“Would you mind it if I come to serenade your daughter?” the old man joked to my mother in Visayan, assuming I did not understand the language; my fair, half-Filipino, half-Spanish skin must have been a dead giveaway that I was a foreigner. My mother briefly chided him, then went on to relay the neighborhood gossip as we sat in front of his little window-front sari-sari store under the shade of the coconut trees.
I sat and listened, soaking in the language, observing from the side-lines but not participating, as I had done for the many years we had been coming to my mother’s hometown of Baybay, Leyte, Philippines. After some time, my mother pointed at the dried salted fish hanging behind the rusty window screen of his store and asked how much he was charging for them. “Oh, does your daughter eat buwad?” he asked, facetiously—there was no possible way an “Americana” like me would enjoy the salty, humble, poor man’s food, right? But before my mother could answer, I said, “Oo, gusto ko!” Yes, I like it! The old man was taken aback, and he nearly fell backwards out of his seat. “She understood every word I said, this whole time?!” he exclaimed. My mother and I laughed at his amazement.
Later on, I ambled through the marketplace—sensory overload for one who grew up in rural Colorado. Every color of the visible spectrum could be seen here in all the fruits and vegetables; the din of chatter, flip-flops smacking against the wet cement floors, pedicabs honking their bike horns; the invasive odor of fish stampeding through my nostrils. This was a place previously forbidden to me by my over-protective mother who felt it was unsafe for a young foreign woman like me to wander without a companion.
Now here I was, all alone, fair-skinned and awkward, sticking out like a sore thumb, ready to make my own mistakes and face the embarrassment of being in a place where I had the language skills of a toddler. But suddenly it was okay, because I learned that pointing and grunting is accepted in more places than Visa. And with my child-like Visayan, I bought me some dried salted fish to enjoy for lunch, much to the amusement of the sales ladies.