When I was younger, my parents told stories of Manila as if they were horror stories to scare children away. “Ah basta, wa’y ayo sa Manila. Nothing good happens there,” my father would always tell me.
So when my older cousin Thea came back to Davao and stayed in our house for a week, I tried not to think about my mother and father who talked about how ate Thea made a big mistake when she chose to go to college and eventually found work as a BPO agent in Manila.
Ate Thea brought her boyfriend with her. A tall and thin man, who I thought look sickly (probably from the Manila air, I thought), who she met at her workplace and has a typical Tagalog accent—the one I hear from Filipino movies. Thea was welcomed by a big hug from my auntie Tessa, who also lives with us, and big smiles followed by “Kumain ka na?” by my parents. But my parents did not seem to notice the man beside ate Thea, as if he were part of ate Thea’s luggage.
“What’s your name again, dong?” my aunt asked ate Thea’s boyfriend.
“Leo,” the man replied. There it is again, the Tagalog accent. Even the sound of his vowels were foreign to my ears, soft and prolonged.
Ate Thea and I went to the kitchen to serve them snacks. She looked different from the last time I saw her. She wore a loose blouse over a black tube and paired it with maong shorts. Before she bent down to get some bowls from below the sink, she tied her hair in a bun, revealing a tattoo of a mandala. I grabbed the chocolate ice cream from the refrigerator when she started to talk to me.
“How old are you now again, Kelly?”
“I’m 17. I am in senior high school already,” I answered. “I’m taking STEM right now. I’m planning to be a doctor.”
“Doctor, huh?” she muttered as we started walking towards the living room together with the ice cream and bowls. “Back when you were in grade school, you always blabbered about directing films. Do you remember that?”
“It is hard to pursue film or art here,” I replied with a small laugh and shook my head.
“I still hope you give Manila a chance,” said ate Thea. “I think our family never forgave me for choosing to study there despite what happened to our old coffee business there.”
After placing the ice cream on the table, I realized the ambiance of the room seemed off.
Thea coughed and started talking.
“Ma, what time are we leaving for dinner later?” She asked Auntie Tessa.
“We should be there by 6 pm or else we won’t be able to take seats.”
“Great,” Thea exclaimed with her face lit up. She sat beside Leo, grabbed his hands, and squeezed it hard out of excitement. She told him how excited she was to let him try “the best grilled fish in the country”.
“But didn’t you eat grilled fish a lot when we were in Manila?” Leo grinned.
I looked at my father’s direction and saw how he rolled his eyes with what Leo had said. “She just told you it’s different. What we eat here is different,” my father grumbled to which Leo bowed his head.
Then I heard my father murmur. “Hilas.”
We had arrived at Polito’s, home of the best grilled fish in the Philippines. On its walls were photos of different celebrities who visited the place. My parents, aunt, and Thea started conversing in Bisaya. Their conversation went well when suddenly Leo leaned to whisper on Thea’s ears. Thea laughed at what he whispered.
“Dong, it’s rude to whisper in the middle of a conversation,” Auntie Tessa complained.
Leo immediately apologized and explained that he was simply telling Thea that her family reminded him of his own.
“How can we be like your family? We’re not like you,” my father hissed. As much as I wanted to stop my father at that time, his spur of words could not be stopped.
“I don’t understand why Thea chose someone like you when she could have simply chosen one of the people that courted her here. What an ignorant guy. Hilas.”
Leo’s phone suddenly rang and asked permission to go outside and take the call. I also asked permission to go to the bathroom, which is just my way of escaping a mess that I know was about to happen at the table.
After I used the bathroom, I checked on our table and observed that Leo wasn’t still there. I was on our way to our table when I overheard my father spat “Those Tagalogs are all the same! We could have had more branches of our Mt. Apo coffeeshop in Manila.”
I decided to check outside and discovered that Leo was not even talking to someone on the phone. He was sitting outside alone. I approached him and sat beside him. Leo cleared his throat and started speaking.
“I’m from Lemery.”
I was still confused. “What?”
“I’m not from Manila.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That means that I am not a Manila boy like what you guys think.” He smiled and laughed.
“Isn’t Batangas the same as Manila?”
Leo sighed. “We speak the same language, but our way of living is different. I’m still considered as someone from the province when I went to Manila.”
He paused for a while and stared at the floor while I was waiting for him to speak. “My parents didn’t want me to move to Manila before. They told me that even if I am not so different from them, people there would treat me horribly. They even told me stories about how Manila was a living hell, but I chose to pursue my dream.”
“But soon, everything turned out to be okay. And I also met Thea, who supported me no matter what I did. Then, I said to myself that Manila isn’t that bad at all, I was just welcomed by the wrong people.”
When ate Thea went back to Manila, I found out that she and Leo broke up not long after their visit in Davao. It was because Leo thought that Thea was being ashamed of him the moment she forced him to sleep in a hotel during their visit here.
“Mga hilas!” my father banged his fist on the table while listening to ate Thea on the phone.
I left our sala and went up to our room. Weeks from now, I will be an incoming freshman about to take up a degree in nursing in a prestigious university in Davao. I thought of Leo’s words again and my parents’ horror stories about Manila. Maybe someday I’ll learn to give Manila a chance. I’ll learn to give myself a chance.
Alona, who currently lives in Davao City, is a Grade 12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) student from Stella Maris Academy of Davao.