-watching from an alter in our home. We lived, for most of my childhood, in a Filipino enclave that acted as a haven for immigrant couples and first-generation kids like myself. It was a pseudo-Philippines, right? That should give me some street cred here.
Carson is a metro-suburbia in Los Angeles, surrounded by oil refineries and dotted with mediocre parks where many Filipinos, like my parents, decided a few decades ago that this is the optimal place to start shiny new American lives. It’s tucked between the blacks and Mexicans of Compton, Long Beach, Wilmington, South L.A. Close enough to white neighborhoods. Not too far from the beach. Everyone in this town, Filipino. Everyone contributing to this feeling of home.
Now, I stand before a security guard at the concierge desk of my parents’ condominium in Manila. I assumed they would happily point me in the direction I needed to go. WiFi? Sure, right this way ma’am. The bank? Well there’s one right here in this building! Fancy a good breakfast? There’s a really great place not five minutes away, ma’am. Let me take you there.
Instead, I’m looking at someone who is speaking English, and to whom I am also speaking English to, but my questions and his answers are not matching up. I ask where I may be able to exchange dollars into pesos, he says the name of something and I’m not sure what it is.
He tells me to go down the street and make a right, but he is pointing confidently to the left. I look on, smiling politely and pretending to understand this contradiction. I look out to the street for a moment, then, on a whim again, decide to go in the direction he is pointing, instead of the directions of his words. I set off uncertain, and he looks at me, uncertain, too. Both of us are decidedly too polite to mention that something is wrong.
Not more than fifteen steps and I’m met with a stream of cars, tuk tuks, taxis, motorbikes and colorful, aluminum Jeepneys with names like “Yahooo” and “Macho Man.” They are honking, barking at each other, maybe at me. There’s a police officer. There are many, actually, and they are all standing in the middle of the moving mess, pointing, yelling, waving their arms at the stampede whirling by. I don’t get what they’re trying to do and I’m almost upset that they’re wearing long-sleeved shirts, hats and dark pants in this humid, unforgiving heat.
I stand on the side of what I think is a crumbling sidewalk. I’m yelled at by an officer to step back. I’m waiting patiently, sweating too. I’m waiting for a white, flashing pixelated hand to tell me to go, even though there is no such sign on the other side of the street. I’m watching, in awe, of how insane these cars are, half-attempting some kind of order, half not giving a fuck.
Then, I see a skinny, older, dark man, stepping onto the asphalt. Suicidal, I think. Wow. Ok. What. Then I watch his thin limbs step fluidly through the waterfall of cars. He darts through the moving traffic like a ballet. On the other side of the street, I notice another group of people, doing the same deranged dance.
I look at the police officer for help, but his back is turned to me now. I think, this can’t be serious. This is literally impossible. There is no way I’m crossing this street.
I twirl around looking for a crosswalk, but no car is stopping for any person, let alone painted stripes on the floor. From the corner of my eye, I see a person rocking back and forth, looking for a gap in the flow. I step sideways to be near him. I look beyond the cars, to what I think is a bank, where I think I need to be. The person beside me doesn’t even notice. He’s looking at the cars like he’s daring them to hit him. The cars are most certainly daring him to cross.
I mimic his movements — back and forth, back and forth — until we both see a quick-moving space suspended in the air. I feel lifted, like a wave that is about to crest. Then, I lunge into the street.
Did I mention that Lolo Papong, my grandfather who raised his family here in Manila, died while trying to cross the street?