12 December 2020
I’ve been home for three months and know that this would be the bleakest Christmas for many Filipinos, perhaps since the Second World War. I see people of all ages begging on the streets, shoppers buying only the most essential items [food and medicines], and I feel the taste of ashes on one’s tongue. It wasn’t like this, as they say, days and days before.
I grew up in Basa Air Base, Pampanga, which sits at the foot of the Zambales mountain range. I knew it was Christmas when a light mist would descend on the base, and there would be a nip in the air.
My grandmother, Lola Juana, would also ask my sister Nanette and I to join her in the Simbang Gabi. She would wake us up at dawn, give us a warm breakfast of Ricoa cocoa, pan de sal and cheese, and we would walk off into the fog. I don’t remember if I completed any of the nine-day masses. I would feign sickness, or pretend to be too sleepy.
But I do remember the tubes of purple puto bumbong and the bibingka, the rice cakes topped with salted duck’s egg and the steaming cup of salabat (ginger tea). The taste of hot rice cake, brown sugar and grated coconut washed down by ginger tea is one memory that does not quite leave you. No, not even if you have gone abroad.
My first Christmas abroad was spent in Morgantown, West Virginia, with my cousins. I was taking up my M.A. in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom when my sister, a nurse newly settled in the US, asked me to join her for Christmas break.
And so I mailed my application for a tourist visa at the US Embassy in London and got my schedule for the interview. But lo and behold, on the day of the interview, heavy snow fell all over Scotland. You could quote James Joyce and say that snow was general over Scotland, covering everything, castle and cottage, farmland and cobblestoned street, falling over the living and the dead.
Our train from Stirling to London had difficulty crossing the rail tracks. And so I arrived 30 minutes late for the interview at Grosvenor Place, and told the consul I am sorry I was late.
He said he had heard of the heavy snow that blanketed Scotland, and then he asked: “Why did you not apply for a visa in Manila?”
The consul was young but well-trained, looking at me with his shrewd eyes. I just looked at him and said, “Oh, the lines were too long.”
He tried not to smile. Then he looked at my papers from the British Council that gave me a scholarship to study at the UK and my graduate school credentials. And then he asked me, “What if you were studying in the United States and the American university offers you a teaching job, what will you do?”
I looked at him and smiled. “Of course, I will accept it, wouldn’t you?”
His last question was: “If I did not give you a US visa, what will you do?”
“Oh, I will cross the Channel and visit my friend Bonnie in Paris. I haven’t been there and I want to visit the place where they buried the poets.”
A smile finally dawned on his face.
Finally, he asked for my sister’s name and her visa status and he went inside. When he came back, he opened my passport and stamped it.
He gave me the kind of visa that must be worth its weight in purest gold, for when I was in Los Angeles three years later, I met a Filipino in a Christmas party and he offered me P200,000 so he could “get” my visa.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He said he was an undocumented alien and he would buy my passport with its multiple-entry visa and then he would be known as Danton Remoto. That meant, he explained, that I would not be able to visit the US any more.
He was so brash and desperate and of course I turned him down. His face was also non-biodegradable (tough and ugly) and bejesus, I did not want it be known that I had undergone plastic surgery and instead of looking better I turned out worse.
Ten years later, I was in New Jersey on a Fulbright grant at Rutgers University and was surprised to see Christmas trees being set up in the shop fronts only two weeks before Dec. 25! Thanksgiving seemed a more exciting time for the people of New Jersey and New York. I suddenly missed Christmas in Manila, when Jingle Bells would begin playing on September 1.
I also missed home. So I would walk two miles in the snow to reach Beverly Hills Bakery in the main road of Highland Park, NJ. It was owned by a Filipino family. We would watch “The Sharon Cuneta Show” while eating fried tuyo and fried rice and drinking Ricoa cocoa. My eyes would mist over when I eat, because I would remember my then-departed grandmother .
I would also take the bus every two Sundays to do my grocery at the Asian Store three towns away. I felt at home beside the fish heads with eyes, the jars of sandwich spread, and the Curly Tops chocolate in the Philippine selection of the store. The Pinays always mistook me for either Chinese or Japanese or Korean (hello!) and would titter with delight when I would tell them where the Rufina Patis was located.
The bluest Christmas I had was when my father and my mother died one month apart, in September and October of 2009. The body and the mind had a way of numbing one’s pain. I only remember fragments of those dreary days.
The day before Christmas of 2009 I was rushing out of my condominium unit to go to the shopping mall so I could buy a red leather bag for my mother. It would go well with the red leather shoes that I had given her for her birthday on March 10. I was rushing out of the house and I suddenly stopped on the sidewalk, under a sky the color of lead, because I had forgotten that my mother was already dead.
The snow in Scotland and New Jersey were nothing compared to the coldness of that day.