Despite the bulul being largely manufactured for the tourist trade today and having become synonymous with Filipino pasalubong (i.e. souvenir), a bulul is a carved wooden figure representing a rice deity and originally used by the Ifugao, one of the indigenous peoples of the northern Philippines, to guard their rice crops. Traditionally carved in narra, bulul were highly stylized representations of ancestors, and were thought to gain power from the presence of the ancestral spirit.
The following is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, From a Piece of Bamboo. It tells the story of a Filipino-American family who returns to their Ilokano ancestral barrio a couple of years after EDSA I, their first time back since immigrating to California ten years before during the Marcos dictatorship. The excerpt takes place during the family’s last night in the barrio before making their long journey back to Los Angeles. The novel is told through the eyes of their teenage daughter, Josie.
THE LAST HUNGER
Residents from the three homes gather at Lilang Sabel’s house for our last dinner with one light bulb and three lanterns to share. I’m not sure who the true residents of Lilang Sabel’s house are. I figure some live in the other two houses, but since we’re in town, everyone is here. After tonight, it’s a slow and bumpy ten-hour drive in a jeepney to Quezon City for a few more days and back on a flight to LA.
The table is laden with grilled Blue Marlin, Chicken Tinola, Papaitan, and several gulay dishes: Monggo, Pinakbet, Paksiw, Dinengdeng, and Guisadong Upo. Fish is caught at the beach a couple of miles from here. There’s no refrigeration in the barrio. Meals are fresh with everything caught and gathered that day.
Since we’ve been here, we’ve had to eat with our hands, with the exception of a few soups like Tinola or Sinigang when we’re offered spoons, sometimes, but outside of that, the only spoons available are the big serving spoons to scoop your own personal portion. Mommy and Pop never warned us about eating with our hands in the barrio until we sat down to our first meal and they began plowing through with fluid hands like old pros.
Mommy and Pop and our aunts and uncles all laughed at our initial clumsiness as Sam and Anna and I tried to pick up rice in our hands. While the other dishes weren’t as difficult as we were long accustomed to picking our chicken and fish off the bone with our hands anyway – no matter how “Americanized” our relatives assumed us to be – it was the rice that felt impossible. For an eternal second, I felt like giving up and not eating at all.
After carefully watching Mommy and Pop eat their rice as it never touched the palm of their hand but was neatly packed into a little mass between their thumb and the tips of their fingers, Sam and Anna and I eventually got it. We ate with ease as if we’d done it all our lives. There were no applause or praise once we figured it out. Rather, the adults ignored us, speaking in Ilokano among themselves while waving their hands in symphony with a little mass of balled-up rice held in the tips of their fingers and thumb.
Now, on our last night, we eat like true inapoy champions. After dinner, Mommy, Pop, Sam, Anna, and I spend our last night with our countless relatives whom we wonder when we’ll ever see again. Between the storytelling and the jokes, I can’t help but focus on the dark corners of Lilang Sabel’s sala and wonder if I am seeing things or truly seeing the images of my ancestors with their tan faces, chiseled arms, calloused fingers, calloused toes, and their teeth dark amber-stained with betel nut.
In one corner, a barefoot toothless great-aunt stands severely hunched over. Dirt is buried deep beneath her fingernails. Her eyes, faded to a pale blue. Her fingers and toes, gnarled by the toil of farm life while my girl-cousins call me Ms. Filipina-American teen with soft hands and soft feet.
Everyone here is beaten by the country heat, immune from the ruthless mosquitoes who refuse their blood. These same relatives who are unafraid of the dark while their skin carries the fragrance of rice paddies, sweat, and humidity. These farmers who know nothing of universities, Jimi Hendrix, John Steinbeck, computers, condoms, but only this life that gives them the stroking sun, swaying banana leaves, coconuts, tobacco fields, rice paddies, typhoons, sex, makabuhay, the China Sea, carabao, cicadas, goats, dogs, fiestas, aswang, and trolls.
The only thing true is the folklore here where trolls are afraid of the city and choose to remain with these simple, wise men and where strong women breastfeed their babies without shame.
No one speaks English in this space, just Ilokano.
Ghosts of our ancestors linger within these walls, like when I was five and the world first fell away. We had been living in LA for six months then. It was the last time the ancestors could reach me.
It was in the hallway of Uncle Tino and Auntie Patsing’s house when the voices came. They began in my ribcage, then sirens to my head, trapped there. Panic set in but I didn’t scream. I sat down, leaned my back against the wall, wrapped my arms around my legs, tucked my knees to my chest, bowed my head and closed my eyes. “Stop talking to me, please,” I whispered. The voices were a mix of static, of too many trying to speak at once, spinning, spinning. I never understood what they were trying to tell me except I found the experience of them frightening and overwhelming.
Then the voices stopped. They stopped when I started going to school and I completely lost my Tagalog.
I thought if I listened hard enough, I’d hear them again, but I never did. I didn’t realize how much I would miss the whirring of their voices, all trying to tell me something at the same dizzying time.
I think hard about what my cousins have taught me over the past few days.
When Spain arrived, it was unnecessary to recap the past to children. They had endured the same struggles as their parents. Together, they had survived colonization, small pox, war, rape, forced migrations, and the destruction of their script Baybayin. The ancestors would grow old while their children grew up silent and ashamed of their own brown skin and suffering under American and Japanese imperialists. Those same children would then raise their children without telling them stories of their past. Their children desiring better prospects beyond the barrio, or simply because they were forced off their land, would migrate to other provinces like Pangasinan and Nueva Ecija or to big cities like Manila, Cebu, and Davao. Then their children would migrate to even bigger cities across the sea like Honolulu, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Chicago, London, Sydney, Dubai, Milan. Great-great-grandchildren would be born elsewhere never setting foot on the islands and never learning the struggles of their ancestors. The old people full of stories and revolutionary spirit would eventually die off in the barrio while immigrant elders abroad were no longer affectionately greeted the Mano by their foreign-born grandchildren. Teenage descendants in America like Sam and Anna and I would be left scrounging for pieces of our heritage, while those indifferent would grow up obsessing over the kind of cars they drove, the latest in Calvin Klein, the latest technology in home entertainment, and hating the look of their skin, eyes, and nose.
This morning, I woke up to roosters crowing at 4 AM, like the sound of women shrieking before birth.
Is it possible that at the age when Mommy and Pop started dreaming of America is the same age where I feel a tie to this land, to return? Mommy and Pop feel they no longer belong here. That we no longer belong here.
Here, schoolgirls walk in their sailor suits – ankle-length white skirts with blue hems, blue ties, and elf collars – while jeepneys and tricycles roar by, their engines revving power, and then drowned out by the honk of another jeepney or tricycle competing for riders. Congestion is not that bad. There is space amidst the chaos. It isn’t overwhelming. Not yet. Wind whips around the long hair of girls who sit in jeepneys where wide-open windows are ledges to rest your elbows on. From one sari-sari to the next, young mommies play with their babies in their laps, holding them close to kiss their pudgy cheeks, then lifting them high in the air to let them know, “Yes, it is possible to fly.” A lonely goat and a lonely dog wander the streets in this wide expanse of green fields, rippling for miles. And yet I know something out here is craving big cars, big streets, and big city lights. The land is rice paddies and cornfields everywhere. I want it to stay that way. But there is hunger in the air. That same hunger I felt at Lola Piling’s house, when Mommy told us it was once rice paddies everywhere in Quezon City. The industrial hunger doesn’t come from the rice paddies but from the creeping of those sneaky in their demand for change.
Pop warns against my questions about why we never stayed: “They can cut you down and shut you up, Josie. Whenever someone does good in the world, it’s dangerous. You can only have so much until everything collapses around you. You work like a carabao. You die like a carabao. Right now, things can be good but then all of a sudden, everything can be gone. Just like that,” Pop snaps his fingers and sighs. He knows something I don’t.
We left and are leaving again.
It’s so beautiful here. I will miss this. This. This. Everything. But this is not what Pop wanted for us. I still ask, Why couldn’t we have everything, here? Did we sell out by moving to America, the country that colonized us for almost five decades and denied us our freedom and independence?
I still ask.
As Ilokano songs are belted out amidst the laughter that booms from every corner of the house, it feels as if everyone is looking at me and Sam and Anna, their eyes sunken in from hard work and hunger, an aswang hunger that starves for our sweet American blood one last time.