Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Que Bonita Esta Vida

for someone who will dance with me 

My friend Anthony and I go to Happy Wine, this Cuban wine shop on Calle Ocho that turns into a little discothèque on weekends.  There, pockets of people hide behind huge boxes of malbec and pinot noir and boudreaux, nibbling on tapas.  We sit on boxes of wine stacked up like barstools and lean over wooden TV trays underneath florescent bulbs.  We order chorizo y manchego cheese y camarones and sip on a yummy ten dollar bottle of malbec.  Everything is yellow in the light and every detail—big magic marker prices, dirty carpets strewn with crackers, graffiti walls—everything lights up without apology. 
       Up front a man in a black guayabera, Panama hat and goatee sings at the top of his lungs to electric keyboards and synthetic drums.   Everybody is dancing in their place—old men and their old wives, a mid-thirties couple groping in the back, a group of gay boys behind a tower of sparkling wine and a table of nurses in blue scrubs—everybody is smiling and everybody dances. It is not exactly elegant here but that doesn’t matter because people here are HAPPY.  Everybody’s speaking really loud fast Spanish—ordering another round of tapas, popping open another bottle of wine and calling out the latest chismis.  Me and Anthony too.  You know, when in Rome … 
       Happy Wine is really all about Cuba (say Cooba). And even though sometimes I have been called China (say Cheena), I pass because when I am dancing, it is clear my ancestors shared the same oppressors as los Cubanos and if there’s any doubt, just hit the karaoke machine and watch me go.  Once when I was in a similar venue dancing with a circle of my friends, I heard them calling out, Mira la Filipina!
       Anyway, back to Happy Wine.  We are in the way back of the store and on either side of us are mountains of wine bottles.  We can just barely see the tops of everyone’s head.  And the singer in the front has inspired everyone to sing along, “Ahhhhh!  Que bonita, esta vida!”  And I have never heard it before, but there I am, happy like the rest, dancing on my boxes of wine and singing out, “Ahhhh!  Que bonita, esta vida!”  Do you know this song, Anthony asks me.  No, but that doesn't stop me from singing along.  Somehow that singer convinces me this life is beautiful and my whole being is filled with wonder. 
       At one point, an unknown woman belts out a bolero into the singer’s mic -- voice only, perfect pitch, strong lungs, the works and when I peek around the bottle necks who do I see standing there before the shelves of wine, mic in hand and crooning -- but a woman in her seventies -- all white haired and grandma looking in her blue slacks and flower printed blouse – an abuela! --- singing with the heart of a twenty year old!
       Later I see her dancing with her man—not slow dance and easy—but cumbia and salsa and meringue—the kind of dancing where the man bites his lower lip and the couple swings their hips like they're doing you know what.  They are so happy and I am smiling watching them and they are making ME happy, yes how beautiful is this life.  And I am thinking, that's what I want. Someone who will dance with me when I am 70 in the middle of a little wine shop, swinging me about like I am his one and only.
       The rest of the night, Anthony and I stroll down the aisles, pretending to look at bottles of wine, but we are just looking for a reason to dance all over the store and watch the happy people. Tapas nibbling, always smiling, look you in the eye and raise a glass to you happy people.
       When I leave, I dance my way down the long aisle, passing the abuela who winks at me and her man who sings to me.  And then I get into my red Honda and I follow the moon along Calle Ocho, leading me home, feeling so Miami.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Skinny Girls Don't Float

for my VONA sisters who feel like drowning

(confessions of a former Skinny Girl)

 Skinny girls don’t float. I know. I was once a skinny girl. It’s just that there’s nothing there to hold the bones up, protect them from the current. Skinny girls sink, legs kicking, mouth open, swallowing ocean, hair going all crazy. Skinny butt just dragging you down like a stone. Believe me. I remember. But not-skinny-girls, girls like us, girls with breasts and hips and full moon bellies, we are buoyant. We lie back, stretch two arms up above our heads, and let our feet rise from the bottom up. We hold our bodies to the sun and waves washing over us, cool us down. Our tummies, loaves of whole wheat bread browning, balloon above the ocean tide, soft and airy and we are feeling it. Like stars fallen from the sky we are the shimmer in the ocean. We go with the flow, still as water lilies. Fragrant too. We relax, trusting the sea as it carries us like treasures north and south and east and west, spinning us like the easy needle of a compass. We surrender to the gentle tide while skinny girls with lean dense muscles, kick to stay afloat. Their arms reach at nothing. Grasp for something to hold onto – an inflatable donut, the side of a boat, a boy. But we not-so-skinny-girls, we don’t need anything to hold us up. We’ve got ourselves, we’ve got our bodies. We float, faces up and smiling, like an offering to God.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Calling all Ancestors

for my VONA Fiction Workshop 2013

"Beautiful Filipino Girl, P.I." Artura Printing circa 1910
The first time I taught a class where everyone was a person of color was in the winter of 1998.  The course was called “China Dolls, Geisha Girls, Chinks, Gooks and Other Ugly Stereotypes I am Not.”  The students were twelve high school kids from all over Chicagoland and every single one of them was of Asian American descent.  And girls.  My assistants were college students and working twenty-somethings. Also Asian American.
       On Saturday mornings when the rest of the city slept, we’d gather at the School of the Art Institute.  One morning, the falling snow lit up the January sky. Our skyscraper nested in the heart of the Loop and from our thick glass window we could see white dusting the entire city.  Not even the elevated trains ran.  The girls doodled in notebooks.  A boom box played in the background, something hip and low and if I could understand the lyrics, probably completely inappropriate.  We talked casually, like we were at a slumber party.  We traded family secrets.
       We took polaroid portraits of each girl.  The old kind.  The kind that you had to pull out of the camera and wave in the air.  The kind you had to peel apart to reveal two images.  I said, “One image is the girl the world sees, describe her.”  Their heads went down, the scribbling began, the words spun in circles in their notebooks.
       “The other image, the negative,” I said, “Is the real you.  The you nobody sees.”  They took a moment to think about that.  They cut that girl out and pasted her onto their pages.  They wrote with their hands covering their words.  They wrote with their faces practically kissing the paper.
       “Who supports you?”  I asked.  
       And then we conjured up our families, our grandmothers, our lolos, our great aunts and great great grandfathers, our lola lolas.  Some of us had these people living with us, some of us were waiting for them to arrive, and still, others only knew them from the pictures and old videos their moms and dads showed them.
       “I have a memory of being two years old,” I told them, “And my Lolo and Lola and all the Galangs were chasing after me with their arms wide-open calling to me in Kapangpangan, ‘Mekeni, mekeni.’  Come.”
       The girls nodded.  The music on the boom box changed and a couple of the girls started dancing in their seat and singing along. Then Luba, a thin woman in funky tights and a little old granny’s consignment sweater and mini-skirt said, “Hey, do you smell that?” Her red plastic rims were falling off her tiny face.
       Ana Fe looked up and tilted her head, her mass of black hair fell off her shoulders.  Ana Fe was a filmmaker.  In a band.  She sniffed.  “Yeah, what the hell?”
       “I smell it too,” said Eliza.
       “It’s making me hungry,” Tara said.  I looked up at her and her full moon face, at her professional bob, swinging to the music.  “Where’s it coming from?”
       I closed my eyes and I breathed. And there it was—that greasy garlic wafting from some wok, the soy sauce spitting at the rice and the vegetables snapping in the heat.  The whole room smelled of fried rice.  It was ten in the morning and nothing was open in all of downtown and we smelled fried rice
       Ana Fe and Tara exchanged a look. And then Luba said it.  “It’s like they’re here.”
       In the silence of the city, we spun their images out of thin-line-markers.  We named them.  Lolo.  Lola.  Great Auntie.  Uncle's father.  Lolo-lolo.  Lola-lola.  We fashioned them out of crudely made confessional poems, out of secondhand memories.  We called them out.  And they answered, despite the lone streets of a sleeping Saturday morning and the empty cars on the Brown Line, on the Red Line, on the Blue Line, they found their way to us and they were here.

Juan Luna y Novicio: La Mestiza [Pintura al Oleo sobre 1887]

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Closer to Home

for the family who waits for us

My dad carries me, my mother walks behind us.  My family waves hello.

The first time I went to the Philippines, I was under two years old. I have a sepia-toned photo—a wide shot of my parents walking across the tarmac at Manila International Airport. We are walking away from the nose of our airplane, its fat wings sweeping out of frame, and behind us is the long staircase we have just descended. My mother leads us in her stylish Jackie O way; my father follows closely behind. He is wearing a full dark suit, white shirt, and tie. You can see his black, plastic-rimmed glasses. You can see me, a toddler in a dress and pixie haircut, nesting in the crook of his arm. We are coming home, walking towards the building where 100 plus members of our clan are gathered on the balconies, waving at us. You can see that, too, in this old photo. We are coming home, though I have never been.

The second time I went home was with the Dalaga Project, 37 years later. I have no memories of being in the Philippines before this trip—just vague images that pass before me when I’m not thinking—santol on my tongue is a sweet and sour memory; humidity on my skin is like the breath of my love— familiar, warm, intimate, mine; the clamor of one hundred voices, the laughter and the chime of their two hundred pieces of silverware on china, home. This is home. But I am working and I arrive with five young women who are my charges and I cannot let my guard down. I have forty old women marching in the street before me, I have no time for myself, save the short weekends when I return to Bituan or Macopa or the house in Macabebe.

What becomes mine are the visits. Each night, when I am lying in my bed in Malate, Metro Manila, and I close my eyes, a thousand faces visit me. They bloom in the dark like smoke billowing in the sky. The faces are sometimes fine line-drawings of light, but mostly they pass before me like clouds. One after the other. Old men with crooked noses. Mothers with full faces and masses of hair. Grandmothers looking like wrinkled like old trees. Little baby faces, eyes closed, mouth open. Faces, only faces. They come to me each night. Remind me I am home. I know them, though I’ve never met them.

The third time I go to the Philippines, the Towers in New York City have just crumbled to the ground and the world has changed. No one knows what will become of us after 9/11. I am not sure that I want to go, but I have been given a Senior Research Scholar’s award from Fulbright and it is an opportunity to visit the lolas and redeem my promise. I can tell their stories. I can help them fight for justice. After waking up alone one morning in Iowa and witnessing the plumes of smoke rising from the streets on television, after finally coming home to hold my own, I must leave my family in Milwaukee. Three of my siblings here have just had babies—two girls and a boy—and I must go without seeing the first year of their just-born lives. I go. This time, I am without my parents, without the dalagas. I go.

This piece was originally published in the anthology, Hanggang sa Muli: Homecoming Stories for the Filipino Soul (Tahanan Books, 2012).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Making Mano

for my paternal grandparents

Nicolasa and Miguel Galang

On this Sunday, my driver has moved our silver blue van through the streets of Metro Manila, out onto the Super Highway and we are driving to the province of Pampanga.  The rain has been coming down for days and in the city, there are streets, flooded high to the knee.  Debris floats like little islands drifting in the middle of a great river. 

When we get to the exit of Macabebe, the van slows down and we begin the slow wind to my father’s boyhood home.  The streets are also rivers here and the wheels of the van slice through the waters.  We pass the city hall where a statue of Jose Rizal rises over floodwaters.  We roll slowly past the church, and the driver makes the sign of the cross, then kisses his fingers to seal the deal.  Water is everywhere.  The houses on either side of these unpaved streets float like barges.  

When we get to our house, I see a plank no wider than a foot placed loosely between the street and the front step.  My Uncle Armando is sitting on the porch in a t-shirt and shorts, his flip-flops dangling from his feet.  When he sees the van pull up, he waves and tosses his cigarette off to the side of the house, into the muddy waters. 

The house is like a playhouse, drifting elusively in the water.  I must balance my way up the single beam.  Even in the country, the waters are so dirty.  Next to the porch, there is a little rowboat, dancing with the breeze.

Every year, the waters come and flood the house where my father’s Auntie Charing now lives. This house that was once his house.  Lola Charing, a long time victim of tuberculosis, spends her days on the wicker cot, surrounded by photos of me, my brothers and sister and my cousins in America.  She shuffles through those photos every day, like tarot cards, reading the faces of each of us, memorizing each rite of passage we encounter – baptisms, first Holy Communions, graduations, weddings.  The stacks of photos are piled six inches high.

Behind her cot, there is a dresser and on the dresser are the watermarks from all the floods that have entered this house.  She is my oldest living relative on the Galang side and she greets me as if we have known each other all our lives, though this is the first time I have seen her since I was three years old.  Today is a good day and she is feeling feisty.  She points to the graduation photos of my father and his brothers and sisters.  They are lined high up above the doorways.  Surely the floods will never reach them.

When I see the photos, I am blown away.  High up above the doorways I see visions of my brothers dressed in caps and gowns, cast in sepia-tone.  And there is a photograph of Lola Charing graduating from pharmacy school, long before her bedridden days of tuberculosis.  Is it possible that I am seeing my own face?  The high cheekbones, the angular jaw, the lips.  Are those my lips?

“You go visit your lola and lolo na,” she tells me.  “Armando will take you.”

So Uncle and I leave the house.  We climb the little rowboat and then he paddles me down the streets of Macabebe.  We drift down the canals and wind our way into the cemetery.  The graves rise high above the ground.  We must maneuver the little boat around the concrete caskets.  The branches of trees submerged in water hang low and every now and then we must duck.  At times, we find ourselves tangled in the brush.

“Saan sila, Uncle?  Malapit na tayo?”  I am searching past all the graves, looking for a marker. There are stone angels and Mama Marys standing among the tombs, gazing out onto the water.  No sign of the Galangs. 

“Ito na,” he says, pointing past a tree, shifting the paddle right and left and turning the boat around a large headstone. 

They are just around the corner.  The grasses are thick. We are stuck.  We cannot get to them. But from here I can see my grandparents.  Miguel and Nicolasa Galang.  They have been laid in one tomb, one long cylinder.  Their names are etched where the tomb has been sealed.  The weeds are too high and the water so black.  We cannot get to them.  But I am near and I can feel them.  I can almost imagine their ashes swept together, dusting the floor of that tomb.

“Nandito ako,” I tell them.  I am here.  I am here.  Floating, but I am here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Have You Seen My Sisters?

for my niece Nina on her 15th birthday

They carry 3 lighted candles wherever they go.  One sits at the crown of her head, one in the flat right palm, the other on the left.  They carry the lights in perfect balance.  One for the mind, one for the body and the last, the heart.  Do you see how they move, the eyes gazing out into that horizon, the chin level to the ground, the focus so clear into that future?  They move about the obstacles before them—trees and stones and animals—swiftly, gracefully as rivers flowing east.  See how they never take their gaze away from the horizon beyond.  All in perfect balance.  The mind, the body. the spirit.  All in tune with the earth and the wind and the sisters around her. 

I want to learn this dance—how to balance these lighted candles—how to move and sway and never lose sight of where I am going.

Dance of Lights
I must have been only three the first time I saw them dancing.  We were living in Canada and I had just finished doing my first public performance, a dance with other three-year-old girls, little ducks, moving to a mandolin, flapping our wings, the shoulder blades poking out of our red and white dresses, the elbows fanning the air, our feet bare and dusty from the linoleum floors.  The other itik-itik dancers and I sat on the cold floor watching our older sisters, nurses mostly, dancing in the dark cafeteria.  The only lights were the flames above their heads, or rising from the palms of their hands.  In a line they moved towards us and back, and carefully they got down on their knees, on their bellies, on their backs, the candles still lit and perfectly balanced and they rolled to the left and the right and then like logs they spun around.  Candles steady.  No wavering.  No faltering.

I was propped up on my elbows, afraid to blink, waiting for something, I don't know what.  Nothing startled them.  Not the curve of their hips, nor the tilt of their head, not the collapse of a metal folding chair in the back of the room.

This is what it means to be focused.  To balance.  To let everything connect—the mind, the body, the spirit.  I want a life like that.  I want to gaze ahead of me and move confidently—the candles lit, the flames dancing but not wavering, not shifting, not taking me off my course.

Pandanggo sa ilaw  all day, all night. 

Destiny for Two

for my dad on Father's day.

Mike and Gloria Galang
My parents, Miguel T. Galang and Gloria Lopez-Tan were Philippine citizens in the late 1950’s.  She was a graduate student in English at Marquette University on a student visa.  And he, on a J-1visitor's exchange visa, was doing residency work at Deaconess Hospital. Later, my dad would became part of the third wave of Philippine immigration to the United States, also known as the brain drain, as Filipino doctors went to places that needed them most—rural areas and urban cities like “Cream City.”

The International Club at Marquette University asked my mom to organize its first Filipino Culture night with the only six Filipino graduate students registered at the university—hardly enough for a true extravaganza.  So someone suggested she invite the Filipino doctors at Deaconess to participate.

"Maybe you can get Mike Galang to help you," they told her. "He comes to all the meetings."

So in October in 1958, my mother attended the International Institute of Milwaukee's welcome reception for all newcomers.  The auditorium was hot, muggy, and full of internationals from all over the city.  Someone had placed a long piece of wood at the door to prop it open.  The mayor was giving his opening remarks.  Then a loud bang.  She looked up and saw my father falling into the room with his long legs kicking up into the air. He had tripped over the piece of wood.

“That’s him,” her friend Dolores Dizon whispered.  “That’s Mike Galang.”

Wouldn’t you know it:  my parents took the lead, rehearsing every night, coordinating the music (piano playing he did by ear), creating colorful backdrops, practicing Philippine folk dances and working late and long to make a great culture night (FASA's and FSA's you know what I mean here).

My dad will tell us, “I fell in love with your mommy the moment I saw her.”  

“I didn’t know,” my mother will say.  “We were just working together, always together.”  She’d write her mother long letters about her life in the U.S. 

“Who is this Mike she keeps writing about?”  my lola wanted to know. She knew something was up.

Forty years after their first culture night, I was asked to read at Marquette’s Filipino Culture Night.  My parents sat in the auditorium.

“Thanks to Marquette for hosting programs like this,” I said. “Without your support, I would not be here tonight.” I looked out at the crowd, to my parents holding hands in the back of the room. I smiled. “Really,” I said again, “without you I would not be here tonight.”