Urdaneta is about four hours from Manila by bus. The Greyhound-style buses advertised air conditioning and WiFi, though the latter didn’t seem to be working very well for me. Vendors filed on to sell snacks when we stopped, which seems to be a common thing in this part of the world. I also discovered that you had to pay 5 pesos to use a rest stop toilet, which is also pretty common.
Outside Manila, the roads clear up and the Philippine countryside is green and lush. Housing generally improves, more often than not composed of cinderblocks with a variety of styles of roofing, from corrugated steel to orange tile, though some are still accented with blue tarps. On the two-lane highway, the bus never missed an opportunity to pass anything moving at a slower clip, most notably the increasingly prevalent ‘tricycle’ mini-cabs.
The moment I arrived in Urdanetta, M.’s cousin looked at my bulky hiking boots and asked to know my shoe size. Twenty minutes later, we were a block down the street in M.’s family shop when a hand reached through the window with a brand-new pair of flip-flops in my size. You don’t wear bulky shoes in the Philippines. Most people in the countryside take tricycles just to avoid walking any distance in the heat.
M.’s family owns much of the street behind the local military college, including a sprawling, marble-floored apartment block, a computer gaming center, and three competing convenience stores, while M.’s father hopes to have a new block of student housing ready in time for the start of the next school year. The entire street functions as a single organism, down to the dogs rushing up to chase away unfamiliar canines. Of course, it’s the outside dogs that do the rushing. The vanity dogs sit in little kennels with prim haircuts, to be taken out only to show to guests then put right away again.
M.’s cousin spotted me watching a chicken wandering by the open-air karaoke bar they were in the process of building. Apropos of nothing, he asked me if I wanted to kill it. I said I’d pass. As it turned out, he was about to do so anyway, after which he held it upside-down and dribbled its blood around floor of the bar as a sort of blessing. He then cooked it up for dinner, and no sooner was the concrete flooring dry than the entire family moved into the bar and started to sing.
M. is one of just three sisters; her mother is one of about eight, with a vast age range that makes it nearly impossible to keep track of who is a cousin, second-cousin, niece or nephew. I started taking notes just to remember names, but it didn’t help that a quarter of the younger niece-cousin-nephew-whatevers had nicknames completely unrelated to their real names. By the time we took a drive out to meet her father’s side of the family, I pretty much gave up.
M.’s parents worked in Japan for several years while M. was growing up. They saved up enough to renovate their house and store, but that was some time ago, and both are starting to get a little worn. The new student apartment is largely being funded by remittances from M. and her sisters in Dubai, while M.’s father generally gets by with farming rice or working in the shop. The shop was also where we ate most nights, with people occasionally sticking their hands through the little window to buy a single candy or a pair of cigarettes. Most people can’t afford to buy more at once; money is spent as it comes in.
Many buildings in the provinces are just constructed until money runs out, with steel wires hanging out of the top of concrete posts like vertical dreadlocks, waiting for the day the owner has the funds to build the next floor. M.’s dad supplements his income by raising roosters for cockfighting, which is apparently a perfectly normal thing to do in the Philippines.
I spent most of my time sitting around in the gazebo by the karaoke bar, occasionally chatting, but generally silent. Everybody in the Philippines studies in English, but only some use it outside of school. I spoke most often with M.’s mom, who is comfortable with English, or her dad, who prefers Japanese. A quick Green Day track on the karaoke machine, however, put me in instant demand to sing heavy metal songs with the nephew-cousins. I also had a few offers to go out and shoot guns, both from M.’s dad, who has one in the shop, and one of her older cousins, who is a trainer with the marines.
Asking M.’s father for permission to marry his daughter was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. He just made me promise not to hurt her, and to learn Tagalog. The former is a given; the latter will take time.
In Japan, the kids I taught would often ask me why my nose stuck out so much, or why my eye sockets were so deep. One of M.’s young nieces pleasantly surprised me: After asking me the typical, “Why does your nose stick out like that?” question, she turned around, examined her family gathered around the gazebo and amended, “Hang on: Why are all of our noses so flat?”
I don’t think there’s much linguistic value in having foreigners in Japanese schools. Rather, I think the value lies in demonstrating that there are alternatives to the status quo.
During my time in the Philippines I ate ground pig’s face and chicken feet, and once bit into what turned out to be the back of a chicken’s skull. Chicken feet aren’t bad – it’s just hard to get the meat out, like eating the skinny ends of crabs’ legs. I didn’t try balut, which is a duck fetus in a boiled egg, and which everyone insists is really much better than it sounds.
More than anything, I was struck by the difference in attitude compared to Japan. A day wasn’t so much about what we did but about who we saw. If we drove up to a relative’s house, they would immediately drop what they were doing and bring out a chair for us, or give up the one they were sitting in, and maybe give us a drink. And it didn’t feel like this was a special thing because M. was back; it felt like this is what they would have done any day. Family and friends were to be cherished – and, of course, any breach of that principle was treated like a nuclear threat. Fun crowd.