I want to describe for you the moment I learned shame, and by that I do not mean guilt. I feel it still, like a ladybug hitching a ride on the freckle of my forearm or the wind kissing raspberries on the nape of my neck. Then it was charcoal scalding the cornea, fumes suffocating each pore, saltwater thrashing against dam walls of the throat. Filipina is feminine of Filipino. It begins labiodental: brush the lower lip over your newly sprouted incisors. It ends lax mid central: open your mouth like Britney Spears enjoying a Coke. Mother bore it: coconut milk and ripe balimbing and packages half-filled with dried mangos. Father softened it: rice cooked in microwaves and Tagalog with a southern twang. In the fourth grade you seized it—a budding petal—between your teeth and gnawed.
I try to find an exact middle but Google Maps says Sorry, we could not calculate directions from “San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines” to “Russell Springs, Kentucky 42642.” Which land? Motherland? Girl in a room of bamboo walls. In a field plowed by water buffalo with soft eyes, hard back, tired hooves. She rides them through the barrio with girlish joy, humming. Root crops give blood. Have you bathed in tin tubs of rainwater? She picks a chicken for her birthday and cuts off its head. In a bowl she scoops gizzard, hands the polished silver. Fatherland? Man outside of a house swollen with bourbon, stale with shock treatment. Have you smelled the sweet tea southern air? In the state park sprawling dogwood and maple. Crops are studied and money is to be made. He washes his car and the cat rides in the passenger seat. He takes a cackling piss on the side of the road with Johnny and Billy. Cop pulls over, they laugh. It’s memorialized in his yearbook: damn, wild times. You ride the jeepney with Hello Kitty handkerchief over mouth and vomit. KFC gives you diarrhea. You try to find an exact middle.
Tessie Monique is a poet, essayist, and social worker currently living in Bellingham, Washington. • Photo by Rhiannon Troutman