Mini-Interview with Annie: Urdaneta City, Pangasinan, Philippines


Age: 37

Status: Married with two children ages 3 and 6

Hometown: Villasis, Urdaneta, Pangasinan

Current Job: Receptionist at nail salon, City Mall, Urdaneta City


While getting a mani/pedi at City Mall in Urdaneta, my nail technicians started talking about their lives. One of them had been abroad several times as an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) and was preparing to go overseas again. The other had never been but longed to go. As we chatted, Annie, the receptionist at the front desk, joined our conversation. She, along with the technicians, make 300 pesos per day ($6 US). Eventually Annie stepped out of the salon for this brief interview, leaving her post vacant even with streams of customers coming in and out.

Editor’s Note: I compensated Annie for her time.


Beverly: What would you like to do if you could work anywhere?

Annie: I want to work in a hotel overseas, but I don’t have domestic service qualities.

Beverly: So what else can you do?

Annie: Work in Dubai as a merchandiser or saleslady.

Beverly: What do you need to make that happen?

Annie: I need a passport, a visa, and certification and training.

Beverly: Would your husband go with you?

Annie: No. I’ll stay for only a year to earn money for a business.

Beverly: What kind of business?

Annie: I want a food business. I want to learn how to cook, make pastries and bake. I want my own shop. There’s a lack of money so it’s not possible as of now.

Beverly: What does your husband do?

Annie: He’s a salesman for Yakult. Do you know about this? It’s a yogurt. He works in Cabanatuan City. I only see him twice a month on weekends.

Beverly: Do many of your friends work overseas?

Annie: Most of my friends want to go overseas, especially as factory workers in Taiwan. It’s good money. There you can get 35,000 to 40,000 pesos per month. Here you only get 10,000 pesos a month. They send money home [to help their families].

Beverly: What about working as a DH – Domestic Helper?

Annie: I don’t like [to work as a] DH. If you stay in the house of your employer and they don’t like the quality of your work, they’re going to hurt you. They’ll lock you inside a room or won’t feed you.

Beverly: Has this happened to people you know?

Annie: Yes, I have a friend who was locked up by her employer. They took her passport away. She went to the embassy to get help. They were able to help her.

A Shared Place: Carlos Bulosan and the Dagupan Fish Ponds

For Filipino American History Month in October, I started to re-read Carlos Bulosan’s AMERICA IS IN THE HEART. In the first chapter, Bulosan makes reference to a stopover in Dagupan, my mother’s hometown, to see his brother before heading down to Manila. Dagupan sits twenty-four miles west of Binalonan, where Bulosan grew up. At age seventeen, he’d board a ship in Manila and sail to America in the steerage deck. He writes:

I had written him that I would pass through his town on my way to Manila, and had asked him, if he would, to stand in front of his house and wait for my bus. In those days there was only one bus a day from Binalonan to the train station, in the town of Dapugan. I could at least look through the window of my bus and wave good-bye to him.

When my bus came to the white saltbeds, I knew that I was nearing the place where my brother Leon lived. I saw the mango grove and the shining fish ponds beyond it, near the mouth of the Agno River that opens lazily into Lingayen gulf.

The fish ponds Bulosan writes about could be my family’s fish ponds. He could’ve been gazing at my family’s fish ponds before heading to America. I gave myself some time to take this in. I did the math. My mother’s side, the Paras family, has owned “hectares and hectares” of fish ponds in Dagupan, specifically in the barangay of Bonuan Boquig, for at least five generations. We still own them. We will never not own them, as my grandfather outlined in his will that our fish ponds should never be sold outside the family. When I travel to the Philippines in January, my mom will sign over a share of her fish ponds to me.

My grandfather inherited the fish ponds from his parents. I don’t know how much further back they can be traced to our family. When Bulosan would’ve been looking out at the “shining fish ponds” from the window of his bus in 1930, it is likely that those fish ponds belonged to my family.

Fish ponds in Dagupan, especially in Bonuan, produce some of the best bangus in the country. So much so that Dagupan is also known as The Bangus Capital of the Philippines and hosts an annual Bangus Festival. The secret behind the taste, my Uncle Ric once said, is in the water—the tide from the sea mixing with the river, which keeps the fish pond water fresh and flowing.

This same uncle brought me to our family fish ponds during my first and only visit so far to the Philippines twenty years ago. One day, during my two-week stay in Bonuan, Uncle Ric warmed up his jeepney, loaded the biggest bowl of rice I’d even seen, and drove at a slow pace down the dusty street. One by one, neighborhood kids jumped in the jeepney until it filled up. Then more joined in by hanging on to the sides and on the back. Just when I thought we couldn’t possibly take another passenger, kids climbed on top of the roof.

We parked at the side of a road and followed my uncle on foot along the raised mounds of dirt that served as a walking pathway to navigate the fish ponds. These pathways also served as demarcations. If you look at them on Google Earth, they resemble the hedges in the English countryside used to create boundaries in the land.

“Which ones are ours?” I asked.

“All of them,” he said. “As far as you can see.”

We arrived at a bahay kubo the workers used as a home base. Their jobs were to maintain the fish ponds, collect fish, squid and shrimp for sale in the marketplace and prevent poor townspeople from stealing. My Uncle Ric, however, had given one man permission to fish in the ponds so he could feed his family.

The workers caught an abundance of fresh seafood using a net and flash fried it in a steaming hot wok. My uncle brought out the bowl of rice and we squatted around the bahay kubo eating with our hands. Soon the neighborhood kids pulled out bamboo rafts and long bamboo poles for navigation.

“Shhhht! Don’t play in the pishpond!” said one of the workers.

The kids ignored him and so did my uncle. The calm waters of the fish pond turned into a makeshift battleground where you could get knocked off your bamboo raft if your opponent made you lose your balance. One kid fell in the water. And then another. They’d climb back on their raft and seek revenge, toppling other kids into the water while laughing and screaming.

“Come on the raft, Auntie! We won’t tip it over!” they said.

“No way. I’m not going in that water.”

I imagined brushing up against a slippery fish or getting a giant shrimp caught between my toes or having a squid stuck in my shirt.

How I got to standing on a narrow bamboo raft on my family’s fish ponds in Dagupan I’ll never understand. But there I stood, looking down at the brackish water. Watching the neighborhood kids have more fun than almost any kids I’d ever seen at play. Looking out across the horizon at our family’s business. One of the businesses that helped my grandparents send eight children to college. These are the fish ponds I’d heard about all my life.

All of the sudden, two boys swim underneath my raft, lift it on one side and flip it over. I scream like bloody hell as I land in the warm water. The kids laugh and cheer. For a moment, I forget about my hair and makeup.

“Do it again! Do it again!”

I climb back on to the raft, take a deep breath, and prepare to capsize once more.

Bulosan’s passage evokes the memory of this day. As he looked out on to the fish ponds, however, he faced an uncertain future in a place that would prove to be unwelcoming and harsh. I like to believe that the brief glimpse of our family’s fish ponds on his way to America came to be one of his fond memories of home no one could ever take away.




Memory and Envy

This piece also appears in #allpinayeverything (Oct 2018).

In the early to mid-1980s, KOFY TV-20 in San Francisco aired a live teen “Dance Party” with local high school kids. It went like this: a camera moved randomly around a dimly-lit room with flashing lights and a disco ball packed with teenagers dancing to recorded music, dancing in groups like teens tend to do, waving at the camera, smiling, laughing and, at a moment’s notice, pulling out their best moves—popping, locking, the moon walk—when the camera person gave them a solo spotlight.

It all happened in San Francisco, a city fifty miles to the north of the Evergreen area of East San Jose, where I lived at the foot of Mount Hamilton. San Francisco felt out of reach, except for the annual or so excursion in our Trans Van to show relatives and friends Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Crookedest Street and the fountain in the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the Embarcadero. I knew a lot more happened in the city than on the wide, freshly-gravelled suburban streets where our tract home stood.

During my freshman year in high school, I’d come straight home from school at 3 p.m., go upstairs to my bedroom and immediately change out of my school clothes and into my favorite jean skirt and a t-shirt. After checking the fridge for a snack, only to find things like leftover adobo trapped in a layer of gelatinous stock and stored in an old butter container, I’d resort to making myself an English muffin or a grilled cheese sandwich. The only items I really knew how to cook at the time, besides rice.

Then I’d turn on TV-20 to watch the Dance Party. Watching Dance Party and exchanging letters in French with my pen pal Claudia in Alessandria, Italy were the highlights of my life. I didn’t have friends at school, except for my two older sisters and their friends. Not only did I not have friends at school, but I had more enemies than I could count. Three Filipino girls from my middle school, with whom I’d once been close but ended up ditching by eighth grade to hang out with another Filipino girl, made it a point to give me hell my freshman year. “She thinks she’s too good for us.” Although I didn’t think that at all. What I didn’t like was how they talked behind each other’s back, only to act friendly when face-to-face. Something I thought unique to our group, but now know this to be a common dynamic in most social circles.

The girls fell in with the San Jose Boys, an all-Filipino gang who wore black, greased their hair back, hung out in the parking lot smoking around their souped-up cars that were slammed to the ground within inches, had dark tinted windows and louvers. Although I couldn’t prove it, the girls vandalized my locker on a weekly basis. Once, it got kicked in, another time they spray-painted “Bitch” on it, and, the most clever form of vandalism was that time they smeared rubber cement all over the combination lock so I could no longer turn it. School janitors got tired of coming around to fix my locker.

One of the girls hit me in the girls’ locker room when I was changing into my workout clothes. I sat on the bench half-naked when I felt a fist strike my left cheek. Not a knuckle punch, but a closed fist from the side, one that had less impact. Even in that moment I thought, ‘At least punch me the right way if you’re gonna punch me.’ I jumped up and started to attack her, my bony arms flailing in all directions, adrenaline so high I felt as if I could rip the bench right from the concrete floor of the locker room. I got on top of her and wanted to kill her, but before I could do any damage, two P.E. teachers grabbed me from each side and lifted me off the ground, all ninety-five pounds of me. Both of us got suspended. When I returned to school the following week, another one of the girls spread a rumor across the whole campus that she was going to kick my ass after school for hurting her friend. The rumor got to me by third period or so, and by the time sixth period ended, hundreds of kids had gathered in the senior quad to watch us fight. She got in my face. She was tougher than me, this girl I’d known since fifth grade. Short like me, but stocky and masculine. And angry. I had no chance. To my surprise, a boy who liked me stood in front of me to protect me from her, and the girl eventually backed away.

So it was during this time that Dance Party became part of my after-school ritual. I had no friends. I sucked at sports. I had no musical talent. There were no after-school activities that interested me, and no one made it a point to let me know that any were available to me. The only thing I wanted to do was to get far away from campus and be in the safety of my home. Safe at least until my dad arrived home from work at 5 p.m. That two-hour window where I knew I wouldn’t get yelled at, screamed at or possibly even hit for doing something I wasn’t supposed to do or not doing something I was supposed to do. Minutes before he’d arrive home, I’d go back upstairs to hide in my bedroom, only to come out again for dinner.

I watched those kids dance around with big smiles on their faces. Wondered what building they were in, what part of the city they were in, how they got on the show. Were they selected at random? Did they put their name on a list? Did they audition? These kids were in high school just like me. But instead of going home after school like me, staring at the bedroom wall, they were on TV having a great time.

These were city kids.

I imagined them riding around in chauffeured limousines, sipping Coke from gold straws in their high-rise apartments. The fifty mile distance between us might as well have been thousands of miles. Might as well have been another country. I knew the chances of me ending up on a show like that were the same as the chances of me ever reconciling with my enemies: zero.

And so for five days a week, over the course of the school year, I gazed at the cool San Francisco kids with their moves and their hair and their flashing earrings. Felt dizzied by the swirling camera, wondered if I’d ever see anyone I knew (even though I didn’t know anyone in San Francisco). Wanted nothing more than to join in, to be a part of their crowd, to have a chance to be seen on television. To escape the empty streets of East San Jose, the tract homes pushed up against each other, the heat, the dry hills with solitary trees struggling to survive. Just keep dancing, I thought. Please keep dancing.

© 2018 Beverly Parayno