Creative Non-fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

How I Say Where I'm From When Asked, "Where are you from"?, or Introductions as I Imagine but Don't

by Zola Gonzalez-Macarambon

"Where I'm from, it glistens where the blue of sky touches the sea and the slender lengths of coconuts frame every view." I was introducing myself to class one day, and describing where I'm from, like asked. I was also describing the picture on a bottle of tanning oil, or the montage airlines used to peddle holiday flights. In the next month or so, I would have talked about my country like it was a postcard more times than I cared for.

But they didn't know this. They weren't very good guessers either. I got two "Cook Islands," three "Thailands" and a "Malaysia" on their first try. The first time I was this disingenuous, the discomfort pushed on my bladder. I raised a hand from my seat in the auditorium. I asked permission to go to the toilet. The lecture hall shook with raucous laughter.

If I can't announce pee here, I thought what else could they not be ready for. They've seen wild hair and dark eyes like mine before, but I guess we all blur in the brown dust of earth rising cloud-like as it did every day where I used to walk, the dirt path from my house to the street where the jeepney stops. Brown dust like in a windstorm. Or a typhoon. 

Where I lived, winds blew windows in and brought quiet water so still that it cut the census in half while the city was sleeping. The memory writes itself leaning on one side like an unsteady drunk: Gibugkos nako akong bata ug malong sa akong lawas. Sa balita, gikuso kuso na'g baha ang pikas barangay. I wrapped my child in a malong around me. In the news, the nearest barangay was already under water. In the eye of the storm, the voices of the dead were loud and wrapped around telephone poles.

It is easier to describe water that's been out soaking sunlight. And I wanted to fit in, to sink like a hypodermic needle, sanitised and cool into skins that are pale and translucent like the petals of hibiscus. We squeezed these flowers for bubble juice when I was little and ran around blowing into the curled ends of coconut midribs. In the open fields of low-cost government housing, I cut my toe on the rusty lid of an empty sardine can. I bled it out on a rock that looked white in the noon day sun then splashed around with my friends in the swimming hole by the new neighbours.

We were sure they were witches, the new neighbours. They wore their hair to their knees, and the girls wore hems past their toes. We had mud in our hair, lice. We huddled in the brown water whispering. We decided they were the cats crouched on the lip of our mudhole. Older, I learnt they went to a different church, the kind with dress codes. I spent that night in an emergency room getting tetanus shots, certain of magic.

These days, the news precedes all reputations of country. It saves me the trouble of describing the devil, makes it easy to go right to the slaughter, the sheep, the system. The repetition is ugly but necessary. If I weren't cleaning up what remained of morning tea—let the brown girl from sun and slaughter do the cleaning, but of course—I'd drop some excuse to rush on towards something, like catching the bus or tending to a sick child. Goodbyes, where I'm from, call for a rough itinerary. One time, out of habit, I went, "Bye. I have laundry waiting somewhere." Somebody said, "Oh, good, for extra cash, yeah?" I said, "Oh, no, I mean mine, my own … my pile of unwashed … mine."  She said, "Oh, God, of course. I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Some days, I think about how far away I've gone. Most days, I'm sure I brought the islands with me. I feel it's weight on my back. I've begun walking with a limp. I can hear the tides rising and falling inside my chest, the fronds of palms poking at my throat.


Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.