It was while reading one of the first 36 tales of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert that I found myself looking back on why I liked certain places, why I fitted in and why I could see myself residing in it. Gilbert said Rome wasn’t the place for her but she couldn’t pinpoint the reason behind it. The Italian husband of her American friend summed it up for her in one of their causeries – she had to identify with the word of the city, be the word of the city. And what was the word of Rome? Sex. A word she could not relate to yet coming from a messy divorce and a failed relationship after the divorce.
Family is my word for Philippines, not home. Home is where my family is and, right now, they’re in the Philippines. My family has helped me through tough times, shaped my being and lent me support when I needed it. Amidst everything, we’d all fall back on each other. A former friend, this English woman, was baffled at why I worried about my family and always consulted with them.
Mum and Dad can take care of themselves,” she caustically pointed out.
“My family is important to me and we have a good relationship. I work hard on maintaining a good relationship with them. And you?” I retorted.
On the other hand, conform is the word for Philippines that makes me unable to fit in. It begins with religion. Filipinos are expected to have a religion even if it’s not Catholic, the dominant religion. I don’t have a religion, meaning I wasn’t born into one; I am a free thinker much like my family, which is often mistaken for being an atheist. I was treated differently in school especially in elementary because I didn’t subscribed to an orthodox religion. Former co-teachers in the school I used to teach at viewed me with a suspicious eye – ah, a rebel, a lost soul, a heathen in their midst! My religion is my business.
With religion comes a difficult word, stereotype, because one has to conform to the prescribed rules of behavior based on gender, which are ludicrous. For example, they had to act a lady (whatever that means); women had to pander to the men’s demands, transgressions and shortcomings; they must marry at a certain age or be a spinster; they must have children to be a complete woman, and the list goes one. Women have buttressed these Lacanian binary opposites and have browbeaten their daughters, sisters and other women into submission.
Cousin Isabelle comes to mind. She badgered me to marry soon because she’s married. What riled me was she used the grandfather card. My grandfather – he’s late now – was ill at that time, but no one in my family was thinking death. Second, my grandfather never pressured me to get married, not subscribing to the prejudiced notion of marriage being the culmination of a woman’s life, and here was this woman acting grand because she already has a husband.
“Don’t you think of getting married? When will you and Zainal get married?” she asked.
“We’re in no rush. We’re fine where we are.”
“Well, you know Ate, Lolo* doesn’t have much time so don’t you think it’ll be nice if you marry if he was still here?” she replied.
Next, she insinuated that I must have children. Prior to the birth to her first child, her pregnancy was heralded by a spate of repetitive announcements accompanied by images of the growing fetus via e-mail. She had attained womanhood apparently and I was way behind. Reading between the lines, she was also hinting at the fact that I was no longer in my 20s. It’s amazing how some women suddenly think they’ve reached a level of sagacity childbirth!
Adventure is the word for Palo Alto, California, where my family and I lived for a while. With adventure comes fun and new experiences like taking the Caltrain every weekend to San Francisco; walking around Chinatown and eating great food; strolling around Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Ice skating was a novel experience altogether especially getting my behind whipped by a young kid who glided on the ice with ease.
Back in Asia, opportunity was my word for Singapore. I had the chance to establish a career in journalism and to travel as well as understand first-hand the cultures of the Malays, Indians and Chinese. Then opportunity faded and was replaced with disillusionment. Prejudices against Filipinos were rife and I felt like a specimen under a microscope. Among other things, my exuberant demeanor was frowned upon; my enthusiasm was misconstrued as craziness on one hand and inefficient on the other. In one company I worked for, my enthusiasm for arranging, for example, weekly bowling tournaments was read as negligent of my responsibilities at work. I was blatantly told by a senior that I better watch it as management was keeping an eye on me. It was useless telling them that I did all that after work and, for once, people were socializing out of their own volition. Office politics changed everything.
Disillusionment and fair-weather friends are twins, which accounts for my jaded view of colleagues and friendships. One woman ended our friendship, through e-mail, because of my closeness with my family and the lack of it in her family. I cut ties immediately but, weirdly enough, she, for a time, sent greetings cards, little presents and would ask about my “upcoming wedding” after the e-mail. This other woman made me her shoulder-to-cry-on with her marital and extra-marital issues but conveniently dismissed me when it was my turn to pour my heart out after another one of those gut-wrenching break-ups. She ended our phone conversation because she didn’t want to miss the Rachel-Ross saga. Another woman was just downright insensitive.
“Is this going to be another sick Monday?” she asked mockingly.
Excuse me for not smiling while I try to pick up my life from a break-up I thought. Too think, she’d involve everyone in her daily drama and she never heard a pip from me.
And, the final nail on the coffin of disillusionment, this social-climbing, conniving, two-faced, pretentious, lazy compatriot. She’d siphon everything from you until you’re just a shell, a ghost of your former self, and offload you like cheap merchandise on the market. People are taken by her because of her sweet innocent ways. If only they looked harder they’ll see a snarling wolf underneath all that fluff.
There is an exception to this jadedness. Fistri and I started off as colleagues, but we’re good friends to this day. We’ve weathered more than a decade of silences, misunderstandings and falling-outs.
When I met Zainal love became my word for Singapore. The Garden City was suddenly a pleasant place again. The disillusionments of the past were replaced by all the good things that love can bring until everything came crashing down and am back to square one looking for a word I can identify with.
*Ate (pronounced a-teh) is a form of address, which means big sister in Filipino. Lolo means grandfather.