Bahala Na



Perhaps the crowning glory of local sociology is the Filipino expression which one anthropologist has traced to a linguistic root of “Bahala na,” meaning “leave it to God.”  This is a typical Filipino reaction to crises and insoluble problems.  Development experts have often decried “Bahala na” as passive and fatalist, the sole factor in the delayed maturity of the Filipino.  Some other students of the Filipino character, however, praise its deeply philosophical origins.  As proof, they point to how “Bahala na” at its best has successfully supported Filipino morale through the trials of his particular destiny.


                                                          Inside Guides: Philippines, 309.


          When my parents first moved to Guam, a typhoon hit the island the night after my parents had unpacked everything, which wasn’t much.  My memories of that night consisted of my pa and mom taping up the windows, still dusty from disuse, and my having to go to the bathroom under candlelight because electricity had gone out.  My neighbors were doing exactly the same thing as my parents, taping up the windows so that any shattered glass stayed in the frame, and some were nailing boards against the windows and doors as additional protection against the looming gale force winds.  Even before nightfall, I saw the change in the climate: the unearthly, stagnant moist heat just before the storm, the high, climbing clouds, boiling upwards in the far horizon, boiling and rolling forward like a fast-moving high tide, and then the wind beginning, a cold wind, like the storm’s messenger announcing its arrival.  From my parents battery-operated radio, I heard a weatherman announce, “The front end of the storm will make landfall in one hour, so be prepared.  Tape and board up your windows and doors.  Make sure you have plenty of flashlights and emergency supplies of food, blankets, and medical supplies.”  This typhoon had no name, unlike the hurricanes which hit stateside, because who cared for a little po-dunk island like Guam at the continental United States, where the stateside weathermen rarely included Alaska and Hawaii in their weather maps?   This typhoon had no name and the people on Guam prepared  to hunker down, because where could we run to?  All of Guam was too close to the sea, which was its fortune and its curse.

          Mom filled up the bathtub with water just in case there wasn’t any water after the storm, and, in the midst of the driving, horizontal rain and the winds whipping the trees against the house, my parents allowed me to sleep with them in their bed for the night.  My parents slept -- I don’t know how -- but I didn’t.

          Sandwiched between my pa and mom in their queen-size bed, my eyes stared out the tiny sliver of the bedroom window which was exposed through the curtains and the tape.  I saw the rain pounding the window as if someone were throwing rocks against the house.  I saw the tall coconut tree in my front yard bent down nearly in half, the palm fronds whipped by the wind, which howled throughout the house like a mad ghost.  As the night grew darker, I saw the tree fronds turn into a dark witch, flying against the wind so she always remained in my sight, her black hair streaming behind her in net-like strips.  The howling ghost became the witch’s howl, crying out for my blood, and I remembered feeling helpless as I lay there, my parents deep in sleep.  I prayed to God that night, praying that he protect me from the witch who called my name in the wind, because there was nothing I could do except endure her.

          Later, the next morning, I felt foolish for fearing such things as witches, especially in the calm light of morning after a typhoon has passed.  But I think it was more than witches I was seeing and praying to endure; I think I was steeling myself against situations beyond my control, while some things that might, just might, help, like praying.  I thought I was childish doing so, but then I saw my mother, after the storm, get into the car to drive to the store to get some needed supplies.  Before she drove away, she crossed herself as protection against an accident, a bit of magic for good luck.  And I realized that I wasn’t the only one, and I was able, in time, to put a name to what I did -- this mental trick -- which everyone called, “God willing” and the encyclopedia called “Bahala na.”


          Standing with Mom and Shell on the base’s ship dock three years later, I remembered that first night, perhaps because it was drizzling when Mom picked me up from school.

           “Because of the rain, your pa’s ship hasn’t arrived yet, so you can come with me to pick him up,” she said as I got in, leaving Sarah and Kim to wait for the bus.  In the rain, New Piti Elementary’s white-and-blue painted buildings looked grey, which complemented the World War II U.S. military cemetery across the street from the school.  I saw grey buildings next to white crosses, dying roses, and a dark Stars and Stripes, which was supposed to be taken down in inclement weather in accordance with U.S. military rules, but nobody seemed to care to do so.  The latte stones on the jungle edge looked more cared for, as the rain washed off the moss and bird shit from the ruined hut pedestals of the ancient Chomorro, the indigenous people of Guam who no longer existed due to intermarriage with other peoples.  The Chomorro’s mixed-up descendants were the Guamanians, who still called themselves Chomorro, and I guess Guam’s people and the Filipinos were similar in that way, being mixed-up.

          We were standing on a slick ship dock after going through the main base gates, driving to the visitors’ parking lot next to the dock, and walking to the other side of the fence, which usually kept out unauthorized personnel.  Unlike last time, there weren’t that many people waiting for their fathers or brothers or sons to come home.  Instead of whole families, each family had one or two representative members standing on the dock, huddled underneath umbrellas, like we were.  There was no brass band -- I guess all that rain would’ve rusted the instruments, and what with the rain bouncing against the umbrellas, I wouldn’t have been able to hear them well anyway.

          In the greyness of the rain, I could barely see the approach of the U.S.S. Proteus until it was right at the dock, while dungareed E1s on deck and on dock threw and secured anchoring lines and then raised forward the gangway.  One by one we saw seamen in dress whites stream down from the ship to the dock.  I strained to look for Pa, but all those dress-whited men looked the same, especially in the blurring rain.  Only when I felt Mom’s hand tighten around mine, so tight that it hurt, did I see my father.

          “Pa!”  I saw his dress white form push through the sea of drenched white, and he seemed to explode into the space before me, a short brown Filipino who looked like an Oriental Teddy Roosevelt when he smiled.

          “Ellen!” Pa said, and he pretended to strain when he lifted me up and gave me a hug.  Setting me down, he took up Shell, saying, “Shelley is so big!”  Shell started to cry because she didn’t remember Pa -- it had been over six months since he was home -- and was afraid of his new moustache.  When Shell sstarted to screech, Mom said, “Here, Ray, give her to me.”  Pa awkwardly transferred my baby sister to Mom, in whose shoulders Shell buried her head and slobbered.

          “Pa, pa, what’d you get me?” I asked, eyeing the white sea bag on my father’s shoulder.

          Pa laughed and started to set down his bag.

          “Home first, then gifts,” Mom said.  “It’s raining!”

          “Listen to your mother,” Pa said, and he hitched up the bag back onto his shoulder and followed us to the car.

          “I’ll drive.”  Pa looked at Mom, and she warily gave him the keys.

          The car ride home made Shell, who was safely strapped in her car seat, laugh until she hiccupped because she was in the front passenger seat.  Mom and I were in the back, and we both soon put on our seatbelts.

          “It’s 40 here, Ray, it’s 40.”

          “Grace, nobody goes 40 here.”

          “But nobody does 55, either.  Slow down!  It’s raining!”

          “Grace, I know how to drive here.  See, I’m slowing down.”

          “You’re too close to the other car, Ray.  It’s a red light.”

          “Ay naku!  Will you just let me drive?”

          “It’s green.”

          “I see that.”

          “Don’t speed!”


          Pa pulled the car in the car port, parked, turned off the engine, and gave the keys to Mom.  “See?  Safe and sound.”

          “Hmph,” Mom grunted, and she got out of the car.

          Once inside, Pa set down his bag on the living room carpet and opened it up.  “Well, Ellen, have you been a good girl?  Helping out your Mom?  Practiced piano?”

          “Yes what did you get me?” I asked in one breath, and Pa laughed.

          “No, first you play the piano for me.  Remember?”

          I tried not to wince.  Remember?  Of course I remembered.  Today was the day I was going to quit six months’ worth of piano lessons, when I was finally good enough to play La Paloma, “The Dove,” which sounded much easier when Mrs. Finch played it.

          “Well, okay,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic.  “But I’m not any good.”  I went over to the piano, plunked down on the bench, and lifted the keyboard cover.

          “What are you going to play?” Pa asked, then he heard the first notes.  “Ah, La Paloma!”   And he began to sing along with my hesitant notes, going “la la la” in his deep, comforting voice.  As I sat there, trying not to look at my fingers but at the sheet music, I realized that my pa loved my playing, wanted to hear his daughter fill the house with music, and I felt guilty that I was going to let him down.

          I finished with a final echoing note, and I turned to Mom.  She said nothing.  I had to tell him myself.  I turned to Pa.

           “Very good!” he said, and he reached into his bag and pulled out a little radio, yellow and black with earphones and a blank tape.

          “I got that in Japan,” Pa said.  “See?  It records, too.”  He pressed a plastic button that said “REC” and sang into my radio a little bit of “La Paloma” -- I didn’t even know it even had words to it.  He rewound the tape and played it back.  I heard Pa’s voice, sounding weirdly tinny over the tiny speakers, and I knew that I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I wanted to quit piano.

          “Ray, you spoil her,” Mom said, setting Shell in her walker.  She didn’t sound surprised that I didn’t mention anything about the piano.

          “And for Shelley,” he continued, “a little bear.”  He pulled out a little bear, which played a little snare drum when you turned on a switch in its back.   Prrrum-pumpum-pum!  Prrrum-pumpum-pum!  Pa set it on Shell’s walker tray, and she stared at it.  Then she picked it up and tried to put it in her mouth.

          “No, no, Shell!”  Mom took the bear from Shell’s grip.  “Ray, Shelley’s too young for this toy.”

          “Well... she’ll grow into it, won’t she?”

          I looked at Pa and then Mom and suddenly noticed the tenseness between them.   What’s going on here?  How come Mom’s not smiling?  How come Pa’s not smiling any more?  “What’d you get Mom?” I asked, my voice sounding too loud in my ears.

          “No, I don’t want anything,” Mom protested, but Pa rummaged through his bag and pulled out a small, flat package wrapped in brown paper and string.  Mom sighed, put the toy bear on top of a bookshelf out of Shell’s reach and meticulously opened the package, taking care not to rip the brown paper.  Under the paper was a thin cardboard box with the lid taped onto it.  Mom removed the tape and opened the lid.

          “Oh...”  Mom lifted out a dark blue kimono, embroidered with gold and onyx thread.  She stared at it, put it up to her front, and looked down its length.  Then she looked at Pa.  “How much did it cost?”

          “It doesn’t matter.”

          “How much did it cost, Ray?”

          “Pa, Mom made dilies for you,” I said loudly.  “And thank you for the radio.  It’s really neat.”

          Mom and Pa looked at me and then looked at each other.  “Thank you,” Mom said.  And for the first time since Pa stepped off the gangway, Pa gave Mom an awkward hug, awkward because my parents weren’t much for hugging and kissing each other with other people around, including their own kids, which was pretty normal for them and for my Uncles and Aunties, what I saw of them.

          I went into my room to change out of my school clothes and into shorts and a T-shirt.  When I returned to the living room, I saw Pa, looking smaller in shorts and a shirt instead of his uniform, rearranging the furniture in the living room, like the sofa and the coffee table.

          I had forgotten that Pa always rearranged the furniture when he visited, usually putting every item the opposite of what it was before, especially if Pa bought a new piece of furniture, like the piano the last time he was on shoreleave.  What was funny about it was that Mom usually moved everything back once Pa left.

          “Why does Pa move everything around the house when he visits?” I once asked my mom.

          “Your Pa gets restless, gets bored.  That’s why he’s in the Navy,” she had replied, which didn’t seem to answer my question at the time.

          “Ellen, can you help me move this sofa?” Pa said.  “You push, and I’ll pull.”

          “Okay, Pa.”

          We were moving the sofa to the other side of the room as Mom came out of the bathroom, her hair wet and in a ponytail.  “Ray, what are you doing?”

          “Just making the living room look better.  Don’t you think that the bookshelf’ll look better next to the piano instead of the grandfather clock?”

          Mom shook her head.  “I don’t see why you’re doing this since we’ll be moving.”

          Moving?  Who said we were moving?  “Moving?” I asked.

          “Your pa told me while you were changing.  He’s being transferred to Dallas.”

          “Dallas?”  Scenes of the stupid soap opera ran through my head.  “Why can’t we stay here while Pa’s in Dallas like when he’s on ship?”

          “Because Dallas is very far away from Guam, Ellen,” Pa said, “and I’ll be there for at least four years.  Don’t you want to be stateside again?  We can visit your cousins in California!  Won’t you like that?”

          I looked at my father, smiling with his Teddy Roosevelt teeth, and my mother, her eyes happy-sad, and I replied, “Yes, Pa.”  But I wanted to say no.


          Today was the last day of school and the last week of my family’s stay on Guam.

          “Good luck,” my teacher, Mr. Chargulauf said, which was the same as Sister Pauline, my Sunday Children’s Catechism Development teacher, who had added, “and God be with you” in my last CCD class.

          After school, I went to Sarah’s house with Kim since my parents were finishing up with the packing and there was to be a large military moving truck in front of my home.

          What used to be my home.

          Anyway, I didn’t want to be in the way.

          “Where’n Dallas will you be living?” Sarah asked as she swung next to me.  Sarah had a playground next to her house, so she was lucky.

          “I don’t know.  My parents will figure that out.”

          “Dallas,” Kim said, “that’s a long ways, right?”

          “Dummy!  Don’t you remember Mr. Chargulauf pointing it out on the globe?” Sarah said.  “It’s on the other side of the world!”  She swung high, her blond pigtails trailing behind and then in front of her head.  “My daddy was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Dallas before we moved to Guam.  The roads are real wide, and Six Flags’ fun!”

          “What’s Six Flags?” Kim asked.

          “I told ya before, it’s an amusement park.  Roller coasters and stuff!  Higher’n than this!”  Sarah kicked up her legs to push herself higher and higher.

          Kim and Sarah pumped themselves high, but I stayed pretty low, looking at my two friends.  It wasn’t fair.  After moving so much before Guam, I thought I got over feeling bad whenever my family moved; I even made sure that I never made really good friends.  But Pa fooled me; I waited for the first six months, and we didn’t move.  A year, we didn’t move.  After Shelley was born, I was sure we were really staying this time, and Kim and Sarah became my very best friends, which was bad because now it was going to hurt when we leave, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

          I’m pretty sure Mom felt the same way, the way she looked at her garden, which she worked hard on, trading vegetables and fruits with the other military wives.  And my Aunties and Uncles!  Sarah said there weren’t that many Filipinos in Dallas, and they were  all spread out, which meant Mom and Pa had to start all over, building a circle of friends, which I didn’t even think was that important until I found out we were moving.

          Where would we go out?  Who would my mom go for advice?  Who would take care of Shell and me if Mom got sick?  Would I have to join a club like my cousin Cora so that I wouldn’t get lost among the crowd, forget who I was?  Or would everybody stateside judge me for being brown, for being Filipino, instead of for being me, Ellen?

          “I’m gonna miss you, Ellen,” Sarah said.

          “Yeah, me, too,” added Kim.

          I stopped swinging and noticed that Sarah and Kim had stopped swinging, and we stood up and hugged.


          It was the last day in Guam, and all of my Aunties and Uncles were giving my family a big Bon Voyage party at Gab-Gab Beach.

          “Anybody got a camera?” Grandpa Carl said, looking at the glistening skin of the pig roast, and one of my uncles -- and it always seemed to be the same man -- took a picture of the lechon.

          The picnic tables were filled with every Filipino food I could think of, cooked with the vegetables Mom and Pa gave away from their now-bare garden.  But Mom was careful to keep the seeds for a future garden, a garden in Dallas.

          I left Kim and Sarah pigging out and took a walk along the beach.  The warm blue water was lapping against the milky-tan sand.  The wet air smelled of Filipino food, salt, coconuts, palm trees, and breadfruit, and I saw a testament of World War II, a ruined supply ship on the edge of the lagoon, half of its rust-riddled, bombed out body raised above the water like Excalibur in the lake.  Many scuba divers went out there, including my father, and I realized that I would miss the sea, the Pacific, as my next door neighbor.  I shed my clothes, wearing my bathing suit underneath, and waded into the water, cool at first and then turning warm.  I closed my eyes and went underwater.  I opened my eyes and saw little fish dart around me, sea cucumbers squirm on the tidal floor, and the swirling of sand and sea, which echoed my heartbeat in my ears.

          When I waded back to the shore, my eyes were red with salt, and I didn’t know if they were from the sea of from my tears.

          It wasn’t fair!  I sat down on the sand, my legs partially submerged in the water and stared out at the wreck.  What was I afraid of?  Afraid of change?  But what about my parents, who had left the Philippines to find a better life for themselves and their children?  Was that fair that they felt they had to leave because their own homeland was so poor, and was it fair that they had to travel so far away from what they knew?

          But what had they known in the Philippines?  Rice paddies and corrupt, polluted cities like Manila?  What other alternatives were there?  How could anybody react to a situation like my parents, who were only two among thousands and thousands of Filipinos who became Filipino Americans or Filipino Canadians or Filipino Europeans?  And how should their children react?

          I heard the crunch crunch crunch behind me, and I saw my pa with a towel.  “Eh, Ellen, aren’t you going to eat?  You can swim later.  I saved you some pancit.”  He looked at me.  “Are you crying?”

          I shrugged.  “A little.”  I stayed put on the sand, looking at the derelict ship in the sea.

          Pa looked at me and then looked at the ship.  He shifted his weight on the sand and sat down.  “There’s a memorial to that ship at the pier over there.”  He pointed to a long strip of rocks and cement at the far right of the beach, where it curved away from my line of sight.  “Dedicated by Dwight D. Eisenhower when the U.S. was booming in the 50’s and had money to spend.”  He looked away from the pier, from the ship, and just looked at the sea.  “But it isn’t the memorial or the ship that makes people come here.  It’s the sea.  Did you know that when I was growing up in San Fernando, the sea was my backyard?  There’s a picture of me when I was, oh, younger than you.  About five.  I’m ankle deep in my backyard sea, my feet digging into the black volcanic sands, and I have an American seaman’s cap on my head.  Don’t know where I got it.  So you see, even then I knew I was meant for the Navy, but the Philippines just got its independence from the U.S., back in ‘46, and it was too busy trying to create a new government to have a navy.  So there was only the U.S. Navy to go to.”

          “Mom says you joined because you were restless.”

          “Hmm.  I was.” Pa scooped up a little bit of sand and then flattened it out. “I wanted to help my family out,  you know.  But there was nothing at home for me to do -- too many people like me, not enough jobs.  And I wasn’t very smart.  Didn’t like school.  So I got restless at home, with nothing to do because nobody would hire me.  But I didn’t want to join the Navy at first because that meant leaving home.  Didn’t know if I could come home.”

          “Were you scared, Pa?” I kept staring at that ship.

          Pa paused, shrugged.  “A little. But all my friends were joining up, and some were beginning to send money home.  Some were able to visit their families, and I heard about the places that were on the other side of the sea, strange places, beautiful places.  So I joined because there was nothing left for me to stay at home.  The Navy gave me better opportunities.”

          “But you can’t choose where you can go or how long you can stay.”

          “Yes, but I knew that.  I accepted that.  It’s the price for being Navy.”

          “Isn’t that hard, Pa?”  I thought about all my friends I was leaving behind and all the friends my pa had left behind over the years.

          “It’s hard.  But you get used to it.  It’s a good life.”  He added, “And I get to see the ocean.”

          “But the ocean isn’t in Dallas, Pa.”

          “Yes,” he admitted, looking at the ship with a quiet, resigned face.  “I will miss that.”

          I started crying again, the tears spilling down my nose, but the only sound Pa heard was the sound of the waves, lapping against my brown legs.  He said nothing as I cried, as I sniffled my tears, and I slipped my hands into the water and brought a cupped handful to my face, washing my face with the tears of the earth.  I tasted the sun-charged saltiness of the sea and tried to commit that taste to memory so I wouldn’t forget.



© 1996 Rufel F. Ramos

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