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papa osmubal
oscar balajadia IT WAS the evening before the Chinese President Hu Jintao's official visit to Hong Kong for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Special Administrative Region's revert to the motherland. He was also to visit Macau SAR for the annual official consultation and to lay a plan for Macau's 10th anniversary with the motherland in two years' time. My brother-in-law A Wo called, inviting us to go to Pun Yu the next morning, the very morning the President was here in the two southern SARs.

Pun Yu?

It is a county in south Guangdong comprising of 20 thriving towns and a special economic zone. Of all the counties in south Guangdong, it has the longest history dating back in the year 33 of Qing Dynasty, roughly around 215 BC. (I was amazed to find out that this recently developed county is much more financially affluent than any city that I have ever seen in the Philippines!)

But why Pun Yu? I heard my wife ask, as though complaining. She was nodding and repeating in fragments what her younger brother was saying over the phone: Because it is close to other cities' tourist attractions... because it has fine hotels... because it has the finest southern Guangdong cuisine... because it has lots of historical sites... because of its markets... because it is relatively near to Guangzhou where there are big Olympic-size swimming pools for our swimming... because this... because that... till Kingdom come... amen...

So many becauses that my wife did not have time to even think and say no. I just heard her say she would try her best to persuade me to go to Pun Yu. And she did, without any fuss.

I was glad A Wo did not tell her that I had in fact convinced him (bugging him for days, bribing him with ice-cold beer) that we go to Pun Yu.

* * *

We had a set of definitive plans, as if it were a war that we had to engage in, and listed the places we wanted to attack and conquer. I told my folks that we better leave earlier. A Wo said he knew the place well enough, so no need to rush; we could get straight to everywhere we wanted to go.

We hit the road in the afternoon. San Di, A Wo's wife, sitting in the front with their two daughters, bragged that they had been there for their honeymoon. We were in good hands: they even had a map of the place laid before them.

The map copyright read: 1999. It was from their honeymoon. The map was as old as A Man, their eldest daughter. It was perhaps the year when they started developing the place. My wife grinned at me and shook her head.

* * *

Pun Yu turned out to be a puzzling labyrinth to us. A Wo, who was our driver, seemed not bothered by this Sisyphusian journey that made us all literally sick and tired. Irony of ironies, he even seemed to enjoy it! He was not even bothered by the heat coming from the car engine that was searing his bottom.

When he had the opportunity, he turned to all of us, saying, "I wish our streets in Macau were this wide!" Then with rush of energy he pressed the accelerator.

* * *

On the way we saw lush hills haired with white fogs, the kind that I would marvel at in photos when I was but a young student full of admiration of Chairman Mao Tse Tung and his country.

China is a place of rivers which is why it is home to one of the oldest and greatest civilizations that man ever saw. River banks and the fertile lands near them are where civilization sprouts and thrives as though it were a sensitive sapling that needs water and proper soil. This is true everywhere and at all times in human history. I am Pampango and I grew up in "the land along the rivers," which is why I know this, and I know this by heart.

Of all rivers that we passed by, a particular one captured me for some curious reasons. There is no word enough to explain my feeling when I was looking at it. It was Xun Jiang, the Pearl River. The river connecting the mega-cities of Macau, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen, with its main length traversing the entire lower southern region of China.

"That is a big river," I told my wife.

"No, dear," she corrected, "that is a great river."

* * *

As with all mazes, there is an entrance and there is an exit. So we finally reached our destination, the first place that we planned to see. But it was already dark. All we had to do now was to find a place to while away the night.

Crickets were singing their lullabies. The stars were blinking rather sarcastically, as if they knew what had befallen us during the day. Curiously, the moon was at its brightest, although it was not yet mid-autumn.

A Wo parked his car in an area reserved for hotel costumers. He called the bellboy, a rather young boy from the north who directed us to the parking lot, to take our things to our rooms.

A Wo got off the car. Near the fountain in front of the hotel, he waited for us, looking at the koi in the pond.

When he heard we were all near him (our sighs got heavier and louder this time), he stretched his arms, looked up to the sky and said, "We came here to see the moon."

* * *

Man Lok (Nobel Prize, in Cantonese), my 7-year old daughter, turned to Popo (grandmother, in Cantonese) and pulled her hand.

"Popo, why is it their moon here in Pun Yu is much brighter and bigger than our moon in Macau, ah, tim kai, ah, why?"

My mother-in-law looked at me and my wife. Her nagging eyes loudly screamed to us: this is your kid and you answer her question.

Bright enough for his age, my 5-year old son Man Ho (Good Culture, in Cantonese), waxing philosophical, said that it was because Pun Yu has lots of mountains and wider streets to light. He then turned to A Wo, his Kao Fu (uncle) to verify his thought, "Hai ng hai, ah, Kao Fu?" ("Isn't it, uncle?")

"Hai la,ngam, hay, kam lek chai!" ("Yeah, you are correct. Ah, such a very clever boy!") A Wo enthusiastically nodded, showing that he was all ready for the next morning's drive around town. Popo, for her part, heaved a sigh of relief and tapped the boy's head with contentment and pride.

* * *

It was time for dinner. And it was preceded by a debate.

"Dumplings?" Said one.

"Sei la! Chan hai, nei hai so so dei! (That's it! You have really gone mad!) You think this is breakfast or brunch?" Bitterly complained another. "Ngo dei chung yi sik am po pao (We want to eat hamburgers), French fries, and spaghetti," insisted the kids.

"Ng hai kam yung, Siu Pang Yao, nei dei hai Chung Guok Yan. Nei dei ng hai gwai lo." ("Don't be like that, kids, you are Chinese and you are not from other countries.") Popo complained.

After a long discussion we decided to go native—which non-Chinese would call exotic. Chinese, so they say, eat anything that moves. But we asked for fine Guangdong min (Canton noodles), sausages, eggs, and vegetables for the little ones.

The restaurant near the hotel was surrounded by cages full of various animals, some cute, some lovely, some looked obnoxious, reminding me of some much-hated childhood playmates. I chose one that I thought I liked: a thing that looked much like some sort of miniature bear, the size of a cat. It just reminded me of the dogs we would eat back in Pampanga. Stew it with soy sauce, ginger and chili pepper, I suggested with gusto, as if I were better than the man of the kitchen himself.

The chef, serious and determined like an executioner, grabbed the critter by the ears with his left hand and by the neck with his right. I watched him bash the animal's head with the face of his knife. As the animal struggled and wiggled, I felt a foreign matter form in my eye.

A Wo saw me touch my eye, turned to his A Ma (mother), and caustically whispered, "Look at your son-in-law. He had the courage to order the helpless thing, now he is crying."

* * *

A Ma handed me the bamboo chopsticks. I grabbed them with my two hands (in China both hands should be used when one gives or receives things as a sign of respect), returning her courtesy with that perennial to chie (thank you).

I snapped the chopsticks to separate them. While I was scraping them against each other to get rid of the annoying splints, I unwittingly fixed my stare at the old lady. She looked exactly like Kam Sio (Golden Smile), my wife, her youngest daughter.

"Mat ye, ah, nei yu kong ye pei ngo teng?" ("What is it? Is there anything that you would you like to tell me?") She asked me.

"Mo ye!" ("Nothing!") I shook my head and poured green tea in my cup.

In my mind I was actually saying: This is Kam Sio some 40 years down the road.

* * *

The hotel had tourist's brochures on Southeast Asia. San Di grabbed one and scanned its pages. She found a tiny section on the Philippines with colorful pictures of tricycles, pedicabs and jeepneys.

I told her with pride that those are our common transports in the Philippines. I even bragged that we build them ourselves.

She retorted, "Why don't Filipinos built something beautiful?"

Her words suddenly reminded me of the fact that we are the only developing country without a subway.

* * *

Kam Sio fixed all things in the room. She laid down a large towel on the floor. On it she put one of our baggages. Then she looked at me and smiled. I nodded to indicate that I got what her glimpse and smile insinuated. Then I beseeched her to get me and A Wo some beer.

A Wo tucked his kids in bed and twisted San Di's arm to let him join me for a round of beer. San Di begged us, saying, "Pat chi, ah, kao la, pat chi ha?" ("Eight bottles is enough, ah, only eight bottles.") Our hai ya (yes) was said with tongue in cheek. We were actually ready for a binge.

A Wo and I stayed on the veranda of our hotel room. My kids, their Popo, and my wife hit the sack ahead.

What is it with mothers that they can share room with their daughters and their daughters' families and not quite with their sons and their sons' families? And why is it that sons-in-law have to show chivalry and politeness by sleeping on the floor with towels for the bed and traveling bag for the pillow?

Popo shared bed with my daughter to whom she whispered something before going to sleep. I knew it was something my daughter liked because she was smiling as she closed her eyes. A precursor to a sweet dream?

In her sleep, my mother-in-law was muttering something in her provincial Mandarin that A Wo and I could not grasp. It was somewhat muffled that it was hard to figure out, but I knew it was something beautiful to the ears; it was poetic.

"Look at the moon," A Wo mumbled before tiptoeing back to their room, his face and hair were yellow with moonlight. Light footfalls in their room announced that San Di was still awake waiting for him.

* * *

Chinese morning is always special with Yam cha, which literally means "drink tea"; but it is really a heavy breakfast of dim sum (dumplings) and other delicious finger foods and sweets, taken by Guangdong yan (Cantonese) when they go out.

It was already 10:49 in the morning, shadows were starting to shorten, and breakfast time, as it were, was already ages away. In my eagerness to stuff my growling stomach with something that would rejuvenate me and alleviate my hangover, I was grabbing steaming dim sum with my bear hands.

"No, no," interrupted my mother-in-law in her majestic voice, while my wife was prompt enough to hand me a pair chopsticks. "Food is art. Cantonese food is a work of art. It is prepared by an artist, so you have to take it as if you are an art connoisseur enjoying a painting. Eat slowly, understanding its taste, and own its bounty and beauty."

* * *

While savoring our dim sum and tea, we talked about almost anything under the sun. We talked about the Filipino workers in many cities of China. It was a topic that I wanted to avoid. But if I diverted or cut it I would have seemed too evasive and defensive.

"They are a pity, their condition is horrible," said A Wo, perplexed. "Why do Filipinos let this happen to them?"

We were not really long in the Filipino issue though, because they felt I was not comfortable with it. Then we touched on the Chinese in the Philippines, but I just did not know who brought up the matter, because the topic on Filipinos really got me out of the track. Next thing I knew was San Di talking about them.

"Yeah, what do the Chinese do in the Philippines?" asked San Di.

"They own it," I said, my voice choking me, and she felt the angst my eyes were exuding.

* * *

After touring around town the kids finally prevailed upon coercing us to get their spaghetti and French fries for their snacks. Although I deeply admire children's honesty and innocence, I don't particularly commend their diplomacy. My son and his cousin, Sai Sai Moi, A Wo's youngest daughter, threw a tantrum and cried to break us and give in to their demands.

"Good, good, so this is what your parents are teaching you?" their Popo asked them, her eyebrows and nose almost touching the ceiling, while savoring her noodles we bought for her on our way to this Chinese McDonald's. Deep within me, though, there was this funny feeling that told me this was not a real McDonald's.

* * *

Workers at "McDonald's", all coming from the north, were speaking Mandarin, which is definitely not the Chinese to my ears and tongue. But then they also could not get even a tiny bit of my Macau Cantonese.

I pointed at the pictures on the menu. Hai,hai! (Yes, yes!) Now we were talking. I did not need to be a polyglot or a linguist to be understood or to understand them.

That is how easy real communication is.

* * *

After getting my order, I smiled at the "McDonald's" workers and they smiled back at me. Despite my urban Cantonese and despite their Mandarin, we were able to understand each other.

The "McDonald's" workers sensed that I am not Chinese, but they smiled back because they knew I am their fellow human being.

I might offend musicians, but I reckon a smile is the universal language.

* * *

After our greasy snack, we went to a park. It was perhaps the most beautiful park I had ever seen: squirrels running around, crickets chirping, and birds there were omnipresent. It was just one of those places where human languages are rendered futile.

"Why are Chinese parks so clean and orderly?" I asked my wife in passing, although she was not the one to answer me.

"Because everybody owns them; we all own them," my mother-in-law answered back. "Will you mess in your own home?" she asked me, as a sort of explanation, while side-glancing at some old people doing their Tai Chi Chuan under ancient trees.

From not too far, I saw my son among thick but low grass, chasing something. I was so certain it was not a butterfly, neither a frog. Butterflies are hard to catch. And he is disgusted of slimy frogs.

* * *

Before we knew it, it was time for lunch. This time no debate ensued as to where and what we had to eat. It was a resounding democratic decision: seafood.

My son told me to order water for him. The waiter came with a pitcher of water and filled Man Ho's glass.

"No, no," he protested. He said he needed bottled water.

His water came and he filled our glasses. When he emptied the bottle, he smiled. To make sure it was totally empty, he drank the remaining drops in the bottle. He checked it again, joggled it, and smiled again. Then he grabbed something from his pocket. It was a cricket. He put it in the bottle.

We had our lunch while serenaded by a cricket. As it turned out, diners in the hall enjoyed my son's cricket's songs more than we did and they ate to their fullness.

A middle-aged man sitting near the door had his pen out and started doodling on a piece of tissue. Was it a poem?

* * *

On our way back to Macau, we passed by Guangzhou for a swim. Guangzhou government built large parks with really ocean-like swimming pools, perhaps intending to lure the national government to let it host some swimming events in the Beijing Olympics. Apparently most of the games were already slotted in Beijing, with the exception of horse racing which was handed to Hong Kong and some insignificant games in Shanghai and other surrounding cities.

I was not long in swimming, because I felt my swimming styles suggested to people around that I am not from China.

"How do the Chinese learn to swim the way they do?" I asked my wife.

"We think we are fish," she said. "We are what we should be in a particular situation. When we are in the air, we are birds. Remember we invented the rockets? When we go to war, we are lions. When we are in the gardens, we are flowers and pliant bamboos. When we hold money, we are business. When we hold books, we are sages."

* * *

We reached Macau at night. I knew A Wo would miss the long and wide streets in Pun Yu. A Ma would definitely miss the beautiful gardens. I would miss my stew thing—I mean that bear-like critter that tasted like a dog. Man Hou would miss Pun Yu's moon.

A Wo got Man Ho's water bottle with cricket. Put it close to his ear and looked up to the sky. Listening to the sleepy chirps of the cricket, he said lightly as if trying to make us all feel sleepy, "Look at the moon—Macau moon."

[About the author. Papa Osmubal is Oscar Balajadia of Magalang, now Macao resident and married to a Chinese local. He is a teacher and a Masters student of Dr. Chrisopher Kelen at the University of Macao. He has published two books of poetry, Parnaso, in Filipino (1991, Angeles City, Philippines) and Lighthouse, in English (1999, Quezon City,Philippines). His poems have been published in Poems Niederngasse, Adagio Verse Quarterly (USA), Mitochondria (USA), Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), LauraHird, Muse Apprentice Magazine, Retort Magazine (Australia), Jacobyte Poetry (Australia), Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic, National Midweek, A Critical Survey of Philippine Literature, The Surface (USA), Aesthetica: a Review of Contemporary Artists (UK), Stylus Poetry Journal (Australia, New Zealand), Our Own Voice: Filipino Literature in the Diaspora, Dalityapi Makata, birdandegg, Spillway Magazine, Rattle Magazine, Wild East (Hong Kong Literary Circle), and others. Several poems of his are forthcoming in the future issues of literary magazines including Snow Monkey, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), spreadhead.net, and others. His work has been anthologized in Synaptic Graffiti: Slam the Body Politik (poetry on CD, Australia) and in Mitochondria: an Anthology of Rarities and Loose Ends. He has just finished writing the manuscript of his next book entitled Voice in the. An amateur artist, he has held in early 2004 a solo art exhibition entitled "White and Black" at UNESCO Center in Macao, through the sponsorship of Macao Foundation.]

-Posted: 2:48 AM 8/16/07 | More of this author on eK!