"Take a moment to wonder: What happens to all the collective experience, skills, insights, and philosophies accumulated by our countrymen from the work they did overseas?
You’d think with all that knowledge, some of it is bound to be properly applied to the Philippine setting. This glaring lack of a nation’s capability to tap the vast knowledgebase residing in the minds of its returning overseas workers further re-enforces the issue of our country not being an environment that rewards innovation and doing things properly."
by Kriyan de Leon, February 2003
While I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a Canadian friend, I was asked to describe what it is to be Filipino. I was caught off-guard and quite quickly, I eluded her query by asking her what her definition of being Canadian was. From experience, when a person is asked something he does not know, I find, the best response usually given is a misdirecting reply. It sufficed for that moment as she looked away, smiled and quite contently accepted it and continued on the conversation with another topic. But her admiration and intrigue of how I appeared to be so ‘nationalistic’ had a significant impact on my perspective.
As I bid my friend goodbye and thanked her warmly for her company, her innocent query reverberated in my mind still. Thereafter, memories of a distant event come flooding in as I ponder those implicit questions raised: What is it exactly that I am defending and pride myself to be? Does a Filipino Diaspora exist, even?
Seven years have past since I was approached by an acquaintance that just arrived from the Philippines. He wore his hair differently from others and likewise his clothing weren’t fashionable at that time. Quite often, people whom he thought that he could approach, individuals he considered to be his countrymen, ridiculed him for not being ‘Westernised’ yet. The term branded to these group of individuals, if I remembered correctly were ‘FOBS’, fresh of the boat people oblivious to the new culture surrounding them. Despite what the others say, I entertained his conversation as I found him to be quite pleasant to speak to. Our interactions were often light-hearted, but in that particular instance he didn’t approach me with his usually cheerful demeanour. As he relayed to me what happened earlier that day, it became apparent that a Filipina who caught his heart and admiration ridiculed him. In Tagalog he said to me "Why do they act that way, all high and mighty? They call themselves Filipino yet treat me differently when I speak to them in our native tongue. Don’t they know that we all eat ‘baguong’ (sauteed shrimp paste)"
I told him that maybe she doesn’t know how to speak Tagalog, but in fact speak Ilocano, Cebuano, or any of the Filipino languages instead. He shook his head; a grin slowly developing on his face and he jokingly punched me at the shoulder. We both laughed and that was the end of our brief interaction and we went our separate ways. I spared him more anguish by omitting the fact that the girl herself just arrived a few years back and already she claimed that she has all but forgotten her native tongue, neither capable of speaking nor comprehending it. I find it interesting how a banal interaction could be the source of introspection into one’s own identity.
There were certain behaviours in the past I was not proud of doing. I remember when I was younger being appalled when my Mom cooked traditional cuisines and find my bedroom door open. I was embarrassed if the scent adhered to my clothing. Equally mortified I was to admit to people I consume certain food that they consider not kosher. I’m guilty of that, I admit, but it brings to light how easily it is to lose pride in one’s culture based on matters that can be considered so superficial.
As been stated above, I was asked to give a definition of what "Filipino" is. A friend in London pointed out that it is a geo-political characterization drawn by the Spanish colonialisation some three centuries ago. I agree when he pointed out the diversity within the country itself, each region having different groups of people possessing distinct cultural practises. But one cannot look at the Philippines without studying the works and contributions that Jose Rizal had made. He gave these people a common identity. Filipino then is somewhat akin to a nationalistic term and cannot be narrowly defined. Given the social dynamics, a proper modernised definition must be adopted. I propose that being Filipino encompasses the geo-political realm and manifests itself to groups of people having a shared history of oppression, possessing mostly similar social mores and cultural practises, thereby could be deciphered as a single distinct social entity. Like all social constructs, it exists in the mind and soul alone regardless of geographical place. This matter is important in terms of propagating a culture for it cannot continue to exist without passing these mental elements to generations thereafter. The significance increases exponentially when part of the people settles in foreign soil. It then can be argued that the term "Filipino" may have started as a nationalistic definition but seems to have gained more of an ethnic designation when these groups migrate away from their native land and are considered part of the visible minorities. Given the proportion of the population they represent, it becomes easier for a people to have common understanding and affiliation with their countrymen in this broader sense rather than narrowly by saying they are of a specific clan. I myself am Ilocano, but I share kinship and affiliation to all Filipinos regardless of where they originated.
What significance do all of these have regarding the existence of a Diaspora?
Ethnicity Diaspora purports that the heritage and language is passed on to further generations; that there ought to exist a longing to return or wanting the betterment of the homeland; and there exist a strong cohesion of the ethnic group. For the sake of argument, I shortened the sociological definition for obvious practical reasons, I do acknowledge, however, that points addressed are of great significance. The Philippines is a country of migrants where the people leaving the country exceed those entering, and one would expect that there ought to exist a Diasporic tendency within the host nations. However from my observation, the existence of a Filipino Diaspora does not seem to comply based on sociological definitions. What antagonistic forces prevent the over-seas Filipinos from establishing a firm grasp of their culture? Why can’t they scatter seeds, but instead would rather prefer to assimilate to their new host nation?
Ours is a culture that came to know oppression both external and internal. Nearly three hundred and fifty years of which came from foreign colonialist. I believe this contributed largely to the lack of pride and a sense of cultural inferiority amongst the over-seas Filipinos. This is a mere conjecture of course, I do not expect everyone to accept this assertion; but one cannot argue to the contrary that as a whole Filipinos would much rather be considered as being American, Canadian, British once they possess the citizenship given to them by the respective host countries. Also troubling is the fact that some of the migrants feel a sense of glee to be mistaken as a person of different descent.
Primarily, the preservation and propagation of the language is of great import for much of the cultural identity rest within the constructs of the tongue. An excellent example is our humour; it is so distinct that if translated into English it would not make sense at all. But unfortunately, the language seems to be the first thing that over-seas Filipinos are willing to abandon. The direct effect of our native tongue presents a potential source of embarrassment to the younger generations (even the older ones, I suppose) for we can easily be criticised for the accent it produces as well as the often mistaken use of "he", "she", "him" and "her". This grammatical error stems from the non-existence of a counterpart within the Filipino languages. Why are some humiliated by this when considered that the ability to speak two languages is something to be proud of? Yes, I must admit that to move to a country dominated by the elites, your eloquence and articulation of their language judge your fate and dictate where your position in society. But is it really sufficient ground to justify forgetting and readily assimilate into a new society?
The grass is greener on the other side is a fallacy. Did the cultural inferiority complex exist before departure or after arrival?
As I travelled through North America and to Britain, most Filipinos I have encountered would always point out the flaws of our society. The incessant gossiping and glee of destroying his own countrymen’s reputation, often described as the "Illness of the Filipinos", tops the list as they smugly consider themselves superior for inheriting a "Westernised" view of life. Also common reaction, I find, is when they shake their head in disgust with the political corruption and with the government’s almost perpetual dismal state.
There needs to be an emphasis that the culture is not synonymous to politics. The government tend to represent the ideals of the elite, not the nation as a whole, and most of the elite (both present and historical) aspire to think and live like Westerners. Of course, this is residual to the concessions given to those who comply with the wishes of the ruling foreign power. It only has been half a century of our nation’s liberation, and this practise may not be eradicated fully if considering that our country has been oppressed for almost three centuries and a half. Though I feel it is necessary to see our own imperfection to be more tolerant a people, we ought not revel in the superiority of others and be oblivious to their flaws. We are not by all means inferior. If one does not accept the purported definition of what it is to be Filipino and still insist that the lines of argument exist within the socio-political sphere to validate the cultural identity, one can argue that our culture has always been influenced with the notions of social justice and equity. Whether successful or not is insignificant; what matters are the constant address of these issues That is something that we can take pride in considering our choice of national hero is an intellect (his name is listed on the Reading Room of the British Museum as one of those who researched there) and have overthrown not one, but two government administrations through mass protest.
The current trend of Over-seas Filipino Workers is a good argument for the betterment of the homeland considering that their remittance of funds have made large contributions regarding the GNP through net transfers. GDP is not used as an economic indicator because our country’s gross domestic product is not all that impressive and not of any value to the politician who seeks to be revered. Due to this, I’m ambivalent regarding to what extent Over-seas Filipino Workers make contributions in preserving the culture. What I feel is more significant is to what extent the migrants and expatriates (first generation), by in large, will hold on to the traditional roots and beliefs. Are the cultural practises, norms, and mores thoroughly entrenched? In the long run, this is what ultimately matters. The remittance of funds will cease once the OFWs decide to reside in their host nation permanently (if the choice is accorded to them) and sponsor their families. One can also argue that this trend of migrating workers paves the way for globalisation and lead the world at this respect. Whether a successful innovation or not, only time would tell.
Within a rapidly globalisation of today’s society, there still exist a need diversification and preservation of cultures lest we reduce ourselves (the whole of humanity) to thinking narrowly. We Filipinos have the advantage regarding this for we have the potential to easily appreciate the notion of social justice. Hence could be more capable of understanding the sanctity of Human Rights. That, I strongly believe, could be our strength and something I take absolute pride in saying. We have been oppressed by foreigners, and unfortunately have oppressed our own. (Though I still believe that our oppression has manifested itself from colonialist influence.) Our strengths and flaws are aggregate to our essence as a people; but I fear that our over-seas countrymen have accentuated the "flaws" more.
When asked, most of those who wish to live back in the homeland dream of possessing large sums of money, have servants and maids attending to their upkeep, and live the lives of the stereotypical "Haciendero". That might be an inviting thought, but it proliferates the inherited elite mentality. I’d rather not maintain the status quo, as I do desire for change and support the plight of a people constantly searching for social justice. Others could care less and would much rather assimilate to their new countries.
Is there a Filipino Diaspora within the context of the sociological definition given above? Whether one agrees with me or not, I’d have to say yes, but at best, it is a weak one. No matter what, I still take pride in saying that I’m Filipino, and there are individuals I’ve met who share my sentiments. I find solace with that knowledge as it gives me hope that our cultural will continue on. However, we still are in danger of losing our social identity, not by force but by will. A further question to bear in mind is to what extent do the people in the host nation accept us as equal; is it enough for us to forfeit our own ethnic identity? If the answer is in the affirmative, I lament then the loss of a beautiful culture, for despite its flaws, it has its strengths often overlooked.
By Fe C. Abogadie, September 2001
The year was 1972. I remember clearly. It was the same year that Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. Just a few months before the proclamation of martial law, my parents, after years of deliberating and planning and saving, finally decided to replace our old nipa-and-bamboo house. They decided to replace it with one made of concrete and hardwood, with galvanized iron for roofing. This decision was to have a great impact on our lives.
Almost 30 years later, and on the other side of the world, I now remember that old house so vividly and with so much nostalgia. I don’t know why. Perhaps because I am afraid that the rapid urbanization of the Philippines is causing the disappearance of these traditional houses, and with it, a whole way of life. Practical reasons of course dictate that if you can afford it, it is better to build a concrete house. It is cheaper in the long term because it can withstand the heavy rains and typhoons so common in the Philippines. In many small villages in the countryside of course there are still these nipa-and-bamboo houses, but they are fast disappearing. Part of me is afraid that they are becoming "extinct". Part of me wants to remember happy memories of life spent in just such a house. Better put them in writing before memory fails.
The old house
The old house was the first house my parents owned after they got married. I remember it as a big house, but maybe it was "big" because I was just a child when I lived in it. To a child less than three feet tall, perhaps every house is big. Apparently there was a religious ceremony performed before the first shovel of soil was dug to construct the new house that was to replace it. Or there should have been, as it is believed to be bad luck if you do not have this blessing done before building a house. In any case, I was not there to witness it. I was at school. I don’t particularly remember my parents explaining to my siblings and me that the old house was going to be demolished that day. Maybe they did not want us to worry ourselves about it. I just remember that one day I went to school, just a 10-minute walk away, and when I came home for lunch there it was, the huge hole in the ground where the workers had erected the first pillar for the new house.
I learned later that in the process of constructing the new house, a few coconut trees had to be cut because they were in the way. I remember eating some of the "ubod", the fleshy topmost part that is the heart of the coconut palm. The "ubod" is rare, for a coconut tree is considered so valuable and is therefore not cut down unless for a very good reason. So the only time one can have "ubod" is when a typhoon has felled down some coconut trees, and yes, when coconut trees are felled down in the course of building a house.
The old house was supported off the ground by a few main pillars made of wood from locally grown hardwood trees. On to these pillars were attached the framework of wood and bamboo that would support the floors, walls and roof. The flooring all throughout the house was made of polished bamboo slats strung close together with rattan strips. The walls and roof were made with nipa palms in thatched layers. The slat design of the flooring meant that the mountain and sea breezes were free to come and go through the floor, so the house interior was naturally cool. I have no memories of it being so hot back then. But then, many coconut and other fruit trees surrounded the house so there was much shade around.
The "pantaw" or front porch
The front entrance was through some bamboo stairs, perhaps 4 or 5 rungs, into a front porch called "pantaw" in Cebuano. The "pantaw" was spacious, certainly big enough for the laundry woman to do her ironing there. That was when ironing was done with the black flat iron using hot coals made from coconut shells (locally known as "uling"). The iron had a heavy bottom and a less heavy top to which a wooden handle was attached. The top part had a zigzagged edge so that when brought down over the bottom part, it formed several holes. The holes were important to let out the smoke. Ironing was much heavier work then, for every piece of clothing was made of cotton and made stiff with cassava starch. My mother, Nanay, told me that starching helped extend the longevity of the clothes. This was well and good but meant more work. For proper ironing, each item had to be sprayed with water first to make them pliant. Thus our laundry woman, Manang Nacia, whenever she had her ironing day, would have piles of clothes around her and the ironing board. Three piles of clothes: one pile for the starched clothes that still needed to be sprayed with water, another pile for the rolled clothes that had been wetted already, and a third pile for the freshly ironed ones. I should know, because Manang Nacia used to allow me to help her with the job as long as I did the piles correctly. I enjoyed very much the ritual of dipping my hands in the bowl of water, sprinkling the water evenly over each item, and then folding and rolling each item into a compact shape.
The "pantaw" was not only a work area. It was also the informal receiving room. When people dropped by for a chat, as was so commonly done then, they would be welcomed into the "pantaw". There were only a couple of chairs as far as I can remember. Most of the time, people would just sit on the floor or on the steps, with their feet extended out in a very relaxed manner. The "pantaw" too was a playroom, especially for my sister Lina and me. (My sister Lina and I were close playmates, for I was only 14 months older than she. In our family she was called Baby Lina. Nanay used to dress us in similar clothes and people would often ask if we were twins). We would lay out our toys in the "pantaw" and play house with our friends, who were also our neighbours. When it was raining, we had fun wetting our hair with the water dripping from the eaves of the nipa roofing.
The "sala" or the living room
From the "pantaw" there was a door leading to the "sala" or the main living room. Perhaps the "sala" was the biggest room in the house. As one enters it, immediately one would be in front of the altar, where one is confronted with images of the crucified Christ or the weeping Virgin Mary and, invariably, of scenes of hell and purgatory. Every house in those days had an altar like ours. It must have given young kids the scare of their lives to imagine themselves being banished to hell, just like those fallen angels, if they did so much as disobey their parents or do something really naughty. At least that was how the old folks back then would get the children to be obedient.
The "sala" was the scene of many incidents of my siblings and I kneeling before the altar. It was mostly my brother Dodong, my sister Baby Lina and myself. (Manoy Ne, our eldest, was already in high school two towns away so we would only see him on weekends, while our youngest, Dayon, was still a baby). Kneeling before the altar was our punishment for misdeeds – we were supposed to ask forgiveness for our sins. But we would just be quiet for the first few minutes and when Nanay went to another part of the house, we would end up poking and teasing each other again or end up either giggling or arguing again. As soon as we hear Nanay’s footsteps coming back, we would pretend again to be solemn before the altar. I wonder if today’s parents still discipline their kids this way.
In the evenings, the "sala" became our bedroom. There was a proper bedroom, just next to the "sala", but that was where my parents slept, together with our baby sister Dayon. Manoy Ne, Dodong, Baby Lina and I slept on the "sala" floor. We had a huge woven mat called "banig" that we would unroll on the floor for sleeping. The "banig" covered most of the "sala" area and on it we would spread our pillows and blankets before hanging the huge mosquito net. We hung the mosquito net by hooking its four corners, the "ears", on to nails hammered into the walls at appropriate locations. Hanging the mosquito net was a huge task, or so it seemed, for we would always argue as to whose turn it was to do it that night. Under the mosquito net, my siblings and I slept right next to each other, my brothers on one side, and my sister Lina and I on the other.
I remember this arrangement as great fun. In modern terms, this is like having a pajama party every night. In those days (and maybe still true nowadays) it was a real luxury to have separate bedrooms for each child so it was perfectly acceptable for several people to sleep together in one room. From a child’s perspective, this was the ultimate in security, for one did not sleep alone. My siblings and I used to play games even when we were already under the mosquito netting, ready for bed. What we loved the most of course was when my mother would read us bedtime stories, usually of fairy tales and of valiant heroes, or stories of good kids being rewarded great riches. There were also nights when our father would challenge us with riddles and we would always try ever so hard to guess the answers.
The "sala" had a wide window on one side, on the east side, to welcome the morning sun. Extending out from this window was a bamboo ledge about a foot wide, enclosed with some kind of a bamboo railing. One stormy day, in the early seventies, when typhoon Asiang was causing havoc and devastation throughout the islands, our baby sister Dayon was put outside on this ledge, in the rain, because she would not stop crying. She was having one of her notorious tantrums and she kept screaming even more while on the ledge. Her cries became mixed with the noise of the heavy rain and the howling winds, and I felt powerless to help her. To this day we still talk about this event, and still tease Dayon for her notorious temper.
The "sunog" or bedroom
The "sala" and the bedroom, which we called "sunog", were right next to each other, separated only by a thin wall of woven canvas made from a bamboo-like material. There was a "door" on each end of this dividing wall, and it was so easy to go in one door and come out the other. They were not really proper doors though, as there were no panels to open and close them. There were just floor-length curtains hanging on them which one pushed to the side to go through into the next room. In the bedroom was our only stand-alone wardrobe called "aparador". This was where my parents kept their valuables. This also contained the nice clothes and linens and towels, together with the necessary mothballs. The "aparador" had a mirror attached to the front side of its main door. Baby Lina and I used to admire ourselves before this mirror with our pretend long hair made from a towel draped over our heads. As little girls, we were never allowed long hair, because long hair would just be an invitation for head lice, according to Nanay. She said that Baby Lina and I could have long hair when we are big enough to make sure our hair was always clean. Of course this did not happen until much later so as little girls, we were always envious of other girls with long hair.
The connecting room
In effect, the "sala" was the centre of the house. On one side it led to the "pantaw", on another side was the front window while on a third side it led to the bedroom. On its fourth side, it led to some kind of a connecting room. We did not really call it a particular name; it was just the room between the "sala" and the kitchen. To one side of this room was a "lantay", probably the Filipino equivalent of a divan, except that ours was made of bamboo, quite wide, and was multi-purpose. The "lantay" was big enough to serve as a double bed for guests. During the day, it also served as a lounger for the adults or as another play area for us kids and our friends. On one wall of this room was a wide opening that led into some kind of a bay window, except that this one was permanently closed. This served as a storage area for all sorts of things, such as the big laundry basket, the big tin containers for rice, the boxes of shoes and Nanay’s sewing paraphernalia. This utility enclosure was hidden from public view by a pair of hanging curtains, and was therefore a favourite hiding place when we played hide-and-seek.
On the other side of the room was the true window, one that could be properly opened and closed with a bamboo panel locally called "sasa". It was propped open with a bamboo pole during the day and was pulled shut at night. From this window one could have a view overlooking the front yard, on which were a number of coconut, citrus and guava trees. One day I was sweeping this yard, being a helpful girl, when one of the young coconuts fell on my head. It was a coconut that had been partially eaten, most probably by a rat, and so had a hole on one end. From this hole poured out the coconut water that drenched me that fateful day. People in the neighbourhood said that the reason I’m smart is because something in my head fell in place just right when that coconut fell on top of my head. They claim it’s true – survivors of falling coconuts are smart people. As far as Nanay was concerned, I think she was just glad that I survived that incident. I, on the other hand, was totally shocked and just cried.
The "kusina" or the kitchen
The "kusina" or kitchen was on the other end of the connecting room, opposite the "sala". As a room it was fairly big, was rectangular in shape, and was really a combined dining room and kitchen. On one end of it was the dining table and on the other end was the cooking area called the "abu". I remember the "abu" as big and tall, for I had to stand on tiptoe to be on eye-level with its top surface. It was a 4-legged wooden structure a few feet tall and its surface was packed hard with ash. Evenly spaced on the top of the packed surface were two clay stoves. I think two stoves was a minimum; one stove for cooking the rice, and the other for cooking the fish, if one were to cook them simultaneously. We used dried coconut palms called "palwa" as firewood back then. This material gave a lot of soot so this meant that all of our pots were black on the outside. It didn’t matter, for most of our pots were made of clay anyway. No need to clean them on the outside, like we do now for iron or aluminium pots.
My parents, Nanay and Tatay, were true believers in the superiority of cooking in clay pots. They said the food cooked better and tasted better. Maybe they were right. I do remember the very pleasant smell of banana leaves cooking. These leaves were used to layer the bottom of the pot for cooking rice or fish, and protected them from burning. Sort of. How it really worked was that if the rice or the fish were on the point of being overcooked, one would smell the burnt banana leaves first. So the cook would rush to the pot to lower the fire before damage could be done to the rice or fish. It worked!
My mind now is full of memories of cooking in the "abu". During the time we lived in the old house, we always had a maid or two, for there were five kids altogether to take care of, and both my parents were working. The maid would usually do the cooking, except when we had "special dishes", when Nanay would take over. It is so funny to remember now that one of our so-called "special dishes" was the plain old pancakes, which we called "hotcakes" at the time. But for us, it really was special, for it was not so easy to find the ingredients then, ingredients like flour and margarine (for butter) and milk (Nanay used powdered milk). It was such a big event for us that we would gather around the "abu" and watch Nanay make the "hotcakes". In our neighbourhood, we were the first kids to taste "hotcakes". We thought we were pretty special.
Another one of our "special dishes" was the misua noodles cooked with canned sardines, usually prepared when there was a typhoon and fresh fish was not available. Back then, anything with canned sardines or canned mackerel was special. Maybe because it was such a rarity, and its taste was so different from the everyday fresh fishes that we took for granted.
In that "abu" in the old house, that was also where I learned to cook "sigay" from my brother Dodong. Although as kids Dodong and I used to fight a lot (for Dodong liked to bully me) we did have happy times together. One of them was getting a kind of small Cowrie shell called "sigay" (pronounced see-guy, with accent on the second syllable) from the local coral reef. The "sigay" shells were used for some games we played in the neighbourhood. Before we could play with them however, the shells had to be cooked properly, or they would smell really bad. Dodong showed me how to cook them using the bottom half of a broken clay pot, on the "abu" that I could barely reach.
Back in those days my family always had a cat. And it was a problem to keep the cat from the leftover food. Since we did not have a refrigerator (there was no electricity in several towns on our side of the province), we used to keep leftover food on top of the dining table, covered with a big woven bamboo contraption with holes. It was like an inverted basket. Normally the cat would not touch the rice and other starchy food, such as the cooked sweet potatoes and bananas. But fish was just irresistible to the cat. Without fail, it would get to any fish left on the table. The clever solution to the problem was a hanging basket over the area between the dining table and the "abu". That was the only safe area for the fish as far as the cat was concerned.
Meal times in the Philippines were, and continue to be, family times. Families eat together around a dining table. In our house, it was the rule that we should not leave food uneaten on our plates. Kids were not allowed to leave the table until they have eaten their portions. As a child, I must have been a picky eater, for I remember a number of occasions being left behind in the dining table. I remember very clearly too the maid pleading with me to finish eating, so she could clear the table. If I continued to delay, she would call Nanay, and Nanay would cajole me into eating what was on my plate. One evening, even Nanay failed at this, and so she called in Tatay. Thus happened my first lesson in the appreciation of fine fish. On this occasion, Tatay took a different approach to teaching me to appreciate food. He told me that the fish on my plate was of the finest kind. It was "first class", for it was caught just earlier that day using the "bobo". He explained to me what a "bobo" is. A "bobo" is a fish trap made of bamboo that the local fishermen would drop with a heavy weight in the deep sea and leave there for "harvesting" a week or so later. Because it was left in the deep sea, the "bobo" trapped only certain kinds of fish – the really big and tasty kind. I was so intrigued by this whole scenario that I could not help but sample this supposedly really fine fish. And indeed, Tatay was right! The fish really tasted fantastic! Since then I would often ask Nanay and Tatay if the fish we were having was from the "bobo". That was how I knew it had to be good. Thinking back now, maybe there were times when they told me it was from the "bobo", even when probably it was not, just so I would finish my portion of fish.
The back porch and the "banggera"
The kitchen led into the back porch which had an elevated counter called a "banggera" that opened into the outside. The dish washing was done on the "banggera", using water that was fetched from the water pump at ground level. The back porch opened to the back stairs, about 5 or 6 rungs, slightly longer than the stairs in the front of the house. I should know, for I fell from those stairs once. Standing on top of those stairs one day, I had this sensation of falling down. To a little girl, it seemed such a very long distance from where I was standing to the bottom of the stairs. Before I knew it, indeed I was really down on the ground. Nanay and Tatay always told us to stay away from the stairs, but I had a streak of stubbornness in me.
One morning Baby Lina and I were sitting on the back stairs, just tickling each other and generally having fun. Suddenly, we decided to see who had a sweeter tongue. We then decided to taste each other’s tongue to find out for sure. We did so and ended up claiming that the other’s tongue was very bland, that one’s own tongue was much sweeter. Ah, those were fun and innocent times indeed!
The "silong" or under the house
Because the old house was supported off the ground by pillars, this meant that there was an area "under" the house that was not exactly underground. This area was called "silong". It was very useful as a general storage area. This was where Tatay kept the dried coconut palms and coconut husks that we used for firewood to keep them from the rain. Manoy Ne and Dodong kept their "sigay" shells here as well, when the"sigay" were not in season anymore (in those days, there was a seasonality to the games that the kids in the neighbourhood played). Dayon as a child was fed Magnolia brand milk and there was a huge mound of Magnolia milk tins under the house. One day a woman came to say she would buy the tins and we kids were all so happy to make money from such an unexpected source.
Not exactly in the "silong" but in the vicinity of the back yard was the Jetmatic water pump we called the "bomba". This pump gave us the water we drank as well as the water that we used for all our other needs. My parents said we were lucky that the water from our pump tasted nice and was not salty, because in fact we were not that far from the seashore. In our neighbourhood, we were the first one to have this kind of water pump and I was very proud. Many of our neighbours came and fetched water from our pump everyday, to use as their drinking water. We did not mind, for all our neighbours were also our friends. In fact, the "bomba" area was a social scene, where neighbours would gather together and gossip. It was also an open-air bathroom for my family. We would pump water into pails and use dippers made from recycled plastic gasoline containers to pour the water over our bodies. (This is how these dippers came to be called "caltex", from the gasoline brand "Caltex", in the same way that we used to refer to toothpaste as "colgate"). Adults would take a bath fully clothed while kids were totally naked. This made it easier for the grownups to scrub clean the little urchins.
Occasionally, there were people I didn’t know who came to fetch water from our pump. They brought along not the usual plastic or tin pails for the water but the hollowed bamboo poles that were open on one end but closed on the other. For the purpose of containing water, these bamboo poles had to be at least a few inches in diameter and a few feet in length. These people carried the poles on their shoulders, something that to me looked really hard work. I asked Nanay who those people were. She said they were "taga-bukid", literally from the mountains. They used the water from our pump as drinking water but for all their other water needs, they used rainwater. I imagined they lived so far away and had such a hard life, and wondered why. In my young mind, I wanted them to be one with us, in the village. I guess because I felt I had such a carefree life, I wanted everybody to have the same. I would always feel sorry if any one of my playmates could not join us because they had to take care of their younger siblings. Baby Lina and I solved this problem by going over to our playmates’ house and play there, together with the younger brothers and sisters that our friends were supposed to be taking care of. This was my first experience of babysitting.
In those days we had an outhouse, a separate small building for the toilet, on the far corner of the lot that my parents owned. It seemed so long ago now, those days when I could not go to the toilet alone. I had to have someone with me then, usually Nanay. It was only much later, when I was older, that it dawned on me that not every household in the village had a toilet.
New house, new life
So in 1972, when the old house gave way to the new, our lives changed as well, mine and that of my family. It is very tempting now to relate those changes to the political changes that were happening in the country then, with the imposition of martial law. But I was too young then to understand what martial law meant. I was just annoyed that suddenly the radio stations stopped broadcasting my favourite drama programs. Looking back now, maybe it was the case – maybe indeed, the changing of houses also marked the end of an innocent time.
Being a young Filipino girl, I have always been very busy, both academically and with extra curricular activities. Ever since the tender age of four I have been dancing many different types of dance, including Filipino cultural dances, flamenco, Polynesian, tap, ballet and modern dance. I’m very active in the Filipino community in London and attend many events to perform or to support the functions. Aside from my dancing I also sing and do fashion shows.
It may seem that all my time is taken up by my performing but I am also very active in school life. I divide my time equally between schoolwork and my other activities. I organise my time so I have my homework done before I go to rehearsals. It’s really a matter of adjusting to it. If you’re not organised with your time then you are bound to neglect your studies. But if you’re sensible enough to realise that you must have a balance of schoolwork and other activities then things will run smoothly.
Recently I was appointed as a Prefect in my school. This involves responsibility for other members of the school community and it gives you a chance of leadership. I have also received high grades at school, which my mother has been happy with. I am able to cope with everything with the help and support of my mother and friends. As I haven’t ever neglected my studies I have pursued my dancing and have carried on until now. I also have many friends, which I go out with and enjoy myself with. Just like any other teenage girl, we go out to the cinema and go shopping. I have been able to cope very well with what I do. It really depends on the person and if they know how to handle their time between school and other activities. If you know how to handle it then there isn’t a problem
Leonardo D. de Castro
"A debt of good will (utang na loob in Filipino) is incurred when a person becomes the beneficiary of significant assistance or favor given by another. Usually, the beneficiary is in acute need of the assistance given or favor granted. This provides an opportunity for the giving of help to serve as a vehicle for the expression of sympathy or concern. The debt could then be appreciated as one of good will because, by catering to another person’s pressing need, the benefactor is able to express positive dispositions towards the beneficiary. It is not merely the receipt of the assistance or favor that puts the recipient in a position of indebtedness."
By Fe C. Abogadie
One thing I have in common with probably all Filipinos living abroad is the feeling of excitement and happy expectancy at the thought of going to the home country for a holiday. In my case, I go home once a year, usually during the Christmas season. Nothing beats spending Christmas in the Philippine islands, notwithstanding the heat and humidity, and even as we compare it to the dreamy winter wonderland we associate with Christmas in North America and Europe.
It has become a habit of mine to anticipate my holiday by making a mental list of the things I will do once I get there. This usually consists of taking care of personal business, visiting friends and relatives, doing some shopping and sightseeing, but most of all, of eating all the food that I miss during the rest of the year when I am not living there. The latter is the most fun part.
Sometimes I worry that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. I know people who couldn’t care less what they’ll have for dinner any day. These people eat to live. But me, it’s almost as if I live to eat. But I know that I’m not alone in this because I have friends who are as passionate as I am about food. These friends and I really enjoy eating. And I do not mean gluttony. I mean eating so that one derives the utmost pleasure from even the smallest amount of food. This means being adventurous enough to try anything new and being open minded to the many different cuisines one encounters. Globalization has made it possible to obtain in the local supermarket many ingredients once considered highly exotic. Thus the proliferation of many ethnic restaurants in major cities such as London and New York.
Having lived the past ten years of my life away from the Philippines, my recollection of Filipino food is always associated with specific memories of life back home. Invariably these are memories from way back, when I was a child growing up in a small fishing village in one of the Visayan islands. It is usually around the months of August and September, when I find myself pausing at work here in London and having fantasies about the food I will eat back home. Others may think this is pathetic and bordering on the obsessive. But this keeps me going, because the thought of Filipino food brings back happy memories and consequently a smile to my face. A Swedish friend once told me that whenever I talk about food, my eyes glow. That should give you an idea just what an important part food plays in my life. A few years ago, I sent my parents a list of things I wanted to eat when I got home for the holidays. They very gamely obtained everything on the list except for one item. And so here I am again making a mental list of the food I expect to eat when I go home in a few months. I am restricting this list to the seafood which I love the most, or else I’ll take up several more pages of space.
The typical fare of the coastal communities in the Visayas islands understandably consists mostly of seafood and local vegetables in addition to the staple which is rice. The seafood includes not just the usual fishes, but also the different kinds of seaweeds and seashells, octopus, squid, shrimps, sea urchins, crabs, and others. Other people might cringe at the thought of eating these creatures. Not me. I cannot get enough of these things. It is indeed very unfortunate that these are very expensive and difficult to obtain in London. As I often tell friends, I can happily eat rice and seafood everyday, no problem.
In the village where I grew up, when the day’s catch is more than enough, people have three ways of preserving the surplus fish: salting, sundrying and smoking. Salting is done usually to the small fishes such as "bolinao" (anchovies) and "mungpung" (these look like anchovy fry) to make "ginamos" (similar to the "bagoong" in Ilocano). Each family would usually have its own jar of home-made "ginamos". I remember the conversations among the housewives, exchanging tips on how to make the best "ginamos" in town. Apparently, not only does one have to start with fresh fish, the critical thing is the proportion of salt to fish and also knowing when the "ginamos" is ready, which can take from several days to a few weeks. My mother never made her own "ginamos" but my aunt used to give us some. There are specific names given to different types of "ginamos", depending on the state of preservation of the fish. My favorite kind is the "maos na" (literally "limp already"), when the fish is almost disintegrated. If the "ginamos" is very well made, it should give a nice smell at this stage, so nice you want to use it to make a dipping sauce. In my family, we would use it to make a dipping sauce for fried fish, especially "bariles" (tuna), "tuwas" (red snapper) or "tikab" (mackerel). We would cut up some fresh "kalamansi" (the local lime fruit; see Newsweek issue of 31 August 1998, London edition, page 6) and mix the juice with the "ginamos" to give just the right mix of saltiness and sourness. You have to dip the fish into the sauce with your bare hands, bring it to your plate to roll with a ball of rice and voila! You have the perfect mouthful! And it just would not taste the same if you use a spoon and a fork. I tell you, we in the islands really know how to enjoy eating!
Sundrying is another way to preserve the surplus fish. The fishermen have mat-like screens made of thin bamboo slats strung together. These mats are laid on top of table-like structures made of bamboo, a few feet high, and usually located in the open area near the beach where one gets the best of both the sun and the wind. "Labtingaw" is the term used to refer to one-day old dried fish. I don’t know why but the "labtingaw" are always in great demand, especially by the old folks. Maybe because the taste of partially dried fish is peculiarly delicious, so different from anything else I have eaten. The fishes most commonly dried are the small ones such as "bolinao", "mungpung", "karabalyas" (silver fishes with yellow fins) and "mangsi" (sardines). Some of the fishes with thick flesh such as mackerel are sundried as well but first they have to be split lengthwise on one side but not all the way through. The fleshy half is stretched out, the fish degutted, and one ends up with an opened-up fish. This makes the sundrying process more efficient and the fish gets dried more quickly.
My favorites among the dried fishes are the anchovies, the "mungpung" and the "danggit" (sorry, I do not know the English term for this). The danggit is not very common in our area and we have to buy them already dried from the neighboring towns. The danggit is typically only a few inches in length, has thin flesh and a lot of bones. But it is traditionally split open and then sundried so the dried fish is really very thin. This is why my dad always insists that the danggit be fried right, or it doesn’t taste good at all. This means frying it in hot oil for just a few seconds. When fried right, the whole danggit can be eaten; head, tail and all. If overfried, one ends up with something that tastes like charcoal and this may turn people off danggit forever, which is such a pity because it is one of the most tasty of the dried fishes. Danggit is probably the fish equivalent of the durian fruit, because both "smell like hell, but taste like heaven" (again, see Newsweek issue of 31 August 1998, London edition, page 6). Here in London, I have a stock of dried danggit that my mom sent me. Unfortunately, I can only cook them when my flatmates are away on holiday. Frying danggit gives this horrible smell that I don’t cook danggit when my flatmates are around out of consideration for their sensibilities. But in a few months I will be home and then I can have danggit as often as I want and not worry about offending people with their smell.
For some reason, smoking as a way of preserving surplus fish is done only with certain kinds of fish. I remember smoked "mangko" (small tuna) and smoked "karabalyas" but not much else besides. In fact, when I think of smoked fish, I always think of smoked "mangko". When I am home on holiday and would request my dad to buy some smoked fish, he knows without me telling him that I mean the smoked "mangko". He also knows what I want to make out of it, which is my favorite vegetable dish, the "utan". "Utan" is probably our unofficial village dish, and is a stew of commonly available local vegetables flavoured with fish (either dried or smoked or fried). In our house, our "utan" usually has "malunggay" (horseradish) leaves, "bago" leaves, tomatoes, onions, lemongrass and flavoured with flakes of smoked "mangko" and "patis" (fish sauce). A common variation is the use of dried anchovies or fried mackerel instead of the smoked "mangko". Eating this dish gives me a very healthy feeling. It is very nutritious and full of flavour. And there is that satisfying feeling that comes from cooking vegetables that were grown in one’s own backyard. Somehow, this makes me feel very close to nature and is such a contrast to my lifestyle in London.
The people in my village, especially the men, are fond of "kinilaw", a dish of raw fish, usually tuna, flavoured with coconut wine vinegar, ginger, onion, salt and pepper and coconut milk. As a child I never liked this dish. In my family, it was only the men who went for this with gusto. Lately however, I have acquired the taste for it and now I look forward to having some "kinilaw" soon. This dish is often eaten by the villagers to go with the beer and the "tuba" (the local wine made from coconut sap) during their drinking sessions.
Another favorite of mine that I look forward to eating is the "tahong" (mussels). Because of its relatively easy availability here in London (most supermarkets and fishmongers sell them), I don’t miss mussels as much as the other seafood items. But I like the way we cook it at home in the Philippines, just sauteing it in hot oil with garlic, onions and ginger, adding a bit of water, some green onion leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Eating it freshly cooked and savouring the soup causes one to perspire even more in the tropical heat. Last December unfortunately, my mom did not want us to buy any mussels because of the red tide scare. Apparently, a number of fatalities had been reported from eating contaminated shellfish. I hope that this time around, there will be no red tide to spoil my eating pleasure.
"Guso" (a kind of seaweed) is another favorite that I had eaten only in the Philippines. This is commonly available in my island and is very cheap. We usually just cut the seaweed into small pieces, blanch it in boiling water and make it into a salad with chopped onions, ginger and tomatoes and flavour it with "patis" and coconut wine vinegar. Some people add a tiny bit of sugar to enhance the taste. This makes a very good appetizer or a side dish.
There is one dish that is becoming more and more rare, at least in my village. I am referring to the stuffed crab cooked in coconut milk. When I was a little girl, this was a special treat, because even then it was not an everyday fare. It was always expensive, maybe because it is very laborious to make. And apparently one has to use a particular kind of crab, not just any kind, to make this dish. I have never actually seen this dish made but I can imagine that it must be a labour of love. First, one has to take the meat out of the crab shell and cook it with some seasoning and pieces of young and tender coconut meat. Then this whole mixture is put back into the crab shell as stuffing, and the whole crab assembled again, using strips of banana leaves to tie together the pieces if necessary. Usually there will be more stuffing than can fit back into the shell. This extra stuffing is wrapped in banana leaves and shaped into rectangles which are tied closed with strips of banana leaves to prevent them from opening during the cooking. Then both the crabs and the banana-wrapped stuffing are cooked together in coconut milk to the point where all the water is evaporated and only the extracted coconut oil remains. The taste of the stuffing is heavenly, especially when eaten with rice! I particularly enjoy taking out the stuffing from the shell with my bare hands. I remember that when I was a little girl, there was only one lady in our village who made this dish for sale. She was my grandmother’s friend. She owned a little "sari-sari" store where my grandmother used to buy her daily supply of "tuba". Both she and my grandmother are gone now, but I will always remember those days when my grandmother would ask me to buy some tuba from this lady’s store. On those occasions when she had the stuffed crabs for sale, I would gaze longingly at the crabs on display then rush back home to plead with my mom to buy us some for lunch. It was always for lunch because it was believed that to eat anything with coconut milk for dinner is not good for the stomach. I am not sure if there are still people in my village who make this dish. It is one of my fears that the customary passing on from mothers to daughters of family recipes may not have happened, especially in this case, and it will be a great loss indeed. I will have to remember to ask the old folks in the village so I can learn to cook this dish myself.
There is one thing I haven’t eaten for years and years and I’m really hoping to eat it when I go home this December. It is squid in all its black squid ink glory. The squid commonly available in the UK is already degutted and de-skinned, looking white and very uninteresting. I like squid best when it’s cooked with its ink sac. The ink gives the sauce a distinctive flavor. Many years ago, my brothers and I used to tease each other as to who has the blackest mouth and teeth after eating squid. When the squid is fresh straight from the sea, one does not have to do much to bring out its flavour. It can be plainly boiled quickly in water with onions, tomatoes and lemongrass, and flavoured with salt and pepper. The simplicity of this dish brings out the hint of sweetness of the fresh squid. Or the squid can be sauteed briefly in vegetable oil, with garlic and onions, flavored with soy sauce, "kalamansi" juice, salt and pepper. But my favorite way to cook squid is to broil it quickly over charcoal after seasoning it with a bit of salt. Then the squid can be sliced into bite-sized pieces and dipped in coconut wine vinegar with a bit of salt. Some people prefer their dipping sauce to have crushed garlic and some chili pepper. I always eat this with cold rice. And this has to be with bare hands. This tastes even better if you lick the tangy flavor from your fingers. As the Visayans would say, "Lami gyud kaayo!" ("This tastes really good!").
It is only recently that I re-discovered the pleasure of eating with bare hands. As a little girl I used to be embarrassed that many people in my village used bare hands to eat. I thought nothing could be more pleasing to look at than people eating with proper spoons and forks. And as an adult I found it interesting and fun to use the many different kinds of spoons and forks, not to mention knives, at formal dinners. But now I realize that eating in the home islands, especially in the beaches, where the sea breeze is constantly blowing and the seafood is always fresh, is most pleasurable when done with bare hands. Nothing can be more effective in making people relax and shed off their inhibitions. Consequently, people will find eating a lot more pleasurable, maybe even a bit of a sensual experience. Of course there is a time and place for everything but now I have resolved that next time I’m home and my family goes on a picnic to the beach, I will use my bare hands to eat. And I will make the special request that we use banana bracks or leaves as plates. This brings back memories of when I was a little girl and the whole community would celebrate St. John’s day in June by everyone going swimming. Everyone went, without exception. It was like a fluvial fiesta. And people prepared a lot of food and brought them to the beach where everyone shared food. We would eat with banana bracks for plates and use our bare hands. I have decided that I don’t have to wait for St. John’s day to eat this way. I cannot wait!