by Gil Marvel P. Tabucanon (Ormoc City)
As the plane prepared for final descent, I could see H.K.’s blaze of lights. For a while it seemed the universe inverted itself and heaped its billion stars in this tiny colony of Britain. This was my first trip overseas. I wished my friends were with me to see this rare sight. In the village during moonless evenings and habagat winds are elsewhere making the sea calm as oil, my friends and I would sit or lie on the pebbles and watch hundreds of flickering lights. In our case fisher folks converging from various settlements around the bay. As a boy I often wonder who they were, what their families look like and what they are for supper.
For a while the image of inun-unan nga mangko crossed my mind. This was Papa’s favorite dish of round tuna boiled in vinegar, ginger and garlic. Hardly a day passed when he was still alive without it served in one of the platitos. I like it too but not the smell that sticks on the fingers long even after washing. Glanced at my watch. It’s a late night arrival and I’m famished and probably won’t mind gobbling a plateful of inun-unan.
For a world class city, the airport looks small, with few people milling around.
“Are you Mar?” boomed a voice behind. He was a middle age Indian, his old suit barely concealing an overhang belly. I nodded, puzzled.
“I’m Nahdu. Your Ate asked me to pick you up. It’s late at night you know. There was mix-up in her schedule”. He glanced at his gold watch Rolex. “I’m taking you to YMCA since its near my office. But she’s picking you up in the morning”
“OK” I said. I do not know what to say or ask of this man, a total stranger, but I was also helpless. He guided me past glass doors to the narrow road where I was almost bumped by a car. Nahdu said this is a drive-left country. I gathered that he is an “exporter-importer” of cheap items such as shoes, shirts, watches, etc. Later he would give me countless watch straps, ladies and children’s shoes as pasalubong for family members back home which gave me a feeling of power and goodness to be able to give littlest shoes even to most distant cousins in the barrio. “I did not realize you’d be thinking of us while in H.K.” remarked an older cousin when I gave to her the folded pink ballet shoes. The truth is I did not think of her or anyone in particular. It’s the concept and expectation that loved ones get something out of a foreign trip. Anything, even chewing gum will do. But I managed to say instead, “well you are special”. Thanks to Nahdu.
YMCA is at Kowloon side, as they say it here. A medium sized building, by H.K. standards, with floor to ceiling glass windows at the cafeteria for a chunkful view of the harbor and magnificent downtown H.K. at the other side of the channel. I thought of the other curve of the bay back home and how sparse ours looks with nothing but a bluish belt of bare hills and mountains capped by the twin peaks called Magsanga shaped like the mountain top in Alpine milk label sans snow. While here development is everywhere like trees with branches bowed by fruits—namungingi in Visayan—one can hardly see the tree itself. Here H.K. mountain is barely visible except Victoria peak which Nahdu told me we would climb today. “You can see all of H.K. from there”, again that confidence and even pride of this place’s achievements barely hidden from the tone of his voice. “Thanks” I muttered meekly but deliberately so as not to disappoint my host more eager than me showing the treasures of his city, for in fact it was Nahdu who met me that morning. We ate continental breakfast of striped bacon, toasted bread and golden churn butter from Australia I drank lots of real orange juice whereas at home we only have royal tru orange or limonsito picked from mother’s orchard at the back of her classroom. Surprisingly I’m getting to be at home with this dark stranger with double chin whose motivations why he is so good and concerned for my well being still eludes me. For the first time I saw junk boats see-sawing through the channel. How bulky yet continuously they move, graceful and sensitive to the little waves at the harbor. The sails look like giant fish fins. It is easy to dismiss these junks as relics yet from what I remembered in high school history class, since it was only a month ago that I graduated these slow things had reached America long before Columbus even arrived in Hispaniola.
“You should really extend your stay in H.K. One week is not enough. Remember it’s you Ate’s hard earned money. Your gift as honor student.” At the back of my mind half formed thoughts are beginning to surface. Who is this man? Why does he know so many things? And his over solicitousness. He’s not even family.
His office was at the 12th floor of Forest Building, monochromatic more due to age than design. I caught myself staring at an altar of some Indian saints bedecked in yellow garland. “True religion is not found in talk, talk, talk” He said. I thought he’s stop but he proceeded detailing the basic tenets of his sect. I gave him full listening ear punctuated by questions not only because I know it will interest him but also because I want to know more of this man. “Your Ate is not interested in any of these things” referring to religious talk. “Though I hope she would someday”. Knowing my Ate I’m sure she did not come to H.K. to be converted to this sect or that. In fact I’d soon find out that domestic workers in foreign lands have their way of clinging to their basic faiths and beliefs carried from home, more so now that they’re on foreign soil. They say more hail Mary’s and pray the rosary more than they used to. And they always know at what place or house bible studies or masses are held, and most attend even though they are Bisaya and the mass is in Tagalog. My cousin who worked in Malaysia told us that she would have gone crazy or else escaped from her employer were it not for the wooden cross on top of a steeple reminding her of our old church back in the village. How many months and years she endured, crying and just looking at that white washed protestant church’s cross, and to think that she never actually went inside there for she’s a true catholic. Another reason why she cannot just slip out is because her passport was kept by her “agency” all those rotten times until her term ended. Yet she never complained, and took the whole as a part of her fate. My cousin is now happily married back in the Philippines where they have two kids. She did not regret doing domestic chores abroad for her amo’s family was kind to her. At least that’s what tells our family, and her sincerity shows in her face. Ate is just lucky I guess for she enjoys more freedom from her employer.
Nahdu and I took a subway to H.K. side, the train passing by underwater. Back home I would be queried by friends if we can see the whales above us. At the terminal we rode a taxi passing by a hillside road stopping at a red gate fully wrapped in metal sheet. I saw finely manicured fingernails holding the upper part of the gate as if to open. I knew at once it was Ate’s, for who could have owned those slender overhang nails but her.
“Oy, how are you Dong and welcome to H.K.” she always calls me Dong, meaning young boy, though I’m grown up and entering college this June. Even the way she treats me as if I was the ward she knew years ago when she was still working in our house as yaya. Mother said that Ate came to us when she was grade 3, and that she comes from the same village as father’s called Dalakit in the interior parts of northern Leyte. It is said she lost her parents young while mine needed someone –anyone—to watch me over though stories have it that when I was younger Ate would just clip me to her side as she played marbles with neighborhood boys. At that time Mama was teaching and Papa worked for a government office in the municipio so there was usually no one in the house. There were others before her of course such as one named Carmen whom I remember swims on top of large waves, but it was only Ate who stayed with us longest and in return she was sent thru elementary and high school by Papa.
“Mr. Wang this is my nephew from the Philippines,” Ate introduced me to her employer. It is said that outside the country when you introduce someone and do not want further questions that someone becomes an instant cousin or nephew. The employer was a balding man over fifty, and it seems he just finished exercising, his shirt wet from perspiration. He looked at me, talked to Ate in a mixture of Cantonese and English and left. I had the impression he was a good man. Ate let me come inside and stay in the living room where the flooring and choice furniture are of chestnut color, yet the room did not look or feel dark for lights were strategically placed here and there hidden in various panels.
The baby Ate was tending, that is her “alaga”, was very heavy with the build of a costumed astronaut, full bellied and wrapped with layers of clothing including cotton overalls though there was no need for it since it was not cold. Ate’s hair looked more wiry now as she came out of the house. Her arms are slender yet the way she carried the baby makes you think she’s used to the job. Sometimes I carry the baby and obviously Ate had become a weightlifter of sorts because I cannot carry him more than a five minutes, walk talk, smile and do sidewalk shopping haggling with vendors all at the same time. “This boy I call him dong-dong” she said.
We spent the afternoon at Tiger Balm Gardens, a hillside sanctuary versus H.K’s urban outgrowths. It has stylized pagodas, man-made stalactites and stalagmites as well as brightly painted sculptures of storks, tigers and wild life. Nahdu said we have to take as much documentation we can on the Tiger Balm since there is plan to demolish it for high rise condos. Then we climbed Victoria peak by tram and Nahdu lent me his binoculars so I can see “everything”. We took many photos in all the places we visited as “evidence” (Nahdu’s term) for friends back home that I’ve actually been to those places. Only when I arrived home had I found I do not have a picture of Nahdu. Perhaps Nahdu refused to be photographed, but I did not detect this. Or Ate should have insisted since he’s her friend, I rationalized.
After days of shopping and eating (though I don’t eat duck, here I ate Peking duck) in this and that restaurant, Saturday came. It was real day off, meaning without dong-dong for Ate, so we decided to go to Central Park to be with other Filipinos. Most were ladies although I could see one or two males here and there chatting with girl friends but mostly the men are alone, what I call the loner type. Often they stare far, and joyless. You can usually spot a Filipino in the colony since he wears maong jacket, smokes and his shoes are a bit dirty. The park was teeming with life by this time with vendors here and there selling Kislap, and Bulletin Today side by side Vogue and Glamour. I also saw a rickshaw for the first time but no driver. The majority however, in fact in all nooks, are Filipinas of all shapes and sizes. This includes their jewelry and designer watches looking very authentic. I could not say they are more fashionable now that they’re in H.K. but certainly if they were seen home they would beget catcalls from lover boys doing standby in the kantos. I had chat with some ladies and noted that they were loosely grouped according to geographical or linguistic regions of the country. I met Palawenos, giggly women from Baguio and of course the Cebuano speaking Leytenos where Ate belongs. She was at the far edge of the groupings talking with friends near the road when I came back. A friend of hers sat beside me and asked when I arrived and when I’m leaving. I said next week.
“Good for you. I wish I can go home as often as I like. I have two sons and a daughter you know. They’re still in elementary grades. The sons I mean. My daughter is second year high school but before we know it she’ll be in college”
“But why do you have to leave them?” I tried to link with her thoughts.
“I was a school teacher and my husband is jobless. Well sometimes he finds contractual work in the city hall of our small city, you know what they call 15-15 system.”
“What’s that? The system.” I interrupted.
“Due to huge numbers of job seekers in our small city politicians devised a way to have one set of employees working fifteen days while the other set works for the remaining 15 days. This is purely contractual you know sometimes they just clear canals and replace durantas in those portions where the previously planted hedges have died. For the clean and green contest, which the mayor is particularly fond of. I wish our country will focus more efforts on the upkeep and livelihood of its citizens”
“I believe there are just more people now than or country can absorb. Ma’am where do you think we failed?” I asked more to give vent to my frustrations that to get an answer. I am thinking out loud now.
“Dong it is our country that failed us. We give birth to thousands by the month yet God knows where will those children get their proper sustenance and daily upkeep? Our family cannot even afford to give us basic education or opportunities for those who wanted to achieve more. Hence I’d rather be a slave here in H.K. sometimes I scrub the backs of my employers wife and her mother when they bathe. I don’t mind because I’m paid and I can send my kids to good schools. They’re honor students you know.”
I wish I could do something even a little to help the sufferings and indignities of this lady, Ate’s friend, whose name I do not even know. But by this time Ate who was just there in the same bench where I and the lady had a talk suddenly took off her stiletto sandals and stood atop the park bench motioning as if she wanted everyone to see. Then she look at me, smiled and to her friends shouted in pure Cebuano:
“This is the boy I’m sending to school!”
I cannot place the exact day now, perhaps it was two or three days later. We attended a party in a private pad rented by two or three Filipinas working in H.K. They do not use the pad except on days off yet they still feel like keeping the place for the times they don’t like going to parks or shopping and would just get good day’s sleep and privacy, sort of sanctuary from the drudgery and monotony, if not indignity--- for many are made to do chores like wash cars or polish shoes obviously beyond the scope of normal domestic function—of their work. I could hear the Bee Gees bleating the ubiquitous Night Fever theme which is still popular even in our barrio. Filipino dishes were served like pancit canton wrapped in wax paper, escabeche, adobo, fresh and fried lumpia while wine what they call lady’s drinks flowed freely. Ate and the ladies were swinging g to g or girl to girl and pointing fingers to the ceilings. This was supposed to be despedida for someone as well as advanced birthday celebration for two other friends whose birthdays separated by two or three days will fall within the week. I was just sitting by the glass encased window admiring the tall buildings everywhere closely situated to where we were. Surely some peeping tom with binoculars would be watching our party anytime. Laughter filled our small spot on earth that time, what we call buhakhak back home a kind of drunken frenzy generated when lowly folks talk about ridiculous mannerisms or ape actions of their superiors whom they have no way of getting back to frontally. Maybe it’s the varicolored lady’s drinks working.
“Have you met Nahdu?” I heard someone from my back. I turned my head and saw one of the ladies who likes to speak in Tagalog though I know her accent is pure Bisaya thick like the sikwate we use as syrup for puto maya every Sunday.
“I have not seen him since yesterday in fact” I answered politely. This time I noticed the lady was actually giddy from all the drinking and her low neckline was even made lower through her constant circular movements in the right shoulder like her shoulder pads were bothering her.
“Your Ate is really smart,” She looked at the window towards the sea. “Nahdu spends for all her expenses. I can only wish I have someone like him. My boyfriends are poor as rats in the lungga. I mean those Filipino sailors but they’re better looking than a D O M. do you know that Nahdu has wife and children back in India? Your Ate and Nahdu are…”
“Stop…please stop this conversation” My chest was pumping wildly. “I don’t want to hear any more of this and I don’t believe you” I left her with her half glass full of wine still shaking in her hands and went straight to the table and ate. I wished there was inun-unan nga mangko, and I would not mind gorging it now with bare hands.
The terminal looked even smaller and older now. The only difference when I first saw it was there are more people now. I have several bags filled with pasalubongs from Nahdu, Ate’s shopping and few padalas from her friends. The biggest is a massive black motorcycle helmet for her friend’s brother occupying almost a whole portion of my bag. How can I complain or question Ate’s friend? After all that friend gave me round table décor with special plastic “fibers” that give off bright rainbow colored points of light each tip as the fibers base turns around like a dancer on a music box. Ate looked radiant in her crystal silk blazer with matching bags –Louis Vuiton- and sandals. I noticed small wrinkles in the sides of her eyes not covered y the sunglasses. She was crying perhaps and I wanted to ask her why, but decided I do not have to. Well its goodbye time. Sometimes I wish I have not come here. Things would have looked simpler and easier. I would just go to college in which Ate is spending for me, finish my course and that’s it. But why do I have to come and see her in her workplace? Perhaps she wanted me to know, or understand where the hard earned money comes from. That it is not just picked so easily from apple trees and squandered so easily. After all in spit of her designer shoes and watches I can still detect well entrenched virtues like her being kuripot. We bought t-shirts from the sidewalk baratillos and her penchant for spending money wisely.
Suddenly I felt my chest tighten and some lump in my throat. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. She helped me put my bags in the trolley and proceeded to the pre departure area after paying excess luggage. How sorry I was seeing her pay the excess. I was sorry for all the trouble I caused during my stay. She muttered something like I send her love to Mama and my younger brother and sisters. It was only a year ago that Papa our main bread winner in the family had died. I don’t want to think about it even. Just a stray bullet from a drunken military officer. It pierced her lower left nipple sparing the heart but bursting the lungs. My mother who’s a public school teacher will now be sending my younger brother and two sisters to school. Ate feels that by sending me perhaps I can help my brother and sisters.
“Take care of yourself and the family” she touched my shoulders “I’m giving you one week of my H.K. salary every month for your tuition and board and lodging in Cebu. I already asked my friends and computed the expenses.” She sounded pleading without wanting to.
“I will.” I mumbled, ashamed of myself and feeling helpless at the same time and before I could compose myself words just tumbled out needing an answer.
“Te, who is Nahdu to you?” I was ready for anything.
“Oh, he’s really just a suitor. He wants to marry me but I don’t like divorcees”.
By the way I have something to give you. From her bag she took a gold ring, one with a bold Chinese character on top. It says Lim, meaning forest.
“Te take good care of yourself too...” I could not find the right words and mumbled “…thank you” as I embraced her like I used to embrace her when I was a kid running to her seeing her arrive from school. Tears flowed from my eyes and I was sobbing uncontrollably. Perhaps when she left our house when I was grade 2 I could not cry because Papa sent me to mother’s sister in Mindanao for summer vacation. When I came back Ate was no longer there. A year later during my birthday, grandmother handed to me a package she got from the town post office. It was from Ate. How happy I was hugging the teddy bear, book on animals and most of all reading her flamboyant card saying “Happy Birthday to a boy who’s 9.” I can still remember the colors and baby powder smell of the package’s contents as well as the address Ate scribbled there 321 V. Rama Ave., Cebu City because at that time I swore someday when I’m big I will find her.
As the plane tilted away from the pier-like runway of H.K. airport it was broad day time and the buildings of Hongkong looked magnificent like those pictured in postcards. Indeed behind those craggy lights I first saw when I arrived live my friends and family.
(dedicated to Ate Belen P.
September 5, 2001)