“Gigante!” Paho yells, his outsized four-year old’s head lolling as he runs away from me, feigning fear of the giant. When I was still new at site, Paho’s fear was real: he thought my curly hair was a bird’s nest, and any creature wearing a nest on its head was no friend of his.
A year and a half later, Paho (not his real name; for the sake of privacy I’ve replaced all the names in this post, logically, with the names of fruits) knows me well. Usually his first words are a request to be thrown around like a rag doll; his options are palibuton (I spin him around in a circle), baliskad (flip him upside-down), taas-taas (toss him into the air, almost but not quite letting go at the zenith) and baboy-baboy (I grab his wrists and ankles and swing him like a trussed pig-pig). When Paho gets excited he rubs his semi-kalbo (“semi-bald” – that is, crew-cut) head frantically, swings his arms around like a homuncular dervish and yells in rapid-fire Ilonggo. And he gets excited a lot – by birds, food, his playmates; anything that moves and some things that don’t. Yesterday I lifted him over a fence so he could watch a tractor shift earth, and judging from what I was able to translate of his babble, he thought it was a mountain-building machine.
Duhat is near Paho’s age but of a different temperament: she’s quiet, seemingly contemplative, and unpredictable. I can usually guess Paho’s reaction to seeing me, but I never know if Duhat will shy away, studiously ignore me, or come near and grab my hand. Duhat is fairly new at my site, though her older sister has been living there for a long time already. One thing distinguishes her from nearly every other child at the center – she has dark skin and is of least partial native descent. Members of native minority groups like the Ati and the Eta face serious disadvantages in the Philippines. Many still live in poor, rural mountain settings; those that live in cities can usually be found begging on the streets or serving for low pay as household assistants. In a country that treasures light skin, Duhat provided a poignant moment a couple months ago when her house mother thanked some guests from Hong Kong for treating her “daughter” the same as any other child. Such equitability is unusual.
There are well over a hundred children at my center; I know all their names, most of their personalities, and we engage in our personal routines on a daily basis. One girl always asks me, “Tito, do you want to eat pato?” “Yeeeeeeesss.” Another always presents the query “How much you doing?”, to which the correct answer is “None of the above.” Never mind coherency.
One girl jokingly (or maybe seriously) calls me “ugly duckling.” Another has named me “Tito Ba-o,” meaning “Uncle Turtle.” Thanks again to my curly hair, I’m often referred to as “Boy Kulot” - “Curly Boy.” Some of the older ones just call me kuya, “brother,” and it’s to them that I’ve gotten closest.
My first real friend at site was a girl, Pomelo, who wrote me a since-neglected Ilonggo-English dictionary, memorized the names and ages of my family members, and is one of only two children to whom I’ve bestowed my much-requested phone number. Pomelo is a brilliant dancer; while I see her now only sporadically thanks to her busy school schedule, I always look forward to her graceful performances at events. When my fellow volunteer Laura visited my site for a week last May to help out with our sports festival, we stayed up most nights at my center’s guest house, talking and practicing Ilonggo with Pomelo. She was the first of my kids who felt something like a peer.
Bayabas, again, is a different sort, the diametric opposite of Pomelo’s poise and manners. We have a long-running joke between us about my trips around the Philippines; he has composed a song about the law-law lagawan nga kano, the loser do-nothing American, and the many “vacations” I’ve taken around the country. (Many of which have been work-related, in my defense.) Bayabas often acts like a typical teenage Filipino, meaning he’s kulang sa pansin (attention-seeking), sabad (obnoxious) and whatever the Ilonggo term is for “too cool for school.” He’s not a good student, but he’s extremely clever; he understands how things work, he remembers where to find everything, and he’s the first person I go to when I need to know where a particular person is or how to seek something out for a project. In a practical way, he’s very perceptive.
Sandiya tells me about her on-and-off boyfriend, her family troubles, her insecurities – and she demands similar information from me. Sometimes she’ll see me staring off into space and tell me she knows what I’m thinking about. She’s frequently right. Often she is frustrated with herself or others; her hand has been tender for months after punching a wall in a fit of anger, but she refuses to see a doctor. She is sometimes tamad (lazy), usually mabuot (kind), and she always wears a trucker hat that reads “Magic Blink.”
Probably my closest friend among the kids is Pinya, a sweet, proper girl who has already shed a tear for my eventual departure. She’s a bit sensitive and shy, one of the few Filipinas I’ve met who is reluctant to get up and dance at the first strains of music; she may be one of that rare breed, the introvert, and as a kindred spirit I appreciate her personality. At sixteen she is still waiting for her first kiss, but her crush lives in my neighborhood, and I think she might not be waiting much longer. I will be missing Pinya’s eighteenth-birthday debut next year, but she has already invited herself to be a bridesmaid at my wedding.
These are just six examples out of dozens. I never expected to get so attached to the kids at my site, and now the prospect of leaving them in another half-year is a melancholic thought. I’m pretty sure I will be ready, in most ways, to head off in November. But it’ll be real tough to stand at my center’s gate, bid halong to the Ilonggos, pagbantay to the Cebuanos and ingat to the Tagalogs, hear them respond with the English “Take care,” and make the final turn away from what has become, in many ways, my Filipino family.