abaca, n.
1) from the Tagalog abaka via the Spanish abacá (see also Treaty of Paris, 1898)  2) a strong fiber derived from Musa textilis, a plant of the banana family; also “Manila hemp”  3) now mainly used in paper products and traditional Filipino clothing, such as hats, dresses, and barong Tagalog  4) It is said that for centuries Spaniards forced Filipinos to wear barong Tagalog made of sheer abaca fabric to prevent them from concealing weapons.  5) a valuable commodity in the mid- to late-19th century when naval powers compete for abaca supply to produce ropes for rigging ships; abaca trade booms in the Philippines  6) In 1901, during the Philippine-American war, the U.S. destroys locals’ properties and blocks the port in Balangiga, depriving locals of food. To debilitate the guerilla resistance, it seizes control of the abaca trade, choking the local economy.  7) I wear a barong Tagalog made of abaca at my elementary school graduation.

bolo, n.
1) according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cutlass used in the Philippines for farmwork and as a weapon  2) first use of the word in periodicals dates from between 1901 and 1905, referring to Filipino “bolo-men,” “bolo-makers,” and “insurgents”  3) In Leyte in 2014, I assist with recovery from Typhoon Haiyan; workers hack felled trees and fallen branches with their bolos to clear the roads and salvage whatever they can from the ruins.

boondock, n.
1) from the Tagalog bundok, meaning “mountain”; also “boonies”; related to “boondockers,” slang for military boots  2) according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “U.S., informal, chiefly in military use”  3) dates back to the 1910s, pertaining to rough terrain and far-flung villages that U.S. military forces navigated during their occupation  4) the term gains popularity again during the Second World War  5) In America, people ask me where I’m from. They follow up with something about the jungle or rice paddies. Or the U.S. naval base in Subic Bay. I don’t mention how I only know the chaos of cities, have lived in three different countries. I wonder where they’re from.

cogon, n.
1) via Spanish cogón, from the Tagalog and Visayan kugon  2) Imperata cylindrica, a perennial grass  3) “invasive” and “non-native” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; federal and Florida regulations identify it as a noxious weed  4) Houses with thatched roofs likely made out of cogon are burned by the U.S. military as they execute scorched-earth tactics in villages to force people into camps.  5) The Filipino expression ningas kugon compares people’s enthusiasm to the way cogon grass burns. It ignites and spreads fast, then dims, before the embers suddenly snuff out into dark earth.  6) In 1946, the U.S. recognizes the full independence of the Philippines, then immediately proposes laws detrimental to the former territory: preferential tariffs, a fixed exchange rate, and parity rights on ownership of natural resources.  7) As an international student in Washington, D.C. in 2020, I agonize for days while the U.S. administration pushes a policy that we should depart the country if we’re not attending in-person classes during a raging Covid pandemic. I begin to feel non-native, maybe even invasive.

cooties, n.
1) from the Austronesian kutu or Tagalog kuto, a body louse  2) an umbrella term for germs believed to be picked up from strangers  3) In the Philippines, hundreds of thousands die from cholera on top of the casualties of the Philippine-American War, as American military forces herd Filipinos into crowded concentration camps and quarters with unsanitary conditions.  4) Asians are shunned, if not brutally attacked, and blamed for the spread of Covid. People avoid sitting next to me on the bus.

jeepney, n.
1) a portmanteau of jeep and jitney  2) after World War II, Filipinos convert surplus Willys Jeeps into stout passenger buses  3) their paint job resembles either a family portrait, a Catholic shrine, or a town fiesta  4) in some of them, a playful sign touts every jeepney driver as a sweet lover  5) on the rear just below the boarding steps, a long mudguard flap declares “In God We Trust”  6) Growing up in Manila, I rode a jeepney almost every day. In U.S. cities, people see a Jeep as a status symbol. To me, it’s just military cosplay and adventurism.

mani-pedi, n.
1) a manicure and pedicure  2) a beauty treatment, out of reach and impractical for migrant Filipino farm workers in the early 1900s, toiling the American soil interminably with their hands and feet under harsh conditions, only to receive paltry pay, and be subjected to anti-miscegenation laws.  3) When I move to the U.S., I learn that Americans wear their shoes inside the house, and even put them up on the sofa.  4) Every time I visit the Philippines, I bring skin lotion and hand cream as presents.

yo-yo, n.
1) a toy, often mistakenly identified as an ancient, exotic Filipino weapon  2) a thing or person that vacillates from one point or decision to another  3) “ . . . I shall return,” General Douglas MacArthur declares in 1942 after escaping the war to Australia.  4) in 1944, he begins his speech, “This is the voice of freedom. . . . People of the Philippines, I have returned.”  5) fifty years later, U.S. forces finally leave as the last ship sails out of Subic Bay  6) Half-white or half-black Filipino Amerasians who have never met their fathers roam the streets of Olongapo. 7) Babies with deformities and developmental delays are born on the former military bases; locals sicken and die from exposure to toxic waste.  8) The Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement takes effect in 1999. Every summer since, for over ten days, the U.S. military returns to the country to learn hand-to-hand combat in exchange for teaching their local counterparts live-fire warfare tactics. Ships dock, tanks roll, choppers lift off and fly by, and thousands of people in uniform fight in mock combat as part of the Balikatan military exercise.  9) Despite Philippine threats of abrogation, the agreement, like the two countries’ entangled past, carries on.  10) I come to the U.S. in 2011. I leave two years later. By 2016, I have returned.

Andrew Zubiri

Andrew’s personal essays have appeared in AGNI and publications in the Philippines, where he was born and raised. His writing explores identity and the tension between home and diaspora. A former global development professional, he now works as an educational technologist in Boston.

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