Thursday, May 10, 2012

Allergic to the sun, averse to the sea — so much for tropical me

Nothing like lychee gelato to soothe the sun's wrath
A change of scenery raises questions about my long-held notions of identity

Dateline Maui: I am allergic to the sun. Me: the tropical transplant. It could be because I am now more than half my lifetime removed from the tropics. On my arms, neck, back, and legs are mini volcanoes that itch. I am a one-woman walking leper colony. The ship's jawdroppingly hot South African doctor has a fancy name for this unfortunate condition, but it boils (pun intended) down to my being underexposed to sunshine for so long that my skin didn't know what to make of this tsunami of UV rays. So it cooked up these rashes.

To be fair, it isn't Maui's fault. I was on Waikiki beach on Oahu two days ago when all this erupted. I'm pretty sure part of it was mental anguish — it's psychosomatic. You already suspected I am some form of psycho. This confirms it.

I had been anxious about our snorkeling dress rehearsal. My anxiety rose in direct proportion to the hubby's enthusiasm. Between us we had filled four suitcases for a 14-night silver anniversary cruise to Hawaii's four main islands. He packed one more with fins, masks, breathing tubes, beach towels and an underwater camera. What he neglected to provide was a life vest for me. I can't doggy paddle. I'm fine doing the backstroke or breast stroke, as long as there are points A and B to get to and from, if said points allow me to keep my head above water without actually swimming.

"Come out to the deep end," he kept beckoning. "My feet aren't touching the ground," he added, which only caused me to shake my head more. Being reassuring: not his strong point.

Fins and shallow water do not mix. I had gotten the hang of breathing through my mouth, but each time I tried to stand, the fins and even the tiniest of waves knocked me off balance. I felt like a mermaid learning to walk on legs, except a lot less alluring, flailing about, disturbing the sand and gulping down the briny brew. I am a disgrace to my beach-bejeweled childhood. I remember being fearless, standing in neck-deep water hand in hand with friends, waiting for a big wave to crash over us, spinning underwater like agitated laundry until the sea vomited us ashore. Then going back in for more. The first time I realized I had lost that sense of immortality in the water was in my first trimester, a quarter of a century ago. There was another life to consider.

Having failed my non-dry run on Oahu, I reduced us both to staying on land on Maui, where we had hoped to book the actual snorkeling excursion. What does one do on land? The hubby hiked uphill in the stifling humidity; I shopped in air-conditioned comfort. He had bribed me to spend the day apart, so I spent every last penny and then some on a midnight blue dress, an upcycled jeans purse, and Hawaiian shaved ice. I admit it, I am a cheap non-date.

Browsing left plenty of time to brood. While I am no longer the water-loving tropical girl I'd always thought myself to be, neither am I mainland material. But I haven't morphed into anything else. On the big island several days before, at a gift shop, someone had interrupted herself in the middle of a monologue to ask me, "Do you speak English?"

'I'm American," I heard myself assure her, self-consciously adjusting the ivory plumeria I had clipped above one ear. I haven't had to attest to my non-otherness in a very long while. Apparently it doesn't take much for me to re-blend into the tropical scenery. A fake flower, a flowery dress and flip-flops: voila, I pass for Hawaiian.

But here's the most rueful thing about this: Apart from looking the part, which is easy, and keeping the values close to my heart, part of my cultural identity has clearly eroded. After trying to engage with a couple of friendly fellow Filipinos on board the cruise ship, I found I am no longer fluent in Tagalog. You would think 21 years of growing up in the Philippines would've cemented it in my linguistic center. Not so. We spoke only English at home. My parents spoke to each other in the Bicolano dialect. In grade school my mother actually prohibited me from speaking Tagalog with my friends within her hearing. Our household helpers were hired on the basis of their ability to speak English. I didn't even know until my first day of kindergarten that Tagalog existed. Talk about living in a bubble! The bubble enclosed practically everyone in my immediate family, and now their children and grandchildren, as it is an inside joke that most of us struggle to converse with folks we encounter in daily life—the bus driver, the market vendor, etc.

Wherever there is snobbery, there is, inevitably, reverse snobbery. 

I've been teased by college classmates and co-workers about this deficiency. I would never dream of pointing out anyone's poor grammar in English if it's their second language, but this culture that holds politeness in the highest esteem seems to encourage a lapse in manners when it comes to berating someone about broken Tagalog. There's even a quotation that he who doesn't know how to converse in the mother tongue is worse than rotting fish. I suspect it's the other-end-of-the-pendulum response to the rampant colonial mentality that still pervades the Filipino culture. The thing is, given the circumstances of my upbringing, could Tagalog really be considered my mother tongue? I don't consider it so.

So on my checklist of characteristics that have surfaced during this vacation: Allergic to the sun, averse to the sea, and alienated from my own compatriots, to a degree. 

This calls for a sugar rush. I drown my sorrows in lychee-flavored gelato.