I’ve never experienced Christmas anywhere else but in Manila.
Even after having lived in Kuala Lumpur for seven years now, my internal compass still routinely points back to Manila every holiday season. I’m like a homing pigeon determined to make it back for feeding time.
And what’s Christmas if it isn’t about food?
One of the constant dishes in our household during the season is morcon—a meat roll typically stuffed with sausages, carrots, pickles, and hardboiled eggs. My mother’s version, however, takes on a more embutido style because she uses ground meat instead of sliced beef. Bluntly put, my mother’s morcon is actually embutido. So when we say morcon, we really mean embutido and when we say embutido, well, that word practically means nothing to us.
Why we ended up calling it one instead of the other is just one of the many quirky attributes of the family I come home to each year. And aptly so, because Christmas in Manila is that one time of the year when it’s absolutely alright to be confused—or borderline insane.
Coming home is always a bittersweet experience for me. I’m comforted by how things have stayed exactly the same since I left, and yet exasperated at how things have stayed exactly the same since I left. Then there are those times when I feel like I’ve changed way too fast for Manila, only to realize that Manila has changed way too fast without me.
This includes growing nephews and nieces who have bloomed into their own persons as if overnight, reliable neighborhood vendors who seem much older and frailer than before, ever-changing roads and street signs, new bridges and buildings, local memes, marriages, breakups, babies, and deaths. It’s like walking into a room where nothing has changed and yet everything seems different—a paradox I’ve programmed myself to come to terms with before the date on my return ticket. And within that limited time frame, I too bring with me my own nuances for people to familiarize themselves with.
Trying to cope with people and places that have outgrown my outdated version of them and vice versa sometimes involves delicate recalibration, like finding the perfect water temperature for a bath. At other times, it’s like getting on a fast-moving treadmill—I’m completely thrown off until I get the right speed. In any case, it always involves managing my expectations of what was, and what is.
There used to be an old man who lived right across our house. Every day he would sit on his porch smoking a cigarette or tend to a small vegetable patch he grew on one side of his property. We didn’t like him much when my siblings and I were kids. He usually just sat there like a guard dog watching us. At night we would creep through his vegetable patch and throw small things in his swimming pool. I think he knew it was us who did such things while he slept, which is probably why he didn’t like us either. I never really gave him much thought growing up, even as I eventually left the country. He was just an old man who always sat there, as dependable as a tree or a sunrise.
One day when I came home to Manila for a visit, he wasn’t sitting there anymore. I learned that he died earlier that year. As much as I didn’t really feel much for that old man, somehow, I felt like a part of the sky got ripped out from his absence.
A little piece of the old sky gets ripped out for me with each visit, with each alteration of the Manila painted in my head when I’m not looking. In time, it will reveal a completely different horizon altogether—one I probably won’t recognize anymore.
Manila is a living and breathing entity much like the people residing in it. It’s like another crazy relative I come home to and get to know in different ways, over and over again, sometimes in pleasant ways and sometimes in ways that drive me completely nuts. It moves and shifts and fluctuates without permission from anyone.
Yet amidst all these changes, I find myself clinging on to those perennial things that help anchor me to a place I regularly struggle to be reacquainted with. Christmas does that for me. And so does morcon. But I know that that too will change, not unlike my Christmas list, which now bears a few crosses beside the names of loved ones who have moved on.
Seasons change, cities change, people change. Most of the time we’re just left standing with our own notions of how things were or should be. And just like my family’s version of morcon (which really isn’t morcon), it really doesn’t matter how you label the things that are important to you, as long as their meaning rings most authentic to your heart.
So morcon or embutido? Who cares? I’d still eat for as long as I can.