Consuming My Country

My home is not what I remember. Throughout university, I met people who saw the Philippines as a nation of insignificance. As nothing but a remote cluster of islands somewhere in Asia, its churches corrupt and its immaculate waters unknown. During my time in London, one of my students asked about my upbringing; as we munched on butter biscuits by the playground, stale crumbs dusting our laps, I told her about my country. “The Philippines?” she frowned. “Is that in China?”

Those moments of ignorance are now gone. More than three years ago, in a room overlooking the Arabian Gulf, I first feared for my country—what was once nothing to millions of people has been shoved into the spotlight, the pinnacle of conversations among taxi drivers and teachers, misogynists and mutineers, nurses and narcissists, cheaters and children. As I studied literature and theater in the Middle East, tens of thousands of deaths surfaced back home. Until now, the police continue to slaughter Filipinos without trial. Children and innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Human rights activists risk their lives to protest for freedom.

And I am oceans away as my country suffers.

*

When the media first began broadcasting the deaths, I made halo-halo. In the shared kitchen of my dormitory building in Abu Dhabi, I had one way to connect to my home: by consuming it.

Of all the desserts my country offers, there is nothing I find as quintessentially Filipino as halo-halo, a layered treat made of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and mix-ins of your choice, from plantains and tapioca pearls to jackfruit and sweetened beans. There’s no set method for making the perfect halo-halo—as its Tagalog name implies, you mix whatever you have layered in your serving glass, and somehow, as if by magic, the random assortment works. Throughout my childhood, I constantly craved the crunch of sweetened ice, the sugary red beans between my teeth, the explosion of jackfruit on the tip of my tongue. My parents would order their halo-halo with a piece of leche flan and a scoop of ube ice cream on top—now, I cannot have it any other way.

Although it is a staple Filipino dessert, halo-halo is most likely an indigenized version of kakigōri. Before the Philippines’ war on drugs and long before World War II, Japanese migrants brought this dessert to my country. The kakigōri in Japan consisted of shaved ice sweetened with syrup; the addition of fruit preserves and other mix-ins occurred after Japanese farmers settled in the Philippines and began experimenting with local offerings. Over time, Filipinos threw in other ingredients, from creamy caramel custard to bright purple ube ice cream. Nowadays, you can find variants of the same dessert in different Philippine provinces, from a version in Pampanga with creamed corn and pastillas de leche to a “spicy winter” halo-halo in Laguna topped with jackfruit and chili peppers.

As I crushed ice that day in my dormitory’s tiny kitchen, I contemplated these versions of halo-halo, how they had changed over time and taken on unexpected new flavors. In that moment, I thought about the version of my country that not everyone gets to see: a Philippines untainted by war. The Philippines I love is congested cities, chocolate hills, and rice terraces carved by farmers and the palms of God. It is hours of traffic and electricity cuts and the rice cooker’s song when dinner is ready. Fried fish balls sold by street vendors and jeepneys with a smiling Jesus painted on each side. Finding a sewing kit in a cookie tin and frozen leftovers in an ice cream container and leaving your shoes by the door before entering a room. It is remembering home every time I dig a spoon into a tall glass of sweetened ice. 

*

The day after I made halo-halo, I taught a friend how to prepare it. We layered the ingredients while discussing the dessert’s origins. My friend, who had grown up in Seoul, mused on the similarities between halo-halo and patbingsu, a Korean dessert made of shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and red beans. We ate near a television in the student lounge, the afternoon news droning on behind us. As a report of the latest deaths in the Philippines appeared, my friend struggled to speak, pity painting her face. I stared at the remains of my halo-halo, now a soupy mess of milk and melted ice. I wondered if other people would act this way around me. Would I change the topic if someone asked about the current events of my country? Would I feel ashamed to mention my origins, aware of how my country has changed since I left?

No. My home is not what I remember, no longer insignificant to the world. Despite my country’s flaws and my fear of returning to a place where no one is safe from a stray bullet, I am still Filipino. I admit there is a certain nostalgia I took for granted, a simpler time when my country’s name inspired curiosity, not sympathy. For someone like me, so far from home, my emotions are now as layered as my favorite Filipino dessert. I am glad the world has shown concern for the Philippines. But I am heartbroken too, for my country’s name has become synonymous with violence, a human rights disaster in the making. Fear trickles into my frustration. I am useless to my friends stuck back home. Guilt seeps into my shameful sense of relief. I am privileged to be somewhere safe with my family. As the daily news reports on the latest turmoil, I watch events unfold from afar, my despair mixing with a never-ending sense of helplessness. 

These feelings consume me as I consume my country. I fear that the world will always see my home as a place of violence and nothing more. I will speak with anyone willing to discuss its current state, and I will try my best as a Filipino who hasn’t been home in half a decade. But I cannot stand and watch as the Philippines is typecast yet again—I must continue to talk about my country, a beautiful mess beyond the ongoing chaos. The Philippines is my homeland, the only one I will ever have, and it is more than the fleeting topic of some short conversation. It is more than a trend or a news headline. Countries are always more than the wars that plague them.

Every time sweetened ice crunches between my teeth, I will think of the last time I visited my hometown. With the familiar drizzle of evaporated milk, the distance disappears and I return to the Philippines I remember. To the afternoons on my front porch with sliced mango, hands stained and the air sticky sweet. To the mornings preparing pineapples and papayas in a warm, hazy glow. To waking up in the middle of hot summer nights, shirt clinging to skin and throat aching for halo-halo.

 

Artwork by Katya Roxas

The Joy of Jollibee

Jollibee is more than just a Filipino fast food chain. It is to me what McDonald’s is to many of my friends from other places—a staple. I have known Jollibee, both the chain and the mascot, since I could barely eat solid food. I’ve attended birthday parties, caught up with family and friends, and reflected on my personal growth with Jollibee. This bee might even have brought me closer to God. When I was in grade school, my sister and I convinced our religious mother that Sunday lunches should be at Jollibee. Her conditional “yes”—Sunday lunches could not always be at Jollibee—was the motivation we needed to wake up and get out of bed early for the 10:30 am Sunday mass at a Catholic church that was an easy walking distance away from a Jollibee outlet.

Last Sunday, I followed a similar itinerary, except this time, I was not with my mother and sister, but my friend; we were not in Cebu but New York; and Jollibee was, due to the weather, not an easy walk from the church. I had no need to convince my friend to grab lunch at Jollibee because, as she pointed out, I had mentioned the place to her in a previous conversation in Abu Dhabi, which is where I study. Some days when the craving for crispy, juicy Chickenjoy alongside a gravy-covered hill of rice—my personal twist—comes on so strong, I leave campus to find a Jollibee, however far away it is.

The only Jollibee outlet in Manhattan is in Times Square. As my friend and I walked there, we dealt with an added challenge—our limited knowledge of the area. I knew, however, that one must only look for a red-and-yellow-striped bee in a blazer, bowtie, and toque. I told my friend this detail and we soon found ourselves approaching my favorite bee. Standing in front of the store, I noticed the cultural sandwich that Jollibee is a part of. On one side stands IndiKitch, a casual chain that serves Indian food; on the other side is Arby’s, an American fast food sandwich chain. Across the street there is Kung Fu Kitchen, a restaurant serving Chinese staples.

What stood out more to me, however, was the absence of Jollibee’s statue outside the store. In the Philippines, a Jollibee statue always stands outside by the door. Its smile is big and camera-ready. Its arms are kind. It gestures people to come inside: Everyone is welcome here! One day, in the summer after my sophomore year, I laid my hand on the wrist of Jollibee’s extended hand, pressed my face close to his, and contained my excitement in a smile. A friend captured the scene in a photograph. I moved to check how I looked and another kid immediately took my spot. I was home. In the Manhattan outlet, the same statue exists, but it stands inside the store, by the waiting area. I guess Jollibee, too, could not stand the cold weather.

While my friend and I stood in line to place our orders—two 2-piece Chickenjoy with a side of white rice, pineapple juice for me, water for her, please—my worry outweighed my excitement, wondering what she would think and say about my favorite Jolly meal. When we finally got our food, we sat ourselves a table away from the Jollibee statue. Then, to her prompting, I showed her my way of eating Chickenjoy: with bare hands. She did the same. At some point, I was probably too obvious with my concern because she commented that people tend to want others, especially their family and friends, to at least like what they love. I still kept asking her what she thought of the fried chicken.

Eventually, as I watched the transient inhabitants of the place I called Jollyland, my worries ebbed. Like in my local Jollibee, I was surrounded by couples, kids, students, and workers—people from various walks of life. The difference, though, was that they were all eating a piece of my home. Jollibee, after all, represents Filipinos’ resilience and unapologetic love for our culinary culture. Some people say that Jolly Spaghetti is too sweet. It is, but in such sweetness I remember happy memories of eating meals at Jollibee and seeing the look of satisfaction on my older sister’s face. The generous sprinkle of cheese atop the ground beef-garlic-onion mix always elicits a contented sigh from her. Traces of the tangy sweet banana catsup-tasting sauce frames one side of her mouth, sometimes both. Beside her, mama slices her moist beef burger patty into bite-sized pieces using disposable cutlery that bends and breaks usually before she gets to taste the first chunk. She pushes her sliced gravy-coated button mushrooms to the side. My sister and I take it as a cue for a brief fork fight, although we usually end up splitting the already small portion into half.       

The sweet-style spaghetti, too, represents Filipinos’ resistance at a time when sugar consumption was restricted to the upper class by the upper class colonizers. The Philippines’ Spanish, and 333 years later, American colonizers enjoyed the abundant sources of natural sugar in the land. As a result, several Filipino desserts were named by the Spanish or the Americans. When the mass production of sugar began, which meant cheaper costs, the Filipino people started adding sugar to recipes. Now, many Filipinos tweak dishes to suit a national predilection for sweets.

Despite my nostalgia, I did not feel completely at home in that Jollibee. The atmosphere was different. Perhaps I was too aware of geography and my status within it, or I was still being bothered by my tendency to please.
The second time I visited, I was alone. I felt as if I was inside a bubble looking at life as it unfolded outside the window.  For a while, I felt invisible. It took three gushing women wanting a picture with the Jollibee statue Uy let’s take a selfie! and an equally excited crew member, who suggested different poses to them Okay 1 2 3 Say cheese! for me to remember where I was. A wave of something warm crept into my system at the familiarity of a language I had not heard for a month now. When I looked back from my seat, my eyes met those of the manager, and he offered me a smile that recalled the image of a father, kind and hard at work. It was an acknowledgement. I am not at home but there are pieces of it wherever I go.    

Artwork by Bobby Doherty