Alternate Reality

Nostalgia_by_SuzyTheButcher

Do you ever wonder what life would be like had you taken another path? Last week I had the opportunity to go back to volunteer at my old elementary school in East Side San Jose. While there, I was very nostalgic but also thought about what my life would have been like if I had stayed in the area.

My co-workers and I were asked to judge a science fair and we were escorted into the cafeteria with all the projects. The cafeteria brought back so many memories-this is where we’d hold our performances and awards ceremonies (and of course eat terrible cafeteria food). I have a vivid memory of learning, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” in the 1st grade and singing it for a crowd of proud parents for a Christmas pageant.

The awards ceremonies every quarter were my favorite. I always made it to Honor Roll and it always made my parents really proud. Those ceremonies were always during the middle of the day, like 10am or 2pm, but either one or both of my parents would always be there to watch me receive it. They must’ve seen me go up there a thousand times, but each time, they couldn’t be prouder and they always had to take pictures with me.

While visiting, I actually had the chance to see my 2nd grade teacher.  The first thing she said to me was, “Do you have your doctorate now?” I chuckled but was also humbled that she thought so highly of me at such a young age.

I thought, what would’ve happened if I stayed in East Side? When I moved over to Catholic school, I quickly realized how different I was. My teacher reprimanded me on my first couple days there because I swore so much. I didn’t even realize I swore that much! Being in East Side made it normal to speak and carry myself in that way. At the time, I still kept in touch with some friends from East Side but I heard that some got into gangs, got pregnant, or simply dropped out of school. I tried my best to maintain these friendships but after awhile, it became clear that I no longer had anything in common with them. I’d gotten ‘out’ of East Side.

Despite all that, I’m grateful for having lived there because I was able to appreciate the sacrifices my parents made to provide more for me. They were very strategic too, and made sure that they moved my life and social sphere away from East Side. Because of that one move, I’ve been privileged to attend some of the best schools, receive a stellar education, and now have a kickass job working for a startup as part of the Silicon Valley technorati. I don’t know if all that would have been possible if I had stayed in East Side.

Giving back to the community, especially to my own school, meant a lot to me. Although they say that East Side has gotten better over the years, it will always make me wary. My family has been the victim of crime and violence a handful of times while we lived there. Our cars have been broken into, property has been stolen, I’ve been harassed, my brother has been shot at for driving and helping a complete stranger (our truck to this day still has bullet holes in it) and worst of all, my uncle was killed by a deranged driver while he was walking at the park close to my house.

Still, growing up in East Side has positively shaped me. Obviously, I tend towards ghetto fabulousness, my first musical loves will always be hip-hop and R&B, and I have a big heart for giving charity to the underprivileged. I think, however, the main facets of someone living in a poor area are to have a little irreverence, a great deal of resilience, and a lot of heart.  I have to thank my parents and my grandma. They did all the heavy lifting. They made it out of East Side. Me? I’m just here making them proud.

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96

light_of_hope_by_afif508

What would you do if you lived till you were 96 years old? What would you do in that time? What kind of life would you lead? Would you look back with pride? Fondness? Or shame and regret? Would you remember anything at all?

Grandma turned 96 years old today. She’s at the point where I can’t ask her such heavy-handed questions. But what I can tell you is that the proof is in the pudding. Grandma has  3 sons, 7 grandchildren and 10 great grand children. She’s survived WWII under Japanese invasion, when she put chicken blood on her clothes and blackened her naturally light complexion with dirt so that the Japanese would keep from raping her. She suffered the death of her first husband, who was woefully murdered over an argument regarding a transaction of water buffalo. After that she somehow, she picked herself up and married again and had her last 2 boys.

She left everything she’d ever known and came to the US in the 70s, working with Dad in the burgeoning Silicon Valley, making microchips in a long factory line for semiconductors. A decade later, she welcomed me and JR to the States not only as full-time grandma, but also as babysitter, cook, and guardian angel. Every morning, she’d prepare our breakfasts and lunches and would walk us to school. Promptly at 2:15pm she would stand outside the school gates with her trusty blue umbrella, waiting to escort me and JR home. My friends always thought it was weird that she’d use that umbrella as we walked in the sunshine. I never understood it either. In fact, I have no memory of ever walking in the rain with that umbrella.

Our family business that put me and JR through school was built on her special recipe of spices for our homemade lechon. To this day, no one knows that perfect blend of salt, pepper, lemongrass and love that makes our lechon the most delicious people have ever had. Every day, she’d go through her chores of sweeping up in front of the house, taking out the garbage and whatever else the house needed. I’d tell her that she shouldn’t be doing such things at her age, but she said she liked doing them because she felt strong. Every night like clockwork, she’d plop herself down in front of the TV and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

In my early adult life, she worried about my virginity and questioned my choice in men and choices I made in my relationships. To that end she only offered this sage advice regarding my supposed purity: ‘if the flower is touched, it loses its fragrance.’ Is it any wonder that she’d always try to sniff the top of my head whenever I saw her? She was a born a singer and poet. She’d preface her Happy Birthday songs with beloved Ilocano folk songs. And on every Mother’s Day, she’d recite a poem she learned all the way back from 7th grade, about how very important it was to love your mother.

Her small birthday today made me sad. She didn’t remember me again. But as we made our goodbyes and put her to bed, she insisted on escorting us to the door in her walker. She has always been this way. No matter the hour, she always wants to properly bid goodbye to her loved ones. And through this small and simple act, she begins to remember me again. She repeats my name over and over and I am overwhelmed with bittersweet love. She sings her goodbyes, saying how much she’ll miss me. I’m the last thing on her mind before we part ways again. Perhaps that’s what’s most important. What if this would be the last time I would see her?

I shook the thought out of my mind and did my best to sear that moment in my memory. As she said her goodbyes, she pushed her walker forward, dancing and singing. That’s how I always want to remember her, dancing and singing into the light. And I know somewhere deep inside her memory, she will always come back and remember me.

Of Fire and Faith

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It had been 5 years since I’d visited the Philippines. All this time, I’d had an aversion for my homeland. My last memory of the Philippines was a painful one. I’d gone there with my then boyfriend so we could meet each other’s families. The trip was all a façade and a last ditch effort at a flailing relationship. On the outside we were a picture-perfect couple who was halfway down the aisle. On the inside we were miserable. We’d grown desperate to keep the relationship going and we planned the trip in hopes it would bring us closer together, but instead it drew us further apart.  In the last few days of our trip there, his love for home was reinvigorated, so much so that he broke down in tears. He confessed that he had no wish to get married and build a life in California with me. His heart was there in the Philippines, where his family was. I flew back to the States alone.

I love my country. I love my culture. But that memory alone kept me away from visiting the homeland for so long. I summoned all my courage and decided to return there.

I de-boarded the plane at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and walked into a wall of heat. The air was thick with humidity and the smell of home. Although this wasn’t my first time as a balikbayan, I knew it would take me a couple days to get accustomed to certain things; lack of warm water, using a tabo, being careful with the water I drank, these were things that I had to consciously account for.

Our main agenda was to go to a friend’s wedding in Boracay, do some site-seeing around the capital, and visit my family near Manila in Marikina. Little did I know that I would also spontaneously find myself in Pangasinan and Palawan!

Boracay was beautiful and fun. The 100 Islands in Pangasinan were enchanting. The Underground River in Palawan, now the newest wonder of the world, is a feat of nature. I had a great time at these amazing tourist meccas. But what I really want to share are the moments that transformed me- and those were the times I spent with the local people.

From walking by beggars and street vendors, to spending time with my own family, these were the times that affected me the most and reminded me about why it was so very important to come home.

Every time we’d see the shanty houses balanced on stilts over the water, I’d think for a moment and formulate a plan about how to stop the tremendous poverty of my country.  Seeing high-rise condominiums literally next to such devastating poverty, would break my heart. Did anyone not see the grave contrast? Maybe people had, but had come to the point of growing indifference or feeling that nothing could be done to change it.

I’d think up various schemes of fixing the country: If we put money into rehabilitating the metropolitan areas then we could pump money into tourism, and in turn the money generated there could go towards bettering the quality of living for the poor. But wait- if we fixed the metropolitan areas, wouldn’t we be displacing all the poor people who lived there?

I’d try again and think- maybe if we developed a better welfare system and educate the impoverished with trade skills, they might be able to find a better life. But wait- what about the corrupt government officials? How could we make sure the money went to the right place?

Every time I’d think of a plan, there was always some factor that I hadn’t thought of and I would get discouraged. My heart ached for my brothers and sisters. But the one thing that I admired most was the uncanny and strictly Filipino ability for joyfulness and laughter. Life is so very hard in the Philippines, but everywhere I looked there was a sense of optimism.

Amidst the shanty towns there are gatherings filled with dancing, food and karaoke.  People make do with what they have. They are grateful for the handful of blessings they can call their own. They carry a joy in their hearts that can only come from deep-rooted faith and hope.

We visited a barangay in Pangasinan where the people there prepared lunch for us. I was so touched; they had spent all day preparing the food and spent the very little they had to make a feast for us. They were so very gracious and wanted to wait till we had gotten our fill before beginning to eat their share. We took some members of the barangay on our trip to 100 Islands and they were so happy and grateful to come along.

Towards the end of the trip I went to visit my family. I wasn’t sure how I would feel after not seeing them for 5 years. I hadn’t even gotten off my cousin’s motorcycle when my uncle rushed outside and lifted me off of it and carried me into the house, singing all the while. It made me laugh so hard and made me feel so humbled that I had such a grand welcome.

They put out a whole spread of food in my cousin’s room, which was the only room with AC, just so that we’d be more comfortable. After we ate, we spent the rest of the night, drinking, laughing, doing karaoke and reminiscing on the last time I had visited. Right then, I missed my own immediate family so much, and wished they could be there to share that moment.

Probably the last and most important part of our trip was our visit to the Rizal Museum in Fort Santiago. All this time, I’d been reading up on our national hero, Jose Rizal, and had become fascinated with his life and his role in inspiring Filipinos to revolution.

We saw pages of his diary and various books he’d written and artwork he’d created.  How any one person was so gifted, eloquent and brilliant was just beyond me. Most chilling of all was when we stood outside his prison cell, his last testament was illuminated on the wall:

I have always loved my poor country. And I am sure I shall love her until my last moments, should men prove unjust to me. I shall die happy, satisfied with the thought that all I have suffered, my past, my present and my future, my life, my loves, my joys, everything, I have sacrificed for love her.

I admired this man who was prepared to die for love of his country.  Like any young imperialist conquest, the Philippines had its flaws, but the ambition to be free from colonial rule was fervent and unstoppable. Rizal had hope for this. He was willing to die for this. And as we walked out of the museum and walked his last steps to his execution – I looked beyond the walls of Fort Santiago to the city and saw his dream realized.

In my short time there, I found myself transformed. My country is born of volcanoes, a shifting and twisting land, ever being re-made. I think back on my last trip here and realized what was once a painful memory had now become a time of wonder and clarity. I marvel at the generosity of spirit amongst family and complete strangers. I see not the shanties and beggars, but a defiant hope. One day I pray my people will no longer be slave to staggering poverty. But no matter the fate of my country, I know that its people will continually adapt and transform to their surroundings. We are a people of change. No matter the circumstances surrounding us, within us is always the fire of hope.

The One That Got Away

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There’s nothing like the memory of a first love. And nothing makes it more memorable and heartbreaking when you have to watch that person walk away.

The other day I went to Starbucks to write and saw two prom couples taking photos. The girls were all decked out in long glittery formal wear. One wore pink and all the ruffles enveloped her – like a tiny bee lost in labyrinth of blossoms. The other wore blue, a mermaid out of water, shining radiantly with sparkles in her hair, like seawater glistening on her crown.

They looked so young and excited for the night ahead.  I couldn’t help but smile and think about that simple and innocent time in my life. When I think of high school, I think of Jay.

All love stories are the same. We were friends.

Jay and I met at a leadership camp the summer before our senior year. The camp was only a weeklong but we both made a lasting impression on one another. A month later after camp ended he had broken his arm in a horrific car accident and was unable to make the camp beach reunion. A week later, I drove out to the East Bay to visit him and bring him In-n-Out and show him pictures of the event and tell him everything he missed. We became fast friends.

In those early days, I would call him in tears at the thought of leaving home to go to college. He would confide in me about the development of his father’s illness. He’d accompany me to dances when I didn’t have a date. He’d ask me to come over to help him to look after his baby sister. We had to be friends because that’s all we could be. He was with someone else. When we were together, we laughed and experienced so much joy. But we both struggled with the definition of our relationship. We both felt it. After we’d see one another, he would go home and put on a face for his girl, while I got down on my knees and put my face in my hands. It was hard to be in love with your best friend.

Homecoming came around and I had no date for the dance and in his usual way, Jay came to the rescue. When he got me back to my house after the dance, he had the arduous task of helping me take down the countless pins in my hair. We sat on the floor of my room, stifling our giggles in the wee hours of the morning while he plucked my hair and counted each one. When he finished, I shook my head, closed my eyes and ran my fingers slowly through my hair. I opened my eyes and he leaned in deep and kissed me.

He broke my heart not too soon after that, professing undying love to his girlfriend and denying any involvement with me. What followed in the decade after was a stop-and-start fledgling relationship. At some point in all those years, I let go of my past disappointment and anger for what happened, and concentrated on one thing – being his friend; and that friendship has been the most fulfilling and bittersweet of all.

In my anxiety about moving forward in what could be my new relationship, I had to look back to my past, and look for advice from Jay, the one person who probably knew me the best. He confided in me about the complicated particulars of his relationship and how he would be going next level and asking his girlfriend to marry him.

I was happy for him but couldn’t help but think- had we missed our chance?

For a long time, I felt there was nothing to mourn. Though Jay and I never had the opportunity to be in a tried and true relationship, I treasured the fragile friendship that we did have. With my dad and grandma in the hospital and his father passing away, we have been each other’s sanity checks and shoulder to cry on.

After all we’d been through, would it soon be time to say goodbye?

I sit back and look at it as logically as I can. We would be horrific as a couple, so much so that it makes me chuckle just thinking about it. I think our relationship would be awful and amazing, vindictive and forgiving, volatile and serene, thoughtless and deeply loving, all at the same time. And at the end of it, we will have amnesia of every negative thing and only remember one thing- our friendship.

Perhaps we were lovers in a past life and that’s why our friendship has survived 13 years in this life. And just as he’s growing up and finding love and happiness, so am I. I think we’ve been here for one another to help each other on this never-ending journey. Soon, we’ll both have to walk away.  My heart will break a little and maybe his will too. I will look back on that time with fondness and I hope he will do the same.

Misplaced Memory

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The other night I was knee-deep in paperwork, trying to look for the pink slip to my car (don’t ask). Sifting through all that paper, was like taking a trip down memory lane. I was looking at stuff that was at least 10 years old. Business cards from failed ventures, from people I vaguely remember or purposely chose to forget. Scribbles of writing on pieces of paper that I probably wanted to work on for later, sadly thrown by the wayside. My birth certificate, old pictures, bills, paystubs, my evolving resume as I struggled to find a job.

Perhaps that saddest thing to see were remnants of relationships long gone. Post-it notes with simple professions of love from John. Old pictures with Cris and his family. I have no want of ever going back to that time, but my heart ached. At one point each of these men were the focal point and the center of my life. And I was that for them. But here they were now, just a piece of a paper in a forgotten pile. Aren’t all relationships destined for this? One day, won’t we all just forget?

I couldn’t breathe and I sat back staring at this sad pile. I thought about Grandma who’s recently been struggling with her own memory. When she went into the hospital last month, I came by to visit her on my own. I hugged her and asked her how she was and did the best I could to make her as comfortable as possible. After being with her for about half an hour, she had a faraway look in her eyes and asked, “What’s your name?” My heart sank. “It’s me Grandma, it’s Virginette.” She looked at my hair, my face, and said, “You look just like my granddaughter. Her name is Virginette too.”

I turned away just as mom and dad walked into the room. I buried myself in a box of tissues and wondering why she couldn’t remember. She could always remember mom, dad, and JR, just never me. I’d never felt so alone and discarded. I knew she loved me but wondered what was so unmemorable about me that Grandma would forget.

I think about that movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where a couple suffers a horrible breakup, and they go to extremes to erase any memory they have of the relationship. I recall there being a time when I wanted to do that in my relationships. I wanted to erase every single thing because it hurt too much to remember. But what happens when that time in life is something wonderful?

My childhood was wonderful mostly because of Grandma. She’d walk us to and from school and would be the one to cook for us and prepare our lunches. Everything she did was out of perfect love. This is what I remember of her and it pained me that she couldn’t do the same.

I will never forget anyone’s who’s greatly affected my life and I’d like to think that they wouldn’t forget me. I’m just having a hard time dealing with the transient nature of relationships and life in general. Nothing is forever, I know, but is it so wrong to crave for something that will actually stick?

As I move forward now, I wonder if I’ll be a shadow of a memory, or a scrap of paper in the bottom pile of someone’s desk. I’m so tired of being someone’s past and not someone’s present.

Love Song

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Poetry was one of the classes I dreaded in college. It’s just one of those things that never came naturally to me. This however was a really fun assignment; we had to model T.S. Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ I look back on it and it seems schizophrenic. I was getting over a guy and simultaneously falling for another one.

The Love Song of Virginette Acacio

Let us go then, you and I,
To that empty practice room at the end of the hall
At the piano, I harmonize with my left and scribble relentlessly with my right
Eagerly I play, eagerly I write
Transforming the two of us into immortal song

In the recital hall people come and go
Talking of Miss Acacio

In the darkness of my mind, I blindly grasp for things past
Remembering that one time when you and I-
Suddenly-
it comes.
The memory- that vision like a vortex, drowning me with reckless abandon
A wave of nausea crashes into me and I grab hold of the keyboard and pen
No- NO… not again.
Inspiration slipping, the demon persisting
I am submerged into the nightmare, my breath held captive by the memory

“Ssh- my soul- ssh… think of him no more.”

And so I pick up the pen and carefully place my hand on the keys
Closing my eyes and breathing deep
I inhale the intoxicating scent of my love’s mystique
But in that breath the music fades as the demon roars once more
Heaving, I smell the bitterness of my tears and I wail,
“Please… let me go.”

So how should I presume?
With my new love as inspiration, I continue…

Eyes ablaze under the adagio, lost in the tempo
I sing and I write:
A resounding top note for my love’s arresting height
A trill for the shivers his gaze commands
A smooth legato line from beginning to end, for the promise in his eyes and the kisses he sends
A slight staccato for the laughter we share
A cadence for his passion, that leaves me without breath
A minute change to minor, for the sorrow in our miles apart
It is a sweet melody, a lullaby, for the way he cradles my heart

In the recital hall people come and go
Talking of Miss Acacio

Today I finish, today I win
I’ve slain the dragon of past desire
But there will be a time…
There will be a time when my will will surrender to my heart’s beckoning

Till then do I dare? Do I dare let that merciless ghost haunt the rest of my days?
To penetrate and poison my music, my love, my life?
Condemning my every happiness to undying night?

No…
For too long I have measured my life with melodies of misery
No… NO – I will not sing for thee

I have lingered too long in the depths of sorrow
Deafened to happiness’ sweet sound
Till one day love’s voice woke me and- I finally let you drown.