Alex Maskara

Thoughts, Stories, Imagination of Filipino American Alex Maskara

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Four Students

Four Students



Introduction To Popong

Popong is sitting on his favorite chair, a semi-rocking sofa that looks like modern furniture from the ’60s, bought in the Salvation Army for twenty bucks. “I love its light green color,” he says, “reminds me of the seedling rice paddies during planting season”. He quietly and slowly rocks his chair. He is in his late fifties, a few years short of retirement which he is looking forward to. He had been working in the US for the last thirty years after being recruited for hospital work in 1990. He was twenty-eight. Work for him includes taking care of injured people in Trauma, moving and lifting and walking them. He is used to faces of pain and groans and yells of anger and frustration. He can be the face of terror or the champion of recovery depending on the mentality of the patient. He calmly accepts their reactions, always redirecting them to focus on their task at hand. Roll on the bed. Sit on the edge of the bed. Transfer to the chair. Walk. Go home. He grew from a twenty-eight-year-old health worker who dreaded injured patients to where he is now, three decades later, embracing them, young and old alike, like his children, calming them with soft assurances and patiently guiding them through their long tedious recoveries. He had a share of failures and successes with them while sailing through health care changes.

But the years of toil had exacted their toll on his body. Popong used to be active although I would not call him athletic now, he was close. He ran multiple marathons, swam, biked and then, I believe he cut all these short once he hit fifty because his immunity dropped. He wondered why he spent more time recovering from colds after training than the training itself. He got his answer when he learned he was diabetic despite all his active lifestyle. He reluctantly accepted his fate and started tempering his zealousness in workouts, fearful of dire consequences like developing pneumonia or suffering a heart attack or stroke.

But don’t assume he stopped being active. He still runs, bikes and swims although not as intense as when he was young.

I allowed myself inside his condo to drop the groceries I bought for him on his kitchen counter. I started placing the non-perishables in his cupboards and the perishables in his fridge. He is self-isolating after being exposed to corona, he says, and I volunteered to help. We are both Fil-Ams and I have just been cleared from corona myself. We work in the same hospital. I am young and deemed less susceptible to complications whereas he is not. His diabetes may be under control but at his age, no one knows how he’d respond. I thought of helping out while maintaining the self-distancing protocols which we are both familiar with since we both work in the health field.

I have known Popong since I moved to this adopted country. I have deep gratitude towards him because he helped me transition from the old country to here smoothly. He taught me how to drive until I got my license, that took a lot of patience because I never drove my entire life pre-USA, he assisted me in grocery shopping, finding an apartment, introducing me to fellow ex-pats and lending me money when I was short. Doing him a favor at his time of need is nothing compared to what he has done for me. I called him on the phone two days ago when I heard he was advised to self-isolate after being exposed to one of the hospital’s coronavirus patients. After hearing his manager’s recommendation, he nodded his head, turned around to get his things and walked off the hospital. He did not tell any soul.

“Popong, how can you not tell me,” I complained. I was assuming that he would let me know, we were close friends.

“Argh,” he sighed. “I have been through all of the - MRSA, SARS, Hep B, AIDS - I’ve been through them all and God knows how much of them viruses and bacteria are hosted by my body.”

“But this is different. It’s like TB, you know, it is droplet and like the flu, it can be caught easily and twice as deadly. Didn’t you notice the casualties in Italy?” I tried to sound like I knew more than I did. This new virus is a big unknown and we should be more concerned, I think.

There was a long pause before he spoke, “ I remember when I treated my first AIDS. Lordy, the patient almost had a heart attack seeing me coming into her room like an astronaut. But you are right, this virus takes the cake. Be assured I am not taking this lightly. I am just as scared as anyone else but I try to keep my calm.”

“Remember to practice isolation and social-distancing after your isolation is over.”

He had always been by himself so when he heard about social distancing he let out a hearty laugh. “I have been social-distancing my ass all my life,” he burst as we ended our phone conversation. And that is the truth about Popong. He is known to be of two personalities - one is the sociable, affable, uber-conversationalist with his patients when at work and the silent, brooding, solitary man outside of work. That is the reason why he gravitated towards the woods, the forest, the libraries, parks, and beaches, inside his condo. These are the places that will most likely ignore the one who is alone by himself.

“I used to be self-conscious in being alone especially during my younger years when keeping to oneself was scoffed at. In choosing to be alone, I was branded a boy-hermit, a sissy, a borderline lunatic in the barrio. I became a pariah. I did not have a choice because my family was impoverished. My father was a custodian in a local school and my mother tried all types of buy and sell ventures that usually ended in failures and bankruptcies that had cast us in a Dickensian existence depriving me of everything a normal child would expect to have. My status in the lowest rung emboldened every well-off kid, every bully, almost everybody to flaunt what they have that I didn’t and treat me like a rat. Still, I pushed myself out on the streets to help my mother sell whatever she was up to selling at the moment - she would sell fish one day, vegetables the next, used clothing on another - and steeled myself to hawk, whistle, haggle and bargain with strangers in the name of our family survival. I often consoled myself that the day would end soon and I could retreat to my oasis of isolation.

“Imagine how time has changed. Nowadays, being alone can be considered cool, nothing to be ashamed of. People are too busy with their smartphones to even pay attention to someone alone at a table in a corner. I mean, the smartphone is good for a person like me who hates crowds but it could mean bad for someone looking for belongingness and can’t find any.”

Speaking of belonging, Popong doesn’t care anymore whether he is uninvited, rejected, ignored or shunned, he does not mind. He is way too focused on what is percolating in his brain - he has so many personal goals, like writing a book or reading one book per week or learning computer languages or experimenting on tropical plants or keeping a more regular exercise routine. These goals are on top of his daily shortened hours of work. Who needs time to socialize?

I observe him and try to see how time has changed him, I mean, time changes all of us doesn't it? There is this momentary impulse for me to capture his appearance - knowing that a week from now, a month, a year, our appearances will change, much like the ones I see at work or outside on streets, people get transformed, firstly with subtlety and then wham! They are old or gone. Once I saw two homeless men walking down the path in a park, their heads bowed, backpacks hanging loosely from their shoulders. They triggered my recollection of Kong Asyo in my childhood, the barrio woodcutter that I always saw passing by our street offering tree trimming service to the neighborhood. All he had was a bolo tucked into its old leather sheath, hanging loosely from his shoulder. One day, he just disappeared just like those two homeless men would disappear. I would not see them again, I knew that.

Popong will disappear too just like them. I am not sure how I would put it, but I felt this desire to open my laptop and write something about him. Certainly, I can take a photo of him to remind me later but what is the point of a photo? All you see is a flat picture, two dimensional. I need to capture Popong through the lens of all his dimensions, his depth, his thoughts, his story. He is like me and countless Filipinos who spread out from their barrios and cities, from mountains and plains, from farm embankments and ocean shores, and migrated for better opportunities in other lands. Decades later, we are living a diaspora of suspended animation, in between homelands old and new, not really gaining strong roots, half standing and half leaning, wondering if there is still a chance to rebuild what had been lost either in old home or here, doubtfully, afraid that soon we’d all die and fall, buried or burned, no one knowing us except our names. That sounds really unfair.

Popong had mentioned to me once or twice his goal of ultimately returning back to the old country. “I live in agony here in Florida the older I become. First, I am under the mercy of pollen and allergies in Spring and Summer hurricanes. All I got is six months of pleasant weather and that too was taken from me by the coronavirus. There are nights I dream of returning home. I may not withstand the politics and corruption of the old country and the propensity of Pinoys to bring down their neighbors but I am now worried. I will be too old to even be noticed there. Being old and single is not respectable in a family-oriented society where a person’s pride is dependent on how great or successful his family is. The few times I visited, I noticed how people treated me like a king the first week and by the next week, when I have satisfied all their curiosities they just left me alone. The second week was always heaven. I’d start wearing clothes like the locals, blend in with the mundane and ordinariness of barrio life, explore any place I want to explore in the city and suburbs, like an adult checking out his old hangouts in his childhood, and return home to the silence of our old family home. No fuss. No questions asked which basically means - no one cared. And you know, I like that.”

Popong is a typical Fil-Am usually mistaken for Chinese or Latino when he was younger depending on who stared at him. As he got older, people became more specific - “ You are Filipino, aren’t you?” people ask. There seems to be a more defined attribute nowadays of Filipino via traits that embody Popong. He appears Chinese when he wears glasses and more Latino when his almond-shaped eyes, brown skin, slightly chiseled nose, and at nearly 6 feet height, considered tall for an Asian. He doesn’t mind any of the impressions he makes to those around him. Popong is rendered immune to name-calling, stereotyping, prejudices, he has no time to mull these things because his mind was set on saving his entire family back home from poverty and hard time. Earning a living was way more important than becoming acceptable, sociable and popular. He lives like a hermit driven by hard work, self-restraint, and discipline which in essence denied him of relationships or adventures. When I commented on his need to loosen up and give himself more leeway, he responded to me with fiery defiance, “I cannot afford to get injured or have an accident. I cannot afford to sustain a family of my own. I cannot indulge. I am the only link to my family’s survival.” He sounded as if he was waging a battle and I thought all battles have an end and what will then be his justification when the battle is over?

“But you are only human”, I countered. “Why deprive yourself when you can probably enjoy both worlds. You can have a relationship and even a family here and take care of your relatives back home. Lots of Fil-Ams do that.”

He stares at the TV that is turned off though his eyes are focused on its blank screen. His wrinkled forehead raises his knitted eyebrows now bushy with some gray hairs. At this juncture, I reckoned he was in a deep trance that I wanted to leave him alone. He rarely goes to the barber nowadays which could be due to his half-way balding but this is nothing because his youthful look, despite his age, has been preserved albeit it's beginning to recede just like his hair. Too many times he got complimented on his muscular build brought in by years of work and running.
2020-11-21 14:44:49