I was afraid to admit that he was the type of person that I simultaneously feared and envied. With his handsome tan, bronze hair and caramel eyes, this American dream boy named Sam drew silent admiration from all of my schoolmates. During that sweltering afternoon, Mrs. Latorre introduced him as the newest member of our second-grade class. I was scared that Chryssa, the girl that I was crushing on, would start talking to this expensive import instead of me.
‘Where did you live in the States?’ asked Mrs. Latorre.
‘California,’ answered Sam in an accent that I had only previously heard from That’s So Raven.
‘And where do you live here – in the Philippines?’
The girls gushed at his vain effort to pronounce ‘Los Baños’. Meanwhile, I was certain the boys were thinking, ‘He doesn’t even know where he lives – what an idiot!’ At least, that’s what I thought.
Everyone in the classroom ogled Sam with unblinking eyes. He wore the same green ID tag, the same white short-sleeve button-up and the same charcoal trousers as all the other boys – but he stood out like a manicured thumb. All of us were confronted with the reality that we had unlit irises, straight coal hair and broken Filipino accents. I remember wondering, ‘What if I had sapphire eyes? What if my name was John P. Jones? What if I pronounced English words with a soft ‘t’ instead? Girls would swirl around me!’
During my elementary school years in the early 2000s, it was commonplace among Filipinos to admire other cultures. The Taiwanese drama series Meteor Garden and the Korean pop star Rain were popular with teenagers and even adults. These shows and artists preached that if you had ivory skin, you were prettier. If you had an American accent, you were more charming. If you were half-Filipino and half-something else, you were twice as attractive. The less Filipino you appeared, the better.
Even to the seven-year-old me, it seemed that there was this undiscussed belief that foreign notions and values were superior to local ones. For example, a Kiwi friend of mine was once in a taxi in Manila. She said that impoverished kids pressed their faces up to the window to gawk at her – as if she was the solution to their hardships.
On August 23rd, 2007, I carried this subconscious baggage of belief with me to New Zealand. After stumbling our way through Bangkok airport for a stop-over and flying for seven unnerving hours, my mother, my older brother and I arrived in Auckland. We brought with us two dented, dishwasher-sized cardboard boxes wrapped in brown packaging tape. My father, who had been settled in New Zealand since May that same year, was an hour and a half late to pick us up.
On my first day at Marlborough Primary, an obscure school in the North Shore suburb of Glenfield, I asked my friend Elijah if we were allowed to play during break time. I had to make sure – because back in the Philippines, we only had a fifteen-minute break and weren’t allowed to escape from our un-air-conditioned classroom. It had had bright fluorescent lights and blank white walls, and it had felt like an office. We were instructed to place our bags in front of us so that we didn’t have to get up from our seats to eat our lunch. In fact, we couldn’t leave our seats at all unless we had a good excuse, an excuse like, ‘Teacher, I pooped my pants’. This actually happened once – not to me, though. Our wooden desks were built-in armrests to our chairs. The surface area was about the size of a 1B5 notebook. All the desks were hand-painted a deep dull umber.
I remember wishing to enrol in a school in America where I could eat a hotdog with a group of friends on actual tables. I could wear a Batman backpack instead of hauling a hefty kid-sized suitcase around. Instead, forty pupils gazed dreamlessly at the blackboard. In those fifteen minutes of break time, I’d quickly stuff rice in my mouth before I had to resume copying notes until five in the afternoon.
In New Zealand, even though I had all this freedom, I was terrified of bringing my exotic edibles near anyone that wasn’t Filipino. I didn’t want the stench of adobo – that smell of mixed vinegar and soy – to sneak out from my re-used Chinese takeaway box. It was my favourite traditional dish but some days I had to abandon it in the cloak bay.
For one of the shared lunches held in my school’s hall, my mom wanted to make the Filipino dessert yema – a mixture of egg yolk, butter, chopped peanuts and condensed milk. I was begging her to just buy Doritos instead. In the end, I had to carry a foil tray of what, to non-Filipinos, had looked like excrement deposited into red paper cups. Throughout the actual lunch, I strolled past my tray multiple times and counted twenty-two pieces of yema. I was going to find out how many people decided to try it by counting how many pieces were left by the end of the lunch. I came back with seventeen pieces. Mrs. Modricker saw a dejected nine-year-old about to walk home with a full tray and she decided to take five pieces out of pity.
During year six, Tommy, my classmate, would speak Tagalog to me at school. I never reciprocated his patriotic enthusiasm. One Sunday afternoon, he came to my house uninvited. At the time, we lived in Velma Road, a street in the suburb of Hillcrest that was known for its attractive houses. The quality of the homes plummeted as you got towards the end of the road. Our house was on the far corner.
There was a noise coming from my driveway. I peeked through the gap between my curtains and, unfortunately, I saw Tommy. He kept flicking the lid off of his Hubba Bubba Gum tape and then slamming it back down. Click! Clack! He was wearing a faded sky-blue basketball jersey, bright red shorts and a worn down pair of tsinelas – or what New Zealanders call ‘jandals’. It was the typical clothing of a Filipino who loved basketball but wasn’t any good at it. He had a pompous smirk plastered across his face. Up my driveway he went. Click! Clack! Click! Clack! Click…
‘Tommy!’ exclaimed my mother.
‘Hello po, tita! Asan po si Aldwin?’ he asked.
‘Nasa kwarto niya – Bulin! Nandito si Tommy! Bulin!’
‘Bulin’ is the nickname that my family gave me. It came about when my cousin, Adrian, who was then four-years old, mispronounced my name as ‘Abulin’. It eventually got shortened to ‘Bulin’. At home, I was almost never called by my real name, except when my mother was particularly irate.
Tommy crossed his legs and slumped down on the dark blue carpet next to me. He curled his bare toes and extended them. Again. And again. I focused my eyes on Kobe’s perspiring forehead on the TV, trying to block this probinsyano out from my vision. With clothes like that, he should be in the Philippine provincial countryside and not in a lower North Shore suburb. Even my mother, who wore dark turtlenecks and sparkling scarves, knew better than to dress like that.
‘Is that Kobe Bryant!? Oh no! They’re losing! Kobe Bryant is losing!’ shouted Tommy, with more of that cringe-inducing accent seeping through his teeth the louder he got.
My leg was starting to go numb under my weight. I didn’t want to move out of fear that Tommy would take it as a sign of me being comfortable – a sign that his presence was welcome. He personified too much of what I thought I had left behind: pangbahay clothes, an unashamed enthusiasm towards a basketball game and an embarrassing pride in one’s cultural idiosyncrasies.
‘Why were you so rude to him?’ my mother asked. ‘He was taking the time to visit you!’
‘He tries too hard.’ I snapped.
I remembered Jerry, the smartest kid in my class, saying that Tommy was a ‘try-hard’. So I repeated what he said.
‘Be careful, Aldwin.’
My mother walked out without any physical sign of anger, closing the door with the same gentleness as she always had. I knew she was upset.
The Lakers continued to lose and I replayed the Tommy incident inside my head, again and again.
All throughout my years in Westlake Boys High School, I tried to saw off the cultural shadow that was chained to me from birth. When I got home from school, I would start studying until I was called out to dinner. My dad once got irritated at me for working too much.
‘Can you stop studying and talk to your family for a change?’
Without taking my eyes off my MacBook, I bit my lip and waved him out of my room.
Regardless, I began to excel in English Literature and Japanese classes. It was as if I was attempting to Twink out my Filipino identity by submerging myself in other cultures. At age 17, I decided that I was going to take English as a major. Friends and family started interrogating me about this decision – apparently it was unusual that a Filipino didn’t want to be a nurse. They’d ask: ‘Why English?’ ‘What job can you get with that?’ ‘Are you gonna teach Filipino kids or something?’ and my favourite, ‘Are you even good at it?’
I momentarily got rid of the shadow in the only way that I knew how: I stayed in complete darkness. Sometimes, I would lock myself inside my room to write practice essays on Richard III. Back in Year 11 and 12, my room was very close to a perfect cube. The walls were slightly off-white while the carpet was a pale turquoise. A single poster hung on my wall. It was a black and white photo of Muhammad Ali – the greatest of all time – standing over a downed Sonny Liston.
I couldn’t take a single large step in my room without hitting the bottom of my wooden bedframe or the metal stand for my synthesiser. But it was of no issue to me. I wanted to be separated from the Filipino drinking parties in my living room. I wanted no part of the Sinulog Festivals held in the North Shore Events Centre. I didn’t want to stand outside of St. Thomas More and listen to a Filipino priest giving a sermon about yet another motivational immigrant story.
Whenever I did go to outings, Tito Ariel would always offer me a Corona and then proceed to give me a hard time about my hermit-like behaviour.
‘Bulin! Long taym, no see!’ he would shout. ‘May girlprend ka na ba?’
I was embarrassed at the mention of a girlfriend. With my plastic fork, I twirled the Filipino-style spaghetti – spaghetti with chopped hotdogs – on my plate. Without looking up from my plate, I told him that my academics were more important, more important than spending time with relatives.
There were more than thirty members in the extended Bacani family. At one point, twenty-eight of us lived in a two-storey house in the dense region of Manila. We only had one room for each family. Our rotting wooden ceilings would often leak whenever it rained a little too hard. The house didn’t have any showerheads so we had to pour water over ourselves with a tabo – a water dipper. If you wanted warm water to bathe in you had to boil it in a small metal kettle on the gas stove. We had no water heaters. Also, due to the large number of people, everyone couldn’t fit on one dinner table. We had to wait until the first group had finished eating before the next batch could sit down.
It was a family tree that was constantly growing branches and I wished to catch a wind in order to break myself off. I wanted to be ‘Aldwin’. Not ‘Bulin’. Not ‘AL-dwin’, as Filipinos would pronounce it. I was ‘OL-dwin’. The same way ‘James Baldwin’ is pronounced.
By the time I entered my second year in the University of Auckland, my family had already settled in Melbourne. My dad couldn’t pass up a job opportunity in Australia and my mother and brother couldn’t either. I decided to remain in Auckland to finish my degree.
I came to the realization, halfway through 2017, that I would probably never live with my parents again. I had lost the chance to get my mom teach me how to make adobo and I was no longer invited to the Filipino pick-up basketball games at Northcote College.
At times, when I would speak Tagalog, I would forget simple words and idioms. The closer I got to my academic goals, the farther I got from my friends, family and country.
To me, progress and success was synonymous with distancing myself from my origins – from my home. The more I succeeded as a student, the more I felt isolated and disillusioned.
Two of my professors – including the head of the department – emailed me about my ‘excellent performance’ at Stage II English. I found this prefix ‘ex’ to be particularly interesting. It held the meaning of being ‘out’ of something. I enjoyed being described as ‘exceptional’ and ‘excellent’ but I didn’t realize that ‘excluded’ and ‘exiled’ used the same prefix. Perhaps, being ‘exceptional’ and being ‘excluded’ are closer in meaning than I had previously thought. Both of the emails greeted me with ‘Dear Aldwin’.
Up until relatively recently, I never thought about the two separate names that I go by. Aldwin was a hubristic Shakespeare enthusiast who enjoyed reciting the opening soliloquy of Richard III by heart. He also loved repelling people on Facebook with his unsolicited analysis of John Keats’ poetry. Bulin was a kid who used to skip to the sari-sari store with his cousin Alyssa to buy Filipino snacks. Aldwin would get depressed at receiving a 97% grade in a Japanese exam because his Japanese friend received 98%. Bulin would feel ecstatic whenever he’d find out that the whole extended Bacani family would go to OLA Parish Church and then eat at Maxx’s, a Filipino restaurant.
At the start of 2018, I had the urge to swim back to the archipelago that I had come from. I wanted to return to the people who couldn’t care less if I got a B+ in an essay. The Philippine beaches, which were tourist attractions that I had previously thought uninteresting, suddenly seemed like Eden.
At the beginning of my third year at university, I decided to join the Filipino Students’ Association. I attended their orientation party in the Cap and Gown lounge. The lack of open windows and the unusual maroon carpeting with ornate designs made me forget where I was. It was as if I was in a fictional place, away from academic pressures and the cultural expectations of the west.
At the beginning of the party, we had to sing the Philippine national anthem. Some cringed at the idea; I thought it was fitting. Not a single person there was known to me, yet the atmosphere made me feel as if I was back in that two-storey house, as if they were all brothers, sisters and cousins of mine. Murmurs of English, Tagalog and Tag-lish were floating around.
The preconception that I had of Filipinos viewing their own culture as inferior and secondary had shattered. Luigi – a new friend who, I’m glad to say, has an equally weird name as I do – turned to me and said,
‘Man, there are a lot of cute girls this year.’
The club served – on foil trays – mini hotdogs and marshmallows skewered with a toothpick. They were all eaten in under five minutes.
At 9:30 pm, I came home. My phone lit up. I looked at the caller ID: ‘Mom Australia’.
‘Hello, Bulin! ‘Musta ka na?’