In Their Midst

Color-blocking or Monochromatic? I have been asking myself this question for ten minutes now as I stand in front of the mirror. This printed pink surplice jersey top should easily complement the black wool high-waist pants that I am holding. But the plain gray dress is calling my attention as its reflection peeks just behind my ears. I am having second thoughts.

It is my niece’s first birthday party. But it is not just any other party. I have booked my flight months in advance to make sure that everything will happen as planned. I try my best in everything I do as I almost always find myself gamely playing with destiny’s impish moods. I look back at my reflection once more, this time noticing how my hair has transformed from straight to permed, and its color from black to medium brown. My bedroom looks smaller than I remembered, with my old clothes still hanging the way they were hanged when I left. My cat’s gentle purring from the window sill convinces me that she still recognizes me. Everything feels settled from where I stand but the anxiousness has made my heart pound stronger than ever. I feel like I have been away for a decade although it has just been a couple of years. Things happened so fast and I can smell fear nagging from inside of me, worried of how my friends will welcome my arrival. But this day is not about me.

Flashback to 2008.
I found myself standing in front of the mirror, the reflection much grander than usual. The atelier’s abundant halogen lights make everything shine and sparkle in every probable angle. I stand beside a mannequin that’s dressed in a romantically embellished, pouffy gown that didn’t allow me to stand any closer than two feet. Vinia, our drafter, walked up to me with a gleeful smile as if to remind me that I have been staring at the mirror far too long. “U-Tsan!” she exclaimed. Lunch time! That is one of the first few Mandarin phrases that she has taught me which still makes me excited to repeat over and over again. Echoing her peculiar accent and diction in my own attempt to fulfill such cultural immersion, I replied “U-Tsan!” I try to practice my inferior Mandarin speaking skills whenever there is a chance to do so. At fourteen years my senior, I owe it to Vinia who patiently teaches me practical Mandarin in exchange for an informal English tutorial.

The hawker centre is a short walk away under the scorching weather. I would always take cover under her reliable umbrella that’s just big enough to protect two willowy pedestrians. Often I would unconsciously put my weight on her right arm, clutching it as she holds the umbrella. Vinia would then jokingly express her discomfort and demonstrate to me exactly how heavily I clutch her arms.

She lets me queue first as she makes up her mind on what dishes to order. It always delights her whenever I try to put my Mandarin to a test. “T’wo saw tien?” (How much is this?) I asked the auntie behind the counter. Of course I ask that only whenever I am confident that the answer is less than $10. Any amount beyond that and I will have to pause for a long while to try to translate it in my mind, usually to embarrassing results. But either way, to be safe I just hand out a bigger bill and wait for my change then figure out later what’s the exact amount. Pathetic as that sounds, yet it feels good to speak the language of the locals. Eating lunch with Vinia is always comforting. She’s like the big sister that I never had despite the fact that she refuses to let me refer to her as “Auntie” (a term of endearment and respect by Singaporeans equivalent to the Filipino word “Manang”). One morning at work, Vinia surprised me with a Kueh, something similar to the Filipino’s sticky cake Sapin-Sapin, only more colorful and with several thin layers. It is during such moments, minutes before the work starts, that we get a chance to bond. Sometimes our seamstresses even join in the chatter despite their difficulty in speaking English. But what’s surprisingly cool is that despite the language barrier, we do manage to understand what the other wants to convey. At times, another colleague will do the translations of both English and Mandarin for us. We find ourselves laughing at such amusing circumstances.

Fast forward to the present. I intently listen to my breathing as I step inside the event hall where everybody is waiting. Suddenly I am gazing at familiar faces. There they are, my family, friends and relatives, partying in a jovial mood. As the colorful balloons and kiddie music fill in the room, cheerfulness likewise abound. A lot of catching up has to be done. Neither are there any ground-breaking tearful moments of longing nor such profuse incantations of elation. Nevertheless, I can feel a strong sense of belonging that is all too familiar. From the way the hugs are exchanged to the way that our multiple smiles connect, it is an overflow of sincere care and affection. Vinia made me feel that even in the simplest of ways, and so did other Singaporeans and overseas Filipino workers who have all become my friends. And here, returning back to my country, it feels like I never left at all.

I have realized that I have nothing to worry about wherever I may be. It is such a wonderful discovery that friendship, just like love, is a genuine universal gift that breaks all barriers be it language, distance or time.

So, colour-blocking or monochromatic? It doesn’t matter what you wear as long as you remain true to yourself. In the midst of friends, everything is beautiful.

► About the Author:
The author is still trying to improve on her Mandarin skills. The Pinyin words used here are based on how she pronounces them, thus their spelling may not be accurate. Grace Under Pressure features the author's real experiences, both mundane and otherwise, when she was still based in Singapore as an OFW.

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