Image: “Amarilyo” by Katrina Pallon, oil on canvas, 2016
This particular painting captures times past, the youth and beauty of a balasang, a young lady, “sabong ni lirio,” a budding lily, who would’ve been serenaded on a veranda by a barok, a young man, in love with her a century ago.
“Serenade” is a vignette from my novel-in-progress, From a Piece of Bamboo.
The traditional Ilocano folk song featured here, “Manang Biday” has been translated into English by my cousin, Sheryl “Che” Fortune Supapo-Sandigan, and sung a cappella by me with a guitar clip by Florante Aguilar (The Art of Harana, New Art Media, 2008).
For those unfamiliar with “Manang Biday,” it is an Ilocano folk song about harana, the art of courtship through serenade. Harana songs were customarily sung by young men in hopes to court young, unmarried women. Like most folk songs, “Manang Biday” was composed during the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines as the song exhibits Spanish influence with Filipino indigenous sound and had been passed down through oral tradition. It was around the 1930s and 40s when harana songs from all over the Philippines hit a renaissance boom. They were finally being recorded and popularized into mainstream music particularly in Manila. The art of harana, of the serenade, has since disappeared, but the music lives on through nostalgia and fond memories. You can learn more about harana here.
Through my grandfather, I learned to love these songs during my childhood, sometimes as lullaby music which he played to get his two little precocious granddaughters to fall asleep, or at huge family gatherings played as party music for the aunts, uncles, lolos, and lolas to sing and dance to.
After lunch, Pop and Auntie Chona bring us to the site of their childhood home on the other side of the rice paddies. As we walk on the main dirt road, Sam, Anna, and I each carry a Sam’s Club box full of Marlboro cigarettes. The red and white boxes are as big as shoeboxes. They are for our uncles, Pop’s cousins, who live on the other side of the barrio. Pop is full of stories, sharing in an excited voice how these were the same rice paddies he had waded in decades and decades ago as a boy.
At the sight of a carabao, Pop tells us the story of when he was about six and had been riding on the back of his carabao, the huge beast unexpectedly stumbled and came crashing down. He thought the beast had killed him. Pop’s laugh booms.
We arrive at a small turn-off from the main road, make a right, and hike up a small dirt path opening up to what looks like a little village scattered with brown shacks. Auntie Chona warns us, “Be careful. Maybe we will go hunting for smurfs.”
Sam whispers to me, “What the hell is Auntie Chona talking about?”
“Yeah, smurfs, we’ll go looking for them. They live here, in the trees,” she repeats.
“And are they blue and do they sing la-la-la-la-la-la?” Sam asks sarcastically.
Anna and I laugh when Auntie Chona laughs harder and says, “Yeah, blue, green, red, they live here, in the hills, in the trees, you will see,” pointing at all the trees hovering above us. “There’s also aswang. You know, vampires in the trees.”
Pop eyes his sister, with a look that tells her to shut-up about that nonsense, but Auntie Chona keeps right on talking about smurfs and aswang.
At their childhood site, the only things left are the first three cement steps of a staircase and the foundation covered with cracks like endless veins and arteries. Pop doesn’t warn us about the site. I get a feeling this is a surprise to him. It is the first time I see Pop confused. Almost a little like he is about to cry, but Pop never cries. Pop does his best hiding any shocked expression as I can tell he doesn’t want us to know something he doesn’t.
Pop converses with Auntie Chona and his cousins in Ilocano. His cousins greet us when we arrive. Sam, Anna, and I are immediately expected to greet them with the mano as they hold out their hand without hesitation. It makes me uncomfortable being forced to do it and it’s not something Pop went over with us before coming here, but Sam and Anna and I pick up on it quickly, performing this ritual with every elder we meet. I don’t remember ever having done it when we lived here. It’s awkward and anybody watching us can immediately tell how embarrassed we look and they probably think we’re ignorant American kids. It makes me wonder where the practice came from.
As Pop talks with his cousins, I know they’re telling him about the house. Their tone seems to say, “Duardo, we thought you knew.” As Sam and I question Pop about the house, he tells us Lilong Dinong had the home torn down seven years ago and sold the lumber before joining the rest of us in California.
I watch him pace around the ruins in deep contemplation, his head down and arms crossed behind him, as if he were examining chairs and tables. There’s an emptiness in his eyes as he sees the image of the house he had grown up in. We see nothing but an empty cement stage, surrounded by an overgrowth of tall coconut and mango trees.
“When your Lilong Dinong was a young man, he went into the mountains with all the men from the barrio and they cut down trees and carried them all the way down to build their houses. By the time we were in elementary, the barrio offered him the position of Barrio Captain, but he turned it down. He knew we were all going to make it out of here. That was his dream. Education was important to him.”
As Pop rambles on about the value of education, Anna sits on the bottom step and says, “I remember the house. Ama and Ina would sometimes leave me here all by myself. They’d go to the market or work in the fields. I remember a neighbor came by and I told them they had gone out.”
I hadn’t heard her say, “Ama” in a very long time, not since Lilong died. That’s what she called him. The rest of us called our grandparents, “Lilong” and “Lilang,” but Anna called them, “Ama” and “Ina.” They were her parents after all until she finally got her visa and came to live with us. Though Anna is nine, the way she talks about her life in the Philippines before she was reunited with us makes her sound very old, like a reincarnated being who lived and remembered her past life from a hundred years ago. I oftentimes feel like I am the little sister and not the other way around.
“What were you? Two? Three?” I ask.
“Maybe three. I wasn’t scared. They left me alone at home. It’s not like anything bad was going to happen. Aunts, uncles, and cousins were always around and I could go in and out of the house whenever.”
I imagine a toddler Anna, slipping in and out of the house whenever she pleased, gone off to chase a cousin or goat or dog.
It’s not long before several other aunts and uncles who live in the nearby shacks welcome us with merienda – tall glasses of fresh coconut juice just plucked this morning from the trees that surround us. We’re also served warm suman individually wrapped inside glossy banana leaves. Though we’ve just eaten lunch, being greeted with a steady stream of food is the custom. One doesn’t refuse. There is no such thing as, “No, thank you.” You always take a little, even if you’re not hungry. You must, or it’s rude, and Sam, Anna, and I are not about to be seen as the snobby American kids.
Pop finally passes around the boxes of Marlboro cigarettes to the uncles who are gathered around the ruins.
As they tear through the Marlboro boxes, some of my uncles beam like children tearing through presents on Christmas morning. The others peer into the boxes with shy smiles, scratching the back of their heads, as if saying, “Duardo, you shouldn’t have.”
I know we’re not supposed to smoke but I don’t say anything. I understand the cigarettes are my uncles’ little treats, like candy is our little treat. And candy, like cigarettes, are bad for you. Still, when I see how many teeth my uncles are missing or rotting and I know cigarettes are bad for your lungs, I feel very confused about Pop buying boxes of cigarettes for them. I can’t help but ask, “Why do you buy them so many?”
“Cigarettes are expensive and this is what they like. American cigarettes,” Pop explains.
“But you told me tobacco grows here. Why would it be expensive?”
“The tobacco is harvested here and sent back to America for manufacturing where they add a bunch of additives to make the cigarette, then they sell it back to the Philippines three times or more of what the tobacco leaf is worth. But it’s American and they like things American. As long as I buy it for them, it’s okay, balasang ko. Life is hard. Your uncles have nothing so you have to give them a little, you know what I mean? It’s not all the time they get to smoke these cigarettes. But you slap an American label on it and they love it.”
I guess it’s almost like letting a child believe Santa Claus exists when we all know he doesn’t, but we think it’s better for kids to believe Santa is real. And same with thinking all things American are good.
On that cracked cement stage, Pop talks a lot, laughs a lot, and sings many Ilocano folk songs, songs I haven’t heard since Lilong Dinong. He reminisces about his childhood in the barrio, while the songs make me reminisce about a childhood with Lilong Dinong.
“When I was your age,” he begins in English, carefully enunciating each consonant and vowel in his strong Ilocano accent, “I was already living away from home. High school was in the neighboring town. Oh, how I cried and cried for my ama and ina. I rarely went home. Oh how those town kids laughed at me for wearing the same clothes everyday. I beat them to the ground with my stick. You know, the branch I had snapped off a tree!” Pop laughs. His story doesn’t move me as I can’t imagine Pop ever crying or ever being bullied. He continues, “I had one pair of pants. When I got home from school, your Lilang Mishang made me remove them so I had to walk around the house with my butó hanging out. She didn’t want me to get my only pair dirty!”
Pop then proudly boasts, “You know my kids are so smart. I send them to private schools and Samuel and Josephine are getting straight A’s, and even little Anna is getting straight A’s. Only the best for my kids, you see. I work hard and pay for the best education they can get, not like those Filipinos who send their kids to public schools where the laglags go. You know there are gangs and guns and metal detectors at those public schools. Susmariyosep!”
Pop is a big advocate for education, but he’s very mean to me when I try reading a book to my little cousin who is three-years-old.
“Stop reading to her! Why are you trying to make her work already? Besides, you’re on vacation. You shouldn’t be reading anything!” Pop is strange. He values education immensely and yet he doesn’t believe education should be enjoyed. To him, education is work. And in the barrio, work is not something anyone enjoyed. You’re crazy if you enjoy work. His logic is, if you enjoy work, then you must not be really working. I’ve wondered about the things Pop enjoys. I’ve wondered if he enjoys anything at all.
“Duardo, are you making your kids study too hard and not eating? Ay! Your kids. They are kutangi. Aren’t you feeding them?” Uncle Bing, Pop’s second cousin, asks, with a large smile on his face, flashing his nine or so teeth left. Uncle Bing is not old, maybe forty, but he has already lost most of his teeth. Pop is headed in the same direction if he doesn’t brush his teeth like we tell him to, but he keeps telling us he doesn’t believe in dentists. He says they destroy his teeth rather than keep them healthy, even though he himself is strict about sending us to the dentist every six months.
“For your information,” Pop enunciates slowly and loudly in English, “all Filipino children in America are not nalukmég. Besides, all their food goes to their height. You see how tall my kids are.”
“Why don’t your kids speak Tagalog or Ilocano? I don’t even hear Josie address Samuel as ‘Manong’ and Anna address Josie as ‘Manang’,” Uncle Juaning comments disapprovingly.
“Oh, they’re lazy to learn. You know, those kids,” Pop points with his puckered lips in our direction without having to point a finger at us. “No discipline to keep up with it. Ah, besides, it doesn’t do them any good to know any of it. They go to American schools and will go to American colleges –”
“– and will marry Americanos? Puraw Americanos?” Uncle Bing butts in.
“Haan! Of course not! They will marry Filipinos!” he yells back.
“And, Duardo, how will they do that? What, are you going to send them back here for a husband or wife?”
Pop gives no response, except clicks his tongue and lets out his infamous sigh like a flat musical note gone awry. My uncles speak their mind in English and I wonder if they want Sam and Anna and me to understand.
“They have sweet American blood too, your kids, so pale. No brown skin anymore. And Duardo, your hands are soft,” Uncle Juaning laughs.
Pop awkwardly clears his throat and clicks his tongue.
We can’t speak the language but we understand what they’re saying. As we overhear Pop talk with his cousins, Sam squeezes my fingers and I squeeze back.
Amidst the laughter and vibrant storytelling, the men burst into song:
Manang Biday, ilukatmo man
‘Ta bintana ikalumbabam
‘Ta kitaem ‘toy kinayawan
Ay, matayakon no dinak kaasian
“Wait! Wait! What does it mean?” I ask, laughing so hard as the others laugh too.
Auntie Chona answers, “Manang Biday is loosely translated as Lady Biday, a song of courtship. The first stanza shows the traditional way a young lad courts a lady – he calls for the lady outside her window. But ay-sos! Boys can’t serenade ladies these days. With young people living in high-rises. Ay-sos! She wouldn’t be able to hear him above the honking cars!” Auntie Chona lets out a loud, squealing laugh as if she can’t breathe.
There was a song Lilang Mishang used to hum over and over again and I’m sad I never understood the song. She would hum the song while she sewed, washed dishes, scrubbed floors, or weeded in the garden. I wonder what song Lilong Dinong serenaded her with when she was a young girl.
“Let us demonstrate,” Uncle Bing proposes. Everyone in the circle claps their hands applauding and cheering him on with their whistles and laughter, as if the adults are teenagers all over again.
Uncle Bing takes Auntie Chona’s hand, who pretends to be flattered, putting her other hand to her chest, then covers her big smiling mouth, and giggles. She walks away from him, as if rejecting him, and climbs up to the third cement step. “Shall I stand here? Shall this be my balcony, loverboy?” she laughs again, almost screaming with the other ladies, laughing and squealing in chorus.
While the adults try to remember the lyrics, an uncle comes running out of his house with a guitar in hand strumming “Manang Biday.” How a guitar magically shows up on the scene is beyond me. Were all of the men serenaders?
Uncle Bing begins, “The lad sings:
Manang Biday, ilukatmo man
‘Ta bintana ikalumbabam
‘Ta kitaem ‘toy kinayawan
Ay, matayakon no dinak kaasian.
The adults, laughing and clapping their hands, translate:
Lady Biday, please open your window
and see my condition
Oh, have pity on me
or I will die
Someone interjects, “Ay-sos! is that what it really means?” Another laugh bursts out as Uncle Bing with a few other men continue, “The lady then snubs the lad by responding:
Siasinnoka nga aglabaslabas,
‘toy hardinko umok ni ayat,
Ammuem a balasangak,
Sabong ni lirio, di pay nagukrad.
The adults chat among themselves for a translation, in bits and pieces, saying,
Who do you think you are, trespassing
in the garden where I play?
You know I am still a young lady,
a budding lily yet to bloom.
Uncle Bing explains, “The lad then cautions the lady about meeting different kinds of men, comparing it to harvesting fruits, thus:
Denggem, ading, ta bilinenka-
Please, dear, listen to my advice –
“As a note for you kids, ‘ading’ connotes someone who is younger, yes, like Josie being Samuel’s ading, but as in this case, it can also be used as a term of endearment.”
I giggle as Uncle Bing uses the word, “connote.” I notice when my family tries to find words to explain things, they use big words, surprising even themselves with words they probably would never use except around their American relatives.
Ta inkanto sadiay laguna
Ta inkanto Agala’t mangga
Lansones pay ken, adu a kita
When you go to the east
You will harvest mangoes
and lanzones, and many others
No nangato, dimo sukdalen
No nababa, dimo gaw-aten
No naregreg, dimo piduten
Ngem labaslabasam to laeng
When the fruit is high, don’t reach for it
When it is low, don’t bend down to get it
When it falls, don’t pick it up
Instead, ignore it and move on
The adults no longer laugh or clap but listen attentively to Uncle Bing’s translation, as if they were all learning something new like Sam, Anna, and I.
“In the next stanza, the young Biday tells the lad only she can make the decision on who to love. And she will make her choice known in due time. The use of a ‘panyo’ . . . Ay, do you know what that is?”
We shake our heads.
“It’s a handkerchief which is a traditional way for Filipinas to discreetly show a man she likes him. According to tradition, a young girl must never let a man know she likes him. The man has to make the first move by courting the lady. To encourage the man, the lady intentionally drops her handkerchief to where the man is, and waits for him to pick it up and return it.
Daytoy paniok no maregregko
Ti makapidut isublinanto
Ta nagmarka iti naganko
Ken nagburda pay ti sinanpuso
When I drop my handkerchief
Whoever gets it will surely return it
Because my name is on it
Embroidered with hearts
“Brokenhearted, the lad pleads:
Alaem dayta kutsilio
Ta abriem ‘toy barukongko
Ta tapnon maipapasmo
dayta guram ken sentimiento
Just get a knife then
And stab my heart
Release me from my pain
and feelings for you.”
The words are beautiful déjà vu. Uncle Bing is silent, claiming the last drags of his cigarette while Uncle Juaning pretends to take an invisible knife and stab Uncle Bing behind his back. The silence is broken by laughter erupting from the group, but Uncle Bing remains contemplative, letting out a small sigh before his cigarette is entirely out.
“Josie, you are like Manang Biday, little winker with the boys,” Lilong Dinong giggled as he held my seven-year-old self in his lap. I had told him how he always laughed and never was sad. “I get sad,” he laughed, failing to convince me he could exhibit any other emotion. I didn’t know then what Lilong meant when he called me a “little winker with the boys,” but at thirteen, I come to realize Manang Biday was a flirt who wasn’t easily wooed.
Lilong Dinong and I had spent the afternoon in an explosion of giggles. He would’ve just picked me and Sam up from school then. As I sat in his lap laughing the afternoon away, I had watched his eyes dance to the tune of “Manang Biday” that played on a cassette tape in our living room with shag green carpet. I wonder how those same eyes looked the day a car swerved into his, putting his smile out forever.
I hum the long forgotten tune. The verses bob up and down in my head as I try to capture the words in my throat. There’s no use for balconies anymore. No more boys with their guitars wooing girls on starry nights. They’ve been replaced by phones and videoke. Mangoes and lanzones, replaced by apples and oranges. We now stand amidst the ruins of Lilong’s house conjuring up lyrics no longer sung, no longer understood. I struggle to taste their memory but give up, feeling trapped as the words vaporize under my tongue and into thin air like Uncle Bing’s cigarette smoke.