Category: prose

To All Our Noontime Saviors

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Growing up with Wowowee, the Villar family as my backyard neighbors, MMK, and the 6/55 Lotto.

Every Saturday afternoon, I’d poke a pencil into the broken buttons of a Sony CRT, flipping from Cartoon Network to channel two. The whole household would crowd into my room, impatiently waiting for Willie Revillame to start spinning across the screen, surrounded by women in heels and miniskirts—the Wowowee dancers clapping and twirling in front of a studio audience of hundreds from all across the nation. “Sa Luzon, sa Visayas, at sa Mindanao, saan man sulok ng mundo makakasama nyo!” every line from the theme song flashing at the bottom of the screen, practically unneeded, the room clapping along. From Luzon, from Visayas, and from Mindanao, wherever in the world you are, come join in! To any outsider, he would seem like a generic, unassuming Filipino-Chinese man, but to this country, he was a savior. Everyone in the audience arrived at Manila by boat or plane or eleven-hour bus ride, all with dreams to hear his theme song, almost synonymous with reinvention. In a smile, he could give you the money to turn your life around.  My yayas, the household help that my frequently-absent parents employed to keep the family together, lived for these noontime showings. They’d convene every weekday and Saturday before getting back to folding clothes or cleaning the plastic dining table with baby wipes. I’d sit next to them and learn the way Willie worked: joking about politicians and the weather to factory workers and housewives in his audience, my yayas laughing along as if on cue. He’d pry open their story, the town they came from and how they found their way to Wowowee before handing them a thousand peso bill. When Willie lifted the mic to them for their fifteen-second story 1, it was always one of resilience.

My yayas would yell answers at the screen as Willie spun the Willie of Fortune, contestants with their broken teeth and hand towels draped over their shoulders struggling to sing the lyrics to the chosen radio tune. “House and lot! House and lot!” he’d dangle the rewards in front of them them, a nation tuned in to see them walk away with nothing or everything. “Sayang,” I’d watch my closest yaya exclaim, in clear defeat before backing up from the screen. “Alam ko ‘yun.” What a waste, I knew that. Yaya always swore that she’d be on that stage one day. Dancing along, or in a glass box with cash blowing around filling her pockets with all she could keep. I envisioned her sobbing out her life story with cameras and lights, Willie’s sympathetic hand on her back and a thousand bill slipped into her hands. I wished I could give her that.

For several years, our family never bought groceries from the supermarket, or many things at all. I remember asking my father for a 70 peso magazine for my eighth birthday and being rejected, but for some reason we always made exceptions.

In those times, I frequently accompanied my mother to work at the maternity hospital2 our family owned in Tondo, Manila. I was born in that hospital (delivered by my grandmother) and was raised in that district for the early part of my life, before my parents had enough to buy our own home and settle two hours down south. Tondo is one of the world’s most densely populated areas and is Manila’s largest city, where an estimated 4 million people live in the slums, many live on just $1.25 a day.34

After my my mother’s work5, we’d squeeze into a tricycle6 to the Tondo public market. Stall after stall in a warehouse, water dripping from the ceiling with the merged smell of every imaginable produce. This was no supermarket. My mom would buy us Coke poured into plastic bags, a straw poking out before we waded through to buy our groceries for the week. On some of these trips, my mother would ask to make another stop by our first family home7, some blocks away from the hospital. It was a crude house built of corrugated tin and thin wood, one wall of unfinished concrete blocks and a rotting door, a large 2001 calendar covering an unfinished hole. Outside, the street sung, neighbors crowded around a small television playing chimes and commercials, the sound of rancorous laughter and kids chasing dogs. We’d walk across the old street, the scent of burning trash and sampaguita8, and stop by a stall to buy a ticket for the 6/55 Lottery. In order to win the 6/55 prize, you have to hit all six numbers in any order. “Your dad was so excited, the jackpot was 30 million last Monday,” she tells me. She would always ask me for a number.

In 2010 they introduced to us the concept of the government, just in time for the Presidential Elections. I was fresh out of third grade in April and witnessed the last push of campaign season, where I was almost certain that commercial blocks ran longer than actual shows did. My parents even helped our two yayas register to vote and offered to carpool to the same precinct. Every day, our heads would be filled with presidentiables, from their songs and words on television to their posters and banners fluttering across billboards, buses, and rice sacks. Nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura? Nagpasko ka na ba sa gitna ng kalsada? My yayas garnered all they knew about the electoral process from their friends across the village and from television. They swooned over a new man—a presidential candidate named Manny Villar. They held frequent debates over who had a better theme song. (Yaya still remained loyal to Willie.) Villar ran one of the most memorable campaigns in Philippine history. The newscaster reported of his upbringing in our shared birthplace of Tondo, selling shrimp and fish in the same market. The radio gossip talked of defiance, graduating from the country’s most prestigious university with his promise to lead the Filipino to the same path. He had his miracle story.  Have you ever swam in a sea of trash? Have you ever celebrated Christmas in the middle of a road? His commercial ran over and over, filled with street children amidst Tondo—the murky Pasig River in the background. They could chime in so perfectly, “Si Manny Villar ang magtatapos ng ating kahirapan.” Manny Villar will end our hardships.

In election summer, we watched the morning news give election spiels and success stories. I learned to cook spam for lunch right before Willie’s usual skits and games. In the afternoon, my yayas paused and prayed to the 3 o’clock prayer––devotion synced across every Filipino channel while I watched them. In the evenings, we’d wait for MMK at 9 after all the dishes have been washed. We listened and cried to stories of common people and their lives turned from slums to comfort, never without struggle. One night, yaya turned to me and asked me if my parents were voting for Manny. I shrugged, but I knew the answer.

Manny Villar lived in the house behind mine. His backyard spanned over two times the space our home took up. He had (had) a pool with bridges that I could peer over from my parent’s bedroom. I would sometimes catch both my parents, dead-tired from a shift peeking over their curtains to gaze at the Villar’s backyard. “One day,” my parents exchanged. I’d join my yayas in cleaning my parent’s room and stare over at them, as they’d whisper about the extravagance of the house’s interior—details picked up from neighbors. All our drives from our village back to Tondo were plastered with Manny, him being a new face for hope. From Tondo to billionaire businessman. Once, in a traffic jam on the way home, a child knocks on the driver’s seat window begging for spare change with a “Nothing is Impossible with Manny” slogan on his shirt, the signature orange of his campaign draped across.

I remember asking my mother what it took for us to move to our home several times that summer. She never gave a clear response. Instead, she always promised us larger things: that one day, we’ll move and find home, have a garden, more bathrooms, and a washing machine. She referenced the high-rises glittering across the Manila Skyway with their exorbitant toll fees—but beautiful either way. “Maybe Makati, or at least Alabang so it won’t take you two hours to get to school from this house every day.” 

Manny didn’t win. When I went back to school in June the boys mocked the song, “Si Manny Villar ay ang dahilan ng ating kahirapan.” Swaying along like all the children in rags. The jingle left primetime commercial slots, but it never really left people’s minds. Manny Villar is the reason for our hardships. I could still see the brown and murky river, the children smiling and some even swimming across as they mocked it.

Wowowee was cancelled in July. Willie had a feud with one of the showrunners. A day later, the weekday slot was replaced by Pilipinas Win Na Win, co-hosted by the sister of our newly-elected President.

I often wonder if we ever truly achieve the Filipino dream.  

If not Willie, if not Manny, someone else will always step in. In 2016 our family closed in to the television as they swore in someone with an iron fist, who promised to end corruption and poverty and who swore away all men who would defy him—swore to kill.9 He touts his harsh upbringing, lifting Davao out of poverty and promising to save the Filipino people. Yaya watches the television, swayed by his words. “Siya na,” I watch her tell herself. This is the one.

My family never moved out. My mother still works at the same place, so we still visit Tondo every now and then. Last summer, we went by the same booth to pick up a 6/55, my parents ticking the same numbers they’ve ticked for years. All this with the street still alive with blasting karaoke, the same stalls and regional television. The block crowded around a screen, cheering and talking against the same cracking pavement and crammed homes, drinking soda from plastic bags. The ballot, the promises, the hope—all ever constant for reasons I still have yet to swallow.

I wrote this essay for a class in my Freshman Spring at Yale. Some parts are fictionalized/overblown. I have long tried to articulate how warped my view of life is from growing up with malls, gameshows, and no trust of government.

IF: Gay girl prays for a gun

Reading Time: < 1 minute

Gay girl prays for a gun is an interactive fiction piece mainly about religion and sexuality. I like to think about it as a collection of poems and anecdotes.

Play game (direct link)
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This has been a work in progress for a while, but we’re at a few thousand words and at a state of branching that I think is interesting. Try it out.

For more interactive fiction pieces, I’m storing most public works on my Github:

Gay girl prays for a gun

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Dealing with my pansexuality, and sexuality as a living void that I couldn’t come to terms with — and am still trying to understand. It’s not really just easier to say “bi”, I often don’t say anything at all.

I’m nineteen-years old and answering emails in the middle of a storm while many people I love march for pride in cities away, in a nation that has long misunderstood what it is we are celebrating. This is a nation that has granted me the privilege of silence.

My family exists with votes thrown for the yellow party; in that sense — gay people are something to be tolerated. I buy overpriced $15 rainbow socks from the middle of a crowded street in Japan and wear it when I get my hair cut for $2; the hairdresser looks at my mother and asks me if I’m “you know…” and she answers that I just wear it for the colours.

Some days, I’m still trying to figure out if I’ve actually fallen in love with m best friend. I dig up old messages where I scream about going gay for girls, long before I knew it was okay to be gay. When I first looked at porn, I looked at drawings of boys kissing each other — and enjoyed it more when they had an emotional connection to one another. During the more vulnerable days I would fantasize this scene with us in place: on shitty beds and sidewalks pushed, looked down upon, taking in the voyeur of knowing there was something so intimately wrong about every single touch.

I’ve written a lot about loving boys. I’ve loved them in the form of music, in the form of their warmth in a crowded auditorium despite never having known them outside a theater or a mall. I’ve loved them in a college dorm room before a relapse and in the dark of a field with dozens of other people, making out and feeling them next to the plastic ID in their pocket that costs us 20 dollars to lose. The premise of these anecdotes is to tell you that I’ve loved in the most fucked up (read: awkward) circumstances possible; there was no tender, forbidden love in a summer church camp, nor did I pass notes with anyone in class and receive a promposal to seal in my heterosexuality. In fact, I ended my high school career with one proposal: to a barely-friend in a Roblox map recreation of their city (read: two free modeled houses and a sign that read SUCAT), the school bus that I (not he) rode every day of senior year, and of my Catholic high school the night before the event. We barely talked the entire night, and afterwards I watched my friends get smashed up high school drunk while I remained completely sober after several drinks — doing my best impression of obnoxious tipsy girl with the scent of sweet tea all over my mouth. There was nothing fantastic or orgasmic. Until this day, I have still not orgasmed.

The other function of that was to tell you that I’ve loved beyond metaphors. I’m nineteen and haven’t been the sexual pariah I’ve told many people I was for years, but I figure that’s most people who go to Catholic school. (It also lets you know how I’m apparently not good enough at this stuff yet.) I’ve texted people that I loved them and meant it at that time. I look back today of course, and know that none of those acts could meet the standard of the love I give now. But I also look back today while crying because I just want to love something without it needing me.

When I was in ninth grade, I thought I was absolutely unfuckable. One of the solutions to this was to go to the mall and get my arms waxed off. That was the first and last time. I was then still deeply uncomfortable with loneliness and myself, and desperate to be like all the other high schoolers who received dozens of anonymous questions on their inboxes sent to themselves or had interactions that consisted of showing up to each other’s houses in gated villages somewhere in Ayala Alabang or just off Alabang-Zapote carrying a bucket of fries to post on Snapchat. This changed when I met my first high school boyfriend. We sent each other long love letters on our iPads and hid the notifications of our sexts in the middle of class. We had promised to march to a Sigur Ros song for our wedding one day. We ended our relationship by cutting each other off. If I think hard enough, I would be able to remember the patterns on his uniform and the scent of his cologne faded into deodorant in the early morning heat, rendered into nothing and air conditioning when we’d say bye to each other every day again. I no longer remember his voice. Now, we last talked when he greeted me for my eighteenth birthday and sent another sorry a month later. That was over a year ago.

I can tell you something deeper. But know that recall is a curious thing: if I could, I would largely leave the arrangement of my mind to something higher or to pure disorder – just picking things apart as needed. But memory is what has made me forget my second kiss just as I did the last, the names of people I should, tests on paper and in life; that’s it, really. What it offers me instead though, are glimpses of strangers and people I know too fondly to be able to detail so perfectly without any history of intimacy. This is how I know that there was nothing about this being a choice.

Whenever I listen to songs that deal with the common topic of unrequited love and pain, like to listen to them live. I listen closely for every inflection: the kinds of things that can’t be replicated in studios.

It’s kind of selfish to indulge in other people’s memories and feelings. I think about the people I idolize, their traumas restless on-stage heard for 20 dollars.

We like hearing ourselves in music. Or pretending to see ourselves in films. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen someone like me loving in a way I was familiar with; having to love in ways I can’t base something around is kind of tiring. Somedays I want to love easy and with reference – in a way where this can grow. I want to see commitment that I can fall in and out of easily; like convenience.

Our theory in co-educational Catholic girls school was that people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between friendly hand-holding and something deeper. Like the subtlety of a hug a few seconds too long, skin-on-skin just below the knees, and legs hanging on each other’s laps from the sun. I’m heteronormativity on pews.

Pragmatics: in the afterschool finding myself on ramps, I listen to music and try to find places where no one can. Underneath pronouns, girls, people — I want to learn that my love is something that can happen and hear songs that tell me so. This is the power of pauses, stops, hers.

I want anyone other than boys to sing about loving than girls; I want there to be more than pop punk songs and ballads about waistbands — I want to talk about string theory. I want to talk about why I can’t talk about loving myself or girls until it was too late. I talked myself into listening to music and secluding myself and not being like anyone else when it was all I wanted.

I’m listening to more music than I ever had, unlearning the billboard voices I listened to in high school and the music we played from phones in the back of buses. Living at the edge of nineteen, I’m finally finding the same voices I wish I had. Waiting for boyfriends and boyfriends and something deeper than holding hands. I pretended I hated how girls were, promising myself to never be like them; many people I believe, come to that far before they know what love or hate is. Sometimes I don’t know where to draw the line when we play songs that talk about fucking or hold someone a few seconds longer — I don’t know where to look when I say I love you without it being an afterthought. We’re afraid of being the lesbian at the party.

Michelle Zauner sings about head, breakfast, and marriage with girls on an album grieving her mother. I can picture it: uncombed hair staring down girls and wanting to be as pretty and feeling so far. There’s something I know too closely about not taking care of myself and feeling intimidated by anyone who I liked. I often felt at war with the girls I’ve loved and the people around me – not knowing what kind of person they’d want to kiss and watching everyone surround them. Upbeat and ecstatic, I like to think about how many bedrooms I’ve walked into and piled myself into — Instax film trades and wanting to be in profile pictures with girls to see myself better, and in turn, see myself with them.

Countless songs already give us the girl-wants-boy narrative. I’ve played it in every way: asking them out first, falling out of love first, getting tired and wanting to walk away. I joke with my friends about how scared I am around girls; even falling into traps and circles about how I feel I don’t click with them when I’m just afraid of talking to someone I might love without knowing how they feel in the first place.

This song has never been on neutral grounds. My love is built on jealousy and isolation. It’s easy to defy school and god with boys – it’s basic. But there’s something different when it’s internalized – when I still am unsure if what I’m feeling really is love or just lust or longing for touch again with fear. Physicality is also lying to me here. I know what it feels to touch something as friends but know nothing about giving power over myself when necessary when I’ve struggled so long with what degree of love I am allowed to have with these types of people.

Poetry allows me to compare my love to guns. I was barely a teenager when something triggered inside of me – I couldn’t love on a binary or based on measurements… I think there is something inside of me that just wants to love. Intrinsically and without measure, as I see fit. It’s that the world around me allows the discard of judgment as I do, but only when it’s convenient for their agenda. Like: in America, it’s easier for me to gauge when a girl might not just be here for giggles and we’re all open and gay and gorgeously lost. Like in the Philippines, I’m left begging in the remnants of plaid skirts and loose undershirts, struggling once again to see if my love can mean something – suspending me from acting.

I think we think the same. I tell my girl friends. I want a girlfriend. I say I want the world to stop and let me learn how to love. There’s too much inside of me that has divided things into binary and too much fear leftover from sidewalks in Manila. Girls in the summer can’t walk alone, or girls are too loud and open and I could never be with someone who was so into themselves that it scared me.

I want to feel anything means I want to be allowed to feel what I have felt for the past ten years.

Factually, I have never had to come out of a closet — maybe because I didn’t feel the need to. Until today, I’ve never been in relationships (or encounters) with anyone other than boys. Especially the boys that find it emasculating to be with a girl who knows that she could love someone other than their sex; like there’s an entire new dimension of threat and they forget that they are the replaceable one in this story.
I have the privilege of looking like an ally (doing nothing but saying some things, maybe) and wearing one earring on my right without anyone really saying anything. Folks inform me that this unneeded proclamation is furthered by my lack of trying to love in general.

But I want to fucking move. Let me find the logic in why it’s taken me over five years to realize that I truly am uncomfortable with the term bisexual for myself – as interchangeable as it may be with what I am (pansexual) – because gender has never been a factor in these feelings except for the fear of its audience. Neither term used properly conforms to the exclusionary language of only referring to two genders or anything – but I don’t know how to say that I’m afraid of specifying how I love because everyone I’ve loved has come to mind before labels – only furthering my fears out of the convenience there was to love them in public, in person, in purity.

No duogamity – no metrics; I want to make known the love I have and all the spaces in which I was not allowed to continue it.

Like I say I want a girlfriend because I’ve been in love with them and haven’t been allowed to touch them for years. We look back on high school yearbooks and laugh at how many bisexual girls have come out and how easy it is to conflate touch to meaning but it was always never anything with girls — that Manila taught me false informalities and the removal of meaning in embraces that I’ve been so desperate to find it and so wary of hooking myself on it.

Justice, I believe, is trying to erase the baiting between how I’m still fucked and discomforted over showbusiness kissing and the years of allowing myself to feel that certain types of human touch could weigh more than others. Today, I’m gay and relying on repetition to see if anyone femme genuinely wants something about me: because religious intuition has taught me that their actions are high-class formalities or at worst, mockery. My body still shuts down, prolongs responses, and carries the unbearable space of guessing what it means when a girl tells me how I look in lines. Like there’s something persistent about hands on my wrists at any age – not being able to piece together what they want from me and the fear that emanates from that because of years of confusion.

On the rooftop in the middle of a show, I lit up a cigarette for a girl overlooking the industrial dead of downtown Los Angeles, still trailed by all the ideas of love left of me from meaningless college freshmen year and what religious schooling had left on me. There are truly scars that follow you when your inception of love is so dwarfed now by what everyone around you gives: like the rush, the feeling, the intimacy that I mistake for a thank you when it also means I want to give you this. I don’t have time to be held. We practice talking on the balcony: where she goes, how the Philippines is an eighteen-hour flight, and how the song playing reminds me of all the girls I could have never loved.

“What songs do you think Mitski has written about girls?” I type this into Google and then ask all the girls I know. The touch is lost on me – but I know there’s still that divide; that different kind of delicacy and lingering when you talk about girls. We guess Once More to See You, because no woman like this writes about the necks of dead and gone boys. And there’s something about women loving women where we believe the world is in love with them – and then have to hide it all when this is us, and them.

And we are waist-to-waist in the California stars. Imagine all the black hair bleached there is left in the lines of everyone you wished you could have had.

Make this the radical act of tenderness and vulnerability. I want to love someone skin-on-skin in a time where the world can destroy us. This is secrecy beyond hearsay and fear; it’s the ultimate act of destruction – maybe, to love in a time where love can lead me to be disavowed.

There is as much power as there is security in love — no matter how disjointed it could be — in illegal times. I harbor all my feelings for you and know that beyond this, everything could kill me.

In my room, folding papers in one of my last summers. Asking people out to coffee and tea. Going to church with family on Sundays.

Perpetual war has no clear conditions that would lead to its conclusion. Maybe I am scared because I don’t know if to touch means that the love I have would lose its build-up, just like loving boys in junior high or be as unspecial as the last. But this is something I’ve felt over and over again; something I can’t dictate to stop or forget – like anything else. I’m unsure what the term for it goes.

It’s nothing until you can feel it, I believe. And I want to know what it’s like to feel. I’ve never imagined myself in this position again, but it happens. My hands cupped for communion, looking up at concrete ceilings and the world there is to love, walking back down the aisle afraid of what it means to hold a hand.