Kaon na? These are the impressions of an American visiting the Cebu region of the Philippines for the first time. An enlightening and hilarious account from writer Chris DeBrie.
Unlimited Kids [chp 4]
At my host family’s house, I found out that the surrounding neighborhood was dotted with relatives. When I visited the house, up to twenty children under fourteen would come running.
That’s a cousin, the host family told me, those are our other cousins… and she is our sister in law…
My wife laughed at the look on my face as I tried to process all of the faces and names and talking. Unlimited kids, she said.
A few of the kids held their arms up to my arm, comparing tones. They looked at each other, talking excitedly in Visaya, and laughing. I sang the Bahay Kubo song, and they took over, almost screaming the words. Drew pictures of superheroes and animals on someone’s homework after I’d motioned for a pen and pad. A finger reached and tapped my illustration of the Hulk. “His head’s too wide,” said one boy who could speak English a bit better. “Everybody’s a critic,” I said, and he grinned.
There were no smartphones and iPads here. No MP3 earbuds. These children were squatting in the dirt, or leaning against my shoulders. Someone brought me a chair though I didn’t ask, and I sat in it, still ham-fistedly entertaining all the kids gathered around me, staring and trying to communicate. Kaon na? Musta na? I learned a few new words of Visaya and quickly forgot them.
Only one boy, maybe two years old, looked disturbed to see me. Wearing only a dirty white shirt, he stood a bit away from us. I could see him over their heads. He glared, ran away, stopped to see if anyone was chasing. He glared again from a distance, and then ran out of sight.
For about a half hour, I joined in a game they were playing: You and another person each held a trading card in the palm. Both of you slap palms and the card facing up takes both cards. Ties mean a do-over. A very satisfying game, and not only because I was winning before we were called to eat.
“They love you,” said one of the neighborhood uncles, who had married into the family. “You want to take one home with you?” No, salamat po. “Do you want a lot of kids?” Will take what the Lord gives me…
Lots of food had been cooking. The activity was in preparation for a birthday party. Kebobs, dipping sauces, chicken wings and whole chickens, and some veggies I had requested after trying some street vendors, and plenty of rice. My favorite was the lumpia [basically an eggroll], both the ones with meat and the ones with a fried banana inside. A fancy chocolate cake got eaten and smeared on toddlers’ faces—then on adults’ as well. Then a blast of feedback got all the kids excited and running off into the darkness.
Karaoke time… a VERY LOUD speaker system was assembled beneath a small tarp. As the sun set, lots of people (mostly females) did their thing, blasting out (mostly American) pop tunes of the last thirty years. Not my thing, but I was persuaded to sing so persistently, I finally did Elvis: “Heartbreak Hotel.” I was alarmed at how loud my voice was. Did this kind of thing make the neighbors angry? Or maybe everyone just took turns belting Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.
I had read about the pinoy culture where men were almost expected to have someone on the side. And I’d heard jokes in my youth about Catholic-majority nations where they dropped babies continually, because birth control was off-limits according to the Vatican. One expat complained that poorer Filipinos kept having children that they couldn’t afford and wouldn’t use control… he partly blamed those attitudes for the poverty. Perhaps he is correct.
I only know that the Filipino children I met had a more child-like, free spirit than most American youth. That was an eye-opener because I am used to meeting children who are swimming in their apps and who ‘know everything’… not used to children who stand back and wait for their elders to get food. Not used to being treated like a respected uncle by the very young; to being protected where ever I went by a dozen little bodyguards. It was discouraging to return to the States only for that reason—because most youth here don’t have time to look you square in the eye.
Chris DeBrie is an American publisher, cartoonist, and musician.