Creative non-fiction / November 2011 (Issue 15)

Back to Jollibee's

by J.p. Lawrence

I wake up cradling my backpack, my eyes bleary, dried spittle on the corners of my lips. Groaning, I sit up, the dreams of last night fading into vapors. Cold, clear winter sunlight streams into my consciousness as I take stock of my situation: it's four in the afternoon—I'm on a bus—I'm in Manhattan—I have a mission. Today I eat at Jollibee.

Fact: to eat at Jollibee is to share in an inside joke. Jollibee, sometimes called the McDonalds of the Philippines, is a fast food empire that has spread across the Pacific, with more than 1,804 stores worldwide and a billion dollars a year in sales. But unlike its American competitors, Jollibee retains a sense of heady whimsy—there's a element of unpolished eccentricity surrounding the Jollibee brand, with its garish yellow and red color scheme and its cartoony mascot, fat-faced and winged, with comically oversized eyes and a chef's hat, looking ever so much like Chef Boyardee with a stinger. For Filipino immigrants like my mother and me, Jollibee is ours, and that is enough—there is nostalgia and pride in that chubby campy bee.

From the day I first learned Jollibee had opened a location in Queens, I made it my mission to eat there. I packed up my bags, found a bus ride and took a camera, too. Before I left, I made a note to myself: don't forget to take some pictures for mom.

Fact: my relation to my mother began with my birth. My relation to America began when she came to Minnesota, twenty-nine years old with a two-year-old bastard son and a freshly minted husband from America.

They had met through a pen pal service and connected over lovely sentiments and religious views they shared. They told fewer lies than I expected in the letters, although my mom called herself Rosemin instead of her real name, Luzviminda. At some point, her pen pal saved enough money from his machinist job to fly across the Pacific a couple times to meet my mom, meet me, marry my mother and fly us out to our new home in Minnesota.

March weather greeted my mom when she and I landed. Her new husband, a native Minnesotan, had warned her about the winters up north, but no words could prepare her for that first brush with snow. She said it felt like cotton falling from the sky. She said she didn't know it would be so cold.

My mother once showed me photos of her first day in Minnesota. In the pictures, she's this tiny woman in a big puffy coat with a hood surrounding a pretty face, squinting because of the glare off the snow all around her. She's trying to smile but failing—her mouth hangs half open, as if she were in shock, as if to say, "What's this?"

The 7 Flushing Train rushes out from under the East River and ascends into the light. The sight of Queens in winter greets me at my perch in the rear of the car. Outside, the view is grey—the the sky, the buildings with chain-link fences, the parking lots where taxis sleep, even the graffiti: grey.

Inside, the benches are packed with brown and black and yellow New Yorkers in puffy jackets and hooded sweatshirts. A woman in front of me reads a newspaper in Chinese; Carmelo Anthony is on the back cover. A sign in front of me asks, "Do you know how many calories you're pouring into your breakfast?" The sign is written in Spanish. I play a game and try to guess where each passenger is from, but I give up.


The 7 Train, the famous "International Express," was built by immigrant laborers in the early 1900s as a ploy to move immigrants out of crowded Manhattan and into Queens. Today, Queens is home to an estimated 150 immigrant communities, many of them lining the railroad: Chinatown in Flushing, Little India in Jackson Heights and Little Manila in Woodside, where my train glides to a stop after a momentary jolt.

As I exit the car and descend from the elevated platform onto the street below, a stiff winter wind hits me, but I wrap my vest around me close as I continue, undaunted from my goal.

The last time I ate at Jollibee, I was an adolescent brat. My parents had saved enough money for us to go back to the Philippines for a month; that month and the two years I spent there as a babe constitute the only firsthand memories I have of the place. And the whole month there, I chafed at the strangeness of the place. All I wanted was to be home and play video games with my friends in America, away from all the dirty streets and squat toilets and strange relatives who remembered me when I was just a child and were disappointed when I couldn't remember back. They kept appearing in front of me—all we did for that whole month was travel by plane and by boat and by jeep up and down the archipelago, eating at Jollibee, visiting our relatives—at least the ones who hadn't moved away from all the nonsense yet.

Fact: the most important export of the Philippines is people. Due to the lack of jobs, an estimated 11% of the country's total population live and work overseas. These workers send home over 17 billion dollars a year, or over 13% of the country's gross national product. Unfortunately, moving is just the first step, and many of these workers find their experience unvalued. For instance, my mom, with a degree in economics, for years cleaned hotel rooms, sold fried chicken and soldered on an assembly line, never making much more than minimum wage. Many of my early childhood memories of my mother were of her coming home haggard from the nightshift, too tired to make breakfast, while I'd eat cereal.

Despite the economics, more than three million Filipinos live in America, mostly on the west coast, and to a lesser extent, in enclaves like Woodside in New York, where they can be with other Filipinos and talk to other Filipinos. To this day, it's a mystery to me how my mother ended up in a place like Minnesota—where there are more lakes than Filipinos.

In Little Manila, the streets bustle with people ignoring the winter all around them. Above Roosevelt Avenue, the subway rattles through every few minutes. People try to ignore that as well. As I walk down the sidewalk past discount stores and bakeries lined with hanging pigs and sweet buns, I find it harder to ignore the lack of white faces—I'm not in Minnesota anymore.

Two blocks later, I'm there: Jollibee, at the corner of 63rd and Roosevelt, across the street from a rug and carpet store. The store is crowded with brown faces as I enter, and all three cash registers have lines stretching almost to the door. Peering at the menu, splashed scattershot against the facing wall, I weigh my options.

In the upper-left corner of the menu is Jollibee's flagship item: its chickenjoy, or fried chicken, served with gravy and a white half-orb of rice. While chicken has always been a staple of the Philippines, fried chicken there really took off when Filipinos found out how much American soldiers enjoyed their chicken. Chicken was a staple at my mother's table, too, but she cooked it adobo, soaked in soy sauce, garlic and vinegar, with bay leaves floating on the broth, until the chicken skin fell off the bone. Here, a timer dings, and a Jollibee cook opens a vat and hoists out of the deep fryer a rack of chicken legs, eight chickenjoys by eight chickenjoys by four chickenjoys high. As I watch in disgust, the cook leaves the legs dripping and moves on to other tasks, while I move on to other, less heart-punishing options.

Hiding in the bottom right of the breakfast menu is, for me, a familiar friend: the Spam meal. I have fond memories of the weekend meals my mother would make with fried Spam, scrambled eggs and rice. She would always whip the eggs an extra fifty beats, so they were fluffy and airy, like a marshmallow; she would always cook the rice wet and fry the Spam over high heat—that was the only way to get rid of the slime.

Fact: Spam was born in 1937 to the Hormel Company, out of Austin, Minnesota, where they have a Spam museum and a Spam factory. They also have a factory in the Philippines, where they feed a hunger for the cheap, processed, preserved pork shoulder meat. Many think the popularity today of Spam in the Pacific dates back to World War II, when American soldiers spread across the world armed with their thrice-daily rations of Spam. To this day, islands like Guam and Hawaii, consume cans and cans of the stuff every year, in part because many of these islands have been colonized so many times, they have no identifiable native cuisine. Many of these islands have endemic problems with weight and blood pressure.

The man behind me in line, impatient with how long I'm taking to make up my mind, cuts in front of me and makes his order. Meanwhile, I decide against the Spam—too processed.

Of all the items on Jollibee's menu, the one I consider last rings strangest. Every culture has its habits that once examined, fall short of any reasonable explanation other than that people just got used to it; for instance, I never understood why people would want to eat turkey for their holiday meals, instead of two or three of those juicer, tastier chickens, or why pancakes, eggs and bacon, that ambrosial meal, can only be served before noontime.

I bring this up because in the Philippines, spaghetti is the go-to food for celebrations and birthdays—spaghetti with banana ketchup and hot dogs on top. No, it doesn't make sense to me, either. I scratch spaghetti off my list of options, right into the scrap heap alongside Spam.

At last, the line clears, and I order my meal: sweet pork tocino, eggs and rice, off the breakfast menu—my mother used to make that for me. The man behind the counter, Filipino like everyone else in the store, tells me breakfast is no longer being served; I should know that—it's nearly six in the afternoon.

I tell the man I want instead palabok, bangus and halo-halo. The man looks ridiculous in his red and yellow hat, but he rings up my order and tells me my number, which I can't hear above the din. I ask him to repeat it. He does. I miss it and ask again. He looks at me, annoyed we could not connect, and turns to one of his co-workers, saying something in Filipino before turning back to me. "Four-seven-four," he says, slowly.

I feel as if I may have been insulted, but I'm not sure. I leave the counter and search for an open spot. I find one near the entrance, by the door opposite the counter, abutting a group of four teenagers engrossed in conversation. I sit. One of the girls, the one wearing a pea coat and mustard scarf, turns to me and says, "Excuse me, but can you move?" I look around, but I can't. The girl turns to the boy across the table from her, who is also wearing a pea coat and mustard scarf, and shifts, without pause, back into Filipino, as they resume their normal conversation. I sit, wait for my meal—Tagalog envelops me, and I'm filled with discomfort.

Fact: for most of my life, I never regretted that my mom never taught me Tagalog growing up. She was always working, and there wasn't much of a need for it, as I was the only Filipino in my entire school, and one of only four Asian kids in my small rural town. I was learning English just fine anyway—the television was a dogged teacher.

The only time, back then, that I regretted not knowing my native tongue was during the potlucks every few months or so, when my mom would call all the Filipino women in the tri-county area, and they would gather in some kitchen to make pancit noodles, chicken adobo and, especially, lumpia rolls. My mom and her friends would spend hours sitting around the table, cooking the ground pork, mixing the carrots, water chestnuts and spices in big brown mixing bowls; then they'd each place a dollop of the filling in the middle of a lumpia wrapper, dip a finger into bowl of egg yolks, smear it on the wrapper's edge, roll it all up and snip the results into bite-sized pieces for frying. Dollop, dip, smear, roll, snip, snip, snip. Repeat—until late in the afternoon, when they'd call everyone into the living room, have a group prayer and then serve lumpia rolls to themselves and to their kids and to their husbands, who would gorge themselves and congratulate each other on marrying such good cooks.

The real treat, for the wives at least, was the chance to get together and gossip and speak Tagalog, with its high looping rhythms and doubling vowels: Oh! Gusta ko to! Sarap! Sarap!

When I was younger, I would sit and watch them and wonder what they said and if they were talking about me, but as I grew older I learned to let their talk wash over me—it was their secret language, and I had no right to intrude.

I get my food and sit down to inspect my meal. Palabok: thin rice noodles with garlic sauce, pork cracklings and parsley flakes, served with slices of egg and tiny shrimps. Bangus: milkfish belly with rice, egg and a slice of tomato. Halo-halo: shaved ice with condensed milk, candied fruit and mung beans. It's a hearty meal, at times crunchy and smelling of seasoned oil, at times salty and at times sweet and icy. I feel at home—but only for a moment.

Looking around the room, I see I'm very much out of place. I have the most exotic food in the room—everyone else is drinking Pepsi to wash down their fried chicken or spaghetti or burger or Spam. The teenagers next to me wear Yankee caps as they check their iPhones. A young boy, no older than eight, sits absorbed in his videogame, blissfully tuning out the sound of his mother talking to his father in Tagalog. Even the youthful go-getter in the advertisement on the wall in front of me seems off. I look closer and find that he's a Filipino bleached so white he's reflective.


My mom always told me that one can always tell who's Filipino—it's in the roundness of the head and nose. And here's a fact: sometimes I'll be sitting in clinic waiting room or standing in an elevator, and some old round white man, after staring for several moments, will tap me on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me. Are you Filipino?" I'll nod, and maybe I'll smile. "I was stationed there, you know," he'll continue. "I was in the Navy, serving on a ship down there." That's nice, I'll respond, but I have nothing say. What does he want me to do? Congratulate him?

Sometimes we'll talk about food, and that will waste some time. But when we run out of foods we both like, we'll fall silent—there is a limit to how much conversation can come out of what food is good, what food is also good and who made the food and where.

Sometimes he'll have with him a Filipino wife, and she'll ask me if I speak Tagalog, and I'll say no. With a slight squint in her eyes, she'll frown but keep her mouth half-open, as if to say, "What's this?" And she'll lean over to her husband, place her hand on his shoulder and nod. "He's lost the language," she'll say. And each time I'll kick myself for forgetting, because even that old Navy veteran who spent four months in a Manila whorehouse knows more about my culture than I do—all I have are fragments, vain facts, small memories gleaned second-hand.

I take a picture of Jollibee for my mom. She's still in Minnesota, making egg rolls and chicken adobo in defiance of the winter. I think of her as my shutter snaps. Is this what my mom desired when she boarded that plane for America, that she would work endless hours so her son could someday live in comfort in America, but feel out of place, a stranger to the culture of his birth? I am a Filipino-American, in a Filipino-American neighborhood, and here I am—a tourist.

I take another photo of my food and leave Jollibee, leave Little Manila and go home.

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