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Filipino BBQ

While in Canada last month, Jeni and I were invited to a barbeque at her roommate Mia’s parents’ house.  “We have to go, Susan.  This isn’t any old backyard barbeque.  This is a Filipino barbeque!”

It was cold and rainy outside, but warmth and festivity bloomed through the front door as we entered.  I took off my shoes in the foyer and gave Mia’s diminutive – in everything but voice and presence – mom a hug.  She talked my feet into house sandals (chinelas), and told me they were mine to keep: I could take them home!  The women, Mia, her sister Liza, aunts, and cousins, lounged in the parlor, on couches and floor pillows, cracking the shells of pistachio nuts with their teeth and laughing.  Mia handed me a beer, and I followed her into the kitchen to throw away the bottle top.  The thin sandals made me shuffle, but were a blessing against the cold, tile floor.

“We don’t have Fs in our language.”  Back in the parlor, Mia’s mom leaned against Jeni’s leg, slapping it as she poked fun at her own accent.  “Or Vs, either.  So we say P!  Pfive-pipfdy-pfour, good bargain!”  Mia’s mom was a social worker in the Philippines, and when she first immigrated to Vancouver she ran a halfway house for mental patients out of her own home.  The house has eight bedrooms, with intercoms, large bathrooms, and multiple lounge areas.  Jeni lived with Mia and her family while in nursing school.  She tossed remembered Filipino phrases into her jokes as the banter swirled through the room.  A cousin pointed animatedly as she told the story of a ninety-four-year-old grandmother who could still read without glasses, who stumbled upon the steamy romance novel left behind by a housekeeper.  “She was reading it out loud, and she read several paragraphs before it seemed to sink in, exactly what she was reading,” she mimed a highly offended sensibility throwing the book aside as if it had sprouted the same body parts described in the pages.  Mia’s mom howled and slapped Jeni’s leg again.

Platters of food appeared.  Piles of chicken on skewers, barbecued shrimp, marinated pork.  The men, too shy to join the women’s circle on the first floor, had been busy on the upstairs porch.  This is nothing, I was assured.  For a child’s birthday party in the Philippines, two roasted pigs!  For Easter, weddings, holidays, more than I could imagine.  Desert came later: green coconut shredded with pandan leaf jello and served with coconut ice cream.  Less traditional sweets were paraded in front of me as well.  Mia’s mom asked if I wanted to try her Nanaimo bars.  She bought them from the store herself!  “I not good cook,” she grinned and placed another of the chocolate, coconut and cream confections onto my plate.

Stomachs groaning, Jeni and I drove home through the rain.  She talked about her trip to the Philippines with Mia, five years ago.  “It was my first backpacking trip!”  I “awwwwed”, and nodded.  The first place is the one that shines the brightest in the memory.  She told me about the stupid, naive, wonderful things she did, how willing she was to be without luxury, how immense and how possible the world seemed.  “I went mountain biking with this Dutch guy I met.  We stopped on a beach and he climbed a tree to get a young coconut, and we sawed at the holes with my Swiss army knife and drank the juice right out of the top.  On the night before I flew home, I didn’t want to pay the $4 for a hostel, so I slept in front of the airport on a bench.  I had an alarm clock that looked sort of like a phone, so someone tried to steal it, but once they realized what it was they threw it back.”  A red light turned green, and we drove for a few blocks.  “I think that’s why it’s so hard to live a normal, day-to-day life.  Once you’ve drunk coconut milk straight from the tree, you know, or things like that, real life seems so pale.”  I nodded again.  I understood.

I moved back to Salt Lake a couple of weeks ago, into my room in the big, full, family house where I rent.  I love the feel of infusing a space with my own energy, seeing the empty walls fill with color and the bare furniture become mine.  I start with music.  I put my laptop out of the way and turn it up while I empty boxes and hang clothes.  The computer’s screen saver is set to a slide show program that displays all of the pictures on my laptop’s hard drive at random.  It’s my favorite TV show.  Wintry skiing scenes from Utah fade into Patagonian glaciers, tangled jungle greenery, or pictures of my backpack at trailheads across New Zealand.  Sunsets from the bottom of the world morph into bright orange flames between ponderosa pines, and the full moon shines unchanged over mountains on four continents.  Pausing for a few minutes to watch, I’m transported.  It’s hard to believe that some of these pictures were taken five years ago, and easy to get lost in the past.  Real life is hard after living out of a car in New Zealand, or floating down the Amazon in a cargo boat, especially when the years intervene to brighten the good memories and soften the bad.  But I do remember the moments – or weeks, or months – when I questioned my reasons for being on the road, when I felt low and uninspired and unappreciative of my very unreal life.  Getting to the places where I could create those brilliant memories was hard, too.

Decorating is the last step to making a room my own.  Feather and seed necklaces from the Amazon, postcards from Wyoming and Chile, a wall-hanging I inherited in Antarctica, the hand-woven rug I bought in Peru; these find their way into place, linking this new space with all of the places I’ve been in the last five years.  As wonderful as it is to be surrounded by these memories, however, I am trying hard not to end up as the person who talks only about their glory days when those days are thirty years gone.  The glory days are every day, if I chose to see them that way.  When I am an old woman, I want people to see the photos and artifacts on my walls and the exotic jewelry on my wrists, but to hear me talk about my latest home improvement project, the play I saw last week, the trip I’m taking next month, not the same stale tales of hitchhiking in Argentina fifty years ago.  I need to stop defining myself by what I’ve done but instead by what I’m doing.  And so, on the wall over my desk, I’ve pinned a photo of my fire crew and our trucks from last summer; on the fridge is a snapshot of Chris and me on the top of Mt. Timpanogos, and another of us at Hampton Beach is next to my computer.  A handmade pottery cup I bought from a ski instructor friend holds my pens.  And those chinelas: I think of Mia and her family every time I wear them.  And I wonder if maybe the Philippines will be the next place on my forward journey…

2 comments to Filipino BBQ

  • Brett

    Great post! Glad to see you back and blogging again. Very inspirational. I’m looking forward to your future posts and reading about you’re doing.

  • Mia

    Aww, Susan, what a beautiful and inspirational post! I feel so honoured that you wrote about the BBQ on your blog! How’s life been treating you? Jen and I were just talking about you tonight, about how she’s been wondering how you’ve been doing and how she needs to set up a Skype date with you soon. Thinking about the upcoming snow season has also made me think of you and the picture you painted of the hills surrounding Salt Lake; Jen and I may have to make a trip out there a reality sooner rather than later. Besos, mi amiga!

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