‘Beyond the Flickers’ by Gil Marvel P. Tabucanon (The Philippines)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

As the plane prepared for the final descent, I could see Hong Kong’s blaze of lights. For a while it seemed the universe had inverted itself and heaped its billions of stars into this tiny former British colony. 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 as 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 wondered who they were, what their families looked like and what they ate 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 by, when he was still alive without it being served in one of the platitos. I like it too but not the smell that sticks on the fingers for a long time, 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?” asked a voice behind. He was a middle aged Indian, his old suit barely concealing an overhung 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 Rolex watch. “I’m taking you to the YMCA since it’s near my office. But she’s picking you up in the morning.”

“Okay,” 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 into by passing a car. This is a left-hand drive 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 Hong Kong,” said an older cousin when I gave 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 the Kowloon side, as they say it here. A medium-sized building, by Hong Kong standards, with floor to ceiling glass windows at the cafeteria for a view of the harbor and a magnificent downtown on 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. Here Hong Kong’s mountains are barely visible except Victoria peak, which Nahdu told me we would climb today.

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. 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 wellbeing still eludes me. For the first time I saw junk boats see-sawing through the channel. 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 Hong Kong. One week is not enough. Remember it’s your Ate’s hard-earned money. Your gift as honor student.” At the back of my mind half-formed thoughts were beginning to surface. Who is this man? Why does he know so many things? And his over-solicitousness. He’s not even family.

Nahdu’s office was at the twelfth 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’d stop but he proceeded detailing the basic tenets of his sect. I gave him my 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,” he said referring to religious talk, “though I hope she would someday.”

Knowing my Ate I’m sure she did not come to Hong Kong 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 because 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 any 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 the building because she’s a true Roman Catholic. Another reason why she could not just slip out was because her passport was kept by her “agency” all those times until her term ended. Yet she never complained, and took the whole as a part of her fate. My cousin is now back in the Philippines, and happily married and has two kids. She did not regret doing domestic chores abroad for her amo’s family was kind to her. At least that’s what she tells our family, and 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 the Hong Kong side. At the terminal we rode a taxi passing by a hillside road and stopped at a red gate fully wrapped in metal sheet. I saw 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 Hong Kong.” She always calls me Dong, meaning young boy, though I’m grown up and entering college this June. Even the way she still treats me is 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 Three, 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 over me 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.

“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 were of chestnut color.

The baby Ate was tending, 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. “This boy, I call him dong-dong,” she said.

We spent the afternoon at Tiger Balm Gardens, a hillside sanctuary versus Hong Kong’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 a plan to demolish it for high-rise condos. Then we climbed Victoria peak by tram and Nahdu lent me his binoculars so I could see “everything.” We took many photos in all the places we visited as “evidence” 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.

After days of shopping and eating in this and that restaurant, Saturday came. It was a 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 men here and there chatting with girl friends. You can usually spot a Filipino in the colony since he wears a maong jacket, smokes and his shoes are a bit dirty. The park was teeming with life by this time, with vendors selling Kislap, and Bulletin Today side-by-side Vogue and Glamour. I also saw a rickshaw for the first time but not the driver.

I had a chat with some young ladies and noted that they were loosely grouped according to geographical or linguistic regions of the country. I met Palawenos, a 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. 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 could go home as often as I like. I have two sons and a daughter you know. They’re still in elementary school. The sons I mean. My daughter is a second year high school student, but before we know it she’ll be in college.”

“But why did you have to leave them?” I asked.

“I was a school teacher and my husband is jobless. Well, sometimes he finds contractual work in the city hall of our city, you know what they call the 15-15 system.”

“What’s that?”

“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 fifteen days. This is purely contractual, sometimes they just clear canals and replace durantas in those portions where the previously planted hedges have died.”

“Ma’am where do you think we failed?” I asked more to give vent to my frustrations than to get an answer.

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? Hence I’d rather be a slave here in Hong Kong.  Sometimes I scrub the backs of my employer’s 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 on the same bench where the lady and I had a talk, suddenly took off her stiletto sandals and stood atop of the park bench motioning as if she wanted everyone to see. Then she looked at me, smiled and to her friends shouted in pure Cebuano: “This is the boy I’m sending to school!”

Two or three days later we attended a party in a private pad rented by two or three Filipinas. 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. Filipino dishes were served; 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 girl to girl and pointing fingers to the ceilings. This was supposed to be a despedida for someone as well as an advanced birthday celebration for two other friends whose birthdays, separated by two or three days, fell within the week. Laughter filled our small spot on earth, 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.

“Have you met Nahdu?” I heard someone say.

“I have not seen him since yesterday,” I answered. This time I noticed the lady was actually giddy from all the drinking and her low neckline was even made lower through her constant movements.

“Your Ate is really smart.” She looked at the window towards the sea. “Nahdu spends for all her expenses. I can only wish I had 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 a wife and children back in India?”

“I don’t believe you!” I left her with her half glass full.

The terminal looked even smaller and older now. I had several bags filled with pasalubongs from Nahdu, Ate’s shopping and a few padalas from her friends. Ate looked radiant in her silk blazer. I noticed small wrinkles in the sides of her eyes. She was crying perhaps and I wanted to ask her why, but decided I do not have to. Well it’s goodbye time.

Sometimes I wish I had not gone there. Things would have looked simpler and easier. I would just go to college on Ate’s money, finish my studies and that’s it. But why did I have to go there? Perhaps she wanted me to know, or understand where the hard earned money comes from.

I felt my chest tighten and a lump formed in my throat. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. She helped me put my bags in the trolley. She asked me to send her love to Mama and my younger brother and sisters. It was only a year ago that Papa, our main breadwinner in the family, had died.

“Take care of yourself and the family,” she said touching my shoulders. “I’m giving you one week of my Hong Kong salary every month for your schooling in Cebu.” She sounded pleading without wanting to.

“I will,” I mumbled, ashamed of myself and feeling helpless at the same time.

“‘Te, who is Nahdu to you?”

“Oh, he’s really just a suitor. He wants to marry me but I don’t like divorcees.”

“‘Te take good care of yourself too…”  I could not find the right words and mumbled “…thank you” as I embraced her. Tears flowed from my eyes.

As the plane tilted away from the pier-like runway it was broad daylight and the buildings of Hong Kong looked magnificent like those pictured in postcards. Behind those craggy lights I first saw when I arrived, live my close friends and family.

(dedicated to Ate Belen P.)

An initial version of this short story was published in
May 2009 at gmarvel2000.blogspot.com.

Glossary:

adobo: Filipino fried chicken
alaga
: literally, pet; a term of endearment used by nannies for their ward
amo
: boss or employer
Ate
: pronounced  “a-teh,” literally older  sister.  It is also used to address (as a term of endearment) to older female relatives or friends
barrio: A Spanish word meaning district or neighbourhood.
Bisaya
: dialect spoken in central Philippines
buhakhak
: boisterous laugh
D.O.M.
: literally dirty old man; sugar daddy
despedida
: farewell party
dong
: term of endearment for young boy
duranta
: a decorative shrub with avocado green leaves used as hedge
escabeche
: sautéed fish
habagat
: strong wind, but lesser in intensity than a typhoon
inun-unan nga mangko
: a Filipino dish of tuna boiled in vinegar
limonsito
: small citrus used to make juice
lumpia
: spring roll
lungga
: literally hole;  a place where rats live
maong
jacket: demin jacket
Magsanga
: a mountain with twin-peaks in Leyte, central Philippines
municipio
: town
padala
: home coming gifts for family brought by another person
pancit canton
: fried noodles
pasalubong
: homecoming gift for family and friends
platito
: saucer
Tagalog
: the main language of the Philippines
yaya
: babysitter; a live-in domestic helper taking care of the employer’s children

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Gil Marvel P. Tabucanon from the Philippines is currently doing his PhD at the Macquarie University School of Law in Sydney. Visit his blog here.

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