Did something ever unexpected happen which would cause a flood of memories rushing back to you? Like when you see a brand of snacks you haven’t had in decades and you suddenly remember the thrill of playing truth or dare at a kids birthday party.
My former nanny, who cared for us when I was 9 and Alba 7 years old, sent me a Facebook friend request. Since my mother had joined the social network, I got an increase of requests from Filipino relatives, some of whom I barely remember or never met before. I clicked on the latest request mumbling “and who the heck are you,” when I recognised the face.
The first time I saw that face, albeit decades younger, was in Germany in the late 80's at the end of a, what has been so far, normal school day. I was in third grade and was looking for my sister and the other Filipino kids from other classes outside of the school gates. We had a bunch of Filipino children at that elementary school, I believe, ten at that time. As children of nurses, we all lived at a clinic housing complex further away. It took us almost an hour by foot to walk through the suburbs and then pass swaths of farmland and pastures.
An adult would probably just take 30 minutes to cover that distance. We were always slower, picking flowers, feeding cows or horses at the pastures, or just looking at clouds. Our parents took turns picking us up, so there would be at least one adult trying to herd us home like an unenthusiastic sheep dog.
I walked out of the school gate with Ginny, the only other Filipino girl in my class and grade. All the Filipino kids would meet at a certain tree on the plaza in front of the school, and look out for a Filipino adult amidst the crowds of German parents and children. I spotted two of them: Ginny’s aunt and another woman. I say ‘woman’’ because no Filipino man would wear mustard pantaloons with a matching blouse underneath a bronze embroidered waistcoat . Her hair reminded me of my father’s hair from an old picture in the 70’s: wavy and outgrown but for a woman still short.
She headed straight towards us and said in cheerful Tagalog: “Hello, you are Théa and Alba, right? I am auntie Sammy. Your parents told me to pick you up.” She spoke in a fast rhythm yet drew out the last syllable of a sentence, a speech pattern which the now-adult-me would unmistakably recognise as The Birdcage TV camp. In every basic safety article on every parent website you will find the rule: “Never leave with a stranger.” She was just that because our parents never bothered to brief us about her; but since she was Filipino and Ginny’s aunt seemed to be ok with her we trotted along.
While the adults walked ahead, I leaned over to my sister: “Alba, I think auntie Sammy is a bakla.” ‘Bakla’ was the Tagalog umbrella term for homosexual, transgender or a drag queen, basically anyone who was born with a penis and did not adhere to the cis male gender norm. If you were born with a vagina and either homosexual, transgender or a drag king then you were referred to as tomboy. Yes, the English word ‘tomboy’. My Tagalog has not improved much since that time and I can only hope that the Filipino language has evolved a bit regarding gender identification.
The first bakla I have ever encountered was of course in the Philippines, and I was six or seven years old. I was playing with my cousin Nate and a bunch of other kids (possibly somehow related). Nate lived in Baguio, at a busy section of Naguilian Road. It used to be a one-storey house haphazardly upgraded to a second-storey one. The family lived on the ground floor and the upper floor was turned into a rudimental hair salon which you could access via an outside staircase.
When we got bored playing downstairs Nate led us all up to the salon. The salon only had 3 walls as the entire storefront was open. At night when they closed down they would just pull the metal shutters shut and lock it all with a padlock. Our little bunch could hang out at the top of the staircase and peek into the salon. I saw two women working there. One had a mop of wavy long hair cascading down her back, dressed in a colourful pantsuit, the other, who was busy with cutting a man’s hair, was more casual wearing cut-off jeans and a T-shirt.
“They look like women,” Nate whispered to me, “but they’re really men.” “But they have boobs. And they are wearing lipstick.” I objected. “The bras are stuffed with tennis balls or something.” Nate countered. We tried to make discrete observations of any lopsidedness or balls coming out of bras. “I will just ask them,” I decided after minutes of uncertainty and scooched around the corner and into the ladies’ field of vision.
The glamorous one turned towards me and smiled. “Hello, mija. What can I...”
“Are you a man?”
I heard the other kids gasp, then stampede down the stairs, giggles trailing behind them. The lady did not bat an eyelash.
“No darling, I…” she gestured along her whole length, “... am a woman.”
“Oh ok,” I replied and hurried the steps down myself.
With two Filipino adults accompanying us back home, we got back home faster than usual. While getting ready for lunch, our mother told us that aunty Sammy would be staying with us for a while and help around the flat a bit. It was a strange arrangement. Auntie Sammy seemed to be working part-time at a hotel. When she was not working, she would walk us to school, pick us up again, and do some household chores. I remember her cooking for us only once. She attempted a dish my father usually cooked, chilli con carne maybe. Alba and I had a bite, tasted the difference to chez Papa, turned to our father, and asked him to make us spaghetti.
Aunty Sammy began to admire one of the Filipino dads and also his son, Emil who was 8 years old. Whenever one of them walked past us, Sammy would giggle, lift her hand in a greeting in which her fingers would perform a small Mexican wave. They were barely out of earshot when she would turn to us and mock-whisper: “He. Is. Soooo. Guapo!” I was appalled. Emil? Handsome? The terror from hell who would poke a stick into dog poo and chase us with it? He could make a game of tag look like a ruleless a roller derby and laugh like Nero watching Rome on fire. Of all the fish in the sea, she picks that punk.
After Sammy had been living with us for more than a month, Alba came to the conclusion that Sammy was really a woman. “No, she has a titi (in english: wee-wee),” I insisted and decided to prove it. While Sammy was in the bath taking a shower, I tried to pick the lock of the bathroom door with a crocheting needle and a meat skewer. We did not have youtube then, so I could only rely on the lockpicking demonstrations in crime series like Hart to Hart. It did not get me far. All I managed was to push the key out on the other side. It fell on the tile floor with a clang which gave Sammy a bit of a fright.
All my doubts about her anatomy vanished when in the spur of a moment she tried to imitate a male acquaintance who said something funny. She did a deep man voice, just out of a joke. There it was, the timbre which a woman usually cannot replicate. Although she only uttered a short sentence, Auntie Sammy looked a bit embarrassed as if she had done something unseemly, like burp.
“What did you do before you came to Germany?” I once asked her while she was folding her laundry.
“I was a teacher in the Philippines.” she said, putting a mint green silk blouse on a hanger.
“Could you dress like a woman and wear lipstick?” I asked. The ultimate perk of womanhood for me was lipstick.
“No, it was not allowed. Just black trousers and a white button-down shirt.”
I tried to imagine how Auntie Sammy would look dressed like that. All I could picture was a drab waiter.
“It’s better here, right?” I asked.
“Much better,” she said.