On big feet
I have vivid memories of my great grandmother—my angkong’s (paternal grandfather) mom. She had bound feet and shuffled around with a cane. Her gray hair was always tied in a tight bun, her round glasses perched on her nose, her attire forever a pewter cheongsam. She spoke only Hokkien, but I would hear some Tagalog words every now and then directed at the house help. She was my defender against her daughter-in-law (my grandma) and my mom. She would stand between me and the feather duster pamalo being waved threateningly by the younger women eager to punish me (hey, I was a rambunctious kid), and boy, could she stare them down! Ah-Tai was my angel, and I’m glad she was still around during my childhood. I recall my fascination with her feet, which I had never seen bare, but always clad in teeny-tiny cloth shoes. I wish I were old enough then to know about foot binding and solicit first-hand information on what she went through, why it was done, and if she was okay with it.
Now, when I read about lotus feet being symbols of wealth and beauty and see graphic images of the deformity, I breathe a sigh of relief I was born at a much later time and in a different place. Plus, I’d rather be homely and a member of the peasantry, thank you very much!
Although I like surprises, there is something soothing about falling into a routine where you know what to expect. Not everything is about opening a box of chocolates because you never know what you’re gonna get. Ergo, when I peek into the freezer and see an ice cream container labeled “ube,” my pulse begins to race in anticipation of my favorite dessert. I hurriedly finish my meal, rush to the fridge, grab the tub and scooper, and cup ready, remove the lid…GAAAH! I see slabs of meat covered in blood! They recycled the container—again!!! This is a form of cruelty, okay? I do not like these kinds of unexpected revelations.
“You do not know the value of things! Palibhasa you didn’t spend money for them!”
My dad and I absolutely love butter cookies. Although there are many brands, for some reason I equate yummy butter cookies with the shiny blue tin can several brands use. When I spot this thing of beauty from afar, signals are sent to my brain, which in turn trigger my salivary glands, and my mouth begins to water. I’ve been classically conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs! I get ready for a snack and then…
In my house, this container can be a sewing kit, a jewelry box, a receipt holder, a stationary caddy, and what have you. I thought this was a Chinoy thing, but it’s not. This phenomenon apparently cuts across cultures—#GrowingupAsian, #GrowingupArab, #GrowingupBlack, #GrowingupPakistani, and #GrowingupHispanic. There were even forums set up discussing this universal occurrence perpetrated by grannies and mommies all over the world! Be that as it may, it’s still part of my growing-up experience as a Chinoy, although it’s nice to know this is a shared thing with other nationalities.
I must admit, I brag about this. I have two birth dates. What baffled me was, how come my Chinese birthday always fell on a different day every year? I mean, Western birthdays are pretty much fixed, but my Chinese birthday kept moving around! Sometimes it came before, sometimes after, my “real” one, and the interval days varied, too. I just relied on my mom to tell me when it was, and so it would always be a wonderful surprise to wake up to a second set of yummy birthday misua (a type of noodles) and ang pao (red envelope with money). It’s pretty cool to celebrate your birthday twice in one year, hehe!
It was only when I started teaching Chinese around 2009 that I understood how Chinese birthdays worked. My students of all nationalities get a kick out of discovering theirs.
Wait. There is a downside to Chinese traditions on birthdays. When a child comes out of the womb, he is already considered one year of age. You know that feeling, you’re holding on to your last hurrah in your 20s, and then the elders start greeting you a Happy 30th-oh-no-your-womb-is-drying-up-where’s-the-husband-you-gotta-have-kids-now spiel. Oh well.
I love the book You Know You’re Filipino If…: A Pinoy Primer, written by Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz. There are also “You Know You’re Chinoy If…” equivalents, which list wearing red during birthday parties, wearing black clothes as a no-no, owning jade jewelry, having a resting sleeping face, etc. After reading these articles, I developed a stronger appreciation for things I had taken for granted as ordinary events in my life. What I thought were mundane daily routines in my life were actually things that defined me.
Illustration by Paul Fabila
Learn more of the simple things that define a true Chinoy on Asian Dragon’s April-May 2017 issue, available for download on Magzter.