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

Hungry City

My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.

I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?

There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.

Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship –  unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.

Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine.  I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.

What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.

I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen.  But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.

Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.

*

This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.

I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.

Open City is really an opening into the mind of a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving – Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance, seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled. Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence ­– I become Julius. Not necessarily a biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’ city.

It is true that I often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences, sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my own brain. Or in other words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how people from different places can live together while keeping their own values intact.

Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?

Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.

Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?

One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.


Photo by Aditya Romansa

Lonely Planet Guide

TOP 10 NYC: Food Edition

1.
Whole Foods is the safest place on earth. What would the terrorists come for? The organic ice-cream? The dinky doughnuts, perhaps, were worth killing for. Imagine, a rainbow of kombucha and salad and bamboo leaf shampoo, with artisanal cheese for taste, shattering outwards, like the first sigh of relief after a breakup. Jia imagined herself in the mix: dangling brown doll, soft limbs pulled apart. What about Juan? He would slip to the floor stylishly, smile gelled on even in death, skull just missing the crack of the coffee machine lever, because that was the stylish thing to do – avoid ugliness. Whole Foods was made to paper over ugliness. It was full of things that prevented and wiped and filled and killed ugliness. “Your total is $6.42.” “Thank you very much, here’s your change. Have a good one, next customer please.” Oh, he has a nice beard, Jia thought. He was white. She wanted him to smile at her. She counted his change slowly, willing him to smile at her. He had bought organic meat and she wrote herself into the daydream, cooking the sausages in his chrome kitchen and listening to something like Fleetwood Mac, hanging up his flannel shirt in their shared closet. “Thank you, have a good one.” She stared at his lips, imagined them coated with the grease of unaffordable meat. He did that thing white people do where they purse their lips in place of a smile, in some supposed act of politeness. He was probably engaged to an Emily, graduated from Brown summa cum laude. “Sir, you forgot your change.” Who came to Whole Foods to buy a mere pack of sausages?

(Whole Foods, Gowanus, Brooklyn)

2.
“Oh my God, you have over 99 hearts. Fuuuck. You’re so popular.” “Oh. Really.” So, men liked her. “Let me see your photos.” Juan took her phone. “Oh, this is good. This is hot. But maybe change this one.” “Why?” “Like, look at this one, this one is hot but this one? This is more cute. Like on Tinder, you wanna look hot, not cute. You know.” Jia looked down at her phone, at the distance between hot and cute, the exact measurement of a thumb. “Whatever. If they like me, they like me.” “That will be $7.95.” “I’m sorry?” “$7.95” “Don’t worry, I got it. Just cover me next time.” Juan swung his ponytail. Jia didn’t understand how she ended up being so close with Juan. He was like a show pony with opposable thumbs, to manage his burgeoning Instagram account. The world saw his hair gel, his three-figure sneakers, but he fried chicken for a living last summer. They sat down, Juan tapping his iPhone. “Fuck, this professor is so rude like he gives us so much work.” Jia really liked Juan’s accent. There was something warm and comfortable about it, like biting into a freshly baked bun. The food was ready. Juan tapped at his phone. Jia blew on the noodles. The sesame sauce was like a detonation in the mouth. “Mmm, this is so good. Mm-hmm.” “I know, right.” The sesame was oppressive. “I should really delete Grindr, ohmygod.” Jia calculated how much more food she would have gotten from Halal Cart for a dollar less. The sesame was so dominant that if Vanessa’s blew up right now, the debris would still taste like the goddamn sauce.

(Vanessa’s, East Village, Manhattan)

3.
Ajay was visiting from Connecticut. Jia imagined the funeral: a childhood friendship laid to rest over pork dumplings and jasmine tea. Of course, she didn’t quite know it then. Not while they sat silently, pouring scalding things into their mouths, shoving all of it down, keeping it in. Maybe he was still in love with her. She watched the tea fog up his glasses. She’d learnt from someone else that he’d be interning at Google this summer. “Do you want more?” “That’s cool.” You can’t notice endings soon enough, sliding away smoothly like a soy sauce teardrop. Jia looked at him, slurping liquid. “I fucked your best friend,” she would not say. “He’s not my friend,” he would not say.  Jia remembers this day and the memory sags, its skin drooping from a too-tight grip. As if massacring a dumpling before it even gets to the mouth. You realize a lot of things only after the fact, which is to say, the teapot cools without asking for your permission, your mind on the ceiling fans, on your wallet, on your burnt tongue, on the waiter’s accent. Those dumplings had such soft skins. “It’s ok, I’ll split it.”

(Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan)

4.
Jason didn’t use Facebook. But he asked for her full name, repeated it like an unwrapped sweet bursting open in the mouth, and walked backwards out the door when they said goodbye, as if to prolong their first meeting. He looked her up that night and sent her a message. He wasn’t her type. “Idk, like he started texting me and we get along.” Once, he sat next to her in class because it was the only seat left. She was very aware of his body next to hers. She looked at his exercise book often, to see what he chose to note down. His handwriting was neat, neater than hers. Nothing would happen. “Omg what’s up with jason??” Jia didn’t know why she asked him to Baohaus after class. She overheard him saying he liked that place. “like i don’t like him or anything. we’re just hanging out.” He was much taller than her. He couldn’t believe her taste. “Here, we’ll share.” “Let’s get another round.” “Let’s do it.” Their corner was the size of a bathroom stall. Time went by with the Ubers outside. “Are we late?” Jia forgot about perfection, about crumbs, or credit cards. “Have you heard this Frank Ocean song before?” She unthreaded her earphones, offered him one like a candy. They leaned closer together. “I can’t believe you know this and I don’t.” How could he like her with her skin? Before they left, Jia dipped a finger to pick up peanut crumbs, and place them on her tongue. Make it last. Longer than the fake Chanel bags, feeble leather drooping like aged skin, for sale on the sidewalk. She saw both sides of this city but the first time in New York is always with one eye closed – then, everything looked pretty, and possible.

(Baohaus, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

5.
She showed him to her friends. “He’s cute.” “Nice smile.” “He’s probably smart too.” His bio said he made great pancakes. Jia loved pancakes; they tasted like safety. She didn’t eat anything before the meeting, imagining a dinner somewhere she could only semi-afford. Somewhere with low lighting, and a hummingbird’s thrum of foreign music. It took multiple trains to get to the address Amir gave her. She wore her aquamarine earrings, and kept her jeans on. It wasn’t too serious, so she wouldn’t look it. On the train, she looked dramatically out at the underground blackness. She didn’t really believe it would go badly. They would eat, laugh a bit and she’d come home with a new trinket, a new story. Her friends wished her luck, and she asked them to stay awake for her. “INSUFFICIENT FARE” “PAID: $2.75” GO GO GO GO. “I’m so sorry, I’m running late.” “That’s okay, I’m just waiting outside.” Was that him? It seemed to be him. He was waving. Amir was skinnier than she imagined. His dress shoes stuck out like elfin ears. What was she doing here? It was just going to be drinks. The air sunk. Maybe she could fake a migraine and hail a cab back to the dorm. It was all ridiculous. She was raised Hindu and worked at Whole Foods. This wasn’t for her. He got her wine and talked about his politics. He had saved a picture of himself campaigning, caught in action on the cover of The New York Times. He could tell, she didn’t like him. “Let’s go to my place.” “I don’t think so.” He linked their arms together as they walked; she didn’t even know him. “I want pancakes.” He laughed indulgently and held up her elbow, painting her drunker than she was. She wanted to be drunker than she was. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything.” “Will you write about me in your book? Will you tell your friends?” NO NO NO NO. “Don’t worry, I won’t take your clothes off.” “Oh, hahahhaha.” Jia was so hungry. Such a lovely restaurant, so rich and expensive and fucking New York fusion, and he couldn’t even feed her. “I have a great bottle of wine, come on.” He opened the door and put music on, some New Age remix. “You don’t like it.” “It’s okay.” He touched her hand and kissed it, and it felt like they were in a nursery school play, playing parts. “You’re so cheesy.” “Let’s go to the bedroom.” “I don’t think so.” Fast Car started playing and she wondered how she would react to the song after that night, if it would still remind her of her mother. “Jia. Jia. I want you to know I’m a feminist, Jia. You tell me if it hurts.” NO NO NO NO. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe we’re having sex.” Jia lay on her front and thought oh, this is happening. So this is what people did. She made noise, and a part of her brain marveled. Her body too was capable. She belonged. PAID: $2.75

(Calle Dao, Bryant Park, Manhattan)

6.
“I’m going to see my father.” Sara dribbled soy sauce into the noodles. “Oh shit, too much, my bad.” “How do you feel about that?” She shrugged. The important things were always said too late. “This got mad salty, sorry.” “It’s okay, it tastes fine.” Behind them were two black women. There was something theatrical about them, as if they were choosing to caricature themselves. Both were dressed in black, witchy robes. One was in a wheelchair cracking fortune cookies. The other had her books splayed out, doing accounts. They called each other honeybunch and cookie. THE OTHER DAY SHE CAME OVER, AND I WAS STILL IN MY BATHROBE, WOULD YA BELIEVE THAT HONEY? Jia and Sara stayed silent. Sara went quiet a lot and it was worrying. Silence let a lot of ugly things simmer, sink deep beneath the skin. “Have you heard from Ajay?” “No. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cancelled.” OH, THAT’S ALRIGHT COOKIE, YOU JUST GOTTA TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF NOW. The beads in Sara’s braids glinted as she vehemently shook her head, huddled her shoulders tighter round her plate as if to shrink herself to the size of the clams in their lo mein. “Yeah, shit.” Sara loved people so deeply, drawing from large, ugly craters of emotion she dug out from her flesh. It was a warm Sunday. Ajay always thought Sara was too ugly for him. The sun formed shrapnel wounds of light on the window. THAT’S RIGHT, BABYGIRL. “So I’m deleting Tinder now.” “Girl, yes, that shit is trash.”

(Mr Wonton, Park Slope, Brooklyn)

7.
“OMG, isn’t it so fun?” She laughed. What sunny whiteness, carefree and sweet, the unshakeable joy of an ice-cream shop. “Yeah, like I felt powerful. I felt this power when I left.” Juan clapped his hands. Cereal milk is pure silk but cereal milk ice-cream is a mistake. “I don’t really like this.” “Yeah, it’s so overrated.” She scraped the spoon slowly. Jia looked at Juan’s lithe body, so free, his uncreased face, uncreased mind. “I don’t know, do you ever have those weird hookups where like, you might be uncomfortable, and say no, but they keep going? I don’t know, like a weird moment like that.” “Oh yeah, that happens a lot.” He licked the tip of the cone. Jia looked at him and nodded slowly. “Oh, okay.” Amir had unmatched her the next morning. His roommate, some phantom, had heard them fuck, and then he had unmatched her, standing in front of that stupid Matisse copy in his living room, playing Fast Car or some electronic desert music. So it was her fault. “Welcome to the hookup life, ba-by,” Juan waved his pink plastic teaspoon in the air. He said it like that, dismembering the word: ba-by. Jia laughed. She laughed and laughed and then she stopped thinking about it, pouring all the melting cereal milk ice-cream into her mouth.

(Milk Bar, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)

8.
Desi Galli made food that actually tasted like the chefs didn’t bow prostrate to white people while in the kitchen. Jia ordered a chicken tikka kathi roll, the closest thing she got round the corner from the house in Delhi. And because her head hurt, and because New York was so fucking large yet small, and so stupidly far, and because she hated keeping her whole life thrumming solely on the engine of electronics and internet and tinny transatlantic wires, she added gulab jamun too. “Student discount, please.” “Here’s your change.” “Thank you.” One of the delivery guys kept staring at her. He had little shiny spikes for hair, which made his head look like the sole of a football boot. His body was pillowy and it struck Jia that he too looked like a gulab jamun. The whole thing was absurd. Underneath her legs, subway trains snaked and vibrated below the earth, like crazed phallic creatures. “One kathi roll!” “Could I have a coke please?” Jia’s mother had called in class, and then at work. She wished she wouldn’t do that. She wished her head wouldn’t hurt. Her MetroCard was empty. Her feet rumbled from the pressure, the hundreds of bodies churning serpentine below. “Baby, going to sleep now!!! kiss kis kisss, good night beti” She wondered if mothers could somehow sense when their children have – The whole thing was absurd.

(Desi Galli, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

9.
Jia loved jazz. She loved the mess of it, as if she could hear the limbs of the notes getting screwed off the stave, and leaping away to new places. Every month or so, she would save up some cash to go to Smalls and see the best jazz musicians of the world. She went once with Jason, on a trip for music class. They saw the drummer Ari Hoenig. Jason sat across the room from her, and she remembered wanting him to look at her and not knowing if he was. But soon she forgot her own body and desires. The drum solos made her close her eyes and think of God. She didn’t think much about God but sometimes her mind wandered, when she encountered something that made her marvel at its existence. After class, Jia went to the McDonald’s opposite the shuttle stop and ordered a drink, a McFlurry or coffee. What people didn’t know was that the NYU McDonalds often played incredible jazz. It wasn’t live or anything. But it filled up the head, like cool water in a bowl, and drowned out the din of thought. She would go alone, with her phone or notebook open, and just listen. Outside, Ubers rushed by and students scrambled in and out of class. And inside the fishbowl, Charlie Parker leant down and warbled into your ear, something from the past.

(McDonalds, 724 Broadway, Manhattan)

10.
There was always so much. So much to do. New York was all action. Play on. GO GO GO. On Sundays, you could slow down at the laundromat. Wasn’t it meditative? Carrying the laundry bag back and forth, and counting out sweaty metal change from the aging Chinese man behind the counter, and burying your face in dry heated cotton? A beautiful suffering. And afterwards, you could walk to Tom’s. One of those real old-timey American diner places with huge fluffy pancakes and free coffee refills. She took Juan once and he took a great Instagram there. Sara and her would go often and come back home to watch something trashy, reality TV about plastic people. But most often, she would go alone. She would sit and steep in the American-ness of it, the immigrant servers and Top 40 music and calories and grimy ATMs. There would always be too much of pancake and Jia’s skirt would tighten. She’d make use of the coffee and walk home slowly, straight to her bed and lie there, endlessly scrolling through other people’s lives. Eventually, her eyes closed. Now she could be anywhere at all.

(Tom’s, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn)

Image of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan, New York

Appa

blue flame turned light blue
turned orange under half-sphere metal
waiting to turn milky texture
into crispy shells
that my grandmother’s toothless gums
cannot could not chew
despite how much she wanted to

ladle spooning texture onto hot
metal, circling it around the sides
in an upstairs, dimly lit
second floor, plastic metal
chairs and tables, corner
behind the glass panel
in an Abu Dhabi street I cannot remember
in a foreign city turned home

rice flour, coconut milk, yeast
mixed and left to rise
for my one staple served between
semesters when my feet
landed on the ground I was born in

aerated bubbles popping on black
surface pan creating corridors
weaving through streets leading
from Madinat Zayed next to
luminous pink venus salon
in the night because
they only serve appa for dinner

sliced onions fried with miris and sugar
spotted with chili seeds
creating fire within my tummy
the spicy seeni sambol wrapped in
soft crunchy appa remind
my taste buds that they are alive

white tender squishy center
radiating into light crisp brownness
served on 1st avenue snuggled
thinly between fire escapes and
basement shops selling
South Asian spices

sunny side ups
sitting center in bithara appa
waiting for crunchy shells to
slit through the orange yolk
oozing over, coating
memories of introducing
Sri Lankan food to the
habibis and habibtis
on warm humid days
where the spices hit
their tongues into foreignness
later where the spices hit
their tongues into homeness

Artwork by Tjalf Sparnaay

Dietary Intake

Losing all this fat
Is close to impossible
Blame it on Maroosh

*

Mechanical blades
Innocent still lives snapped shut
My poor fingernails

*

To read is to eat
Spivak, Habibi, Mufti
I devour them all

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

Beautiful Adonis of a Lake Bradford Sandwich Shop

I know you best from the Tennessee Street location
As a hazel eyed sandwich artist
In your transparent gloves smelling of Parmesan cheese.
Splotches of burgundy vinegar blemish
Your company-issued striped shirt.

You look sexy behind that counter of cold, packed meat,
6 to12 inches of wheat and white bread.
I watch your lips move as you
Ask if I want mayonnaise, mustard
On the foot-long turkey.
Let me take you away from this place,
Be the prince who rides up to unleash you
From your big belly boss.
We can go over to my place, settle down
With a few Clint Eastwood movies, plant a bowl
Of microwave popcorn between our bodies.

How exquisite you look tonight kissing
The buttons of the register with your fingers.
I want to be your lover, your private dancer.
Buy you expensive clothes,
Massage your feet; lay you down to sleep on my sofa bed.
Your name rings in my
Ebony ears. You appear in wet dreams.
I’ll have a medium fruit punch
If you share it with me.
Come to the poetry reading
As I read this poem.
I want to introduce you to my parents
As my boyfriend.
The man I’m embracing beneath electric blankets in front of Jay Leno.
Let’s sit beneath vanilla lights
In a bar as we get drunk and rowdy, starting fistfights.
End up in the hospital pissing away the pain in bedpans.

You come to me white and warm in jack off dreams.
Nothing can ruin us here.
No one can spoil me to you.
My index finger circles the cap of your red knees.
Peppermint breath tickles your ear.
Tequila tongue pours down my throat.

Brian, sweet sandwich artist, bubble butt stunning
In black shorts, slips sweaty quarter in the jukebox at The Warehouse
As we dance to Stevie Nicks.

Save me from the glory holes of the world,
From the man who calls for my cock from fiberglass partitions.
Brian with curly locks of hair
At your stomach, autumn pubes at your golden groin,
Sneakers scuffed, smeared
With spilled food and generic brand bleach,
Call me 421-2166 when you get off work,
When you’ve made yourself comfortable after a hot shower.

Wake me with midnight phone calls
Wanting to go for a ride in your rust-colored Camaro.
Oh, Beautiful Adonis
Of a Lake Bradford Sandwich Shop.

Written by Shane Allison
Artwork by Bobby Doherty