Blue Christmas

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

When I went home last year, I wrote that Christmas 2021 would be the bleakest Christmas for many Filipinos, perhaps since the Second World War. COVID-19 has devastated the country. I saw people of all ages begging on the streets, shoppers buying only the most essential items (food and medicines), and I felt the taste of ashes on one’s tongue. It wasn’t like this, as they say, days and days before.

I grew up in Basa Air Base, Pampanga, which sat at the foot of the Zambales mountain range. I knew it was Christmas when a light mist would descend on the base, and there would be a nip in the air.

My grandmother, Lola Juana, would also ask my sister Nanette and I to join her in the Simbang Gabi. She would wake us up at dawn, give us a warm breakfast of Ricoa cocoa, pan de sal and cheese, and we would walk off into the fog. I don’t remember if I completed any of the nine-day masses. I would feign sickness, or pretend to be too sleepy.

But I do remember the tubes of purple puto bumbong and the bibingka, the rice cakes topped with salted duck’s egg and the steaming cup of salabat. The taste of hot rice cake, brown sugar and grated coconut washed down by ginger tea is one memory that does not quite leave you. No, not even if you have gone abroad.

My first Christmas abroad was spent in Morgantown, West Virginia, with my cousins. I was taking up my M.Phil. in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom when my sister, a nurse newly settled in the US, asked me to join her for Christmas break.

And so I mailed my application for a tourist visa at the US embassy at Grosvenor Square in London and got my schedule for the interview. But lo and behold, on the day of the interview, heavy snow fell all over Scotland. You could quote James Joyce and say that snow was general over Scotland, covering everything, cottage and castle, farmland and cobblestoned street, falling over the living and the dead.

Our train from Stirling to London had difficulty crossing the rail tracks. I arrived 30 minutes late for the interview, and told the consul I am sorry I was late.

He said he had heard of the heavy snow that blanketed Scotland, and then he asked: “Why did you not apply for a visa in Manila?”

The consul was young but well-trained, looking at me with his shrewd eyes. I looked at him and said, “Oh, the queues were too long.”

He tried not to smile. Then he looked at my papers from the British Council that gave me a scholarship to study in the UK and my graduate school credentials. And then he asked me, “What if you were studying in the United States and your American university offers you a teaching job, what will you do?”

I looked at him and smiled. “Of course, I will accept it, wouldn’t you?”

His last question was: “If I did not give you a US visa, what will you do?”

“I will cross the English Channel and visit my friend Bonnie in Paris. I haven’t been there and I want to visit the place where they buried the poets.”

A smile finally dawned on his face.

Finally, he asked for my sister’s name and her visa status and he went inside. When he came back, he opened my passport and stamped it.

He gave me the kind of visa that must be worth its weight in purest gold, for when I was in Los Angeles three years later, I met a Filipino at a Christmas party and he offered me P250,000 so he could “get” my visa.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He said he was an undocumented alien. He would buy my passport with its multiple-entry visa and then he would be known as Danton Remoto. That meant, he explained, that I would not be able to visit the US any more.

He was brash and desperate and, of course, I turned him down. His face was also non-biodegradable (tough and ugly). I did not want it to be known that I had undergone plastic surgery and instead of looking better I looked worse.

Ten years later, I was in New Jersey on a Fulbright grant at Rutgers University and was surprised to see Christmas trees being set up in the shop fronts only two weeks before Dec. 25! Thanksgiving seemed a more exciting time for the people of New Jersey and New York. I suddenly missed Christmas in Manila, when Jingle Bells would begin playing on Sept. 1.

I also missed home. So I would walk two miles in the snow to reach Beverly Hills Bakery in the main road of Highland Park, NJ. It was owned by a Filipino family. We would watch “The Sharon Cuneta Show” while eating fried fish and fried rice and drinking Ricoa cocoa. My eyes would mist over when I eat, because I would remember my then-departed grandmother.

I would also take the bus every two Sundays to do my grocery at the Asian Store three towns away. I felt at home beside the fish heads with eyes, the jars of sandwich spread and the Curly Tops chocolate in the Philippine selection of the store. The Filipino customers always mistook me for a Chinese or Japanese or Korean (hello!) and would titter with delight when I would tell them, in Tagalog, where the fish sauce was located.

Today is another blue Christmas, especially in Cebu, where I had been stranded by Super Typhoon Odette. This category 4 typhoon ripped through northern Mindanao and the Visayas. The wind did not hoot; it howled on the night of Dec. 16. I stayed in a new and strong building called K Fortune Apartelle and knew I was safe. But in the garage, I saw the white van moving from side to side, as if being pushed by invisible hands. After the storm, scores of people died; trees and electric posts choked the streets and the queues for water and gas were long.

It’s a Christmas worse than last year’s. But the Cebuanos are a hardy people and they will survive these, with their trademark persistence and good cheer.

*      *      *

Email: [email protected]. Danton Remoto’s “Riverrun, A Novel” was published by Penguin Books and available in Shopee and amazon.com

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