Saturday, February 15, 2014

A young boy confronts the perils of being a Stranger in a strange land -- his own.

HIS MOTHER ENTERED his brightly lit room, sat on the edge of his bed and shook him awake.

“It’s five o’clock. Your breakfast’s ready,” she said briskly.

Protesting, the young boy pushed himself up off the bed as his mother left. He sat for a moment as he wiped away the night’s heady sleep from his laden eyes. The familiar, sharp aroma of coffee being percolated in the kitchen next door blanketed his room. The boy could hear the crisp hiss of meat being fried on their electric range.

Lifting his gaze from the bed sheet, the boy saw his new white uniform hanging from the closet door. His school’s patch — the drawing of a wounded hand dripping blood — was sewn onto the T-shirt’s left breast.

“That’s Jesus’ hand,” his mother explained after she first showed it to him. “Jesus died for our sins.” 

Although the bloody hand frightened him, the boy took comfort in his mother’s words that Jesus’ blood saved all of them from hell.

His school issue pair of khaki shorts amid a small leather school bag lay on a wrought iron chair by the door. He jumped to the floor, his feet making a sharp plop as they hit the polished cement floor stained in dull maroon.

He undid the bag’s two straps and looked inside. He saw a thin pad of writing paper, two sharpened pencils and a piece of cardboard on which his father had written his full first name.

He took out the thin cardboard sheet, held it at arm’s length and marveled at his father’s beautiful handwriting. He wondered if all salesmen wrote as handsomely as his father did.

“Only a few of them do,” his father replied when he asked him that question. 

His father’s lips broadened into that wide smile a proud father gives his child for flashes of sudden genius.

He wished that he could write just as beautifully as his father and do the many marvelous things his father did, such as create that wonderful Christmas manger out of cardboard, colored paper and gold cigarette foil. 

He recalled with great pride as his cousins, aunts and uncles who visited over the holidays marveled at this work of art. That Christmas, there were many pictures taken with his father’s manger as background.

The boy sighed with delight. He would be as good as his father was now. That would happen some day. But first he had to go to school and learn how everything was done.

He showered quickly and scrubbed his knees a bit harder than usual. He exited his room and had breakfast with his mother. His father was in his bedroom dressing.

The boy finished his breakfast in a hurry. His mother helped him dress, groomed him and left to dress herself. The boy stood in front of the mirror and ruffled his pomaded hair. He didn’t like pomade — it looked like ugly green lard — but his mother said it made him look like a handsome prince.

He looked coldly at himself in the ornate cheval glass his grandmother had given him as a present during his last birthday. He was a frail boy with a polished oval face crowned by large, alert eyes. His spindly arms and ugly knees stood out like inappropriately placed twigs on a tree. 

The boy was especially ashamed of his knees. They always looked dirty and knock-kneed. He once powdered his knees and his sister spent the rest of the day making fun of “the monkey with white knees.” He hated her for that.

Then he frowned into the mirror, craning his neck and clenching his jaw as he did so. He forced himself to make that terrible, angry face he showed those two bad boys the week before. 

He had been outside walking and these two barefoot boys darted out from behind a neighbor’s large santol tree.

The strange boys yelled at him in that language he could barely understand and made ugly faces at him. He regarded them calmly and unafraid as do all boys who have yet to taste their own blood in a fight.

He clenched his fists, took a step towards them and frowned as fiercely as he could. The boys shrieked in mock fear and ran away laughing. 

They crossed the narrow asphalt road in front of his house and ran across the rice field towards the dense clump of bamboo trees rocking quietly on the horizon.

He’d never been beyond the road and had never set foot on the rice field that marked the eastern edge of their compound. He could make out the silhouettes of the nipa huts that stood in the deep shadow of the trees, the scene looking to him like intricate engravings etched into the quiet horizon.

He was happy he hadn’t seen those rude boys since. The boy quickly erased the frown from his face, leaving no visible lines to show the depth of his immature anger. He forced himself to smile.

Breathing heavily through his half open mouth, the boy forcefully combed his hair backward as he had been taught by his father and left his room. He saw his father at the table, his legs tightly crossed in the manner of an European gentleman, holding his favorite newspaper with both hands.

His father bent the elbows of his starched pale blue dress shirt slightly to avoid more creasing. The boy noticed his father wearing his favorite silk tie rendered in deep, ocean blue, and fastened to the dress shirt by a polished silver tie clip. His father looked up from his paper and broke into a bright smile.

“You look perfectly handsome. Ready for your first day at school?” he asked loudly. 

The boy smiled back without talking and nodded vigorously as his eyes opened wide in delight.

“Good! Remember that there’s nothing to be scared of. You’re going to a very good school. Mommy will take you to school and you’ll both go home together. I wish I could go with you but I have to attend an important meeting at the office,” said his father.

They left his father standing at their still unpainted gate. The boy continued to wave goodbye until he lost sight of his father as they turned the corner and headed for the bus stop. 

He bravely bounded onto the small, red passenger bus as it jerked to a stop, vaguely hearing his mother reproaching him for his recklessness.

He had a pleasant bus ride to school. He sat beside the window and took in the sights of fields overgrown with reckless waves of tall cogon grass or dotted with clumps of bamboo trees. 

There were only a few houses along the road, most of them without fences, and the sunrise cast long shadows that made windows appear like tired eyes half opened.

The clean morning air teasing his face felt soft like the thin streams of breath his mother blew into his ear when she was in a playful mood. He took in mouthfuls of air and exhaled it slowly, delighting as he thrust his chin into the wind. 

He liked traveling and especially liked riding taxicabs. Sometimes, he’d stick his head out of the window so he could hear his parents yell in horror for him to duck his head back into the cab.


HE GRIPPED his mother’s hand tightly as they entered the school’s ornate iron gates that were dominated by a relief depicting badly made metal angels paying obeisance to a radiant white dove.

The school was a very different place compared to when he was first here a month ago during enrolment. Now it was like that noisy market in Quiapo crowded with jostling people. The confusion at the school made the boy nervous.

He tugged at his mother’s hand. She stopped walking, turned to him and said that he needn’t be afraid. 

“It’s alright. I’m here with you.” The boy felt his sagging morale stiffen at her reassurance.

His classroom was in the first of three long buildings in this school. A small garden just inside the school gate had a generous number of hibiscus plants, a few guava trees not in fruit and newly laid squares of Bermuda grass.

At the garden’s center was a triangular stele adorned with the plaster cast heads of three cherubim. Concrete slabs that served as benches were arranged in three rows that radiated outward from the stele. There was a row of red kiosks selling soft drinks and home made sandwiches at one end of the garden.

“Well, here we are,” his mother announced and pointed to a room a few feet away.

The boy saw a horde of people milling outside the classroom. Many were mothers and their maids; a few fathers were also around. Above the entrance was a sign that read “Kindergarten Section A.”

The boy read it out aloud, “Kindergarten Section A!” His mother heard him and smiled. 

“See, that was easy to read, wasn’t it?”

He felt proud at her approval. His mother always said that he learned the language very quickly.

“You took after your father and me,” she’d tell him.

His mother led him to the classroom door. He hesitated for a moment and looked back at his mother who motioned him forward.

“Go take a seat. I’ll be outside the door.”

He walked purposely forward and took a seat at the middle of the front row. He laid his bag beneath his chair just as his mother told him to, folded his hands together and kept quiet.

He read to himself the words written on the blackboard:

   Kindergarten Section A

   Miss de La Rosa - Teacher

There was only one other boy in the front row. The seatmate was two seats away on his left, doodling on his magic slate, raising and returning the transparent film over and over in quick movements.

The noise in the room was rising. He forced himself to turn around and saw confusion. Parents were comforting their sons. Many of his classmates were talking to one another. A few were crying. Some were nervously eating their sandwiches. 

They were all boys in this small kindergarten whose graduates were expected to continue their studies at more expensive schools.

He looked towards the door. His mother was still there, nodding politely as another mother cheerfully narrated tale after tale about her son who apparently inherited his father’s penchant for getting into trouble.

The round bell hung above the long blackboard clanged. The harsh ring startled him and he abruptly faced forward. A small, pale woman entered, strode to the front of the room and announced herself. Miss de la Rosa greeted them politely and curtly ordered the parents inside the classroom to leave.

She led the class in prayer. The boys dutifully bowed their heads as Miss de la Rosa asked God to bless this class of fine young Christians. Without pausing, Miss de la Rosa then commanded each boy to stand in front of the class, show his name card and say something nice about himself in his best English.

She pointed to the boy’s seatmate and ordered him forward. The seatmate purposely dropped his magic slate onto the floor, shuffled to the front, stammered his introduction while staring at his soiled shoes and received soft applause.

“And you,” she said pointing at him. The boy strode to the front, paused for a moment as his mother had told him, exhaled and pronounced confidently syllable by bright syllable:

“Good morning, classmates. My name is Richard Augusto and I live in West Village. I like reading books and listening to songs on the radio. My father works for a big company that makes medicine. My mother takes good care of my sister, Irene, and me. I am happy to be here. Thank you.”

He saw his mother applauding energetically. Miss de la Rosa was applauding, too. 

“Very good, Richard. That was a fine introduction,” she said still applauding. 

Richard took his seat and smiled proudly at his mother. Her cheeks were blushing as she smiled back.

He had practiced long at speaking correctly and his mother — once an orator — had urged him to excel in the language with all her boundless vigor.


RECESS was a welcome lull from the comic and often-tragic introductions made by the other boys in the next half-hour. Richard and his mother took a seat on one of the concrete slabs in the garden. A strong breeze blew dust and fallen leaves into the air.

Do you want a Coca Cola?” his mother asked. Richard Augusto nodded. 

Here’s ten centavos. The kiosk is over there.

Richard stood in a line behind three other boys. Looking over their shoulders, he saw the heavyset man at the kiosk bellowing at the first boy in the line. 

He didn’t understand what the man said, but the boys in front of him hurried forward as if in panic. Richard held his ten centavos aloft as he reached the kiosk.

Ano?” the man asked.

What?” Richard retorted.

The man raised his voice: “Ano? Coca Cola, Cosmos o Canada Dry?

One Coca Cola, please,” Richard shouted back.

Coca Cola lang pala,” the man sneered.

As Richard left, one of the boys at back of the line grabbed him by his sleeve and said: “Boy, akin na lang yung basyo mo.” Richard wrenched himself loose and walked towards his mother.

What did that boy say to you?” she asked.

I couldn’t understand him. He spoke in Tagalog,” Richard answered.

He saw his mother struggle to say something but she didn’t say a word. She softly stroked his cheeks to comfort him. He could see a sudden sadness in her eyes and it sent a discomforting chill through him.

Now stay here while I buy some sandwiches,” commanded his mother. She got up and headed for one of the kiosks selling sandwiches. 

Richard’s eyes followed his mother as she strode resolutely forward, her dull gold dress reflecting the morning light. She fondled her pearl necklace as she lost herself in lonely thought. He heard a loud wolf whistle.

Richard took a seat at one of the stone slabs. He looked around. Many of the boys were playing and shouting. All the words he heard were in Tagalog. 

He strained to hear a word in English, the language he was taught and could understand. Some of the parents spoke in English but none of the boys did.


Startled, Richard snapped his head sideways. He saw two older boys playing tag: one of the boys was darting from side to side and teasing the other boy. “Gago!”

Richard remembered the word. It was the word those two boys had shouted at him before he chased them away. He wanted to know the meaning of that word. He’d ask his mother when she got back.

Akin na yung bola!” a child shouted from somewhere in the garden.

Belat, taya ka!

Mommy, uwi na tayo!

Sonny, baka ka madapa!

Richard Augusto heard the voices but couldn’t understand the words. He wanted to go home.

Hoy, gago!

Richard Augusto looked around and saw the boy with the magic slate. He couldn’t remember his name.

Hoy, gago!” he shouted once again. “Ang yabang yabang mo! Square tayo!

Richard Augusto stared but didn’t speak.

Bakla! Bakla ka pala! Gago!

Richard Augusto put down his bottle, got up, clenched his fists, took a step towards the boy and frowned his fiercest frown.

The boy didn’t run away.


(FROWN was published in The Manila Times, Nov. 10, 2002)