we touched down in Manila at 8pm on Saturday evening. the first thing you’ll notice when you arrive is the fact that you have become, quite suddenly, a celebrity. mum and i are what Filipinos would call Balikbayan – Filipinos who live overseas and are coming home for a visit. people give you extra attention, guys get hit by cars looking at you while crossing the road, strangers want to practice their broken English on you when you buy a bottle of water off them. a filo living overseas to locals is another breed altogether. you come from a country completely foreign to these people who have never traveled their whole lives. to them, you live in a place they watch on television at prime time, where they can lunch with Paris Hilton and everybody’s white.
the second thing you’ll notice is the heat. its like stepping into an oven pre-heated at 280 degrees. the humidity is so thick it covers you like a wet blanket on a 35 degree day. this time, unlike last time i visited, i didn’t pass out outside NInoy Aquino airport, spread eagled on the sidewalk, causing hysteria.
the Filipino streets are a world of difference compared to what you have in Melbourne. there are no road rules for cars, no lanes no traffic lights no give way to the right. its buckle up and pray to your god you’ll get out in one piece. it is literally a James Bond car-chase scene getting to the local shopping centre. it was fuckin unreal. there is no better adrenalin rush than being stuck in a speeding vehicle controlled by someone else.
i couldnt get enough of the simple difference between that world and this. and it was strange because the question of which one i belonged to kept on popping up in my head. for there were things so familiar from when i was a child, and things that are so different from what im used to everyday. like Jeepneys and children coming up to your car window with their hand out begging for coin. or the utterly incredible size of the shopping centres, floors and hundreds of stores on top and wedged beside each other, an air conditioned, ultra modern church taking up one entire floor in every shopping mall you visit. the security checks you go through when entering each one. the fact that you’d walk for 4 hours and you still havent seen half of it. how they’re open till 10pm every night and its always, always packed to the rafters. and how ridiculously cheap everything is. and the food! oh the food, how i’ve missed authentic Filipino cooking. that first night we ate out at restaurant that is typical Filipino – smoking while eating, drinking San Miguel Light in the evening heat, impeccable service. it was fantastic.
for the whole trip i felt like i had to soak it all up – see everything with my eyes open wider than usual so it can all sink in more. and my mother? she made sure she ate everything.
people have different ways of storing memory, i suppose.
my grandmother was buried in her hometown, Bulacan. about an hour’s drive from the main city. we didn’t get to come home when she died, and if you read my blog religiously you’ll know the drama behind that. so i knew this part was going to be difficult, for my mum especially.
her grave is simpler than i imagined. how foreign-ised i’ve been, imagining that it was going to be on an expanse of green grass – everything neat and lined up all movie like. her tombstone is white marble, against a while block of cement above ground next to my grandfather, Ruben, who we moved from another cemetery so they’d be together. mum had her quiet moment, so i walked around the cemetery checking out this little village of stones and marble and steel.
the dead of all families are separated in little lots, where you build a roof over the entire block that’s yours. so its almost like a cement, granny flat for the departed. my grandparents didnt have a roof over theirs yet and im not sure why and which pissed me off. maybe my uncles and aunties were too busy running their lives to bother pooling some cash and building one. if i lived there, lolo and lola’s graves would have this shit hot Bel-Air fortress of iron gates with gold leaves and marble (preferably real but most probably fake). but it would look spic, proper and respectable. my next financial project.
Halloween was the night before so you can make out remnants of the Filipino tradition of having a little reunion at each gravesite – with candles and songs and food, children running around. my grandparents had no melted candles stuck on the cement, no scraps of plastic plates, no dried flowers. it broke me into two but it must have torn my mother beyond description. it was there and then i promised myself that i will name my first born Anicia. and as for Ruben? i’ll think of a way to work that name in on someone else.
last time i was there, majority of my cousins were 10, 11. something juciy must have been in the water circa ’82 – ’83 for we all popped out that year, one after the other. and whatever was in the water then must have started up again now, cause all my cousins have little babies all over the place. i was the weird one for being 26, unmarried, without children. mum kept on saying if we never left i’d probably have a massive tribe by now, you know, having been such a little slut that i was. probably true – its different there. a career comes second and love? love comes first. it comes first at least four times.
anak in Filipino, means child. i heard this word so many times anak here and baby there, from so many people during this trip. mum says all the time – baby where’s my cigarette? anak, im so hungry lets eat! i was introduced to this anak and that anak. anakin means godchild. anak-anak means brothers & sisters.
the first time i saw her at the hotel lobby, she said ang anak ko. when he walked in that room and looked at me, he said how’s my baby? when i say now ‘i am my mother’s child’ i never did i mean it so much until this trip. but which one, i wonder. what a headfuck.
i’ve always had difficulty writing about my father, or my mother AND father in one paragraph. but during this trip, NOT writing about either of them has taken a mental effort that’s given me a headache. all my non-father thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him. and its hit me now, more than ever, why should i avoid it anyway? my father punished me by ignoring my existence to my face for years – until now. and so now it’s my turn to punish him by writing all about him – behind his back.
the puso. and..
the father. the head fucks. the heart strings being pulled. the pathetic summary that does no justice.
puso means heart.
the real difficulty is, i’ve been away for so long and too much time has passed between me as a little girl and me as an adult who can formulate thoughts and opinion about him, what happened before, how he should’ve done things the proper way. most of my life i never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge or pay someone to beat the crap out of my father. when i saw him that day, walking in wearing a white polo and Ray Ban aviators, with his Tagheur shining, him looking older and fatter but still so together – my heart stopped, it was unbelievable. then – his acknowledgment of me as his daughter, all the 26 years of him missing in my life – were summed up by one little question which was actually more rhetorical than a query: how’s my baby?
when they were all sitting around the table discussing my grandmother’s will (and i wonder if he would have still shown up if there wasn’t money involved to discuss) i was staring at him, as you would, when he was all stranger and at the same time, all flesh and blood. the way he talked in this slow, smooth voice using his hands and inserting funny jokes in the middle of seriousness – how charming he was! i thought. how he’d twist his words around so well! i thought. i watched his mouth the way it moved, the curve of his nose, his tan which seems to not only happen during summer but all of his life. all the while i made sure i wasn’t staring too much for my mother to notice. for not one second did i want her to feel i had crossed the line from curiosity to doing something about it. have you ever been so desperate to watch someone, to listen to someone, to soak them up into you for you to take away – and look like you weren’t really that interested?
it was too much for my sun-baked, jet-lagged little head melting in the 34 degree heat. it was too much for the heart that’s trying to grab hold of everything its missed for too many years.
and to add to the mix, there is my mother. my marianne. who ate all the food she missed at every hour of the day, who slept and snored and got her teeth whitened, who shopped and shopped and had this amazing itinerary so that i wouldn’t miss a thing. who held back at the right times, and pushed at the best of times. my heart aches as i write this for i’ve never met anyone as wonderful. and how many times i thought – imagine if she wasn’t my mother? imagine if she didn’t do what she did. how different my world would be now. and how i owe her that.
i feel dwarfed by all the history and all the unsaid stories. him, my mother, my sister, my dead grandparents – its as though they are all in this 26-year-old secret, and there i was, this result, this personification of something that’s been hidden and i know for a split second they all must have thought: surely she must know by now. surely she must realise. for she cried at that hotel lobby when they hugged for a long time. for she cried all inside when he asked how’s my baby?
all of this looms disproportionately large, now in my head, a week back from the trip. i want to formulate all my thoughts into words and record them here – isnt that the entire point of this blog? to save me when i start losing my head when im older? so that i would never forget when everyone else does?
and i can’t seem to sum it up by words. everything that happened and everything i felt. funny – how words are so limited yet it does so much.
my whole family painted on a massive canvas that during this trip, it was kinda held before me. but i feel as though i’ve had to step back, and step back some more to see the entire picture, for the entirety of it is too big for my little eyes. they painted on a massive canvas, across continents, from obscurity to celebrity, from cities to provinces, from rags to designer, from this story to that story and linked it all up and coloured it all in and went over the borders and covered some in the process. so how to begin recounting all of this messy but beautiful odyssey?
how to begin.