Peace and Culture
Written by Jannica Cuaresma
Most people peek out the window the first time they fly in a plane. They marvel while the earth shrinks, the ocean expands, the sky changes its face, and they reposition in the macrocosm that is the world. I didn’t. In September of 1997, while my family and I soared across time zones from the little town of Marikina (today Marikina City), I kept my eyes closed, trying to keep ten years of Filipino in me from spilling out and dissipating into the frigid air-conditioning. I wanted to tattoo certain memories into my mind and senses: the wooden stairs, naked of varnish and railings, from where I watched my mother wash the dishes, poised to wipe her forehead with a towel in my hand; the unfurnished second story where my mother taught me to play the ukulele; the alphabet stickers I placed on my piano so I wouldn’t have to learn to read notes; the marriage between my mother’s voice and her steel-string guitar; the shapes my younger brother and I made with the light of a single candle flickering in the brownout (blackout); the creak of the house gate mildly suffering from rusty acne when my dad comes home after months of working abroad on a ship; the pungent smell of suka (vinegar) and salty tuyo (dried fish) tickling my sinuses on its way to tease my taste buds; the resonant calls of vendors walking from town to town, carrying on their shoulders a long wooden stick from which large canisters of taho (soft tofu with sweetened glaze and tapioca pearls) hang; the “secret” spots where my friends and I caught dragonflies; the pleasure of saving enough coins to buy half a soft drink (soda) at the neighborhood sari-sari (mixed) store and sucking it from the bottom of the clear plastic bag it was poured into; and the porcelain beauty of leche flan (custard) that my mother and I would make to give to the neighbors on Christmas Day.
Eventually, the plane landed on a city called Honolulu, and I had to open my eyes. Once I did, my life became like a cassette tape put on fast-forward while the play button was still on – scratchy and hard to understand. My uncle picked us up and when we arrived at his house in a town called Kalihi, one of my cousins asked if I liked driving through downtown. I gawked at him, wondering what in the world a down town was. That evening, I learned that doors and windows weren’t protected by intricate metal bars like they were back home, but by thin screens that camouflaged in the darkness. I learned this quickly because I walked out to my uncle’s lanai (balcony) and bulldozed his screen door along with my dignity. That night, my family and I settled in a room. My mother and father laid on a bed, my brother on a sheet on the floor. I was lying next to my brother with my eyes open, hoping for a temporary amnesia so that I wouldn’t long for what was gone and I could more easily bear with what the future held.
In the years to come, my family and I focused on improving the quality of our lives by working interdependently. My mother worked multiple part-time jobs, attended Certified Nursing Assistant classes, and then became a full-time CNA in pursuit of career happiness and reliable health insurance for all of us. My father became an electrician on a boat, which was a job that took him out of country for four months twice a year, and which was a job that eventually helped us move into an apartment of our own. To reciprocate, my brother and I worked hard at school. We were always advised to be the kind of children that our parents could maipagmalaki (be proud of), and so we persevered through the ELL program, for which we were pulled out of our regular classes a few times a week to associate certain combinations of letters in writing with picture flash cards and sounds coming out of the ELL teacher’s lips. Within months, my brother and I became conversational in English.
Breaking the language barrier gave me a sense of comfort. Finally understanding people’s speech, I imagine, is like putting on the perfect prescription glasses. Unfortunately, it also exposed my brother and me to unpleasant circumstances. The neighborhood kids’ taunts, previously incomprehensible and easy to ignore, were clear and hurtful. All throughout middle school and for a little bit during high school, I spent every day after school cooking rice and ulam (dishes), dropping pots and pans when I hear a strained “Nikka!” from beyond, bolting out the door, and chasing away boys that threw ice, soda, names, and threats at my younger brother. Terrified that our parents would deem us shameful to the family, my brother and I never ever retaliated. “Huwag ninyong patulan,” my father would say, which meant don’t fight back and sink to that level. So, we endured it every day with our tongues tucked deep inside our sealed mouths until those boys finally grew out of their foul nature.
In the years following, I concentrated even harder on my academics in high school and college, motivated by the dream of providing for my family, especially because both my parents have a medical condition that sometimes made mundane tasks physically demanding – my mother had scoliosis, my father diabetes. As quickly as I could, I finished college while working multiple jobs, moved to a different island, finished graduate school while establishing myself in the field of education, and took over some of my family’s financial responsibility. But, In my eagerness and haste to achieve my dream, I never took the time to reverse the amnesia I induced on myself when I was ten years old. I allowed myself to put my culture on the back burner for such a long time, and I never realized how much of it I’ve lost until I was face to face with my past.
Several years ago, my father’s mother died. My father and I flew to the Philippines to pay our respects and take care of some businesses. Back in the place I once called home, I couldn’t navigate past my old street. I couldn’t remember the names of all of my neighbors, my relatives, and even cousins that I used to play with. Food I once delighted to eat tasted foreign. I no longer knew the lyrics to songs I used to play with my mother, and I could barely keep up with conversations. Even though I knew my blood is mostly that of a Filipino, I felt like I wasn’t Filipino enough. Or, at least, not anymore. I felt ashamed, knowing that I neglected the very center of my identity, and then I wanted to forget even more, which, in turn, brought on even more feelings of shame. In order to stop this destructive cycle, I did what I did best – I buried my feelings and moved on.
A little over three years ago, my redemption came in the form of a man. This man, who one day befriended my friends and me in a community kickball tournament, and who on another day took me to a beach and then a Thai restaurant, kept peeling off the layers I put on my identity until he got to the center, where the dormant Filipina was patiently waiting to be free again. His genuine interest in the side of myself that I’ve not shown to many others encouraged me to get in touch with my culture. I prepared Filipino foods for him, I taught him simple words in Tagalog, and I told him stories from my past. All of this came to me naturally for reasons I can’t quite explain. Perhaps it was because I never “lost” my identity, like I previously thought. At some point, however, I realized I was limited to what I could remember. I also realized that I, myself, needed to become fully reacquainted with my culture to really show this guy who I was. I needed to dive back into the place where I know the Filipino vibe was strong. So, I invited him to join my family for our first Christmas together. He agreed, and I braced myself for what could potentially be the demise of the best relationship I’ve ever had.
As soon as we arrived at my parents’ place, we were ushered into separate rooms. As if he has not eaten a grain of rice in years, my mother and father fed him a slew of food he’s never even heard of. They did this at least five times a day. They even watched him chew, waiting for his approval of the foods that were made to honor his presence. My mother taught him pipito, the Filipino three-level poker, and then beat him in the game repeatedly without mercy. When we visited my uncle’s house on Christmas Eve, my mother’s mother patted the length of his arms, his stomach, and his head. This ritual is called pupukol and is believed to drive away bad spirits. At this point, I was sure he was going to book the next flight back home, but, instead, he stayed with a smile on his face, loving every minute of it. As I observed him throughout our stay, I saw how he enjoyed being gradually integrated with my family, and how my family was happy to have him.
Finally, I was at peace with my culture again.