Walang Tahanan (No Home)

It was nearing dinner and the words bounced out of my mom’s mouth.

Ano gusto mo kainin?

My mind immediately translated: What do you want to eat? Simple enough, especially given the time. But the words I sent back just fell flat and lifeless out of my mouth:

I dunno.

I had one-way amnesia: the words and images processed easily and naturally coming in, as if a babelfish were whispering in my ear whenever a relative spoke to me. But I had trouble returning in kind. The words, or at least what I thought were the words, that comprised the correct reply swam in my head. I tried to arrange them, but each word would prove slippery, and as I approached what felt like a sentence, they would break loose again, a Sisyphean puzzle that would undo itself as it neared completion. The mental process was so frustrating that I often resigned to the pidgin English of the modern American teenager, a vocabulary comprised mostly of grunts, shrugs, and word-parts blended together to sound like attempts at communication. Or I would just nod or shake my head until it was clear I had no idea what to say in return.

I wasn’t always like this. My parents told me it was impossible to shut me up as a child, that I would hold multiple conversations with family members whenever we’d have parties. The relatives would clap at how well I spoke the language, smiling as gigil–a  word that can’t be translated in English that describes the irresistible urge to pinch a baby’s cheeks–would overcome them.

But just like that, my language left me around when I began primary school. The power I once had vanished, replaced by the lingua franca of my birth country, and, one could argue, my mother country as well: most Filipino nationals are instructed in both Tagalog and English. Tagalog, itself a language born of the Spanish oppression of a native people, was being cast aside to accommodate the whims of another imposing country, the United States.

That said, the country in question was one I loved, and the only one I would know until my mid-20s. I would find myself almost yelling the Pledge of Allegiance before my afternoon kindergarten classes, hoping my volume would indicate my patriotism. I read voraciously to improve my English, consuming book after book my parents would borrow from the library for me. Everything culminated in high school, when I resolved to either be an English teacher, a government official, or both, a testament to the indoctrination that cost me not just my first language, but my sense of pride in being Filipino as well.

In high school, I joined my school’s Filipino culture club, not because I was Filipino or even interested in Filipino culture, but because the club had the best hip hop dance team on campus. Words and language provided the backdrop for my identity growing up, and hip hop music–and by extension, its culture–filled the void I emptied of my heritage. I took up writing poetry and spoken word (in English). I danced exclusively to rap and R&B. I did not know Filipino writers or musicians or had any interest in them; my worldview was informed by American emcees, bboys, and street artists. My heroes were not Rizal and Aquino, but Mos Def and Tupac. All four spoke of striving for something bigger for their people, but I only considered the words of the latter two.

A few months prior to our annual performance, our show director suggested I participate in what we called the “Mountain” suite, a group of dances representing Filipino indiginous cultures. Male performers were required to wear only a woven loincloth and slather themselves with baby oil.

I stared blankly at the loincloth, its bright red yarn harsh against my brown skin.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

“Come on, all the guys perform Igorot. We even work out together in the weeks leading up to it so we don’t embarrass ourselves at the performance.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “No thanks. I dance hip hop.”

I was not going to be caught dead performing something that represented a culture from the past, a culture I largely considered backward and unsuccessful, a culture that eventually ceded to the culture of the West. Hip hop and all its cultural children had embedded within them the notion of the American dream: striving, progress, success. Everything I wanted. The beats were catchier, to boot.

The day of the show, I stood backstage, watching as my friends ran on stage, glazed with oil and holding spears, shimmering beneath the stage lights as what were effectively scarves provided the only protection from utter embarrassment. They yelled and marched, reenacting the hunt mountain tribes would lead. The dance ended, the lights went down, and the crowd cheered. I gave my friends high-fives as they ran backstage smiling, wishing I knew what it was they were so happy about.

My sophomore year of college, I was chosen to be the male lead of Singkil, a traditional Maranao-Filipino folk dance in which a prince attempts to rescue a princess from an enchanted forest. It was only my second time dancing a Filipino cultural dance, as I generally avoided these types of performances in my high school Filipino club. Suffice to say, I practiced relentlessly in the weeks leading up to the performance, one that would take place in front of the newly-minted freshman class during orientation week.

During the performance, I stood offstage, holding the wooden sword and shield firmly, waiting for the clink-clink of the princess’ anklets, signaling the beginning of the dance. She waved the fans she held daintily, sweeping the air in figure-eights above her head as her attendant followed her, shielding the princess from the forest’s hot, dense air with a bright red umbrella. In and out the princess wove, not looking down for a second as the swish-swish of the bamboo poles below her became a menacing clack-clack. She continued to dodge the sweeping sticks, swaying in and out among them without changing pace or expression; she looked like she was floating above them rather than stepping between them.

Then, my turn. I took a breath, then entered the stage as the princess and her attendants stood off to the side to watch. In-out-in-out. Good. In-out-in-out. Good. Just like we practiced. I’d step in, step in, spin-step-out, again, again, again, waving my sword to show I was fighting the spirits that tried to capture the princess I was sworn to save.

The princess stepped in — our joint portion — and I blanked. I could no longer hear the clack-clack that served as my mental metronome, the sound drowned out by the static in my brain. I looked over at my partner, who was slipping in and out of the poles, wondering when I would resume stepping with her. 

I never did. Instead, I stepped off to the side to let her finish the dance alone, holding my shield closer to my face so the audience wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes. After the dance ended, the crowd clapped and whistled loudly in appreciation, but the dancers on stage knew: I choked. I immediately ran to the dressing room, threw my clothes on without removing any of my stage oil or makeup, and sprinted to  my room on campus and sulked, berating myself for failing myself, my family, and my heritage. Again. It was the last time I performed a Filipino dance.

Vinegar, garlic, and… fish sauce? There was no way my best friend, who would gag at even the thought of seafood, would eat something cooked in fish sauce, I thought, let alone something as pungent as adobo.

I looked at the cookbook, questioning my decision. My roommate had bought it for me as a birthday present after I expressed an interest in learning to cook. Soon after, I had promised to cook him and our other roommate–my ichthyophobic best friend–a Filipino dish listed within, but only after I had successfully mastered two other, more familiar, non-Filipino dishes: Japanese karaage, or fried chicken; and Korean bibimbap, a meat, rice, and vegetables dish I counted among my favorites.

I remember my mother cooking adobo differently than how the cookbook–compiled by a Taiwanese-American author–described. The cookbook version was simpler and used slightly different ingredients: pre-ground black pepper, rather than whole peppercorns; olive oil, which was a far fancier and more flavorful oil than the original I recalled; and scallions, which were completely absent from my mother’s version and in all versions I ate growing up.

Most times, my mother would make the dish using a pre-packaged, dry adobo flavor mix, but sometimes, when she had the energy, she used to make it completely homemade. She would prepare and marinade the meat, usually chicken or pork, the night before she intended to cook and serve the dish. The next day, she’d pour the meat into a large pan, simmering the pork or chicken in the marinade until the entire house smelled like vinegar and fish sauce. All the vents would be running at full power in the kitchen, and we cracked open all the windows nearby, but the sour and savory smell stuck to her clothes each time without fail. The aroma would waft around the house; I would inhale huge breaths then as a child, my saliva building in anticipation of tart, salty, garlicky goodness dancing on my tongue. Her version, unlike the one I was preparing, included hard-boiled eggs cooked in the same marinade as the meat; the eggs were my favorite ingredient, something that distinguished my family’s recipe from those of our friends’ families, something that, despite being relatively common, felt like it was ours.

The book’s version felt more dressed-up than any permutation I ate growing up, an attempt to make adobo “prettier” or more sophisticated than the humble comfort food I remember it being, a way of making the dish uptown rather than down-home. I considered calling my mom to ask for her recipe, but decided against it: if the uptown version made the cookbook, then surely my roommates, who had never eaten Filipino food before, would be more likely to enjoy it than the recipe with which I was familiar.

I scrutinized my roommates’ every move as they took their first bites. I saw them nod, their faces contorting in a way that seemed to say, hmm, not bad. But I also noticed that they ate slowly, much more slowly than when we’d order pizza, or even when we’d eaten karaage and bibimbap. I usually had to serve myself first to ensure I’d get my fair share of whatever meal we had most days.

“Thanks man. This was great,” my best friend said at the end of the meal. I looked back at the leftovers still in the pot, wondering if either of them would head downtown late for a burrito or a burger.

“How do you pronounce this? Toh… Sih…

Toh-seeh-lohg. Tocilog. Tocino is a kind of marinated pork, and the -ilog suffix, which is a contraction of silog, means that the meat is served over garlic rice and with a fried egg. Everything on the menu is silog.”

He looked at me and nodded. “Cool. I’m just excited to eat!”

I’d promised him for years, since college, that I’d take him to eat at a Filipino restaurant. He’d always taken me to hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese places in San Jose, or to fancy fusion restaurants in San Francisco, but I’d spent the entirety of our friendship postponing the chance to take him to eat Filipino food, afraid that he’d find the food too simple or provincial compared to what he ate at places like The Slanted Door. Even Vietnamese food, one of my favorite cuisines, felt more complex than Filipino food; Vietnamese flavors like star anise, lemongrass, and mint felt like a culinary upper class compared to the meaty and fatty tastes I’d associated with Filipino dishes.

We sat down at the back. The entire space resembled a ramen restaurant, its narrow, wooden counter directly across from the kitchen harkening me back to my two trips to Tokyo. Did restaurants in the Philippines look like this? I wouldn’t know; I’d never been.

“We’ll take an order of tocilog, longsilog, and sisilog,” I said to the chef, trying hard to speak with the proper intonations, but not confident I said each word correctly. The other two dishes included longanisa, a sweet sausage, and sisig, made up of cut-up, sour pig parts. My friend had previously eaten the latter, served in a burrito by a popular Bay Area food truck, but never in a more traditional form.

The food came out after a few minutes; after all, the dishes were essentially Filipino street food, and were simple in ingredients and preparation. The chef placed the sizzling cast iron plate containing the sisig between us.

“Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude!” My friend said, clapping his hands in anticipation.

I’d never seen anyone so excited to eat such simple food before. We were eating the Filipino equivalent of eggs and bacon, a set of dishes so quotidian that most Filipino-Americans would find pancakes or oatmeal a welcome replacement.

I expected us to mostly eat in silence, with my friend trying hard not to comment on the weird tastes and smells. But he had questions each time he popped something new in his mouth.

“What’s the source of that bitter taste in the pork?” he asked.

“That’s calamansi. It’s similar to a kumquat.”

“Awesome. So good.”

By the time we finished, he’d eaten more than half of all the food we ordered. “I’m definitely coming back here, with or without you. What took you so long to take me here?”

I smiled. Maybe I’d come back someday too. 

I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, visiting my parents for the week. At the time, I lived in Mountain View, a suburb north of San Jose in northern California, and worked for Google writing code. It was a good living, but I had always hoped I’d be writing essays rather than functions when I had grown up; I’d spent my first year after graduation in publishing, but left because the tech industry was more lucrative, more pragmatic. 

I had just finished writing a small program for work and closed my laptop. My mom was standing at my door, holding a shirt she’d just pulled from the drying machine.

“Did I ever tell you your Lolo-Lolo (great-grandfather) was a writer?”

I stared back at her blankly. “No…”

“I mean, he was an educator for most of his life, but he was published before then. I thought I told you that?” She looked around at the books strewn about the walls and the floor. “That’s where I thought all of this came from,” she said as she pointed to them. “I guess not?”

She walked out of the room, humming and folding. I flipped open my computer, pulled up a new browser window, and typed. Benigno Zamora. Ten blue links appeared on-screen. I clicked the first. My eyes jumped to the first paragraph on the page:

Benigno Zamora was once chief of the section on Secondary Instruction and Supervision in Pilipino of the Department of City Schools. Former member of the Institute of National Language. Published his first short story at the age of eighteen. Wrote plays, zarzuelas, essays and lyrical poetry on themes that were popular yet charming (love, faith, and nostalgia for home). The last is found in “Ang Aking Tahanan,” composed while the poet worked as a spy against the Japanese during the Second World War II.

I opened another browser tab to translate the last word mentioned in poem’s title. Ang aking… I whispered to myself. The words danced around in my head. Ang aking… Ah. Ang aking means my

I punched the other word into the translation page: Tahanan.


Ang Aking Tahanan. My Home.

My eyes began to well up. I thought about the decisions I made: to forget Tagalog in favor of English; to dance American hip-hop and never dance Filipino folk; to give up writing prose to write code instead. My Lolo-Lolo wrote about how I felt all along: homesick, for a place I never saw, but one I always sought; for a craft I’d given up, but one that always called. I sat there, feeling as far away from myself as I ever had, but knowing that at least, now, I was facing the right direction.


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