The foreign student
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - July 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Being a foreign student in the United Kingdom meant living on the proverbial shoestring. Along with the Malaysian and Singaporean students in Muirhead Hall at the University of Stirling, I went to the supermarket on our first day. I invited them to come along with me so we could make our most important acquisition – our rice cooker.

With this precious rice cooker, we can cook our soft and fragrant rice, unlike the hard rice that passed for cooked rice in the cafeteria. We could also steam our vegetables, cook our stewed pork and prepare assorted viands of chicken and beef that would make our South East Asian stomachs happy.

I also liked going once a week to the meat section in the supermarket in the center of the town. Billy, the kindly old Scot manning the section, always set aside pork lungs and heart for me. He would wrap them in several layers of blue plastic and hand them to me with a smile. This, after I had ordered my week’s supply of minced meat, chicken wings and bishop’s nose (chicken ass), the cheapest kinds of meat that I could find.

After I had put the meat in the freezer that I shared with five other postgraduate students, I would proceed to cook bopis. It is a spicy Filipino dish made from minced lungs and heart of a pig. It can be served as an appetizer for beer and alcohol; it is also considered as a main dish and is best served with steamed white rice. It certainly fortified me and made me very happy in my 12 months of genteel poverty in merry, olde Scotland.

How to cook bopis? It is important to neutralize the pungent and gamy odor of the pig’s lungs before starting to cook. There are different ways to do this. One is to boil and simmer the lungs with cooking wine; the other is to boil them with several sticks of lemon grass. After this, the meat can be sliced and the ingredients mixed with the meat.

Bopis saved me a lot of money; I always ate it at least twice a week. But on the third month, I went to the supermarket again and Billy asked me about my dog.

‘How is yerrrr dog?’ he enquired.

‘What dog?’ I answered.

‘The one that you feed with the pig’s lungs and heart that I set aside for you everrry week.’

I was momentarily stunned.

Then I said, recovering quickly: ‘Oh, my dog. Yes, my dog, Spot. He is very, very healthy. Thanks to your pig’s lungs and heart.’

He grinned from ear to ear, happy that he was helping feed my dog. And then he gave me another blue plastic bag containing my provisions for a week’s worth of bopis.

*      *      *

I studied hard and went clubbing with my friends once a month. Once, I went to the club alone. When I stepped down the ScotRail at the station in Edinburgh and hailed a black cab, I felt a thrill run through me. It was the thrill of being a nobody in another country, the delicious thrill of anonymity. If only shadows could feel, I thought, perhaps this was how they would feel.

Saturday night had just begun but the place was already full. Faces always swung to the entrance the moment the black door opened.

I looked around. There was nobody I knew. No friend from the Gay Society this time to provide me with company. I just walked straight to the bar.

I ordered the same drink, the gin and tonic that I had before. The gorgeous bar boy was not there.

The table beside me had copies of The Pink Paper. Back at the university, the Gay Society members and I would leave copies of the free weekly paper in Robbins Hall, the main building. In a few minutes, all the copies would be gone. But only around ten people dared to sign up when the Gay Society issued a call for new members. I was one of these newbies.

The night was getting warmer. The temperature of the crowd was rising as well. Any moment now, the dance floor downstairs would open. I picked up the latest issue of Gay Times, with Hanif Kureishi on the cover. I loved his My Beautiful Laundrette, which I had seen in Manila. My friend, the writer Jessica Zafra, had insisted that I watch the film before I flew to London.

I watched it in the living room of our house when I thought everybody had already fallen asleep. Just when Johnny, the punk played by Daniel Day-Lewis was beginning to kiss Omar, his Pakistani boyfriend played by Gordon Warnecke, my grandmother just burst suddenly into the living room like an Angel of Vengeance.

But more like a tired, old angel, really, in her loose, floral house dress. I told her I was watching the film for a term paper I was writing at the university, then I pressed the remote control to fast-forward. The images on the television screen blurred. I was not even sure she saw the television screen, with her bad eyesight. She just gave me a pained look (perhaps her arthritis was bothering her again). Without saying anything, she just went to the lavatory.

Of course, when she had gone back to the room, it was flashback time again at the remote control, then freeze. It was my first time to see two men kissing each other with such passion and urgency, and perhaps the beginning of love.

But now, somebody sat from across me. I looked up. Oh dear, a train wreck with a caterpillar moustache.

‘Errr, wherrrre ye from?’

‘The Philippines.’

‘Wherrrre is det?’

‘Near Hong Kong.’

‘Ye speak verrry good English.’

‘I learnt it from my parents.’

‘Who taught English to yer parents?’

‘The missionaries.’

‘And what happened to the missionaries?’

‘My parents ate them.’

He moved away.

And that was how I fended off inquisitors on why I spoke such good English.

*      *      *

Danton Remoto’s novel, ‘Riverrun,’ will be published by Penguin Random House next month. He can be reached at his website: www.dantonremoto.com

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