(Because it is often the most important things that are forgotten, this post doesn’t contain any photograph.)
When my friend said it was a boy, the first thing that came to mind was: “I hope he’s not a brat.”
Jen had just told me that she was passing to me her tutoring job, after coming up with the painful decision to relinquish some of her commitments to free up some time for rest. Tutoring a ten-year old Korean boy was one of those commitments.
What exactly her illness was I didn’t know, because she didn’t talk about it in clear-cut terms. All I knew about it was that it had something to do with her blood, and that the doctor had gone so far as advising her to skip school that year until she is well enough. Of course, she couldn’t do that – or she didn’t want to do that. She had placed her studies on top of the totem pole of her priorities, and nothing could knock it down from up there, not even some unseen glitch in her bloodstream.
So instead of leaving school, she just eked out as much free time as she could from her hectic day-to-day schedule. Besides working as a student assistant at the Department of Political Science – cold-calling, faxing, and taking orders from professors – Jen had also been spending her afternoons in the company of a fourth grader, teaching his Korean tongue to speak English for a few weeks now. Jen also knew that I badly needed money – I always did. So the tutoring job became the first commitment Jen had to give up; but not necessarily abandoning it, for she put it in my hands. [This was in 2007]
His name was Jun. Through Jen’s way of telling me her tutor stories, I could say that she had been taken up by him. Jen described Jun as this affectionate child who could make her swoon by blurting out Tagalog words. Then again, Jen had always loved children.
As my way of preparing myself, I would rewind those stories in my head, plodding through them, peeking under the pristine white robe for the tail that would betray the little devil. Didn’t Jen also tell me that Jun would often pull pranks on Peachy ? Jen had described Peachy as the antithesis to the rambunctious Jun, the bespectacled, reed-thin, elder sister who preferred to read her fifth-grade English lessons in silence.
Soon, Jen brought me with her – my job interview. The family lived in the third floor of a condominium somewhere in Kalayaan Avenue in Diliman, which was about ten minutes away from the University of the Philippines where Jen and I went to. Jun and Peachy lived there with their mother and uncle. A house help comes every afternoon to cook and wash clothes.
Miss Jane Jeong, Jun and Peachy’s mother who looked so young to mother two kids, told me that she preferred a college student as her children’s tutor because college students know “deep words.” She probably wanted Jun and Peachy to be writers. The siblings went to Kostka School, a private school near the Ateneo and Miriam College in Katipunan.
Miss Jane Jeong, Jun and Peachy’s mother who looked so young to mother two kids, told me that she preferred a college student as her children’s tutor because college students know “deep words.”
The kids stood up to what I imagined them to be, at least on the first time I met them. I thought Jun was a bit small for a ten-year-old; he looked like a small nine-year old. But what he lacked in height, he compensated with his voice. When he spoke, his voice still high-pitched like a violin, it sounded as if four other Juns were in the room. Things seemed to pop in his mind every second, and he felt the need to let the whole world know those things.
Even on the first meeting, Jun immediately warmed to me. He would show me everything he owned – playing cards, plastic sword, books. Even my clothes caught his rabid attention. I was wearing a faux layered shirt then, the kind that looked like I was wearing a shirt over another but was actually a striped shirt attached with another separate collar, sleeve and tail on it.
“Is this real?” he asked, fingering my shirt, as if looking where the first shirt ended and the second shirt begun. He went to the closet, picked a shirt, and showed it to me. A brown shirt with a second collar and sleeve and tail attached, a smaller version of the shirt I was wearing. “The same!” he said, grinning.
I found myself looking back through the years, to the time when I was a ten-year-old myself. I was not as outgoing as this kid. I was speechless and almost shook with nerves around strangers — as if they were about to do me some harm. And here was another ten-year old, sharing fashion ideas with someone he just met this afternoon, who was eight years older than he was, and someone who belonged to a different culture at that.
As Jun flew all over the bedroom, putting a great show for his teachers, Peachy wordlessly sat on the parquet floor. If not for the Asian obsession with respect for elders and superiors, the girl would have left the room long before. I knew because I was more like her when I was eleven. The contrast in Jun’s and Peachy’s personalities was even magnified by colors of their skins. Jun’s complexion was a glowing bronze, probably the effect of the Philippines’ tropical climate. Peachy, on the other hand, had remained pale, giving her an otherworldly aura.
If not for the Asian obsession with respect for elders and superiors, the girl would have left the room long before.
From time to time, there would be tensioned exchanges between the siblings, both speaking in Korean. Ah, there’s the brat! But didn’t my elder sister and I also often fight when we were their ages?
That afternoon, I also got the name I would answer to during my days as the tutor. “Teacher, Teacher,” Jun called me, as he shook my arm, trying to get my attention – as if my first name was not Rafael but Teacher, and my last name was not Cañete, but Teacher. So Teacher Teacher I became.
Right after my last class at the UP ended at four in the afternoon, I would rush right away to the Jeong’s place. That was my first job, so I might as well impress my first boss by being punctual.
I arrived there early, often with Jun and Peachy still at school. Sometimes, it was Miss Jane herself who kept me company as we waited for the children. In other times, it was her twentysomething younger brother, who always tried to make me drink beer – I knew now from whom could Jun have taken after his congeniality.
But often, it was Ate Mely, or Amelia, the middle-aged house help. It was easy for me to tell her about my problems both at school and at home. Maybe because we were the only Filipinos in that place; and, despite the hospitality that the Jeongs showed me, no one can ever replace the feeling of warmth and security from another Filipino.
My duties as a tutor can be summarized as such: help Jun with his homework and teach him English words afterwards. Miss Jane soon enrolled Peachy in a tutorial agency a few days after I started, leaving Jun as my sole ward. But whenever I would give Jun English words to spell and Peachy was around, I made it a point to call her over to join us.
“Spell ‘cockroach’,” I said, and then explained that this is some kind of insect, a house pest.
After a moment of small eyes becoming wide with silent attention, brother and sister discussed something in Korean, between giggles, and then wrote the word in their papers.
Of course, Peachy often beat Jun in this activity, leaving Jun pouting with disappointment. It was also during such moments when I would see Peachy smile bigger than her usual pursed-lip smiles.
Like that of other Koreans staying in the Philippines to learn English, the names ‘Jun’ and ‘Peachy’ are not their real names, but names adopted to suit the local culture. So Jun was actually Hyung Gun, and Peachy was See.
“What does that mean, ‘Hyung Gun’?” I asked Jun.
“‘Dragon’,” Jun replied, smiling.
One of the things that Jen had told me about Jun long before was the easy way he learned Filipino. Often, Jun would surprise me by saying something like: “T’cher, T’cher, ang aga mo, a! (Teacher, Teacher, you’re early!)” “ T’cher, T’cher, kain tayo (Teacher, teacher, let’s eat).” “Ayoko (I don’t want to).” “Mamaya na sabi, e! (I said, later!) ” The boy had learned fast the local language within his barely two-year stay in the country. Jun was also articulate in English and had none of the wobbling Korean accent that his mother and his uncle had. I couldn’t tell if Peachy had learned the same way, for the girl wouldn’t talk unless you talk to her first.
One of the things that Jen had told me about Jun long before was the easy way he learned Filipino.
A proof that he had learned Filipino well, I once heard him during a quarrel with Peachy called to his sister, “Gago! (Bastard!)”
But the word that came out of Jun’s mouth that horrified me most was “motherfucker”. I practically stopped in the middle of what I was doing when I heard Jun say it to Peachy.
“Where did you learn that?” I demanded.
“Kasi siya e…,” said Jun, still fiercely eyeing his sister.
“Jun, that’s a bad word. Say sorry to your sister,” I said.
Jun remained seated, his mouth in a pout. Here was the brat I was waiting for all along.
“I don’t want to hear anything like that from you again,” I said.
Trying to win my affection back, Jun heaped on me bags of the chocolate candy NIPS, the kind that was so small they looked like multi-colored rice grains.
I myself learned some Korean words from Jun. Hello is annyeong haseyo. Yes is ie, no is anni. Jun also taught me how to count from one to ten in Korean. And other more words, some of them controversial.
“T’cher, T’cher, di ba ‘pakla’ is ‘gay’ (Teacher, Teacher, ‘pakla’ means ‘gay’, doesn’t it)?” Jun once asked.
I was surprised. “Uh, yes. ‘Bakla’, not ‘pakla’,” I said, in a hushed tone of voice, as if I was committing something illegal.
Then I asked: “Jun, what is ‘gay’ in Korean?”
He told me a word which I couldn’t make out at first. Instead of having him repeat it, and run the risk of his elders in the next room hearing us and raising suspicions on what things the tutor was teaching the ten-year-old ward, I asked him to just write it down.
Once, Jun came home from school tired and sleepy, his eyelids fluttering in his effort to stay awake. What should I do? Should I let him sleep now? What would I do then while he slept? Leave early?
Miss Jane walked in the siblings’ bedroom and saw Jun’s head falling forward. Much to my surprise, Miss Jane hit Jun’s head, then scolded the child in Korean — in front of me.
Miss Jane walked in the siblings’ bedroom and saw Jun’s head falling forward. Much to my surprise, Miss Jane hit Jun’s head, then scolded the child in Korean — in front of me.
When Miss Jane left the room, Jun, who was more conscious now, told me to give him English words, as if nothing happened.
I was lost for words. Do I tell him, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘It’s okay’? I couldn’t understand why Miss Jane had to do that. Jun probably did a lot of things at school that day, only to arrive at home for more lessons from his tutor. So was it his fault that he felt like sleeping then? I felt I was partly guilty of what had happened to Jun, like an accomplice to some crime.
“T’cher, T’cher, no study today,” Jun announced as soon as I arrived one afternoon. He was the only one in the house, like many other afternoons before. Ate Mely wouldn’t come until about an hour later.
“Why?” I asked.
“Today is a special day,” he replied.
“What is special, then?”
“Nothing. We’ll just play.”
“Okay. What game?”
Soccer? In this room? Has this child gone crazy?
He showed me an ugly ball of crumpled newspaper taped together by packing tape, which he said would be the soccer ball. The mattress leaning against the wall would then be our goalpost.
I told him we couldn’t do it because we might hit the fluorescent light bulb overhead and smash it into pieces. Besides, his mother might come home anytime and see us and scold him like the other time.
“We will close the door,” he pleaded.
No, Jun. She would hear us kicking and jumping and laughing, then she would open the door and see us.
Seeing that I was adamant in my refusal to play soccer, he then suggested that we play chess instead. This time I agreed. Well, we had done nothing but study in the past few days so it wouldn’t hurt if I gave this day to him to play games, as long as it wasn’t soccer.
As we arranged the chess pieces, Jun told me that it was his father who taught him to play chess. His father, I learned from him, had remained in South Korea.
After a few moves, Jun was surprised to see that I have cornered his king. He begged for another round. I got one of his high-ranking pieces, probably a bishop. He reasoned that he hadn’t seen the bishop threatened; if he had, he would have moved it away to secure it. He begged me to return the bishop to him, which I did. I won the round. He asked for another round. Still, I won.
“Ang galing mo pala, a,” he said.
He might have seen that he didn’t stand a chance against me in chess, so he once again brought up the soccer idea.
I had probably assured myself by that time that Miss Jane would not walk in on us and see her son wasting the money she was spending for his English lessons with a college-student tutor by playing games instead of studying, so I gave in to Jun’s idea.
In a few moments, the room was transformed into a soccer field, and Jun into a soccer pro player, kicking and dodging the crumpled newspaper ball. And I, into a bumbling new recruit to the other team the Korean Beckham was determined to feed with his dust. I was already panting and sweating profusely, but Jun still kicked and dodged, and even performed some tricks with the deformed mass of newspaper. The tremendous energy of the boy.
As I sat panting on the floor, Jun told me that he wants to be a soccer player when he grows up, like David Beckham.
“Have you watched any of Beckham’s game?” I asked .
“No,” he said.
“Then why do want to be like him?” There has to be a basis for liking someone, especially someone whom you want to pattern your life with.
“I just know him,” he said. “I saw him in CNN.”
It struck me then that children now are shaped by the global culture as much as by their own indigenous culture. Jun was a living example of this. Born in South Korea, now spending a couple of years in the Philippines; could speak English and Filipino; and dreaming of becoming a soccer player, after a British soccer player whom he just saw in an international news channel, but whose games he had yet to watch. When I was ten years old myself, I wanted to be a writer and nothing else. I was intoxicated then by the dust covering the pages of a college literature textbook that contained some short stories by Nick Joaquin, who was very likely an old man already by that time, and not as a attractive and as cool as Jun’s own idol.
“But your mom wants you to be a writer; that’s why she wants you to learn lots of English words,” I said.
Jun frowned, as if I had just fed him a bitter vegetable. Jun was right in not wanting to be a writer. I myself should have had wished to be a soccer player or a pop star instead when I was his age. At least, a soccer player or a pop star is paid much higher than a writer; and they have adoring fans that come by the hundreds.
It struck me then that children now are shaped by the global culture as much as by their own indigenous culture. Jun was a living example of this
Besides being a soccer player in a fantasy league, I also served as a model for Jun’s drawings.
I also loved to draw when I was Jun’s age, until Technical Drafting in high school ruined the joy of drawing. While I mostly drew from imagination, or copied pictures from books, Jun preferred drawing using actual objects as models – in my case, a live human being. He would position my hands this way and that, looking for the right angle that he liked to capture on paper.
Looking at his drawings at the back of his notebooks (I also used to fill the back of my notebooks with random drawings), I could just smile in admiration. The drawings were unmistakably done by a ten-year-old, but the painstakingly drawn details – the spikes on a soccer player’s shoes, the stray strands of hair falling off a classmate’s face, the emblem on a warrior’s head gear – revealed a talented ten-year-old.
Almost all of Jun’s drawings were men in action: a soccer player in a flying kick, a warrior wielding his sword, his body in an attacking stance, and even a wrestler flexing his arms – all of which I myself would have found difficult to do as a child.
My tutorial sessions often lasted for two hours every afternoon, and I would went home at six o’clock in the evening. I lived in Marilao, Bulacan, which is an hour and a half away from Quezon City, so I arrived at home between seven-thirty to eight o’clock at night. Then I still had to work on a paper due next day, or study for an exam. Those were really stressful days. Having a nag for a mother also didn’t help much. So I always looked forward to my sessions with Jun, those two hours when I was a ten-year-old again.
So I always looked forward to my sessions with Jun, those two hours when I was a ten-year-old again.
That time, I was also hooked into children’s literature. While high school and college students would bound up to the Filipiniana section at a National Bookstore store because it carried Bob Ong’s books, I would go right away to the children’s literature section to check if Adarna House had come up with any new children’s book. I know, it seems weird for a young man who had just turned eighteen, but I had my reasons.
I had just discovered then that fiction for children can tackle a variety of themes and use literary techniques that can make it stand at par even with the best of general literature. The illustrations that come with the stories also add a visual dimension to the often mental experience of reading.
Some afternoons, I would bring Jun storybooks, which he received with delight. One of those storybooks was Sandosenang Sapatos by Luis Gatmaitan, the story of a girl born without feet to a family whose father, ironically, is a shoemaker.
It was originally written in Filipino, but the book came with an English translation. Jun and I took turns reading the English text. When we finally came to the part when the baby comes out with only stumps for her feet — the mother contracts German measles during her pregnancy – Jun swung his head to look at me, his eyes wide, disturbed. He even covered his mouth with disbelief.
Later in the story, the girl’s elder sister – the narrator of the story – discovers several boxes of girl’s shoes stashed away in the store room. That is years after their father died, and the feet-less girl is a teenager now. Jun shifted in his seat, excited to say something but couldn’t, because we were not done reading yet. It is soon revealed that those shoes were made by the shoemaker father, which he chose to just keep away – for what would his feetless daughter do with them? An earlier part recounts that every year, as the handicapped daughter’s birthday draws near, she often has dreams where she sees herself wearing shoes and has feet.
I read the last paragraph of the text, that goes like, the father’s love served as a bridge into the girl’s dream so he could give to her the shoes that he especially made for her. I read it with much drama, reading it slowly and pausing after particular words.
Jun was silent when we were done reading. When I asked him how he found the story, he told me, “It’s scary.”
I almost burst out laughing at his answer. It was supposed to be a melodrama, Jun, not a horror story. He then explained by what he meant by saying scary. He said the family must have been shocked to see that one of their daughters was born without feet.
Come to think of it, it must be really “scary” to have a family member with such handicap: you eternally worry how she could make it on her own later in life, especially in a society like the Philippines’ that still harbors prejudice against persons with disabilities, instead of providing them with adequate social services. By saying it is scary, Jun stripped the sentimental layers off the story to reveal the tragedy underneath.
Before I brought the storybook that afternoon, I was worried that my Korean ward might not be able to appreciate these stories which are deeply grounded in Philippine culture. Jun’s subsequent reaction proved that I underestimated him. After all, physical harm – in the case of the story, an irreversible physical harm – is a basic human fear that cuts across cultures.
The next story we read was titled Bruhahaha, Bruhihihi. Just by the title itself, you can tell right away how different it is to the previous story. Actually, each stands on the opposite ends of the pole. In Bruhahaha, a five-year old girl tells about a neighbor, an elderly woman who had “witch-like’’ qualities, foremost among them her laughter – thus, the title.
Early on, Jun enjoyed the story. A recurring part of the story is the old woman’s laughter spelled out, which Jun looked forward to. As soon as the laughter part neared, he would start fidgeting and practically snatch the book from my hands. With much gusto and even theatrics, Jun would read aloud old woman Mrs Magalit’s peculiar laughter:
Reading the storybook was not all laughter, though. A part of the story tells how the old woman tripped on her way, sending her dentures flying in the air, only to be laughed at by onlookers. The only person who helps the old woman is, of course, the young girl narrator. Jun abruptly turned silent at this part, affected by the sudden turn of events in what started out as a light, “laughter-filled” story. He gazed at the colored spread that showed the old woman picking up her broken dentures from the ground, as the girl grips her arm to raise her to her feet. From Jun’s reaction, I could say then that the message of the story was well-conveyed. If only the story’s author Corazon Remigio could have seen that moment.
The occasions when Jun and I bridged our cultural differences were not always literary. They were also sometimes as mundane as cracking jokes.
I once suggested to Jun that we tell each other jokes, a suggestion which Jun received with much enthusiasm. He offered to go first. I can’t remember exactly the entire story because Jun used some Korean terms and had trouble articulating some ideas as he told me this. It somewhat went like this:
A robber breaks into a condominium, collecting one particular object as he made his way through what I remember as five floors. On the fifth floor, he hears a voice singing a popular Korean jingle. Done with his robbing spree, he returns to the ground floor, where the security guard spots him. The guard, suspecting that the person was a thief, accosts him and asks him a series of questions. The panic-driven robber finds himself lost for anything intelligent to say to save himself, so he instead says the name of the things he collected for every question the guard sends his way. For the guard’s last question, the robber sings the Korean jingle he heard on the fifth floor. The guard frees the robber. Don’t ask me how.
I had as much difficulty making out the whole story as Jun had a hard time telling it. I did laugh; I actually howled – but I guess it was more of watching Jun’s face turning red as he tried to keep himself from laughing as he told me the story.
Here’s my own joke:
Ten lizards are crawling along a ceiling. One of them performs acrobatics – a backflip. How many lizards are left sticking on the wall then?
“Nine?” Jun asked, crinkling his nose.
“No,” I replied.
“Eight?” he tried again.
He gave me a couple more numbers, both of which I answered No.
“What’s the answer?” Jun finally asked.
“Zero. Because when one of the lizards did a backflip, the other nine clapped,” I replied.
Jun giggled. Those giggles became big laughs, and soon the child was rolling on the bed.
Jun kept a calendar on his study table, along with a Webster’s Dictionary for elementary kids, a container for pencils, and textbooks he used back in South Korea. Whenever he would slacken during our lessons, I would notice him holding the calendar and looking at it. He later told me that in a few weeks’ time, sometime in December, he and the family were going back to their home country. Either only for the Christmas break, or for good, I did not know exactly.
“Jun, what do you miss about Korea?” I asked.
As a reply, he told me this:
After classes, he would take a shortcut somewhere at the back of the school he had gone to in South Korea. He even drew a map to show me how the shortcut connected the school to his home. He preferred taking that shortcut not so much of it being the shortest way as because of the trees that line the road there. During winter, he would kick the trunk of a snow-covered tree, then stand under the foliage of the tree and feel the snowflakes land on his cheeks.
“Teacher, what do you call the snow with this?” Jun asked, his fingers drawing what I took for as arcs on the air.
“Snowflakes,” I said.
“Do you know how long a snowflake falls from the sky?”
“I don’t know.”
It was November then, and I had been Jun’s tutor for a month. I had not asked him when his birthday is, and I would never have the chance. A few days into December, I received a text message from Miss Jane informing me that the family is leaving for South Korea in a week. She also thanked me for my services as a tutor. The message was polite and formal. The day I received it, I went home right after my classes in the afternoon. I did the same thing the next day. The snowflake has completed its journey.