I'm leaving for the Philippines in a week. I'll be there for fifteen days, on the island of Samar, in Eastern Visayas. This will be interesting since I don't even speak Tagalog!
I realize that this simple fact may come as a surprise to some of you, as I am more or less half-Filipino on my dad's side, but to be honest, it has taken me a long time to really understand the Filipino half of me.
My great-grandma on my dad's side was a Hawaii born plantation girl from the island of Kaua'i. She grew up and married a Filipino man from the Visayas who was part of the first generation of Sakada people who worked the fields during Hawaii's early plantation days at the turn of the century.
Their children, including my grandmother, were also born on a Kaua'i plantation just as their mother was.
However, my grandma's life as a Kaua'i girl changed in the 1940's when her family went to the Philippines to visit her father's family who were still living there in the Visayan islands.
Grandma was just a little girl then, it was to be an adventure.
But while they were there, World War II broke out, and swept quickly down into Southeast Asia. My grandma and her family suddenly found themselves stuck in the Philippines, with no immediate hope of returning to Hawai'i, her land of birth.
Grandma ended up making a life there, and like her sisters, she grew up and married a Visayan man.
It wasn't until decades later, after Hawaii became a US State, that my great-grandma and grandma were able to return to Hawai'i with their families, under their new citizenship as Hawaii-born Americans.
As the family migrated back to Hawaii, amongst the sea of children and grandchildren that came with them, they brought with them a rascal little grandson named Pastor.
This was a boy who, although young, already carried with him many unbelievable stories, such as accidentally burning down his grandfather's copra farm simply out of spite towards a beehive, traveling all day to to the seashore just to catch fish for his mom, and other such misadventures.
This little boy grew up to be my dad.
One day in Hawai'i, when my dad was a teenage boy, he was climbing a mango tree in an old Hawaiian ladies backyard on the island of Molokai. After a while, the lady came out of her house, yelling at him to come down from the tree before he hurt himself.
Inside the old lady's Hawaiian homestead house, one of her teenage granddaughters, a young local girl of mixed Native Hawaiian and Portuguese heritage, poked her head out the window to stare at that curiously courageous little boy.
This local girl was to eventually become my mom.
My family spoke Pidgin English at home, just like everyone else on Molokai. But my mom could easily code-switch from Pidgin English into Standard American English whenever she needed to. My dad couldn't.
Dad never spoke Standard American English, he could only speak Pidgin English. And even then, he spoke Pidgin with a different accent. His Pidgin always had a very distinct Filipino lilt to it.
Despite knowing this about my dad, however, I never actually took the time to understand his history, let alone his language or culture.
My knowledge of Filipino anything only went as far as occasionally eating adobo, chicken papaya and sometimes pinakbet. I also recall hearing the vague rumor that my dad's people were dog-eaters.
That was about the extent of what I knew about Filipino culture.
Recently, I asked my mom why none of us kids could speak Visayan, my dad's language, spoken in the Southern Philippines.
She told me that Dad had tried to teach us when we were younger, he would even sing to us his traditional Visayan nursery songs, but we would just laugh at him, until one day, he stopped speaking to us in his mother tongue.
To all of my friends, my dad was “Unko Pastah da Tako* Man!” Practically every day he would go out into the ocean to go diving, or spearfishing, with nothing more than a pair of fins, snorkel and goggles, a three-prong spear and tee. As kids, we would sit there behind the screen door, waiting for him, sometimes for hours, anxiously watching for signs of his return.
Finally, when the dogs stood up from their spots on the porch and ran off barking towards the beach, we knew Dad was coming out of the ocean and that he would be home any minute. We would get up and grab the buckets and galvanized iron tubs, pull the water hose out into the yard and prepare to receive Dad's fresh catch of the day.
In no time, he would come plodding around the corner, his shoulders weighed down heavily by his bent tee filled with freshly speared fish and tako.
After gutting and scaling the fish, Dad would then have to pound# the tako.
Pounding the tako was a long, drawn out process. He would first rub the tako with Hawaiian rock salt, let it soak in, then grab the tako by the head and repeatedly pound it's legs against a hard, flat surface. After some time of patiently pounding, the tako legs would curl up tightly and get frothy with salt and liquid. Then Dad would rinse it off under fresh water and repeat the whole process again, until the meat was soft and pliable, ready to be cooked.
Even though I was just a little boy then, my dad was patient enough to teach me how to pound tako myself.
He would stand behind me as I reached into the sink, gripping the slippery tako tightly in my little hands. He would wrap his arms around me and hold my hands firmly, showing me how to slam the tako down against the sink with just the right force to eventually get the legs to curl.
I gradually got the rhythm of it on my own, until the point where Dad dubbed me his little tako pounder.
“Yah, das how," he would say, smiling down at me, "Do um jus lyk dat, barok.” He always called me by his nickname for me. “You da bes tako poundah I get,” he would say.
Sadly, despite all of these proud memories I have of my dad, I never honestly took the time to ask him about his native culture, language, food or childhood in the Philippines.
It wasn't until 10 years ago when I moved to Lana'i, one of the other Hawaiian Islands, that my eyes were opened to the true beauty of Filipino culture. Yes, it was true, some of them really did eat dog. But I learned that there was so much more to being Filipino than just that.
The old plantation community there mostly spoke Ilocano, a dialect from Northern Philippines, and I learned a lot about their customs.
Colorful Ilocano words like napintas, nabangsit and naimas entered into my vocabulary, and I discovered that my dad's nickname for me, barok, was more than just a simple nickname. It was actually a Filipino phrase that affectionately meant: "My boy."
When the locals on Lanai spoke English it was Pidgin English, like the rest of us locals in Hawaii, but I noticed that Lanaians spoke with the same Filipino lilt that my father spoke in. Even the locals born and raised on that Hawaiian island had the same Filipino accented Pidgin.
I have moved to Taiwan since then, and having lived here for nearly three years now, I've become very close friends with many Filipinos who are overseas workers here.
Whenever I told them stories of my dad growing up in the Philippines, they would encourage me to go to the Philippines and visit their friends and family there, and more importantly, to see the land of my father's birth.
Last November I finally took a brief trip to Manila, my first time ever there.
That trip opened my eyes and helped me to see that there are many layers to my father's culture. It set me upon a path of self-discovery, exploring what it really means to be Pinoy^, either part or pure.
I've also decided to take a stab at learning Tagalog, Waraywaray or Hiligaynon.
In my heart, I will always be an island boy, born in Kaunakakai Town and raised on the sands of Kawaikapu in Kainalu on a beach on the eastern end, Mana'e side, of Molokai, Hawai'i. The Hawaiian part of my culture and life will always be a part of me, it's something that I will never lose.
But at the same time, I'm hoping that 2013 will be the year for me to finally find the 'inner adobo.'
*Tako is the Pidgin word for octopus, from the Japanese word
#Pound is a term used to describe a tenderizing process
^Pinoy is what Filipinos refer to themselves as being
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...