Our Exilic Loves and Lives—of Why ‘Pinakbet’ Makes Us Get Together

This is a funny part of our exilic loves and lives—and one of the most mysterious as well.

Today, for instance, I had to drive twenty fives to partake of the meal that offers as the main course the famous ‘pinakbet’ done the Ilokano way: ‘bugguong’ and ‘bagnet’ all mixed up in that wondrous orgy of color and aroma and memory of a land that does not die in our hearts, we who have left that land but whose city and contour and cares—and its callousness—we carry in our souls, in our daily lives.

In terms of distance reckoned by countries following the metric system, that should easily give me a round trip of eighty kilometers, more than two roundtrips on the Light Rail train from Marikina to Divisoria.

The come-on for such exercise during breaks from the hurly-burly of our Americanized lives, however fragile and tenuous that is, is the labial feast with its vast possibilities, the feast ending up in the arresting of the memory of the taste buds for all the things that were in the Philippines, things small and big, things light and heavy, and things worth reminiscing and dumping in the black trash bin that spells ‘toxic’ waste.

For the homeland can come readily as a whipping for one’s personal errors in life.

For the leaders of that homeland can become the easy excuse for not having made it in life.

And indeed, in the Philippines as elsewhere in tiers monde, all these easy targets are really good targets.

And truly, they can be the raison d’etre of all the miseries of peoples running away from the very earth that brought them to life.

Because their history of oppression, one that is written not by the victors but by the masses who are always at the receiving end of that endless negotiation of rights and wrongs, of privileges and power, and of perks and pelf.

Because such a history becomes the oral history of our people when they get together for that wonder of a pinakbet on the dining table.

So on Martin Luther King’s day, two days after we tried to keep the loop in that long loop of Filipinos and Filipino Americans, who, beginning at six in the morning, had started to line up to have a stake in that 250 free ticket lottery of Hawaiian Airlines.

The loop, with its sacred altar on Tamarind Square, started off on Queen’s, turned right to Alakea, turned right on Hotel, and then finally right on South King Street to complete the huge square of people hoping to have a free ride back home courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines whose inaugural non-stop flight to Manila in April will probably look like a chartered flight, what with all those non-paying clientele holding their free tickets in their bags.

I know of one member of GUMIL Hawai’i who just did that, reporting her good graces and good luck right on the night that we gathered to rehearse for the 2008 GUMIL Hawai’i Cultural Festival and Coronation at the Pacific Beach Hotel come February 2.

Tough luck, we said, more because we could not stand the snaking lines of about ten thousand people at the time that Lindy Aquino and Lilia Santiago and I went there, a little bit past eight in the morning.

The day before, one of them e-mailed me, saying that the airline was about to give away 250 seats as part of its promotional campaign, and would we please consider going for ‘suerte’?

The day before, I had just written a poem on ‘luck’, half-believing in its power even if deep in my heart I would want to believe in it in full, hoping at one point to hit the California lottery that went berserk with a pot of two hundred fifty million dollars.

That was last year, and one lonely Hispanic American woman won it hands down, the hundreds of millions of dollars all her own.

I prayed hard for that one, thinking of some charity works to put up to share my loot of one good suerte, one buena suerte, with the rest of the praying man like myself.

Or perhaps a shrine to erect, its towers, twin and magnificent and glowing in the dark a telltale reminder of the poor's duty to keep on hoping for the best despite the worst happening in the homeland.

And like many others, I had to do my fasting: not Carl’s Jr. burgers that offered only cholesterol.

I had to school myself with the Christian virtue of self-offering minus the crucifixion and the self-flagellation by not being seduced by those ninety-nine cents deal of chicken burgers that came as my ever-ready savior when hunger suddenly set in those days when cooking your own food means you have time and money to waste.

In our exilic lives and loves, buying your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not in that order—and can be eaten in the reverse—from a Chinese resto with its omnipresent orange chicken or from an American food chain with its menu of impossible combos is far less costly that ransacking oriental veggies from the Oriental stores whose characters or scripts sometimes you cannot figure out what were they talking about good food and good meal and thus have to consult the alien-looking staff like you for comfort and consolation from the panic your feel.

You readily associate with the staff with an accent—and you are kindred spirits now in that mind-boggling chase of the American dream because you, despite having taught English to immigrants like you, have not totally lost you accent, always listening to your voice, on radio and on television, that, while you may have lost some of the accent, you have not totally done so, with the traces of the Ilokano sounds at the tip of your tongue, and the trail of strange English phonemes you cannot totally capture.

Heck, you remind yourself as you ask the alien-looking staff: Except for the American Indians, we have been all strangers and aliens and immigrants here, at a certain point.

So you go on with the accosting of the fellow alien in this land of the aliens, asking whether a paste that looks like ‘bugguong’ to you is really a ‘fish sauce’ that approximates your grandmother’s Dagupan kind, one she would save first during disaster because when you are Pangasinense, the ‘bugguong’ is your passport to life, some kind of a card you use to get into a mystical world of vegetables with the fish sauce, the aroma of which wafts through doors, windows, and gateways of memory.

You decided, of course, to visit the hairstylist shop after postponing that monthly ritual you hate because, number one, that barber is loudmouthed and number two, the cost is exorbitant for a ritual that takes in only a few minutes to do but which costs you an hour to wait before you are allowed to sit on that high chair of your torture.

Sometimes you wish that the days of long hair would come back soon so you have no reason to get to point of being conscience stricken because you have not yet contributed you monthly due to make the cottage industry of hair-cutting come alive, with your hard-earned money going into circulation and creating some kind of a multiplier for that dreamed-of economic benefit for the country of your exilic dream.

“Ayanmon?” comes the question on the ubiquitous cellular phone whose invention must have been a mistake because that same nasty gadgets haunts you like a ghost wherever you are and you feel guilty not having one in these days of gadgets and more gadgets to keep on, so they say, with the demands of our lives manipulated by the bytes and cyberspace.

“I am having my ceremony of redemption!” I say with pride to the caller, the creative writer who volunteered to cook the pinakbet so we would have something to partake of on this day of marches and celebrations and remembrance of all the good things Martin Luther King Jr has done to this land. “I am having a haircut! And I am tenth in a line of many other long-haired guys who probably feel the same dread that I do each month that I look at the mirror and realize that the guy facing me is not anymore himself because his hair has become wavy and thick and a nuisance.”

“You come to lunch with us. I have cooked the pinakbet. I am expecting you.”

“I want the pinakbet but I am obliged to go to this hairstyling torture,” I say, more to myself than to her.

“We wait for you then?”

“That depends. I hear from National Public Radio that some lanes of the H-1 both going East and West are closed to traffic because of the march.”

“Come by if you come. Take your time then.”

“Just take it easy now,” I say. “I must enjoy this haircut. Once I am done, I will fly the pinakbet to the moon.”

“You bet,” she says. “I made it much better this time.”

I should know. This lady made me carry all the okra, tomatoes, eggplants, boneless bangus, beans, ginger, garlic, and lima beans from the Oahu Market in downtown to our parking lot on Empress Restaurant some four blocks away. And then I had to pay that parking ticker that amounted to almost a thousand pesos, shelling out $16 dollars for a few hours good fun that began from the dream of a free Hawaiian Airlines roundtrip ticket to Manila to visiting all the veggie stalls that have all those hardy Ilokano women vending the best of Ilokano leaves, tops, and flowers for the ‘dinengdeng’, the irreplaceable Ilokano veggie broth: bitter melon, katuday, Chinese kangkong, daludal, squash, horseradish, pepper, sweet potato, alukon, jicama, parda, pallang, kabatiti, kalunay, ngalog (yes, it is eaten here as a veggie!), and sayote.

C’est la vie. I have to catch the pinakbet while it is still warm on the stove.

And have that good laugh to thank the King for this freedom to dream again and again.

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