May 10, 2019

Families, Reimagined: Saying Grace (A Litany for Adult Orphans) by Pamela K. Santos

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we present our "Families, Reimagined" art series! Organizations like APANO have long recognized the diversity of families and have been working to expand definitions of family in legislative policy. To explore this expansive notion further, we commissioned six artists to create original artwork responding to changing definitions of home, family, and community. Today's piece of original writing comes from artist Pamela K. Santos. Read on and join us in celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander artists.

Saying Grace (A Litany for Adult Orphans)
After José Olivarez After Safia Elhillo

kumain ka na ba?

you don’t know what it’s like to enter a house without food as a greeting. you are asked about your hunger before you are asked “how are you?” you go to parties your whole life and never know hunger until you leave behind where you grew up. you hear the words the titas say at the same time you feel them crabclaw your arms, feel yourself led across the cacophony of magic mic karaoke, above the gossip and balitaan, led like a baby to metal buffets. you see the plates before you even answered the question. did you know a way into a home without a plate?

kumain ka na ba?

you begin the habit of pre-gaming before you go to your white friends’ parties. there’s never enough food. you take crudités as a personal affront. your eyes search for spoons even when there is no soup. you didn’t know forks and spoons were not married to the plate until you host your first grown up dinner after college. you wish for a better life for spoons outside of a Filipino family’s house. you could start an appreciation society for big spoons but instead you find facebook groups for cooking Filipino food.

kumain ka na ba?

in your first tongue, the word for courage, for strength shares a room of meaning with the potency of vinegar, of kape, of alak. your cousins back home used to hold all-night drinking contests with you, to see how tapang their balikbayan pinsan was. you were too young to know the proof in lambanog but you proved being matapang ran in your blood. cheese lumpia soaked up the alak, up in the Tagaytay mountain bar. your cousins taught you about balut and pulutan the same summer they taught you how to drive stick in ate’s doorless jeep. years later you teach your friends how to roll cheese lumpia even though you can’t get the kraft cheese cylinder in a tin. you host lumpia making parties even with your non-Filipino friends. you forgive your friends for their ugly lumpia. they just need practice.

kumain ka na ba?

you miss the way your lola sniffs you while hugging. you forgot that kisses don’t always require lips. do lolas protect their apo by breathing in the malas with that kiss? you forgot you used to call your lola a witch when you were a single-digit-aged salbahe. you forgot you would hide from her when her teeth were resting in a glass of water. you forgot that she made every afterschool merienda from scratch and nothing looked like the food on tv.

kumain ka na ba?

you didn’t know there was a sari-sari store in mt. scott. you recognize the words on the awning even if no one ever translated it for you before. an explosion of colors greet you inside. you think “salamat” when you smile at the man behind the counter. he's not Filipino but at least he's brown. you search for some magic lamp among the shelves, you didn’t even know you had wishes needing to be granted. you touch everything, as if fingers could read labels better than your puro ingles ngayon brain, as if the pictures needed to be pamano’d, like when titas would touch the santo nino in single file procession as they pass. you almost kiss your fingertips out of habit.

as if answering your need for the protection lolas bestow, a tita you’re not related to enters the store. who else wears dasters out of the house? you find a way to practice your mother tongue. you find the words somewhere to tell her you belong here, with her, with the san miguels that you can now buy (but not for $18, sino ka ba?), with the tuyô at dilis, it all comes back to you.

kumain ka na ba?

you’re too old to spread vicks on your neck and chest. you’re not too old to know the healing power of salabat. you peel ginger with a spoon like yana taught you before her pop-up, boil the bald bulb thumbs on the stovetop, squeeze the clover honey into the cup before you blow on it. you have instant salabat tea crystals but you feel connected to something older when you peel with spoons. you didn’t know when you started to lola yourself. adulting surprises you. you learn to lola others after some time, bring salabat for your new cousins you’re not related to, mail malunggay tea packets by a company in Quezon City to your viet friend who can’t shake their cough this winter. you remember how marilou brought you bouquets upon bouquets of fresh malunggay leaves from seattle. you are now a sorceress with sinigang, you know the tomato is just as necessary as the tamarind. you've graduated from mama sita’s sinigang sa sampalok mix packets.

kumain ka na ba?

you dreamed your lola wasn’t dead. your banana-leaves-wrapped lola in a suman sarcophagus, itlog na maalat cut in half laying where her eyes used to be, lumpia like a cigar in her mouth. you dreamed the lumpia stays in place, even with no real teeth to keep them. you dreamed your lola wasn’t dead and when you woke, you smelled embutido like she used to make for you every time you came home.

kumain ka na ba?

you use the same ingredients with your new families. they don’t know you’re saying “I love you” but you say kain na tayo anyway.

Pamela K. Santos is a Pinayorker writer and teaching artist creating multilingual narratives on diasporic identity and hyphenated selves. A 2019 recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship, her poetry appears in Tayo Magazine, Anomaly, Newtown Literary, Stoked Words, and elsewhere. She co-founded Portland’s first Winter Poetry Festival, the Bitter Melon collective for femme and NBOC artists, and Pacific Underground radio/podcast. Pamela curates the Sari Not Sari exhibition series by Filipinx artists in conversation with each other and is in the process of producing plays by Filipinx playwrights. She is also known for her bomb lumpia.

Artwork by Ameya Marie

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