The Joy of Jollibee

Jollibee is more than just a Filipino fast food chain. It is to me what McDonald’s is to many of my friends from other places—a staple. I have known Jollibee, both the chain and the mascot, since I could barely eat solid food. I’ve attended birthday parties, caught up with family and friends, and reflected on my personal growth with Jollibee. This bee might even have brought me closer to God. When I was in grade school, my sister and I convinced our religious mother that Sunday lunches should be at Jollibee. Her conditional “yes”—Sunday lunches could not always be at Jollibee—was the motivation we needed to wake up and get out of bed early for the 10:30 am Sunday mass at a Catholic church that was an easy walking distance away from a Jollibee outlet.

Last Sunday, I followed a similar itinerary, except this time, I was not with my mother and sister, but my friend; we were not in Cebu but New York; and Jollibee was, due to the weather, not an easy walk from the church. I had no need to convince my friend to grab lunch at Jollibee because, as she pointed out, I had mentioned the place to her in a previous conversation in Abu Dhabi, which is where I study. Some days when the craving for crispy, juicy Chickenjoy alongside a gravy-covered hill of rice—my personal twist—comes on so strong, I leave campus to find a Jollibee, however far away it is.

The only Jollibee outlet in Manhattan is in Times Square. As my friend and I walked there, we dealt with an added challenge—our limited knowledge of the area. I knew, however, that one must only look for a red-and-yellow-striped bee in a blazer, bowtie, and toque. I told my friend this detail and we soon found ourselves approaching my favorite bee. Standing in front of the store, I noticed the cultural sandwich that Jollibee is a part of. On one side stands IndiKitch, a casual chain that serves Indian food; on the other side is Arby’s, an American fast food sandwich chain. Across the street there is Kung Fu Kitchen, a restaurant serving Chinese staples.

What stood out more to me, however, was the absence of Jollibee’s statue outside the store. In the Philippines, a Jollibee statue always stands outside by the door. Its smile is big and camera-ready. Its arms are kind. It gestures people to come inside: Everyone is welcome here! One day, in the summer after my sophomore year, I laid my hand on the wrist of Jollibee’s extended hand, pressed my face close to his, and contained my excitement in a smile. A friend captured the scene in a photograph. I moved to check how I looked and another kid immediately took my spot. I was home. In the Manhattan outlet, the same statue exists, but it stands inside the store, by the waiting area. I guess Jollibee, too, could not stand the cold weather.

While my friend and I stood in line to place our orders—two 2-piece Chickenjoy with a side of white rice, pineapple juice for me, water for her, please—my worry outweighed my excitement, wondering what she would think and say about my favorite Jolly meal. When we finally got our food, we sat ourselves a table away from the Jollibee statue. Then, to her prompting, I showed her my way of eating Chickenjoy: with bare hands. She did the same. At some point, I was probably too obvious with my concern because she commented that people tend to want others, especially their family and friends, to at least like what they love. I still kept asking her what she thought of the fried chicken.

Eventually, as I watched the transient inhabitants of the place I called Jollyland, my worries ebbed. Like in my local Jollibee, I was surrounded by couples, kids, students, and workers—people from various walks of life. The difference, though, was that they were all eating a piece of my home. Jollibee, after all, represents Filipinos’ resilience and unapologetic love for our culinary culture. Some people say that Jolly Spaghetti is too sweet. It is, but in such sweetness I remember happy memories of eating meals at Jollibee and seeing the look of satisfaction on my older sister’s face. The generous sprinkle of cheese atop the ground beef-garlic-onion mix always elicits a contented sigh from her. Traces of the tangy sweet banana catsup-tasting sauce frames one side of her mouth, sometimes both. Beside her, mama slices her moist beef burger patty into bite-sized pieces using disposable cutlery that bends and breaks usually before she gets to taste the first chunk. She pushes her sliced gravy-coated button mushrooms to the side. My sister and I take it as a cue for a brief fork fight, although we usually end up splitting the already small portion into half.       

The sweet-style spaghetti, too, represents Filipinos’ resistance at a time when sugar consumption was restricted to the upper class by the upper class colonizers. The Philippines’ Spanish, and 333 years later, American colonizers enjoyed the abundant sources of natural sugar in the land. As a result, several Filipino desserts were named by the Spanish or the Americans. When the mass production of sugar began, which meant cheaper costs, the Filipino people started adding sugar to recipes. Now, many Filipinos tweak dishes to suit a national predilection for sweets.

Despite my nostalgia, I did not feel completely at home in that Jollibee. The atmosphere was different. Perhaps I was too aware of geography and my status within it, or I was still being bothered by my tendency to please.
The second time I visited, I was alone. I felt as if I was inside a bubble looking at life as it unfolded outside the window.  For a while, I felt invisible. It took three gushing women wanting a picture with the Jollibee statue Uy let’s take a selfie! and an equally excited crew member, who suggested different poses to them Okay 1 2 3 Say cheese! for me to remember where I was. A wave of something warm crept into my system at the familiarity of a language I had not heard for a month now. When I looked back from my seat, my eyes met those of the manager, and he offered me a smile that recalled the image of a father, kind and hard at work. It was an acknowledgement. I am not at home but there are pieces of it wherever I go.    

Artwork by Bobby Doherty

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