When I looked at the blank confusion on the security guard’s face, I knew that I had vastly underestimated how easy this trip to the Philippines would be. Sweat was already beading at my temples and I regretted instantly wearing this immodest, ribbed tank top with my shoulders exposed. I smiled at him, anyhow, lowering my black wing-tipped eyes like I always do. It didn’t have the same effect.
I planned this solo trip on a whim. I figured, I’m Filipino, the first-generation daughter of immigrants who found their way to Southern California. My parents spoke tagalog at home, cooked pinakbet and sinagong, and we had a three-foot-tall rice dispenser. We had noisy family parties at the park nearly every week, with giant deep-fried pigs known lovingly as lechon. We had an army of baby Jesuses and Mother Marys ever-watching from an alter in our home. We lived, for most of my childhood, in a Filipino enclave that acted as a haven for immigrant couples and first-generation kids like myself. It was a pseudo-Philippines, right? That should give me some street cred here.
Carson is a metro-suburbia in Los Angeles, surrounded by oil refineries and dotted with mediocre parks where many Filipinos, like my parents, decided a few decades ago that this is the optimal place to start shiny new American lives. It’s tucked between the blacks and Mexicans of Compton, Long Beach, Wilmington, South L.A. Close enough to white neighborhoods. Not too far from the beach. Everyone in this town, Filipino. Everyone contributing to this feeling of home.
Now, I stand before a security guard at the concierge desk of my parents’ condominium in Manila. I assumed they would happily point me in the direction I needed to go. WiFi? Sure, right this way ma’am. The bank? Well there’s one right here in this building! Fancy a good breakfast? There’s a really great place not five minutes away, ma’am. Let me take you there.
Instead, I’m looking at someone who is speaking English, and to whom I am also speaking English to, but my questions and his answers are not matching up. I ask where I may be able to exchange dollars into pesos, he says the name of something and I’m not sure what it is.
He tells me to go down the street and make a right, but he is pointing confidently to the left. I look on, smiling politely and pretending to understand this contradiction. I look out to the street for a moment, then, on a whim again, decide to go in the direction he is pointing, instead of the directions of his words. I set off uncertain, and he looks at me, uncertain, too. Both of us are decidedly too polite to mention that something is wrong.
Not more than fifteen steps and I’m met with a stream of cars, tuk tuks, taxis, motorbikes and colorful, aluminum Jeepneys with names like “Yahooo” and “Macho Man.” They are honking, barking at each other, maybe at me. There’s a police officer. There are many, actually, and they are all standing in the middle of the moving mess, pointing, yelling, waving their arms at the stampede whirling by. I don’t get what they’re trying to do and I’m almost upset that they’re wearing long-sleeved shirts, hats and dark pants in this humid, unforgiving heat.
I stand on the side of what I think is a crumbling sidewalk. I’m yelled at by an officer to step back. I’m waiting patiently, sweating too. I’m waiting for a white, flashing pixelated hand to tell me to go, even though there is no such sign on the other side of the street. I’m watching, in awe, of how insane these cars are, half-attempting some kind of order, half not giving a fuck.
Then, I see a skinny, older, dark man, stepping onto the asphalt. Suicidal, I think. Wow. Ok. What. Then I watch his thin limbs step fluidly through the waterfall of cars. He darts through the moving traffic like a ballet. On the other side of the street, I notice another group of people, doing the same deranged dance.
I look at the police officer for help, but his back is turned to me now. I think, this can’t be serious. This is literally impossible. There is no way I’m crossing this street.
I twirl around looking for a crosswalk, but no car is stopping for any person, let alone painted stripes on the floor. From the corner of my eye, I see a person rocking back and forth, looking for a gap in the flow. I step sideways to be near him. I look beyond the cars, to what I think is a bank, where I think I need to be. The person beside me doesn’t even notice. He’s looking at the cars like he’s daring them to hit him. The cars are most certainly daring him to cross.
I mimic his movements — back and forth, back and forth — until we both see a quick-moving space suspended in the air. I feel lifted, like a wave that is about to crest. Then, I lunge into the street.
Did I mention that Lolo Papong, my grandfather who raised his family here in Manila, died while trying to cross the street?