I woke up in the front seat and there were kids at my window, holding up bags of peanuts and other treats. On the other side of the car, my uncle in the driver’s seat handed the children a few coins. My mom told me to do the same with the change from lunch, of which the smallest bill I had was a 100 PP (a little over $2). Rolling down my window, I handed the girls the bill, saying “just keep it, I’m good” in English because I had no idea how to say it in Tagalog, much less Bisaya (the local dialect). The older girl slowly replied, “tank you, ma’am” and turned to the younger girl, saying I have no idea what she just said, so let’s get out of here!
Lola Nanay scolded me for giving the children such a large bill, as they were more accustomed to receiving anywhere from 1 centavo to 10 centavos for their wares. And I suppose her reaction was also a warning, as like small cats, the children returned, knocking, holding up those bags of salted snacks, mewing “ma’am, please, peanuts?”
My mind wandered as we continued along. I decided my Uncle Kelyon, my mom’s brother that had picked us up from the airport, and I must be cut from the same cloth. Once we were past the Passi City Pistahan (a town fiesta that caused an extra four hours of traffic, during which I silently had a panic attack), he gunned the fuck down the National Highway past hordes of tricycles lazily making their way down, muttering under his breath how he needed to go to the bathroom (then later pulling the car over to the shoulder to water some trees by the wayside).
Soon enough, Lola Nanay had to go to the restroom too, and at her spritely age of 94 couldn’t be expected to whip it out on the side of the road as easily as Uncle Kelyon. We stopped at my mom’s first cousin’s home along the National Highway in order for Lola to use the restroom. It had taken me long enough to realize that every island had its own National Highway, since Palawan also had a “National Highway” (which in general meant it was the island’s main road).
We honked at the gate of a house painted in bright, fluorescent colors and that was connected to a tiangge, or store in a stall (much like you might find in a bazaar or flea market). The ladies at the tiangge– one being my mom’s first cousin and the other being her daughter, my mom’s niece– recognized Uncle Kelyon at once, and assuming Lola Nanay was his only passenger, began running towards the car repeating “Ate, Ate!”
Uncle Kelyon opened his door and smoothly slid out of the driver’s seat, waving like a politician. “Dito rin si Oday,” he announced passively, motioning towards the backseat and using my mom’s childhood nickname with a tone that was almost a reminder that a piece of the West hadn’t come to visit them, but that a missing piece of home had returned to fulfill her duties as a daughter; it was time for her shift, which her other siblings– the three sons– eagerly welcomed.
Mom’s cousin, Catalina, threw her arms around my mom’s neck, warmly welcoming her home and motioning a silent greeting towards me as well. As her daughter, Gina, helped Lola Nanay inside the house, I heard Catalina tell Mom how beautiful she thought I was, asking, “Is she the one with a husband?”
Mom shook her head.
Catalina’s pause was deafening, cut by a weak response after much delay. “I’m sorry,” I heard her whisper softly in Bisaya.
One of the comfort rooms in the house had a toilet, and as they prepared it for Lola Nanay’s use, they asked Mom if I also needed to use the restroom. As Mom turned to pass on the message, she included, “the other one doesn’t have a toilet, but if you pee on top of the drain, they’ll make sure to sweep in any missed spots.” “Once the water starts running,” Gina added. “Your relatives in the Philippines are poor!” She said with a half smile, almost as if she was apologizing.
You should never apologize, I wanted to say to her. You are all so happy, and you are all so loving. There’s a special kind of care and nurturing that happens here. I’ve never seen it anywhere else.
I danced around the house, waiting for my turn to use the restroom. As I danced, glimpses of unfamiliar yet familiar scenes caught the corners of my eyes: Pizza Hut boxes on the kitchen table, toothbrushes by the refrigerator, an impressive collection of whiskeys (including a bottle of Jack hidden in the corner), seating area after seating area after seating area.
On our way out and out of the blue, Gina’s husband, the fire chief, asked my mother if I was an accountant. Neither of us had alluded to that fact, nor did we know where he could have gotten that from. My mom shrugged at me, saying, “Tell him what you do.” After a few minutes of struggling to make the term “digital marketing consultant” relevant to him, he graciously nodded in understanding, asserting that I not forget the name Rodelyn and, at my first opportunity, “add him on the internet.”