Category Archives: philippines


From Sunday:

When I was growing up, we often had taho for breakfast. Manila had many magtataho who roamed the streets each morning, with two aluminum buckets hanging in balance from a pole. One bucket had tofu, and the other had compartments for tapioca pearls and sugar syrup. Yaya would have glasses filled and brought upstairs, where they would wait under crocheted glass-covers for us. Sometimes I lucked out and had two glasses of taho, like when I knew other people had finished breakfast already. Sometimes we had taho for afternoon snacks, too. It was fun watching the vendors work: swiftly scooping the tofu into a glass, spooning tapioca pearls in, swirling the syrup and mixing everything together.


There are no taho vendors in this part of Toronto – or perhaps anywhere in Canada. But we can get silken tofu and tapioca pearls at the Lawrence Supermarket on Black Creek Drive. After five years of only having taho on my trips home, I found a recipe on the Internet and made taho for the first time. It’s simple: a syrup of brown sugar and water, tapioca pearls, and warm silken tofu.

It tasted like the quiet mornings of childhood.


The dress arrived last week. It’s a simple ivory sheath of piña (pineapple fiber), with a lightly-beaded and embroidered panuelo (wrap). Although I’d never met the seamstress who made it, the dress fit like a charm, thanks to the measurements I’d sent.

I had been planning to wear a dress a family friend had given me before, but my mom wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted to be involved in planning the wedding, so she volunteered to take care of the dress. It would be her gift, she said. I accepted, asking her to make sure it was simple, classic, and something I could wear again. This dress fits the bill perfectly. It would do just fine at a wedding and at a formal get-together or cultural celebration.

In addition to this knee-length dress, she has also commissioned a Maria Clara, in case a long dress proves a better fit. My concession to the pageantry of weddings is to reach back in time and connect with my roots. I asked her to make sure the designer didn’t get carried away with modernizing the outfit. Traditional. Classic. A dress I can be buried in, I said.

I was half-tempted to suggest an Ifugao outfit – our family has many memories of Banaue – but it seemed easier to find a seamstress to work on a beautiful Tagalog outfit than to (a) pick the right tribe, and (b) find an outfit that doesn’t scream “tourist souvenir”. Maria Claras and nice panuelos are non-mainstream enough to require a seamstress, but there’s plenty of wedding inspiration. The rich weaves and beading of the mountain tribes are more niche. And there’d be no question of W- matching my outfit – a g-string? in Canada? in October? At least W- has a barong, which he may or may not choose to wear.

Actually, the wraparound skirts and colourful belts of some of the tribes can work really well here, too. I’ll need to find a way to pick up some of those when I next visit, as SM Kultura doesn’t stock a lot of those. =) We don’t have nearly enough variety in those department stores. I was looking all over for a payneta, and I think I only found it in Baguio…

I love wearing Filipiniana, from the malongs I wear in summers to the colourful Ifugao belt I once repurposed as earwarmers in winter. I’d like to wear more of it, like the way I see men and women in ethnic outfits even at work. That might mean learning how to sew my own everyday versions, because the only baro’t saya I’ve seen in Philippine department stores are embellished with metallic threads or beads. The baro’t saya is close enough to regular wear for me to avoid having tons of conversations with strangers about whether I’m heading off to perform somewhere.

Yay culture. =)

Bread of salt and taste of home


Pandesal. Brown paper bags of crunchy-yet-soft buns at breakfast and merienda, often accompanied by hot chocolate—or chocolate porridge, if I was really lucky.

If there is a type of bread in my heart, it is this. Not white bread or whole wheat or rye or flax. Not the focaccia we dipped into balsamic vinegar and olive oil at the Italian restaurant my family often went to. Not the banana breads or cornbreads W- and I have made.

Pan de sal. Bread of salt. 

Perhaps Laura Esquivel was on to something in Like Water for Chocolate. Food really is a language powerful beyond words.

I made pandesal for the first time. Fresh from the oven, they tasted of home.

I offered W- a piece. He had pandesal during our trips to the Philippines. I was glad he could relate to my memories.

There are places that sell pandesal in Toronto. I’ve never been to them. It’s different. Going out of my way to buy Filipino food? That’s something I might do if I get really homesick. Learning how to make the food of my memories? That fits. That helps me grow.

Now I can have pandesal any time I want. =) When we finish the 14 rolls I stashed in the freezer, I’m going to try this other recipe.


Picture by W-

A night with the barkada


I’m trying to figure out how to explain to other people what this barkada thing is like, but it’s hard.

I can’t explain how the conversation can flow so fast and funny over water and pizza. (And to think that other people drink alcohol to relax their inhibitions.)

In-jokes that still haven’t grown old, after all these years. New jokes and references. Politically incorrect humor mixed in with ideas and initiatives. Serious thoughts mixed in with crazy antics.

There’s something about critical mass and quick retorts that’s part of the magic of being in person.

It’s amazing being part of a group like this.

La-Z-Boy cinemas, massages, and seafood


It’s not like a trip home to the Philippines means stocking up on cheap export overruns or taking advantage of pricing differences. Gadgets are more expensive here. Clothes are about the same price and I’m shifting towards sewing my own anyway, so I only buy comfortable styles that I’ve not been able to find in Canada. (Jockey V-neck shirts for ~CAD 5, yay.)

Instead, I make time for massages, facials, and movies watched from a La-Z-Boy. I drink all the mango shakes and fresh coconut juices I can get, enjoying the sweet coconut flesh for dessert. I fill up on riotous laughter with my barkada and stock up on memories with my family.

Globalization is funny when you’re here and there regularly. Stuff becomes less important, and experiences matter more.

Thoughts on the brain drain

The specter of brain drain has haunted me since high school. As students at Philippine Science High School—one of the best schools in the country, and publicly-funded at that—we were regularly reminded of our responsibilities as scholars of the nation. Our names were on hold lists at airports, and we needed to post bonds assuring our return before we travelled. Throughout university, too, I heard from frustrated teachers who’d seen their students settle down in far-off countries.

I decided that I could just as easily create opportunities in the Philippines as I could in North America. Although my alma mater and the competing schools I asked gently encouraged me to take my masters overseas so that I could learn, I resolved to come back and make things happen. I was really uncomfortable when some of the Filipino immigrants I met in Canada dismissed the Philippines and said it didn’t matter to them. I didn’t want to be like them.

Towards the end of my master’s degree, I fell in love with someone who could not move to the Philippines with me. So I chose love, even though it meant being away from family and old friends and becoming part of the brain drain I’d felt so strongly about. Besides, after having gone through the trouble of uprooting myself and making myself at home in an new environment, I wasn’t about to insist that someone else go through the same ordeal.

Still, there’s the occasional twinge of guilt, of uncertainty, of negotiating my identity between worlds. Not many people are caught in between like this—most people seem to have just embraced their new lives—so there aren’t that many people I can talk to. But the tension can be creative, too; it helps power my passion to make it easier for people to learn, collaborate, and lead from anywhere. That way, people don’t have to go through being between worlds like this unless they want to, and they can build roots more quickly if they do.

So it was good to read this analysis of brain drain from a magazine about foreign policy that concluded it wasn’t all that bad, and that it could even strengthen source countries.

I am not lost. I am not mis-placed. I am here, and I’m making things happen.