“Sayang”

you are hungry for belonging
so your relatives heap more rice on your plate.
there’s a certain kind of joy in realising you are their kin.

you are delighted by the condensed milk in a halo-halo dessert
papayas and pomelos pink and ripe with good nature
fresh soft bean curd with brown sugar syrup.

you try to pronounce each dish’s name
and it rolls off your tongue like a mango bruised, gone bad —
but your mother tongue is a sharp longing for sour tamarind soup.

you run up and down the stairs of your ah-ma’s house in the sticky summer
hurrying to the basement to see yaya yo, the family maid of forty years
prepare a bangus fish with swallowable wishbones.

you peel shrimps carefully
as if they will tell you the secrets to being pinoy.

you were born and baptised here: there is a photo that proves it,
your father cutting a red ribbon cake in your metro manila home.

god is everywhere in the philippines and everything you eat is communion.
your ah-ma’s wet kitchen bathed in incense from the ancestral altar.
your lola passing by the vendors selling sweet corn on the way to mass.

once upon a time, the americans stayed at a military base in your mother’s province,
until mount pinatubo awoke and your mother took refuge in a stranger’s house for days
and the sky became a fine white falling. out of a dream.

when the older relatives get together to reminisce
they talk about monsoon seasons and martial law
over banana blossoms drowned in coconut milk.
you cannot distinguish the precise flavor of their sadness from the cassava root.

all you know is the pastel purple of ube ice cream scooped from a steel container.
the moon, a plump fishball balanced in your spoon.

you are cutting up marinated pork to find the recipe for family near the bone.
this birthday you will still eat pancit palabok, long noodles as a wish for long life, as per tradition.

your mother and father will call this tender tanginess home
so you eat at the table without understanding quite where all of this is from.
you go behind your lola’s backyard to taste childhood in basil leaves.

calamansi juice down your throat like it could restore everything
including this love language they say is your birthright
the annunciation of a sayang song from the chimes in the kitchen.

Artwork by Oscar Navarro, “Fruits”

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