You close out the year you visited your family and buried your grandmother by spending New Year’s Eve with them all in Iloilo.
You walk with your cousins through the streets of Calaparan in single file at night, hugging the road’s shoulder. The sun set hours ago, yet the heat from the day leaves a thick, humid air, settling over your skin like a sheet. You pass low-lying shanties, each one sporting signs advertising ice cold Coke or San Miguel to beat the heat.
Ahead, a cylindrical tube rolls into the street. Your cousins pull you back just in time: a firecracker emits violent sparks where you would have stepped. A pedicab swerves around the sparks. The road becomes a minefield as you dodge fireworks thrown into the street on the way to the family house.
“Maligayang bagong taon!” People on the street shout to each other. “Happy New Year!” Others walk up to you and greet you with a tender kiss on the cheek, an intimacy that feels forced if you attempt to reciprocate. You reach out for your cousins, hoping one of them might guide you back home through the noise and the darkness and swirling emergence of figures pressing close to you. You find the sign of your family’s sari-sari just before the clock on your phone flashes twelve.
Cacophony erupts on the streets at midnight. Matches strike and industrial-grade fireworks light up the street as far as you can see. People emerge from their homes, banging metal pots, dropping crockery on the pavement, blowing horns, and parading through the street to exchange kisses.
Your cousin tells you it’s important to make as much noise as possible to chase out all the bad spirits. She offers you a kazoo. As you blow into it, she begins banging on a saucepan, drowning out your tiny horn. You hum louder, convinced that the spirits around you are retreating, preying on silence they can find elsewhere.
Moments later, an elderly woman cuts through the din and approaches you. She wanders alone, empty-handed, wrapped in a light shawl that falls off her shoulders, exposing her gauntly protruding collarbone, her wrinkled neck folding in on itself like damp, aged paper. Without warning, she leans forward and kisses you on the cheek, holds your hands tightly in hers, and says to you in English: “I wish you happiness. I wish you whole.”
Her words ring in your head for the rest of the evening, more so than the pops and fizzes of the fireworks scorching the street, more than the clanging of pots and pans and the synth hum of karaoke, more than the firecracker that sets off under your taxicab hours later, bucking you forward into the night. How did she know to speak English to you? Your skin has grown darker in the sun since the beginning of your trip. In the mirror, you appear to look almost like everyone else on those streets. Something about you stopped her, made her look at you in a way that felt as if she was the first person to ever really notice the truth that bubbles up inside you.
I wish you happiness. I wish you whole.
You remember the kapwa meditation, how you wanted to understand this foreign concept of the shared self yet still retain what makes you an individual. The desire to be individual, to be special is a Western concept. Sharing the self so it belongs to others is something different. Somehow, you shared yourself to this woman. You were still your individual self. She managed to see and understand, to accept without question. Perhaps the word “belongs” isn’t the most accurate way to understand this ideology. Accepting you in the crowd as you are is unknowable, yet honest. Perhaps, she embodied the true nature of kapwa.
You wish for happiness. You wish to be whole. As you lie in bed, you repeat her words in your head as you watch the sun peek over the crest of the bay. You say them over and over again, listening to how the words evolve and condense and morph into the phrase you failed to understand before. As you watch the noise of the golden pink morning rays spill out into silent, lulling waters, you believe her.
This is one installment of personal essays from my last visit to the Philippines in 2015. For more on this particular visit, please see my photo series and collected essays of this trip here.