Rosa (Excerpt)

Rosa’s not the type who attracts people’s attention. But look long enough. She’s light brown, black haired, slightly built, short. Her face is ovalish, with almond shaped brown eyes. True, she’s not a full-blown mestiza with a mixture of Filipino and Spanish or American features, but look at her nose. It’s not so flat. Wonder why? It could be her Malayan and Chinese ancestry; it could be the three and a half centuries of Spanish colonisation. But why is a fair-skinned, darkish-haired boy of about five comfortably settled against her? Is she his mother or is the white woman who’s looking out of her window seat his mother? When Rosa glanced out the plane windows, she saw darkish blue skies. She supposed that it must be nearly evening time, wherever they were. She still couldn’t believe her luck. ‘At long last, I’m in a plane bound for England. Even in my college days, I never dreamt of going abroad. That was only for actors, actresses, and politicians. I didn’t know about overseas domestic employment, much less about Singapore or England.’ Barrio Santa Cruz was her world. There were no more than about fifty houses or more in the village. Sure, she had memorised facts about Asian countries, in order to pass the quizzes set by her elementary school teachers. There were questions like: give three chief products of China; what type of government does Thailand have?; what is the main religion practised in India? Perhaps she had learnt about Singapore; she couldn’t remember. In high school, she had learned about America, the saviour of the Philippines from the Japanese. She couldn’t remember anything about England but now she was heading for this country. There was no high school in Santa Cruz, so her parents had sent her to live with relatives in Lerma, the biggest town in the area. This had continued until her college studies. Without this arrangement, she would have had to walk four to five hours a day. Written across the skies were the sacrifices of her parents. They had never said it, but she knew they did not want her to work in the fields like them. They wanted her to be a teacher. Her parents gave their relatives a sack of rice every now and then. Rosa bought and cooked her own food. There were others like her. Her parents were tenant farmers of the richest man in their barrio. She did not understand exactly how it worked, but she knew that, for the use of rice land, her father provided not only his labour, but also the use of their carabao and all of their farm implements. Most of them still thought of themselves as living in a barrio, even though the latest government diktat use the term barangay for a place like theirs. In their history class, settlements like Santa Cruz were called balangays, long before the Spaniards came in 1521. She could hardly believe that during her first year as an overseas foreign worker, her younger sister, Elena, was in her first year at high school, and her other younger sister, Edna, was a grade five elementary school pupil. Now, Elena, with the Lord’s blessing, could have a teaching job soon. In her last letter to Rosa, she wrote: “There’s a high chance that I could be teaching in a town near Lerma. Tiyoy Roming said he was going to talk to the high school principal in that town. He said that they know each other.” If this happens, they would truly owe a lot to their Tiyoy Roming. Not only was Uncle Roming the richest in their place, for he owned many hectares of land in their barrio, but ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt’ is used as a sign of respect for older people. She could still see her sisters, speechless and their eyes shimmering with tears. She was nearly crying herself as she told them when she left for Singapore for the very first time in 1984: “I know that I am not a good example for you. Sometimes I wish I can undo what I’ve done. I didn’t finish my college education. I very much regret having done this, but I’m very happy with Manny and the children. You’ll make our mother very happy by finishing your college education. I know that it is what our father wanted.” Perhaps it was inevitable that she and Manny should have married before she finished her college studies. They’d been close as children and this had continued into their college days. She was not a brilliant student, but she passed all her subjects. She wasn’t sure whether it was the thought of her parents working hard and borrowing money on many occasions to pay for her college fees that finally drove her to abandon her studies. One year, she had to stop. There was a poor harvest and they didn’t have enough money to pay her tuition fees. They still owed the college some amount for the previous year and she didn’t want her father pleading again to a college official for an extension of their credit. People in their barrio couldn’t believe it when Manny became a farmer like his father. With five hectares of rice land that his parents owned, Manny’s parents were much better off than hers. He had two elder brothers and three sisters. His parents were hoping for Manny to become a lawyer. “When I told others about you, they said I was just fooling them. They said it’s simply not true that a person with a college degree would prefer to be a farmer and live in a barrio.” This was typical of what his friends said during gatherings and some evenings imbibing beer or rum. Manny only smiled. He got tired of telling them: “I’ve always wanted to work in a farm. I don’t like living in a big town. I tried to please my parents. I finished my commerce degree, but in the end, I just couldn’t do it. I’m happy where I am.” Paking, Rosa’s father, died from a cough that couldn’t be cured. It had been raining heavily for days, but he wanted to finish ploughing the field in preparation for rice planting. He could not bear an unfinished job. He was always like this. She remembered the many times a neighbour informed them: “Your father is still on the farm. We told him that it’s getting dark and it’s time to go home, but he said he must start clearing another part of your field.”