My longest casual relationship has been with the Filipino goodbye. In my home, it can last days—weeks even. A goodbye that began one summer day in the middle aughts lasted 48 hours, 50 subway stops, and two cities in New York. It was my sister’s wedding, and friends from the Philippines, as well as my mother’s American kin from a small town in Massachusetts, had flown in to watch her walk down the aisle.
After the big ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, my family had been tasked to show out-of-towners the big city. This included showing my American cousins the round mosaic in Central Park (the word Imagine cutting across it like a mandate from heaven), scarfing down countless ice cream bars from a cart in the park, and then living through the inevitable goodbye. Siblings married and accounted for left with their significant others with barely a shuffle of their sneakered feet. I was the single sibling who had to see guests to the appropriate train stop, explain routes and train changes, how to politely tip buskers, and how to avoid trouble. My parents had left early for our Airbnb in Brooklyn, which was cheaper than any Manhattan accommodation.
And so it was that almost two days after the ceremony, I found myself alone with my fair-haired, freckled kin. It had been years since I’d seen them last, and it would be years until I’d see them again. My job was to see them to the nearest subway stop, explain the train routes on the way to aforementioned Airbnb where they would be staying with my parents. It should have been easy and painless. Only it wasn’t. I had only to see the furrow on Uncle Pete’s forehead and the fear in his children’s eyes. “Know what?” I heard myself say, “Let me just take you home.” So we rode the fifty odd stops from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It took a good thirty minutes to furnish a peck on each cheek (ten in all), and then make my way back to the city where I would be bunking with a friend. That meant a two-hour journey to goodbye. For my efforts, I’d earned my mother’s “you’re such a good child,” and my nation’s kudos for being the poster child of Filipino hospitality. Both, it seems, are inextricably linked.
The Filipino goodbye is full of drama, shame, and guilt. Even the formal word for goodbye, it seems to me, includes existential nuances perhaps unknown outside of Asia. The word paálam, again it seems to me, means both goodbye and paalám, which means I am letting you know that I’m saying goodbye (getting from one address to the other means shaving an hour off any Filipino’s life). There’s also the sense of hiya at taking one’s leave. One knows that there are better things to do and better parties to attend, and so one feels a sense of guilt at chucking present company. There’s also the archaic hanggang sa muli, which means until next time, which carries with it the shameful knowledge that there might not be a next time because life, like crap, happens.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Uncle Pete,” I heard myself say, even though I knew that they were catching an early flight, and that I’d still be gallivanting around Manhattan at the time of their departure. In that one statement, I’d echoed centuries of Filipino shame. And though I’ve seen Uncle Pete many times since then, I couldn’t have known about future sightings at that particular moment. At that particular moment, I was computing how much a flight from Manila to Massachusetts or Manhattan would cost just to have burgers with my American cousins again. I was also wondering how I could sneak that flight in, given my busy career as a teacher back home.
Filipinos are just no good at goodbye. We may have invented the fluorescent bulb and the yo-yo, thought through the innovative marvel known as the Banaue rice terraces, produced Rizal, Bonifacio, the Luna brothers and Nick Joaquin, and still we haven’t invented the time-efficient, heart-light Filipino goodbye. We’re clannish like that, afraid to be alone like that.
Even as I’m taking leave of you, dear reader, whoever you are, I’m having a hard time saying goodbye. I mean, this article may have bored you so senseless you’ll never again read anything with my byline—and so I feel I must make the most of your attention. Ho-hum, I hear you saying, that or the more phonetically-precise Filipino Ho-ham, and still I persist, hours into this essay, wondering if you’re hungry, lost, or in need of some Filipino company.