Three weeks ago, I was drinking beer while the second deadliest Typhoon in history sliced a scar through the Philippines. An estimated 2,000 humans lost their lives, although initial estimates claimed the toll to be upward of 10,000 when the first 140-character dispatches rolled through my Twitter feed. At first those blips of black-on-white text were nothing but noise. But as the story of Typhoon Haiyan began to dominate the news and the statistics grew more concrete, my throat tightened up. I felt swelling in my gut. I recognized a bay just south of Leyte where I'd swam three years ago, now lit up red on my computer monitor to emphasize the trail of the storm, currently bound for Vietnam. I felt the same quickening pulse I experienced while watching Anwar Congo's reenactment of the post-September 30 Movement genocide in 'The Act of Killing,' only 9-months after visiting those very buildings in downtown Medan. 2,000 people. Gone. And all in the time it had taken me to drain a few litres of IPA.
My keen interest in international affairs is relatively recent. Throughout the majority of my adolescence, the bulk of my reading was restricted to science writing. I wanted to learn about things that effected me directly. It wasn't until I was 21, when a writing elective introduced me to Creative Nonfiction (or at least made me conscious of it) that I started devouring magazines and newspapers, mainly just to see what was out there. My first thoughts of a career in foreign reporting crept out of the pursuit of a certain lifestyle: I loved to interview and I loved to travel. Was there any more obvious way to fuse those two dreams?
Haiyan certainly wasn't the first large scale natural disaster I'd witnessed as a news-watching adult. I remember watching the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami devour the Thai and Burmese coasts through a T.V. on the fifth floor of a hotel in Maui. I was eating sushi at a house party in my home-town when seismic activity off the Oshika Peninsula caused a wave to rise out of the Pacific Ocean and slam down on Japan like a great white whale. I'd seen documentaries on catastrophes in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. They all made me uncomfortable, but none rattled me quite the same way as Haiyan. For the first time this was happening in a country I had seen in person. In a place I saw every morning as I signed onto Facebook. What was happening in the Philippines may have happened over and over again throughout the history of humanity, but it felt unlike any of the above examples for one reason alone: I could tie it to a human face.
It's a common belief that we currently live in the golden age of global media. The distance between countries seems less significant than ever thanks to high speed connections. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and camera phones, everyone is a citizen journalist. Every time a stone is thrown in Tahrir Square, its impact is seen simultaneously by billions. But media, no matter how we consume it, is still media. It's (at least) one-degree removed from our personal lives. It becomes hard to care about an event unless something of yours is at stake. In that vein, it probably shouldn't surprise me that the more countries I visit, the more caustic my reaction is to each less-than-ideal human rights report I read. Or that I spent less time this year getting excited about the intangibly minuscule Higgs Boson than I did about Malala Yousafzai's return to form after getting gunned down on school bus in Pakistan. As social creatures, humans are bound-up in fate of their neighbours. And that network of neighbours grows as we become citizens of the world.
Perhaps my waining interest in pure science can be seen as a criticism toward the way it's communicated as well. The laws of science, by their very definition, govern every aspect of our lives. But they also lack potency for the same reason every tsunami pre-2004 felt like a mere ripple in my daily life. People deny global warming, or can't wrap their head around the importance of immunization because these issues too lack faces. Despite what our hyper-educated generation continues to tell itself, we still need to see (or taste, or touch, or smell, or hear) something to truly believe it. I dare anyone to visit a village in South-Eastern Bangladesh where the fields are now barren from the salinity of rising sea-waters and tell me our fossil fuel dependence isn't a pressing issue. I dare anyone to not immunize their kid after speaking at the funeral of someone who's died of something as archaic sounding as polio.
My first reaction post-Haiyan was that I had to fly to back to Cebu and find somewhere to volunteer. I researched flights as I sent a sporadic blast of messages to those of my friends who may have been effected by the Super-Typhoon. One former host returned an image of now-blue skies lighting up the roof-top of his hostel in Dumaguete. My friend Sarah shared an photograph of her younger cousins paddling through the post Yolanda flood-waters (despite living in the states for the last few years, she called the typhoon by its Filippino name.) It was only after I confirmed that everyone I knew was alright that I also realized the impracticality of jetting across the world when a simple donation would have a much larger impact on everyone other than myself.
Then a second, far more haunting realization occurred. Even with my global network I still didn't know anyone who had been affected. Was my concern simply hypothetical, facilitated by coincidence? Now that everyone I knew was okay, would the sting I'd first felt only hours ago fade just as fast? I wasn't sure, but I owed it to those now nameless thousands not to let it go. I suppose that's the definition of empathy, after all.