Before jonesing for green mangoes and bagoong or a steamy bowl of sinigang, the first thing I craved for away from home was my language. I moved to New York with the greatest confidence in my English-speaking skills, only to discover quickly how flawed the language was in expressing the most basic of my expressions, such as “Ay, tanga!” because “Oh, stupid!” just didn’t cut it.
So I sought voices on the subway train. My ears perked up like a dog’s when I heard two mothers speaking Tagalog about someone’s misbehaving daughter. I sat beside them, gazing elsewhere, not wanting to intrude in their conversation, yet strongly compelled to participate by association. Their inflections made me smile, and the excitement in which they delivered their juicy gossip made me wish I also had something valuable to discuss, and with someone who would immediately respond to the unique way my forehead wrinkled or my nose twitched, or the way I’d say “Ano ba yan!” (which translates to “What is that?” but is actually a question that never needs an answer).
When I saw the first brown face in my white workplace, I jumped at this delivery guy and accosted him with the question, “Pilipino kayo, manong?” taking it as far as calling him brother. He turned out to be Hispanic and looked at me suspiciously as I apologized in shame.
I finally got it right when I asked a client if he was Filipino based on his unmistakable Southeast Asian looks combined with his Spanish last name.
He said, “Yes,” and rolled his eyes, but in my excitement I overlooked his annoyance and said, “Me too!”
“I know,” he said coldly, as he grabbed his credit card and turned away from me. He definitely didn’t want that conversation so I pretended I didn’t either. After I blamed myself for possibly missing a social cue, I wondered if he was insulted by my recognition of his heritage, or if by chance he didn’t have a mirror at home. Was I being presumptuous?
Scent of home
I’ve since resolved to treat my fellow Filipinos in the Empire State as New Yorkers first before they are my countrymen, careful not to assume they would want to talk to me just because we share a common ancestry. I decided it wasn’t their job to soothe my homesickness, and who was I anyway but just another new immigrant finding my way around? Surely mine wasn’t a unique story and I was, in all respects, just a tourist with all these sentimental needs.
So I didn’t budge that one time when two Pinays across me in the train discussed how they liked my skirt-and-boots ensemble. Even if at that moment I was reading in my New York Magazine a feature on Krystal’s pandesal from Queens, I resisted the urge to acknowledge the conversation I overheard. But when the ladies got up, I wanted to run after them and tell them where to get my boots on sale. I wanted to ask them what they thought was the best pandesal in New York. At the very least, I wanted to share a laugh, but I didn’t, the way I hadn’t tried to interact since the mirror-less man snubbed me.
One day, I was caught off guard in my Brooklyn-bound train by the smell of fried chicken. By then I’d been in New York for a few years and knew better than to assume it was anything other than Popeye’s or the local Kennedy Fried Chicken.
But the aroma was persistent and had an oddly familiar smell, so I looked around and found it right by my feet in a plastic bag with a picture of a friendly bee on it. It was Jollibee Chickenjoy! It must have come from the recently opened branch in Queens. I looked at its owner, a man my age who didn’t look like he would berate me for pointing out the obvious. I gathered the courage and opened my mouth.
“Masarap ba yung Chickenjoy nila (Is their Chickenjoy any good?)” I asked to strike up a conversation.
“Ay! Di ko alam Pilipino pala kayo (Oh! I didn’t know you were Filipino!)” the man responded.
I laughed and repeated my question. Ronnie said he just came from his shift as a fry cook at the restaurant, where he made Chickenjoy all day.
“Eh kayo po Ma’am, saan ang work ninyo? (How about you, Ma’am? Where do you work?)”
I was embarrassed at the automatically applied term of reverence, but did not correct him. I answered, learning in return that he was going to his second job at a Colombian restaurant in Brooklyn. He said that the chef there was a fan of the Filipino-style chicken pieces, fried naked to an unparalleled crispiness that could not be achieved by the use of batter, coatings, or by soaking in buttermilk.
“This is for them,” Ronnie said. “Come visit Jollibee sometime and ask for me in the kitchen,” he went on.
I said I’d visit, even if I knew that Jollibee had been open for a couple of years but I never had the urge to go. Maybe I was afraid to find out that what I remembered so fondly didn’t taste so good anymore. Or maybe I’d learn that it did, that I actually missed it, but that it would never taste right in New York.
In a way, it echoed the way small talk with Filipinos could not replace the real conversations I left back home. Maybe the snooty Fil-Ams were right in getting annoyed when I asked to bond about our shared race. I used to be so excited about bumping into Filipinos because they felt like a window to the world I ached so much for. I actually needed them to make sense of what I was missing or slowly losing, but that must be too much of a burden for them to bear from a stranger lost in a country they seemed to have fully adopted. So for the most part, when I see Pinoys on the train these days, I am cautious.
Except for some isolated moments like that time I saw an old Filipina lady board the train. “Dito na po kayo,” I said as I pulled on her hand to give her my seat on a downtown Q train. Her look of surprise was identical to mine in seeing someone from the homeland. I knew for a fact that an old woman wasn’t likely to shun me or deny that we shared so much more than a language and a complexion. We didn’t talk, but in our silence was an understanding that felt like family.
Ten years later, I still can’t help it. When I see a Filipino on my commute, I’m suddenly a daughter, sister, niece or aunt. If I could, I’d apologize in advance to my fellow New Yorker Filipinos for my occasional double-takes and stolen glances. In their presence is the rare moment in this city where I cease to be a stranger, even if it’s just in my head that our shared heritage makes me their friend. – Rappler.com
Shakira Andrea Sison currently works in the financial industry while dabbling in several unrelated projects and interests. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison.