"I usually avoid relatives who come for a visit from abroad and come bearing gifts," I admitted rather drily to my high school mate as we shared a table during recess.
"They always give these K-Mart or Walmart-bought things and declare that they're the latest in fashion. Like last time, my mom asked me to wear this pair of cheap canvas shoes that were made in Korea brought by a distant cousin from Canada. It even had a price tag on and it's a dollar worth. I felt like a refugee being given a relief item." He nodded in agreement while munching on a burger.
That distant memory brought me a slight pang of guilt. For a teenager who was more concerned with what’s the latest in fashion, reads Teen Beat, catches the latest episodes of American shows on TV and swings to the songs of the B-52 or Billy Idol, getting these ‘balikbayan gifts’ from my US-based relatives were also a tedious affair of having to show grateful smiles and that robotic, forced ‘thank you’ I never meant.
“Don’t they actually get to read what’s on the latest trends and what is cool? They’re already in America for Pete’s sakes,” I would say that to myself beneath my sighs as I open these dime-store cheap gifts.
I have, like many households in our old neighborhood in Balic-Balic, have tons of relatives in abroad, mainly in the North American continent. Most of them have set foot in the U.S. and Canada by way of marrying an American/Canadian citizen, or waiting for years for that sponsored migration from other relatives. Many a time they’d be coming straight from the provinces then into the land of milk and honey, never setting foot in the big city. The bright lights of, say, New York, Toronto or Los Angeles would be dazzling for many of them who are more accustomed to the whizzing of the mosquitoes in the dark and the light coming from the single naked lightbulb. Most of these relatives are themselves escapees from the poverty that was prevalent back then in their lives - the kind of life my own parents have shielded us from.
It was only years later when I realized that for every dollar’s worth of gift they’d send us back here in Manila, it was, for them, equivalent to thousands of pesos they never could have had here if they stayed.
But among these relatives of mine who’d send us gifts, one stood out. She’s my Tita Bong (or Aunt Nelly) who worked for years, not in North America, but in the Middle East. The youngest sister of my mother, she was also wet nurse to my younger brother and I when we were babies.
I always look forward every time she’d fly in for vacation and would eagerly open the gifts she had for us in her bulging luggage. I was 13, when she gave me a pair of Bali shoes. I had no idea that they were adult shoes but I could tell it was expensive. The leather felt really nice and the heels were sturdy. The best part of it was, while everyone was wearing the standard Marikina-made shoes, mine was BALI - the same brand of shoes I once saw in an ad in a glossy men’s fashion magazine. Or that time when she gave me a pair of really cool Levi’s when I was 16. They fit me so well and it was the latest cut from the jeans maker that I became a hit in school. I remember sneaking out of our house one school weekend wearing those jeans so I could go to Mars disco in Makati to be with the cool kids. It felt good to be a cool kid in those jeans.
The year I turned 18 was also the last year when she came in from abroad. She had decided to come back for good and eventually settle in our home province in Iloilo.
“Oh, there,” she said as she pointed to a pair of sleek, light-grey-bluish canvas shoes with leather heels, “That’s a pair of shoes my boss’s youngest son wore when he went to a disco in Paris. He only used it once and I found it the next day in the trash bin. He said somebody else wore the same pair.” My eyes went round in excitement when I saw how cool the shoes looked and was already imagining in my mind that it’d go well with a pair of black jeans I was thinking of wearing on my next disco escapade.
“Wait, Tita. Somebody else owned these shoes?” I asked her while caressing the shoes.
“Of course! What do you think? I’ll buy those ridiculously expensive things? I clean the rooms of my boss’ sons and if they put something in the trash bin, I would get those and bring them back here,” she said. I was dumbstruck. All these times, I was getting things other people already wore and threw away?! And to think, I belittle the cheap, but newly bought ones I get from my other relatives from the States.
I suppose she saw how my hands were slowly putting down the shoes when she added, “But I save the best ones for you though. I know you hate getting cheap stuff and you also have better taste than your other cousins. And besides, do you think you will ever have a relative who can afford to give you those things as gifts, even if they’re secondhand? Aber…?”
She has a point. And I always wore those things she gave me as if they’re the most expensive things in the world. Because in all honesty, to my young mind, they really were.