City of Gentle People
Memories from my childhood trips to visit family in Dumaguete, Philippines.
Anyway you want it
My cousins, and extended cousins and likely others who we weren’t actually related to, and I strolled to a nearby park in Dumaguete. Balmy air breezed around us. We were at a playground built on sand and I went for the swings after playing on the slides. Everyone was enjoying themselves, and I swung at a leisurely pace. I closed my eyes… “anyway you want it, that’s the way you need it, anyway way you want it…she loves to laugh, she loves to sing, she loves everything…” For what seemed like forever, I swung there, the ends of my mouth curled up slightly, with Journey’s “Anyway You Want It” playing in my head. I might have hummed it, as that was before I became self-conscious of the musical sounds that came from my mouth. Nowadays when I’m walking around NYC, a familiar scent will hit me, and my brain and body freeze for a second to conjure up this memory. I smile to myself.
I just googled the lyrics and am only now realizing that the song is sexual in nature. So there’s that.
The beach is in my blood
We arrived at the beach in the early morning and stayed past dark. I spent most of the day in the water, and discovered a fear of the sensation of seaweed brushing against my legs. Nikki played with our cousins her age — Ann Ann, Ban Ban, Non Non — and I felt cool with the older kids — Maris, Dapoy, Bradylyn. Sounds of our laughter and our Engish/Bisaya chatter echoed to the small huts where the adults reminisced around the food. We only interrupted our play to stuff our faces with fish and rice and mangoes. There’s a picture that I love from that day, of me and Nikki grinning madly, eyes squinting at the sun.
But that magical sun had also betrayed me. “AK…you look like a lobster!” my Uncle Chito chuckled, once we were back at my grandpa’s house. I really did. I remember lying in bed at my Aunt Erlin’s house, unable to sleep and wanting to cry from the searing pain enveloping me.
Still, that was a glorious day.
I learned how to shuffle cards next to my late grandmother’s coffin.
“Wakes” in the Philippines are long, or at least they were for when my grandparents passed away. It’s partially because it took time for family members abroad to travel back for the funeral. They also happened at home, with family and friends coming to pay their respects, to pray, to eat, to drink, to remember.
After Lola Titay, my maternal grandma, died, my family set up her coffin in the living room of her home, up against the wall to the right of the entryway. Their couch, with its shiny bamboo frame and red cushions, sat opposite the coffin. One day, my cousin Dapoy and I were on “watch”, and we decided to pass the time by playing cards. We played a lot of “Spit”, but she also taught me how to shuffle. I wanted to have the same finesse she had, her hands moving effortlessly. I trained my thumbs to release the cards so that they alternated sides in quick succession, rather than coming down in thicker chunks; figured out the placement of my fingers so that the two decks re-formed as one instead of flying all over the place. Split, release, combine, repeat. Soon enough, I could create the satisfying swooshing sound of paper flapping and rapidly falling one on top of the other. It’s a skill I’m so happy to have.
“Go Finland!” my Auntie Datling yells at the TV.
“Miss Venezuela!” my Auntie Erlin and I cheer.
It was May 17, 1996, and our respective Miss Universe picks had made it all the way to the top 3 (the other was Miss Aruba). I don’t recall who my mom was rooting for, but the competition was getting as equally fierce in my aunt’s basement as it was in Las Vegas. Each side threw taunts, and I remember growing more nervous as we got closer to crowning the winner. Miss Venezuela was flawless. My aunt and I felt that she had to win. “HA!” as they announced Miss Finland as 2nd runner up. Take that, Auntie Datling! Fingers crossed. Deep breath… “And the winner is Miss Venezuela*!” My Auntie Erlin and I cheered and laughed and clapped and rubbed it in my aunt’s face some more because we just knew it.
*As it happens, Miss Venezuela that year was Alicia Machado.
“Remember to get mannga, for AK”
My family always happily obliged my obsession with mannga, aka mangoes. I enjoy the sweet ones, cut like a grid and inverted so that you only needed your mouth to bite the pieces out. My true love, though, is the firm, unripe and deliciously sour green mangga. A family member, usually my great aunt, Lola Pepang, would peel and slice them for me. Sometimes they were soaked with a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce and some sugar, or served with a side of ginamos (shrimp paste) for dipping. Once, I ate so many in one sitting that I developed a horrible tooth and gum ache and was sure some of my teeth would fall out. I haven’t been able to recreate the feeling of home as when I sat in the dimly lit kitchen of my grandpa’s house — the ends of the plastic tablecloth on my thighs, heat licking at my skin, the sounds of a TV show (probably Eat Bulaga!) and crowing roosters in the background — as I popped slice after slice in my mouth, my family looking on with amusement, wondering when I was going to stop.