By Jasmine Nikki C. Paredes
A AND I were at a poetry reading in a friend’s apartment. I had been avoiding our host for most of the evening because although he was friendly, I still hadn’t recovered from that time he tried to hold my hand in the middle of an empty parking lot in the dead of my first winter. A, on the other hand, was chatty, polite. Most of us drank to shorten the gap between good and bad poetry and prose and to socially lubricate ourselves for an evening of self-promotion, praise and occasional flirting.
After I told A I was an international student from Cebu, he asked: “Do you ever write poetry in TAH-guh-LOG?” The polite thing would have been to say, “No, I don’t write poetry in Tagalog,” but I was already three vodka sprites deep and slurring. “No. I’m from Cebu. We killed Magellan. We’re a warrior people,” was what I ended up saying.
It was a silly and arrogant thing to tell A. I apologized to him days later; we started dating around a few months after that. It’s been three years, and every time A is presented the opportunity to tell my “we killed Magellan” story to friends and relatives, I let him; people think it’s hilarious. Also, this story makes me feel proud — of exactly what, I’m not sure.
My idea of pride manifests itself in un-ceremonial ways. Once, a server at a fancy restaurant in Maine, New England very nicely asked if they could serve my fish with the head still attached to the rest of its body. “Yes, of course, the cheeks are my favorite part,” I said without irony. I found it funny how she seemed apologetic, her subtext being: “Sorry, I know we’re a world-class, three-star restaurant, but would it gross you out if I served you an entire fish, head and all?” The next day, before driving back to New York, A and I stopped by a small lobster place run by local fishermen. Their little shack had no frills to it, and unlike the “nicer” restaurant extra cautious with their anatomical offerings, the server — who was most likely the fisherman who caught my lobster earlier that morning — put down my plate of food before me and said without pretension, “It’s excellent.” I turned 25 that year.
I was born in Chong Hua Hospital and was raised right across it, at what was then judges’ compound next to the older, grittier Larsian. My parents and my older sister were out for most of the day, so our katabang would drop me off at a banana cue stand beside our gate, which faced the main entrance of the hospital. Manang Ason, the co-proprietor of the banana cue-han, was very fond of me because I played charming hostess to her customers, mostly nurses in their well-starched whites, on break. Sometimes she served binignit. My parents often talked about how Manang Ason’s golden, caramel and piping hot bananas sent her girls to nursing school. It was a story I didn’t mind hearing more than once.
Our house across the hospital felt large. We lived under the same roof with another family, with only a thin wall dividing our respective territories; my parents had it torn down after they moved out. We had a sala perfect for hosting my ate’s Lion King themed birthday party and a mansanitas tree in our backyard, where I would be flown off to against my will if I refused to have the lice picked from my scalp. But I was most obsessed with our bodega, directly underneath a long, wooden staircase. It was where my sister uttered her first words, “Ipan toboy?” — my sister asking if the old electric fan idling in the storage room was indeed our Tito Boy’s. It was also where I snuck off to, with a pair of dull, crafting scissors, to fashion my own bangs. The bodega was cramped with all sorts of oddities: broken appliances, old books, dust. It was also the perfect place for children who preferred not to be found.
Years later, I would encounter “The House Boy,” a short story by poet Gemino Abad about a young boy dealing with his family’s big move from Cebu to Manila. The young boy notices the katabang and the houseboy sneaking off into the dark bodega more often, doing things adolescents aren’t supposed to be doing yet. This coming-of-age story feels more real to me than James Joyce’s Araby. I still remember walking into the bodega, not closing the door all the way and just leaving it slightly ajar so a strand of light could come in. I would just stand behind the door, waiting with glee for someone in the house to notice I was missing. And after that, my big reveal.
I’d like to imagine I grew up surrounded by Emily Dickinson and Italo Calvino, or Maria Callas and Rey Charles, but I didn’t. My favorite thing to read as a young, literate girl was a kid’s encyclopedia (“the first persons to climb Mt. Everest was Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay!”). I played the song Tell the World of His Love on repeat in our cassette player; the year was 1995, and I had Pope fever. I made sure everyone in the house knew all the hand gestures that went with the anthem. I was the girl who believed marbles sprouted from the ground and the sound of a passing helicopter overhead was the Abu Sayyaf out to get me. I was far from being worldly, or rather, my world was Cebu — the all girls’ school I attended from prep through high school, spontaneous trips to the beach and hikes, the restaurants impossible to get into during opening week, the usual spot next to the wall fan at church on Saturday afternoons that my mom insisted we get.
But I find nostalgia suspect at best. I refused to speak Tagalog during my first semester of college in Manila, but I quickly got over my angsty, all black-wearing self and my accent and learned the valuable lesson that nobody really cares if you dislike tilapia just because you’re an island girl and you’ve had saltwater fish most of your life. Besides, I liked taking the 5 a.m. flights to and from Mactan, driving across the Second Bridge and high-fiving the sunrise with the windows down. Before I left the country to pursue my Master’s in Poetry in New York, I laid low in Cebu for a few months. I also signed up for a marathon, which meant that I had to run 42 kilometers from Badian through Alegria, turn at Malabuyoc Church and run back to Kawasan Falls.
I remember once, as I was training and running across the Second Bridge, a stranger asked, “Unsay premyo nimo, ma’am (Do you get a prize for doing this)?” I was floored by his question, so I ran away. Preparing for that marathon was the best way to say goodbye, for now, to my city. I got up at 4 in the morning, tied my laces, and ran from JY Square to the two bridges in Lapu-Lapu and back. What I saw, heard and inhaled during those intense weekend runs felt more real than nostalgia. And I feel exactly that way about Cebu — it’s a real place, with real people. Knowing this makes me the opposite of homesick, wherever I happen to be in this world.
I confess: I have a problem with the word world-class. It’s been thrown around a lot lately to describe a standard that we should aspire for. I don’t trust this word, this obsession with making everything — buildings, education, all-you-can-eat buffet spreads — world-class. We run the risk of unironic kitsch, or worse, of losing our slurring, spunky Cebuano selves, if we yearn for that which is precisely not us. I’m extremely happy to eat my fish, head and all. And I still stand by what I said during that reading party. We did kill Magellan. We’re a real, warrior people, fighting battles small and large to preserve our childhoods quirks and our adult sensibilities. We were already here before we were even discovered.
(Jasmine Nikki “Nikay” C. Paredes read this essay during the Cebu Literary Festival 2015 last June 20. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from the Ateneo de Manila University and an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College.)