I lay awake under a heavy veil
Of mosquito netting
That defends my sweet American blood
From the thirsty insects of my homeland.
The early morning light
Steps softly into this upper room
Of my grandmother’s home,
Gently warming the slumbering
Cousins, aunts, and uncles
That lie on the floor all about me.
It has been a hard week
This first visit to the islands.
Everywhere I go
The locals stare in surprise
When I speak in Californian English —
“Dude, those volcanos are cool!” —
Play with my ponytailed hair
Forget how much a peso is worth.
My relatives must think
“Who is this person?”
“He looks like us. Has the family name.”
“But his clothes are so strange.”
“He can’t even pronounce the island he is from.”
Am I a foreigner in my Nana’s house?
I think, as I rise out of bed.
Then a scent strikes me —
garlic, onions, vinegar —
And rouses ancient memories,
Draws me down to the kitchen
Where nana makes breakfast
In the dusty light of the day dawning.
The old woman mumbles to herself
Or perhaps to her long dead husband
As she slowly slices with pudgy, tiny hands
Bittermelon, okra, and neon-yellow mangos.
Her round, squat body,
Draped in a pink and purple muumuu
Looms solidly over the plastic cutting board.
The rice cooker her only companion
Chatters and froths by the sink.
“Ay, Ricky, you are hungry, no?
Nana lays out a landscape of food:
Terraced hills of potato omelettes
Spotted with browned bits of garlic,
A school of tiny black fish on a plate
Wet and crispy from the frying oil,
Sweet wedges of tomatoes,
Mangos laid out like flowers,
And a giant bowl
Of snowy white rice.
I forgo the fork, revelling in the feel of the food:
Sticky, slippery, soft, hot, greasy.
“You like, Ricky?” asks Nana.
I look up from a half-full plate
Lick my oily fingers
A smudge of banana ketchup
On the corner of my grinning mouth
And find myself surrounded
By aunts and uncles and cousins
Gaping at me.
I look into my grandma’s beautiful, broad face
The only Tagalog word I know:
All of them smile and nod approvingly
Then claim their places around the table
As more food and instant coffee appear.
The clamor of clanking utensils, laughter,
Slurping, smacking, boisterous conversation
Sounds like chaotic joy.
My cousin Xeres asks me to pass the rice
And jokes that I am too skinny and should eat more.
I shake my head, smile and point
To my swelled tummy. I’m full.
Full to the brim.