Your Filipina Pen Pal!

But seriously, folks: it's all about dialogue...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

And Now For A Short Commercial Break

I’ve been wanting to contribute a post to this blog since the day Jean (with inspiration from Leny) opened the door for business. So to speak. The experience was not unlike trying to get a word in edgewise during a cocktail party at which the only guests are erudite, well-spoken, and not at all shy. Not surprisingly, I’ve been hiding in a corner with the potted plants.

But now I think the time has come here at Your Filipina Penpal! for a short literary break. And I can do that! Like many other writers, I write in part to make sense of what I’m feeling. And like all of you, my feelings on the subject of MOBs, interracial relationships, poverty, corruption, economics, domestic abuse and whatnot are often really fucking complicated and confusing. And so the only thing for me to do was turn to a story.

I wrote “A Late Lunch at the Lemon Grass Café” sometime last year. It’s narrated by the young twenty-something male child of a Filipina MOB and her American husband. I don’t post it for feedback or praise or criticism, but rather to say what I can’t seem to say nonfiction-ally. I was able to empathize with unlikable characters in a way that took me completely by surprise, and the writing itself helped to clarify my feelings about all these heady subjects. Even if I still can’t quite articulate what they are. And now I’ve gone on too long! Anyhoots, here’s an excerpt:


Before I was born, my mother had all of her teeth. This was, in fact, one of the criteria—neatness and literacy being among the others—that my American father used when choosing her for his wife. “Well, Nita, you’re not so pretty, but you sure are sweet,” he used to say. This scant praise, combined with the fact that mom was already thirty years old, was enough to sweep her off her feet, out of Bayawan, and into a ranch-style house forty minutes east of San Francisco. Never mind that dad was twice her age, twice married, and twice before engaged to other small, dark women he’d wooed while on various vacations to the Philippines, Negros Island in particular.

I was conceived immediately following the wedding (which, much to my mother’s permanent shame, did not take place in the Catholic church), and seven months later her teeth started to fall out. Someone told her I leeched all the calcium right out of her chompers. She claims it was worth it to have a son like me.

I bear little resemblance to the half-and-half kids with muted brown skin and pale green eyes who look like rare, exotic birds. This one Filipino-Swedish guy in high school had the girls crying and on their knees he was so damn handsome. Hated that guy. And I’m fat. “Gordo!” my mother screams, happy to have fed me so well. “Like your father, talaga.” She laughs for a moment and then, of course, starts to cry because my father is dead.

My mother’s situation—and how she ended up in it—was obvious to anyone who cared to observe my parents for a few minutes. Whenever they were out together, she endured rude stares and whispered comments from women, especially other Filipinas. I often wondered how many of those superior bitches realized the one simple truth about my mother: she was happy with Dad.

Once, shortly after he died, I asked Mom if she wished she’d just stayed in the Philippines, with people she knew, in a place she still referred to as “home.” “Oh, honey,” she had said, “nothing was gonna happen to me there. No one was gonna love me. At least your Daddy loves me. Oh, sige, you go now. Go have fun,” she said, shooing me out of the room as her eyes began to puddle.


I eat in a Thai restaurant on Clement Street—a street that could be mistaken for a street in any Asian city—almost every day. The Lemon Grass Café. It’s three blocks from my “office,” which is really just a dirty apartment converted into an art studio by three greasy-haired pothead guys, average age twenty-two. They publish underground comics and hired me because my drawing samples revealed a “deep understanding of female breast curvature.” This was an important qualification because—without exception—the characters I was being hired to draw would have enormous breasts squashed into lace-up, corset-type garments.

I was honest and admitted to them that my understanding of the female breast was based entirely on my dead father’s extensive collection of pornographic magazines: Mound, Hustler, Twice As Nice, Lust, etc. They just looked at each other and said, “Cool.” It’s a pretty good job.

It’s past three, so the lunch crowd is long gone. The owner’s daughter, a 10-year-old whose pants are always too short, is folding napkins and filling small vases with white flowers to prep for the dinner rush.

I don’t even have to order; my favorite waiter, Pong, just brings me a big, steaming plate of Pad Thai and smiles. I nod and dig in, stopping every once in awhile to take a swig of my iced tea or spit out a shrimp tail. Pong turns the TV channel from home shopping to ESPN and the cook, free for now, ventures out from the kitchen. The other customers leave so that it’s just the three of us, sitting together watching NBA playoff highlights. The two of them high-five each other throughout a Michael Jordan montage that showcases several impossible-to-defend fadeaway jumpers. They look over at me and we share a good laugh. Jesus, what a great lunch.

As usual, my eyes eventually focus on the far wall, where instead of the serene artwork typically found in Asian restaurants—boats floating down lazy rivers, caribou grazing, men in straw hats with scythes slung over their narrow shoulders—Pong likes to hang pictures of pretty flight attendants carefully cut from assorted airline calendars. He’s got Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, Philippine Airlines, you name it. The girls either wear an uptight navy blue blazer with a little red scarf tied at the neck, or the native garb of their respective countries. Sarongs, colorful headwraps, garish gold earrings, stuff like that. My bosses love it when I spice up a comic book girl by angling her eyes or giving her tawny skin. So when I’m done with my noodles, I pull out my Strathmore sketchpad and a 2B pencil. At the last minute, I grab a 3B, too; it’s good for dark hair.

As I block in the eyes, it occurs to me for the hundredth time that my mother never looked like these women. Not even at, say, the age of 20 when any beauty a woman is likely to be blessed with is on full display like a peacock’s tail. Douglas MacArthur once talked about the “moonbeam delicacy” of Filipinas, and damn if he wasn’t right. No jutting cheekbones or noses that end in a point, just everything soft, soft. I sense Pong staring over my shoulder; hear him gently grunt his approval of my work. He says something in Thai to the cook, who scoots his chair over next to mine.



  • At 3/04/2006 2:28 PM, Blogger Gladys said…

    this excerpt is utterly fascinating. where's the rest? (yes, that's a plaintive voice you're hearing) ;-)

  • At 3/04/2006 4:24 PM, Blogger Okir said…


    I'm so glad you contributed this!



  • At 3/05/2006 11:56 AM, Blogger ver said…

    Gladys—right here on my hard drive! I'll send it to you sometime...

    Thanks Jean! Finally popped my Your Filipina Penpal! cherry. Eagerly awaiting Bino's first post now...

  • At 3/05/2006 12:03 PM, Blogger ver said…

    And Joanne's!

  • At 3/05/2006 8:08 PM, Blogger Gladys said…

    oy, chica, your first instinct was right; joanne's already popped her YFP cherry! heheh.

    and now, i'm trying patiently to wait for your e-mail...

  • At 3/07/2006 12:07 AM, Blogger rcloenen-ruiz said…

    Loved this post, Ver. Wah...just wish I could read the rest of it too.


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