BY JAMES CHOW
The familiar scent of pavement and melting raindrops wafted and sat throughout my body. Warm wet air lathered my pale skin in a golden brown coat and salty sweat collected across the right side of my forehead. It was midnight, maybe a little bit past. I leered at the passing, blurred streets in my taxi - in between blinks were grand landscapes of wilted shacks, sleeping stray dogs and fast food lights beaming 24 hour displays. I looked down to check my Snapchat to see if anyone messaged me. The long loading screen irritated my impatient ego. “Damn, no service. This is going to be a long trip,” I told myself.
Our family tradition was to visit the Philippines every four years. Though, we broke that tradition seven years ago, the last time we came. In my mother’s town, thick hot, moistened air covered the shanty-like acropolis and flying brown roaches ruled over the residents. In my father’s town, frosty water droplets reigned over the steep narrow streets, forming small guttery lakes at the base. Though if you entered either town ignorant of warmth and coolness, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
As I reached my mother’s old home, a lean, tan man welcomed us and stuck his hand out. He picked up my sister’s luggage and then my mom’s and then mine. I insisted on carrying my own, but he smiled and hurled my luggage over his shoulder, while lugging the other two bags in his other hand. I learned later the man was my grandmother’s katulong (helper). The whole time I stayed at the house, the man’s demeanor was giddy, and he prided in doing housework.
During one of our slow days, away from visiting hotspots and catching up with old relatives, I went to the one of the malls with my sister and aunt. People looked at us strangely. The blood in our veins may not be foreign, but they could sniff out the assimilated Westerners by the clothes on our backs. “Mmm, Americano,” one would say. Some would snicker at their Western brothers and sisters; others would stare greedily with dollar-signs dilating from their pupils.
One from the latter group approached me as I walked along the aisles of a local marketplace near my mother’s town. “I can’t deal with these backpacks anymore. I need one of those satchel-things,” I said quietly to myself.
“You mean a handbag sir,” an effeminate voice exhaled behind me.
I turned around and saw a long brown-haired, dainty figure in a crop top, skinny blue jeans and sandals stand up from a white stool and head toward my direction.
“Hi sir,” the now-audibly masculine voice said. “Bags sir?”
“No, no thank you,” I said, my eyes perusing the other stalls.
“Please sir, I’ll give discount.” The person got closer to me, and retreated slowly to the stool as I backed away. Briskly walking to another aisle and looking for the exit, I turned to a corridor of a hundred smiling eyes and heard a “hello sir” echo at every passing stall. I questioned why the vendors were so intently focused on making a sale at the cost of losing money, considering the amount of discounts they give out.
Back at the house, I heard my aunts and uncles eating at the table and arguing over the Filipino president’s policies. President Duterte launched a war on drugs just earlier in the year, vowing to kill everyone criminally involved. My relatives in the States hated him, called him corrupt. My relatives living in the Philippines loved and supported him. Amid the flying hands and aggravated voices, the images on the television stayed on, muted, exhibiting the lifeless bodies of drug traffickers, murderers, citizens, people; a tiny sheer blur covered the faces.
A few weeks later, my family and I visited my father’s town. “Cold in weather, same in traffic,” I thought along the six-hour bus ride. The streets seemed narrower than those from the last time I came, and there were no stoplights throughout the city. The landscapes were the same as my mother’s town. But a hilltop view hidden in one of the alleys painted the town an Eastern version of starry night --- a night blue sky blanketing slum-ridden roads in between malls and temples and a sliver of orange light fading behind the higher mountains.
At my dad’s old house, my cousins greeted us and treated us like royalty. They cooked, cleaned, took us to touristy places, laughed at our jokes; and they insisted we not help them with anything.
One day, my cousin confided in us his annoyance with his sister’s job. She was a pharmacist by title who worked custodial tasks with meager pay.
“She does so much,” he said. “And her pay…,” he shook his head and shrugged, too bothered to finish his statement.
He later told me of the minimum pay people in the country can make. A living wage in my dad’s old town was a little less than 300 pesos (about $6.00) a day; in my mother’s, it was almost 500 pesos (about $10.00) a day.
I realized then why people needed to work and begged for money. The need to make some dollar amount was ever-present in these people not because of the need to have glitzy things, but for the sake of living.
And in that taxi, coming into the land that housed and disciplined both my parents and their grandparents, the land that claimed my ancestors in war as a statistic, the land that forced the poor to work as helpers to survive, the land that made people choose to sell drugs or die starving for life. Coming into that land I just sat, comfortable on the black leather car seats, looking for a connection.